Big waste issues in little Gambia

Written by: Louise Hunt | Published:
i needed to learn how much trash is across gambias coastline

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Rubbish collection and sorting in Africa’s smallest nation is rudimentary to say the least, but measures are being taken at home and from abroad to help the local population emerge from its quagmire. Louise Hunt meets those on the front line of efforts to bring Gambia’s waste management into the 21st century

For many living in the urban sprawl of the Gambia's capital Banjul, waste collection is a man with a donkey and cart who is paid a small weekly fee to trundle from house to house with mountainous bundles of rubbish. Others use one of the many truck services also run by private collectors.

The district councils are meant to provide a municipal waste management service, but collection from designated points in the town is at best irregular, and there are no formal services in rural areas.

Bakary Jadama, environmental health and sanitation manager for Brikama Area Council in southern Gambia, says the lack of public money available for waste management is the main problem.

The service should be covered by residents' rates, but there is always a shortfall.

Africa's smallest country

The Gambia, 20 miles wide on either side of its namesake river, is Africa's smallest country and one of its poorest, with many people living on less than a dollar a day. It ranks 172 out of 195 countries in the United Nations Human Development Index.

The council has six refuse collection vehicles to serve the country's fastest-growing municipality, which is home to 700,000 residents, 40% of the total population. "We do not have adequate transport to deal with the waste. The vehicles often break down. Collection is supposed to be daily but can often be a week or more," Jadama says. One person said their waste had only ever been collected twice by the council. So rubbish is everywhere – discarded plastic bags carpet the sandy streets and amass in ditches along the roadside. What isn't collected is burnt in people's compounds.

There is no official research on the public health and environmental impacts of mismanaged rubbish in the Gambia, says Jadama, but he sees the effects on people's lives. "Respiratory tract infections, lead poisoning, flooding when the waterways are blocked that causes malaria and dysentery outbreaks," he says.

A growing problem

Most of the waste that is collected is taken to a vast unregulated dump in Bakoteh, situated in the heart of the busiest urban area, Serekunda. There is no leachate control or landfill gas removal; waste is simply left to rot, or not, and neighbouring communities are continuously exposed to toxic smoke from the burning rubbish, even visible on Google Earth images.

The Gambian government has taken some measures to address the country's growing rubbish problem, with the president recently issuing a statement that plastic bags will be banned from 1 July. It has also increased the frequency of its national sanitation days to fortnightly, on which citizens are not allowed to drive and are expected to stay at home and clean their neighbourhoods. But waste management remains underfunded.

New opportunities

However, an ambitious new project that began in April is supporting coastal communities to develop their own waste management solutions by forming social enterprises. Its aim is to generate new livelihood opportunities from different approaches to collecting and recycling waste, raise public awareness of separating rubbish and, ultimately, to reduce the amount of waste going to unregulated landfill.

'Building capacity for sustainable waste management for coastal communities through women and youth livelihoods' is the inaugural project of new charity

WasteAid UK, which was founded earlier this year to combine sustainable waste management expertise with international development objectives, a model similar to that of WaterAid.

The five-month project has been awarded a £75,000 European Union grant to work with NGO partner Concern Universal, which focuses on improving livelihoods, and the Women's Initiative Gambia (WIG) – a women's group that has been pioneering waste re-use for several years. Crucially, it has the support of Brikama Area Council, which is providing some labour and storage facilities, and is building links with the Gambia's National Environment Agency.

WIG already works with local communities delivering outreach education on the harmful effects of burning rubbish and how to re-use and recycle waste, and getting this message out to an even wider audience is integral to the project's long-term success.

"We really hope that it will sensitise communities in waste management," says Jadama. "Community engagement is really important. Most of the things people regard as waste could be recycled."

Waste composition analysis

One of the project's first tasks was to spend a week on one of the city's dump sites carrying out a waste composition analysis – believed to be the first time such a study has been undertaken in the country. A team of 10 appointed waste-pickers sorted through 2.5 tonnes of rubbish, and recorded the number of waste trucks entering the site.

WasteAid consultant Mike Webster says the real surprise was what wasn't there.

"There was virtually no glass or PET water bottles, despite widespread usage in the local economy. These are valuable commodities and are recycled for money or re-used," he says. The majority of the waste was plastics film, the remnants of ubiquitous and flimsy plastic bags liberally supplied with every purchase and small pouches of drinking water sold by street vendors. Organic waste and sand made up the rest.

"Now that we've done this study, which will be made publicly available on the WasteAid website, we are looking at how we can add value to waste streams using proven techniques and replicable technologies. We are looking at reprocessing organics and plastics, which we think are 70% of the waste stream," Webster explains.

It is important that the approaches used are replicable, keeping equipment costs and training to a minimum. Some of the methods that will be trialled in the Gambia are already successfully established by so-called 'waste to wealth' projects in other parts of West Africa, and beyond.

Paving slabs and fuel briquettes

Through its Waste to Wealth programme, Living Earth Foundation, also a UK NGO, has trained community groups in the slums of Sierra Leone and Cameroon to make paving slabs from recycled plastics, and fuel briquettes from food waste as cheaper and sustainable alternatives to charcoal.

It has provided advice to WasteAid on how to implement these approaches. The Gambia project is also looking into opportunities for composting organic waste and making fishmeal fertiliser. It is also developing partnerships with local businesses to collect waste. The tourism sector – one of Gambia's largest economies – is an ideal place to start. Helpfully, sustainable tourism is already well-established in the country, with a number of eco resorts making the most of the wealth of culture and natural materials.

"Hotels were doing a lot on energy and water efficiency but weren't doing anything on segregating waste," says project manager Daouda Niang. So far, they have been receptive to supporting the initiative. "They do see that waste is a problem and are keen
to promote that they are doing something about it."

Creating livelihoods

A key element of this project will be generating livelihoods for the most marginalised members of society, in particular the people currently working as waste-pickers on the city's dumps, along with creating opportunities to strengthen women's economic independence. "It's about livelihoods as much as waste. We are trying to create jobs by adding value to the materials and developing public/private sector partnerships. This means people don't have to rely on government solutions," Webster adds.

A forthcoming report by the International Solid Waste Association, in collaboration with the UN Environment Programme, is expected to argue that making waste management an international development priority will be critical to meeting at least four of the incoming Sustainable Development Goals that will replace the Millennium Development Goals this September.

"If you want to solve the problems in an
area then waste is a cross-cutting issue,"
agrees Jadama.

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