By Paul Schemm
Three days of national mourning began Wednesday for the victims of a catastrophic landslide at the Ethiopian capital’s main garbage dump that left at least 72 bodies buried under a wall of trash and dirt, mostly women and children.
This year has not been kind to Ethiopia, including widespread popular unrest, drought in many parts of the country, a cholera outbreak and stampede at a culture festival. Yet the deaths at the Addis Ababa landfill on Saturday stands out as a sobering counterpoint to the country’s boasts of economic progress.
Ethiopia’s government for the last decade has tried to put behind the familiar cliches in Western minds of famine and poverty. The numbers help their case. Ethiopia has one of the best-performing economies in Africa. But 30 percent of Ethiopia’s population still lives below the poverty line.
The changes are especially apparent in Addis Ababa, which was once little more than an overgrown village with a few government buildings. The city is now sprouting with glass and metal skyscrapers ringed by affluent new neighborhoods catering to an emerging middle class.
But the landfill tragedy is a reminder that the slums and shantytowns are still there, too. One of them was built amid the artificial mountain of garbage, where people scrap out a living combing through the refuse. Late Saturday, they heard a roaring sound. The garbage mountain suddenly gave way, sweeping away makeshift homes and burying dozens.
The growth of the capital has often outstripped efforts to manage it, creating hazards like the half-century-old landfill of Reppi, also known as Koshe or dirt in Ethiopia’s Amharic language.
Located southwest of the city, just a 15 minute drive from the embassy-filled neighborhood of Old Airport that is also home to the city’s best international school, this mountain of trash is now surrounded by housing developments.
Here, hundreds of men, women and children known as “scratchers” comb through the daily trash deliveries from the rest of the city, squabbling over the highly prized refuse from the wealthier neighborhoods that yield the most valuable castoffs or the best food. Overhead birds circle the nearly 90-acre site, waiting for their own turn on this artificial mountain of trash
Even before the latest collapse claimed dozens of lives, injuries and deaths from the settling trash or the bulldozers were common in this area, which is often a first port of arrival for immigrants from the countryside.
There was an attempt recently to close down the Koshe dump. But protesters from the surrounding Oromo region blocked garbage trucks heading for a new site.
In sharply worded statement Monday, Amnesty International held the government responsible for this “totally preventable disaster,” saying that the government was aware it was at full capacity but used it anyway and allowed people to build their huts on the garbage.
“These people, including many women and children, had no option but to live and work in such a hazardous environment because of the government’s failure to protect their right to adequate housing, and decent work.”
An estimated 300 people scavenge through the rubbish mountain at any given time and it is feared that the death toll could keep rising.
The government has announced the relocation of at least 300 people living on the site as well as compensation for the families. There have been scuffles though between residents and rescue workers, claiming they are not doing enough.
In the days since the landslide, there has been a heavy security presence at the site.
There has been no official reason for what caused the landslide, though the site’s overcapacity and the strain of accepting every day more garbage from the city’s estimated 3.5 million residents could be part of it.
Some residents have also claimed that the trash mountain was destabilized by the construction of a huge waste-to-energy plant on the site — an accusation denied by the government but echoed by commentators on state-run radio.
If the $120 million Reppie Waste-to-Energy facility caused the landslide, it would be a particularly cruel irony. The gleaming facility covered in scaffolding was supposed to be the salvation for the people of the trash.
When the deal was announced in January 2013 with Cambridge Industries, it was seen as a solution for the festering problem of the landfill. The facility would take the 350,000 annual tons of garbage entering the site and turn it into enough electricity to power the homes for 30 percent of the city. Blackout are common in Addis Ababa as another symptom of its rapid growth.
The plant was part of the country’s $150 billion Climate Resilient Green Economy launched in 2011, with the stated of objective of turning Ethiopia into a middle-income economy by 2025 while keeping down greenhouse gas emissions.