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 Tuesday 30 October 2007
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MAURITANIA: New govt tackling waste management

Photo: Manon Riviere/IRIN
Street cleaners setting about implementing Nouakchott's first waste management campaign
NOUAKCHOTT, 22 October 2007 (IRIN) - Since the 1970s, Mauritania’s capital city has been growing explosively and today a million people call the scruffy, ramshackle city’s collection of tin-roofed shacks and rough concrete buildings home. Nouakchott’s sanitation system has not kept up with the demand, and the Mauritanian capital often looks more like an open garbage dump than the country’s showcase city.

The unsanitary conditions pose serious health risks and respiratory diseases are common there. But a new government, elected in March 2007, has pledged to put an end to that under the pledge: “A Clean City For Everyone”.

“We want to make sanitation a priority so that people can live in the best conditions of hygiene and healthiness,” said Yaye N’Daw Coulibaly, Mayor of Tevragh Zeina, one of nine city districts that make up Nouakchott.

However, the anarchic city layout, coupled with the government’s decades-long neglect of the city’s infrastructure, has made collecting rubbish hard.

“For several years, donors have been pressing the authorities to come up with a durable strategy for the collection and reprocessing of solid waste,” explained Alain Gayrard, an advisor to the President of the Urban Community of Nouakchott (CUN).

Today things are finally moving. The CUN has delegated management of solid waste to a new department, the Urban Development Agency. Following a tendering process in 2006, the French company Pizzorno Environnement won the contract for collecting garbage, cleaning the streets, and transporting solid waste to a landfill site.

This centre, which is some 30km from the capital, is surrounded by barbed wire.

The notion of waste

A “new city”, Nouakchott effectively did not exist when Mauritania won independence from France in 1960. Then, just 5,000 people lived there. Fifty years later, the capital has almost one million inhabitants and is close to suffocation.

Successive years of drought during the 1970s and 1980s largely explain the massive exodus from rural areas. Nomads, looking for means to keep up their self-sufficient livelihoods, have left their camps and filled out the slums of Nouakchott.

“We are Bedouin people,” explained Ahmed Hamza, President the CUN. “Nomads usually throw their trash around wherever and then move their tents when the rubbish becomes too much. People need to understand that they cannot live in the same way in the countryside and in the city.”

Photo: Manon Riviere/IRIN
Mauritania's capital Nouakchott is strewn with waste
New rubbish management

Since the start of September, a group of street sweepers in blue and yellow uniforms pace up and down the streets of Nouakchott, to the obvious surprise of many inhabitants. These are the new employees of the Dragui-Transport company (which is part of the Pizzorno Environnement company), from now on charged with cleaning the city.

“People in Nouakchott could not believe their eyes,” joked Elymane Diallo, who leads one of the 12-person teams of garbage collectors. “It is the first time that a company has set about tackling the crucial question of rubbish here. And in addition, it’s a French company!”

Nothing like this has ever existed before in Mauritania. Several systems of collective garbage collection existed alongside each other, but they have been faltering.

“There have been children who operate small collections in their area with the aid of horse and carts. There are also some small private contractors and also the mayors of some of the nine communes of Nouakchott have used the private sector to deal with this problem,” explained Serge Tiran, head of operations at Dragui-Transport in Mauritania.

“This was not efficient. The city resembled a vast garbage dump.”

Until now, inhabitants of Nouakchott concerned about their hygiene often have not had any other choice than to put their rubbish in one of the horse-drawn carts that passes their house several times every week.

“For 1,500 UM (4 euros) someone took away our rubbish,” said Moussa, who lives with his wife in a residential area. “I was well aware that this was not a good solution and that our rubbish would end up on the beach or the road to Nouadhibou,” he said.

With a goal of having 650 employees, Dragui-Transport must master the full cycle of waste management, including collection and processing if it is to keep the rubbish from ending up back in the streets where it can cause illness.

Risk of infection

The area of Sebkha, which runs parallel to the sea, is a popular residential area. There are no sewers, meaning the streets flood even with little rain. Children wade in the water where there are floating tin cans, rubbish bags and animal excrement.

The rubbish has affected health in the area. “Every year, when the rainy season arrives, we see a spike in sickness because of the lack of cleanliness,” said Professor Abdel Khader ould Ahmed, an official at the Health Ministry.

“We find primarily sicknesses spread through water like acute diarrhoea and dysentery. Then, because of the sand storms which are laced with the filth, acute respiratory infections are common, especially among children, including bronchitis and pneumonia.”

The lack of a system for dealing with medical waste is another source of concern. “Medical waste is not treated in an efficient or effective manner, which poses well known problems of disease transmission,” underlined Ahmed.

Photo: Manon Riviere/IRIN
Rubbish in Nouakchott causes sickness. Respiratory infections are common when the filth mixes with sand and blows around
In Mauritania, diarrhoea is the number one cause of death, followed by acute respiratory infections. “If we could master our hygiene, mortality would decrease, that’s for sure,” Ahmed said. Good management of waste would also have positive economic benefits, because healthcare costs a lot for already struggling families. “Money saved could be put to other uses, like education for example,” he added.

A major challenge

Professor Ahmed said even if mentalities towards waste in Mauritania change, the private company charged with managing the rubbish is still going to face major structural challenges.

“Sand is everywhere here and constitutes one source of microbes. In the same way, the fish and meat markets continue to spill their organic residue in the streets and attract parasites.”

Bénédicte Château, a specialist in urban sanitation currently working for a French non-governmental organisation in Mauritania, is also sceptical about what can be achieved. “I think that Pizzorno can succeed without too much trouble with cleaning the city centre. However, the company is going to face certain difficulties in remote areas and in the unpaved, sandy streets in the slums. There, I think they will have to make a deal with the horse and cart operators if they hope to fulfil their contract.”

''...The company is going to face certain difficulties in remote areas and in the unpaved, sandy streets...''
A rubbish collector working for the Dragui-Transport company, Mohammed Mangane is more optimistic. “I am certain that we can make Mauritania clean,” he said proudly. “Of course, it will be necessary to educate people to stop throwing their rubbish everywhere and to use garbage bins. But some people have already started to help us and that encourages us a lot!”

Today, the contract signed with the French company covers the capital and 5 km into the suburbs. Financially, the state has agreed to subsidise the cost of waste collection and processing in the Urban Community of Nouakchott and to pay Dragui-Transport for the first year of the service.

“Nonetheless, to have good public services it is necessary to reconsider the fiscal system, because today the state’s income is far from being maximised,” underlined Géza Strammer, interim head of delegation at the European Commission in Mauritania.

The Mauritanian authorities say they hope to make a first review of the new waste management policy in early 2008.


Theme(s): (IRIN) Children, (IRIN) Economy, (IRIN) Education, (IRIN) Environment, (IRIN) Governance, (IRIN) Health & Nutrition, (IRIN) Urban Risk


[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
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