An old, broken down garbage truck stands inside the near-deserted compound of the Sandafa Sanitary Landfill, 20 km northeast of Addis Ababa. The truck has been there since July 2016, the last time the 137-hectare landfill was operational.
Yet seven months into its 2016 opening, operations came to a halt as local farmers protested, saying they’d been deceived about the nature of the project, that they’d been inadequately compensated for land, and complaining of the pollution.
“There were demonstrations in front of the main gate; some of the farmers were even lying on the road,” recalls a 24-year-old guard at the site. “They were saying anyone who wished to dump waste at their doorsteps from then on had to run them over first.”
In response to the protests, senior government officials including Addis Ababa city mayor Diriba Kuma sat down with community members and local authorities pledging to make improvements.
“They promised to build wall fences and net ceiling” to keep out stray dogs and scavenging birds, says Shimallis Abbabaa Jimaa, the district’s chief administrator. “They even promised to [build] pipelines to supply clean water.” But since then, he says, “there hasn’t been any activity”.
Indeed, as Ethiopia’s two largest ethnic groups – the Oromo and Amhara – rose up and protested against the government alleging systemic repression and marginalisation from late-2015, the issues at Sandafa were relegated to the backburner. But that all changed on 11 March as a tragic landslide at the capital’s overused garbage dumping site Reppi claimed the lives of 125 people.
Caught off guard
The 36-hectare Reppi Sanitary landfill – better known as Koshe (‘dirt’ in Amharic) – is an open dumpsite on the outskirts of Addis Ababa. More than 200,000 tons of waste is produced annually in the capital and, for over half a century, millions of tons of it have been dumped at Koshe.
More than two hundred households surround the landfill site, while some families live on the garbage pile itself in makeshift shelters constructed from plastic, cardboard and wood. Living so close to the dumpsite without fences, proper drainage or odour control was always challenging, concedes Belay Melaku, a 35-year-old driver who resides in the area. “But we have no options” he says.
In 2013, the government came up with a multi-faceted plan to regulate and eventually close Koshe. To begin with, the British company Cambridge Industries was contracted alongside Chinese National Electric Engineering Corporation to commence a $120 million project in which un-recyclable rubbish would be burnt to generate electricity. The French Development Agency agreed to financially back the building of a green park on the other side of the landfill site. And another waste disposal facility –Sandafa – was identified.
After 50 years, waste dumping at Koshe finally ceased. However, after farmers blockaded Sandafa Landfill, Reppi once again resumed its decades-old service. The mountain of solid waste continued to grow until it inevitably came crumbling down last month.
In that massive landslide, makeshift shelters and houses were demolished and over 125 people were killed. “It came down on us”, says Belay, who lost his uncle in the accident. “We have never seen anything like it.”
For the fourth time in two years Ethiopia observed three days of national mourning.
Dagmawit Moges, spokesperson for Addis Ababa city administration, says a taskforce has been set up to investigate the cause of the accident. Meanwhile, according to the city’s labour and social affairs office, the inhabitants 96 of the 102 makeshift shelters that were destroyed have been relocated to a government-run housing project.
However, despite the devastating tragedy, waste continues to be dumped at Koshe, with Dagmawit explaining that authorities are still searching for a lasting solution. “We are looking at our options”, she says.
One of those options is, of course, Sandafa. But while those who protested the new site are quick to express sympathy with the victims of the Koshe landslide, they are adamant that stopping operations at Sandafa was the right thing to do.
“The same thing might happen here if they continue to dump waste,” says local Teshome Tefera. “We cannot allow that.”
Administrative officers in the district are similarly firm in their conviction that the selection process for Sandafa was ill-conceived from the start, noting that it is a farming and residential area. “That is the source of all problems,” says chief administrator Shimallis.
This presents a real dilemma for the government, and one that is made all the more complicated by Ethiopia’s ongoing political tensions. Addis Ababa continues to grow, creating pressing challenges such as that of waste management. But at the same time, any planned expansions of the capital face strong resistance from the Oromo.
Addis Ababa is entirely surrounded by the Oromiya regional state, and expansions of the city have often led to the dispossession of land and the eviction of Oromo farmers. In fact, it was opposition to the so-called Addis Ababa master plan in November 2015 that eventually grew and culminated in the more widespread and wide-ranging protests that engulfed much of Ethiopia in 2016.
Where this leaves Koshe, Sandafa and the 200,000 tons of waste the capital generates each year remains to be seen. Shimallis says he is willing to entertain a future possibility in which the Sandafa site is functional once more. “A lot of money is spent on the project”, he admits.
But Dagmawit strikes a more cautious note. “I don’t see it going back to work in the near future,” she says. “There are a lot of things that must be done first.”