Africa Matters is a blog that follows the news and offers analysis of African affairs. Our aim is to delve deeper into the issues of African politics and development. We don’t presume to be experts, and we don’t presume to have all the answers—we are just trying to ask the right questions.

Wednesday, April 11

Mbeubeuss: This place is a dump!

An estimated 7,040 people live in the Mbeubeuss arrondissement of Pikine Département in Malika-Mer, just north of Dakar, Senegal. The residents of Mbuebuess build shelters out of trash and survive by scavenging for their food and shelter. Why? Because these 7000 people are living in a landfill. Mbeubeuss is the only landfill serving the greater Dakar region. It receives 460,000 tons of waste per year. The landfill opened in 1968 on a dried lake bed, and has expanded to cover about 175 hectares where it is now considered an arrondissement, or neighborhood.

Waste management is a big challenge for all large cities. This is especially true in African cities where development of sanitation infrastructure is struggling to keep up with exploding urbanization. Since 1980, the urban population in Africa has grown twice as fast as the population of the region as a whole, increasing from 90 million to 150 million people. There are now 18 African cities with populations of over 1 million. Urban growth has mainly been concentrated in coastal areas, including the megalopolis of over 50 million people living along 500km of coastline from Accra to the Niger Delta. Coastal cities both pollute marine environments and are vulnerable to rising sea levels and coastal storms.

Cities have lower poverty rates than rural areas; they are more likely to offer electricity, access to clean water, and health services. It is natural that rural residents will migrate to the cities. But the flood of people to African cities is unlikely to be sustainable, and new arrivals may find that quality of life is even worse in the city. Kibera, a slum located 7 km southwest of Nairobi, is the largest and most densely populated informal settlement in sub-Saharan Africa. With a population density of 2000 people per hectare, Kibera is home to one million people, or one third of Nairobi’s population, but is only home to 600 toilets.

The inhabitants of Mbeubeuss build houses from recycled material. Some, like Monsieur D, even derive their livelihoods from selling crafts constructed from trash (see picture right). In addition to hazardous and solid waste exposure, the local population is at increased risk for exposure to vector borne diseases carried by insects and rodents, and for malaria due to rainwater build-up in the dump. Livestock are affected as well; cattle and sheep are dying in large numbers from consuming waste and plastic in the dump. In addition, residents may be poisoning themselves by consuming the food products of these animals. A 2005 Pesticide Action Network study showed that dioxins were contaminating chicken eggs near the dump.

Recently, the Canada- based International Development Research Center (IDRC) partnered with the Institut Africain de Gestion Urbaine (IAGU) to fund a CFA 500 million project that aims to improve solid waste management in Mbeubeuss, and to explore the potential of extracting methane from the landfill to qualify for carbon emissions credits. This project is a great step, but, for the lives of the 7000 people living in Mbeussess to improve, new housing arrangements must be found.

African municipalities need to invest in infrastructure that will improve the quality of life of the urban poor. But there is a danger that development organizations and governments' bias for urban projects will encourage urbanization while abandoning rural and agricultural development. Perhaps investment in smaller cities and towns can preempt some of the urbanization that results in people living in dumps.