Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kabul's Underbelly

City services struggling to cope with fast growing population, as garbage piles up and causes diseases.
By Mohammad Jawad

It’s 7 am in the Shahr-e-Nau district in central Kabul. Twenty workers from the city’s sanitation department, dressed in long shirts and loose pants, hold shovels and wheelbarrows and wait for the garbage trucks to arrive. Some heads are turbaned and some faces are simply covered with scarves.

Shir Ahmad, a department manager, sits on a chair on a street corner nearby and welcomes the IWPR reporter for an inspection of this morning’s rounds. "You will see the problems our workers face and how hard they work,” he said.

Not far away, on a side street in the Tymani project region, three piles of waste can be seen within a 100-metre area. The bad smells are suffocating, and flies are everywhere. Searching through one of the mounds is Fakhreya, 7, who said she was gathering old shoes and sandals to stock up as fuel for winter heating.

The municipality’s 60 garbage trucks work long hours every day to pick up trash throughout the city. Each will make three trips a day to dump the waste they’ve collected at a landfill 30 kilometres outside of the city.

But chances are they won’t make it to Fakhreya’s trash heap.

Abdurramish, an 18-year-old high-school student in the same district, said that he hasn’t seen a garbage truck in his neighbourhood in two months.

It’s easy to understand why. According to a recent study, the city doesn’t have enough trash-collecting vehicles, is short of money to pay staff and lacks the technical expertise to deal with the mountain of waste being generated by a population that has grown dramatically since the overthrow of the Taleban regime.

The United Nations Human Settlements Programme, UN-HABITAT, with a grant from the World Bank, recently completed an 18-month project working with city and national officials to deal with the growing problem of solid waste management.

“The Kabul Municipal Waste Department can remove 40 per cent of the daily garbage,” said Engineer Nasrullah Habibi, solid waste management project manager at UN-HABITAT.

The remaining 60 per cent of the rubbish accumulates on roadsides, backyards, in drains, in the river and open places, according to the study produced by the organisation. This has only added to tonnes of non-disposed waste accumulated for many years for lack of services.

UN-HABITAT also found that the Safa’i, or cleaning, tax was not enough to cover the cost of basic waste management services.

The UN-Habitat project, funded to the tune of around 850,000 US dollars, provided health and hygiene education to the community, and included about half a million dollars worth of maintenance costs for 40 vehicles in 13 city districts.

It also featured a pilot project testing out privatisation of garbage collection services.

But the project was deemed a failure, however, because there weren’t enough collection trucks.

“In the past we were looking for the garbage, but nowadays the garbage is looking for us," said Gul Mohammad, head trash collector, whom IWPR accompanied for a day.

He said he’s seen the amount of garbage increase significantly during the past two to three years.

"This department was established in 1976 with 2000 staff and 200 garbage trucks,” said Ghulam Sarwar Azimzada, general director of Kabul Municipality’s sanitation department.

But now, Azimzada told IWPR, the department has only 1,460 employees and 60 trucks available to pick up the trash. The department also has two loaders to move garbage onto the trash trucks and one tractor to bury the waste in the landfill. He blames past wars for the shortages.

Kabul is reported to be one of the fastest growing cities in the world. Its population has more than doubled over the past five years, from 1.7 million in 1997-1998, to an estimated 3.5 million in 2004, according to UN-HABITAT. An additional 300,000 come into the city to work and trade daily.

And more people means more trash.

Nasrullah also credited a climbing birth rate, returning refugees and the migration of rural residents into the capital because of the drought and lack of work in the provinces, for the city’s soaring population.

There are thousands of foreigners who also now live in Kabul, including military personnel, businesspersons, journalists, and those who work at embassies, at international organisations and non-governmental bodies.

Gul Mohammad, the garbage collector, has his own theory about why there is more trash. He said that in the past, the rich people left the country, and the poorer ones who remained could not afford to eat fruits, cook big meals or drink beverages. However, now residents have more wealth, he said. His evidence - more fruit skins, various leftovers and soda cans in the trash.

Nik Mohammad, the garbage truck driver escorting IWPR, seemed satisfied with his job, but complained about his salary. He likes his vehicle - a Russian made eight-cylinder hauler - even though it feels and sounds like it’s too old to run. He said if the municipality would just import them again, they’d be good enough to last the next 30 years.

