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Down to Earth

Cairo's waste war

At the base of Cairo's Mokkatam Hill is a neighbourhood known as Garbage City. Its residents are the Zabbaleen, a community that has become so adept at treating trash that it rivals the most advanced waste management systems in the world.

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This week the Down to Earth team reports from a neighbourhood drowning in rubbish. Behind the filthy facade lies a highly organised network of micro-businesses that can recycle up to 85 percent of the waste collected from Cairo.

The Zabbaleen are Coptic Christians, an uneasy minority in a country now run by the Muslim Brotherhood. They try to keep their work away from the spotlight out of fear of aggravating the authorities, who have not formally given this work to them.

For many, the condition of the workers can be shocking. Most of the women sort through the rubbish by hand, without gloves or any sort of health and safety regulations.

In 2003, the Egyptian authorities tried to replace the Zabbaleen’s work with modernised systems by handing out long-term contracts to European companies.

After ten years, the general consensus is that the foreign models have failed. Meanwhile, the Zabbaleen have stepped in to fill the gaps.

Today, the next generation of Zabbaleen are determined to win the right to clean the city, a job their parents and grandparents have done in the shadows for more than forty years. 

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