Inside Addis Ababa’s landfill disaster

Five months after the disaster, the people have been abandoned and are wasting away. Vijay Kolinjivadi reports.

Ethiopia is booming, or so they say. Addis Ababa is a rapidly urbanizing city of more than 4 million people and is the showcase for the modern Ethiopia that the government wants to project. The construction sites around the African Union headquarters, the light-rail system (among the first in sub-Saharan Africa), and freshly paved roads provided by Chinese investment in the country represent the changing geography of a city that claims double digit economic growth and a 30 per cent reduction in poverty since 2000. However, as debt inducing mega infrastructure projects mushroom around the city to project an outward image of development, the basis of human well being, such as health, education, housing, sanitation, water supply, nutrition and human rights, remain among the very poorest in the world.

But disaster lurks just beneath the country’s thin decorative veneer of modernism. On 11 March 2017, a part of the Qoshe landfill collapsed, burying houses and killing at least 115 people. Houses, schools, and recreational sites which were located just metres away from Qoshe, with no minimum safe distance between them and the waste site were instantly crushed, with still unaccounted people buried under the mountain of garbage. Now, five months after the disaster, the site remains a highly conflictual zone. Police actively patrol for anyone suspected of wanting to defame the image of the new Ethiopia. Waste pickers are suspicious of strangers and fear undercover government officials who seek to enforce fines on them, or worse, evict them from their homes.

Police road blocks make it difficult to visit the site. Once in view,  onlookers can see layer upon layer of trash towering metres high over the surrounding corrugated tin-roof houses. Vultures dive down into the trash heap marking their claim to dead and rotting material before catapulting back up into the sky. The stench is indescribable. Clouds of smoke billowed upward from within the trash heap. Upon closer inspection, many dozens of people could be seen milling about within the rubbish,  filling large yellow canvas bags. They wore sun hats and camouflaged trousers. Some were on their hands and knees. On one end of the heap, a corrugated tin fence painted green and yellow was erected where part of the landfill has caved in. Large sheets of corrugated tin and pieces of wooden debris, some wrapped in blue tarp, could be seen protruding out of the dirt the material remnants of forgotten human lives now united with the trash heap.

The current government claim they were unaware of any instability at the Qoshe site and had done little to ensure the ‘right to a clean environment’ as is enshrined in the constitution. But evidence suggests that their claim does not hold up. This was not the first time part of the landfill collapsed, resulting in property damage and significant injury to the adjacent populations. Additionally, the government was certainly not oblivious to the thriving informal sector of waste pickers at Qoshe, who have either been historically neglected or systematically repressed by attempts to formalize them into micro and small scale enterprises. Finally, the government had been planning to revitalize Qoshe to develop the increasingly lucrative urban area, while seeking foreign development assistance for a waste-to-energy facility on the site.

Qoshe itself is a heterogeneous place, closely integrated into the broader political economy of urban development across Addis Ababa. The residents surrounding the mountain of trash and affected by the deadly collapse of the landfill consist not only of informal waste collectors, but displaced workers and their families from all across the city. Massive scale evictions from the Kazanchis area of the city over the past decade, now home to five-star hotels and restaurants opposite the United Nations’ compound, have brought many families to settle around Qoshe. In this way, the settlements bordering the site represent the legacy of land grabbing and displacement of people deemed to no longer ‘count’ in the image of prosperity the developmental state seeks to project.

The historic lack of management of Qoshe combined with renewed pressure, especially from foreign governments, for more sustainable, efficient, and technologically advanced solid waste management in the city, resulted in the government attempting to revitalize the landfill. However, the desire to build a new modern landfill has also fed directly into a broader political crisis plaguing the country. Last year large scale anti-government rioting erupted in the Oromia region surrounding the capital, killing and injuring hundreds of people. In 2012, Addis Ababa obtained land in Sendafa, in the Oromia regional state, for the construction of a new landfill to replace Qoshe, ‘conveniently’ situated on the lands of hundreds of farmers. Meanwhile, $158 million was disbursed by the city to turn Qoshe into Africa’s first 50MW waste-to-energy plant and then subsequently convert the surrounding site into a public park.

While plans were in the works for revitalization of Qoshe in 2016, the new Sendafa Sanitary Landfill became inoperable within six months of opening. The French construction company, VINCI Grands Projets, received less than half of the amount it had won the contract for and as a result, four waste transmission stations that were planned to serve as preliminary waste treatment never came to fruition. Nonetheless, the government proceeded with opening the ‘modern’ landfill as specified on paper. The result was the dumping of unsorted crude waste on the new Sendafa site turning it into ‘Qoshe #2’. The surrounding farmers were falsely informed that the construction occurring near their lands was for a new airport and not a landfill and had received less than 1/8th of the compensation that officials claimed was disbursed. To make matters worse, farmers have claimed that the poor construction of the new landfill fouled the air and that toxic liquid was leaching into the fields during rainfall events. In response, at the end of July 2016, farmers refused to admit any further transports of solid waste to enter Sendafa as a form of protest, while uncollected waste continued to pile high in Addis Ababa. The government decided the only option was to reopen Qoshe.

Riding the wave of land speculation from hyped-up promises of green space and new construction, the land value increased markedly around Qoshe in the months since the city’s waste disposal was moved to Sendafa. Construction projects became a regular feature around the Qoshe site as a result of rapidly rising property values, including ploughing and road construction directly on accumulated trash. Despite warnings from local residents wary of the factors that can (and have) led to previous collapses, the power plant construction and associated developments continued unabated.

And then 11 March happened. It wasn’t a matter of unregulated trash accumulating until it collapsed. The reality was far more political and offered the potential to change the development trajectory, not only facilitating waste management by the informal sector, but also the potential to engage with the development futures of the population around Qoshe. In a rapidly growing city (anywhere in the world) that wants to present itself as ‘green’, ‘sustainable’, and/or modernizing, the ‘dirt’ is always brushed under the rug somewhere. The very recent Grenfell Tower disaster in an otherwise gentrifying area of London is a case in point, ringing a strong chord with the disaster of Qoshe in Addis Ababa. The ‘developmental’ state with an eye for capital growth knows no boundaries and views having a decent home and a liveable healthy environment as a privilege rather than a human right. It leads to the sort of social cleansing across the urban landscape that invariably results in very preventable disasters. Our collective task lies in re-politicizing events like Qoshe and holding those development agencies and government officials accountable for their historically deliberate neglect of people over capital.

Vijay Kolinjivadi, PhD, is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Québec (Outaouais).