But there are shortcomings, as IWPR noticed when the truck overheated and ground to a halt in a mountain pass on the way to the arid zone of Dasht-e-Chamtala where the landfill’s located.

John Aqa, a 22-year-old who works on Nik Mohammad’s truck, told IWPR that he’s disappointed with his job. He said that because of “bad circumstances” he couldn’t continue his education or choose another profession.

"We can’t do any professional work, so we have to collect garbage," he said. Still,

trash haulers make the equivalent of 65 dollars a month, compared to 35 dollars for the average government worker or doctor. On the other hand, a taxi driver can make as much as 500 dollars a month.

Azimzada said if he had enough personnel and well-equipped vehicles, the city’s garbage disposal needs wouldn’t be a problem, but he said his department can’t even cover essential needs such as tires, lubricants, and engine parts.

He added that the department has done a lot of work cleaning waste from the Kabul River and picking up trash that has accumulated throughout the city over several years.

But if the solid waste problem is bad, the city’s sewage difficulties are even worse.

Kabul has never had a sewage-pipe system. Azimzada told IWPR there is only one working tanker truck for picking up the sewage, and that is “too old and always defective”.

“Many people are applying for the removal of their waste, but since we don’t have any more trucks we can’t help them. The municipality does not remove sewage from people’s houses,” said Azimzada, explaining that with one truck the city can only pick up sewage from government offices. “People should pay to carry it away from the city.”

People who spend money on new construction, which seems to be happening everywhere in Kabul, should also plan to spend money on sewage removal, he said.

At least one private sewage transportation company is active in the city, but people have to pay for its services. Most property owners simply pay for men with donkey carts to take the sewage away, which often ends up being used as fertiliser.

IWPR followed one such donkey cart picking up waste at our Kabul offices. It ended up with a truck driver who took it away to use as fertiliser for farmland in the fertile Shamali plains.

According to deputy mayor of Kabul, Mohammad Faqir Bahram, a German company, Gauff, is in the final phases of working out a contract with the city to build a sewage system.

For Abdul Karim Askarzada, 45, who lives in the Chindawal district of Kabul - a steep hill where 25,000 people live in mud houses - this project won’t come soon enough.

“Every night we throw out our sewage in the hills, and the neighbours reacted unsympathetically,” he said, explaining that his family has no alternative unless the municipality or some NGOs can come and carry it away.

Sayed Hussain Parwizi, 35, a local representative of that community, also heads up Chindawal’s area council. He’s lived there for 11 years.

“The Chindawal people dump their sewage outside their houses, and the people at the bottom are in the most serious condition. Because of this sewage people have gotten sick,” he said. Parwizi said that a particular NGO has promised several times to build proper bathrooms for the people, but help hasn’t yet come.

He said that the city has also made such promises, but nothing has happened.

“People are poor, they don’t have money to clean up their sewage,” he said. “It has been 10 years that nobody has cleaned up Chendowal’s sewage and the population is growing every day. Because of this sewage, people get sick... such as with typhoid and malaria.

“They leave their sewage along the roads and then it dries out and it is disseminated in the air, and through breathing, people are infected with a variety of diseases,” said Nasrullah.

Nasrullah said that UN-HABITAT’s sanitation education programme, held in schools and mosques about the dangers of storing and burying waste, found in a survey that most of the people in attendance had been infected with diseases such as Leishmaniasis (a skin ailment caused by a parasite transmitted by sand flies),

mumps and diarrhoea due to garbage and sewage problems.

Dr Zubaida Sedeqi, deputy director of Children’s Health Hospital in Kabul, said that most of the 500 to 700 children that come daily on an outpatient basis, are treated for diarrhoea, vomiting, pneumonia, sore throat, typhoid, jaundice and malnutrition. Between 70 and 100 are hospitalised each day for these sicknesses. The doctor believes that one the reasons for these diseases are the “major problem of waste”.

For all these reasons, municipal officials told IWPR they are making cleaning up Kabul a priority for city government.

Mohammad Jawad Sharifzada and Shahabuddin Tarakhil are IWPR reporters based in Kabul.