As mountains of garbage expand in the Liberian capital, Monrovia, the UN Environment Programme has called on the government and private sector to repair the country’s broken system for collecting trash.
“Solid waste management is arguably the greatest public health threat in Monrovia,” UNEP’s Michael Cowing told IRIN. “There is virtually no waste management sector.”
Virtually no waste management sector, along with a lack of proper toilets, means household trash, human feces, and hazardous medical waste is randomly disposed throughout the city, in some areas swelling to piles large enough to block roads. Children walk barefoot through trash heaps, picking through piles that can contain used syringes and bloodied bandages.
“There is a serious problem of hygiene in Monrovia as residents throw waste, including feces, in the streets,” said Dehwehn Yeabah, director of environmental health in the Liberian health ministry. He said water accumulating at dumpsites is spilling into uncovered wells throughout the city.
Cowing, who has studied the environment and sanitation challenges in Liberia, recently met with hundreds of members of the public and private sectors, urging them to collaborate to tackle the problem of waste. “We suggest they start a national task force in part to map out a strategy for dealing with waste management in a sustainable fashion.”
Since the end of its 13-year civil war 2003, Liberia has had no comprehensive system for dealing with trash, Cowing said. “There have been a lot of short-term activities but no one has developed a cohesive, long-term strategy.”
High cost of no sanitation
Cowing called waste management a “life-saving sector,” citing the high health care costs and lost wages that are the fallout of poor sanitation. “In low-income areas people tend to say they cannot afford to pay for waste management. I contend, you cannot afford not to pay for waste management.”
The problem of waste is particularly pressing with a population that tripled to some 1.2 million during the war.
As Liberia moves into the peak of the rainy season which usually lasts until October, health officials are particularly concerned that haphazard waste dumping and the construction of makeshift wells near ever-expanding dumpsites threaten to drive up waterborne illnesses.
Hun-Bu Tulay, head of the state-owned Liberia Water and Sewer Corporation, told IRIN that people are increasingly building makeshift latrines or building community wells near ever-expanding dumpsites. Tulay said the government would start shutting down wells found to be too close to waste sites. “This is in contravention of the public health law in Liberia to build wells near waste disposal zones.”
While some laws are on the books, there is currently no enforcement or monitoring, UNEP’s Cowing said. “Environmental legislation and enforcement must be strengthened.” In addition, he said, Liberia must launch a comprehensive and constant public information campaign - not a one-off event; make trash collection a payable service; and - with the international community - concentrate on building government capacity for dealing with environmental issues.
Ben Donnie, the head of Liberia’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), agrees that the problem is one of infrastructure but also awareness. “Proper waste collection and disposal systems in overcrowded urban areas are lacking. And people are not fully educated on the danger of [uncontrolled] waste disposal.”
An environment and natural resources expert with the UN mission in Liberia said the EPA needs greater support. “You need a lead agency for environmental issues - including governance,” said Hiroko Mosko, environment and natural resources advisor with the UN mission in Liberia. “The [EPA], which should be taking the lead on environmental issues, is neither financially nor technically capacitated enough to do its job.”
She added: “We’re looking for donors and the government to place environmental protection in Liberia higher in their agenda.”
Preventable illness killing children
UNICEF says at least 20 percent of deaths of children under five in Liberia are caused by diarrhea, which is in turn caused primarily by poor hygiene and lack of sanitation.
The UN humanitarian office in a 2006 report said cholera and diarrhea outbreaks in Liberia are due principally to poor hygiene practices and the indiscriminate human waste. The report says less than 25 percent of the population of Liberia has access to safe sanitation, with six of the country’s 15 counties having less than 29 percent coverage.