The Vital and Chaotic Infrastructure of Trash in Dakar

Today more than half the world’s population lives in urban areas. This rapid urbanisation has been particularly difficult in so-called ‘developing world’ which have “neither been able to plan for nor to keep pace with this transformation“. In Africa, which is the most rapidly urbanising region in the world, population increasingly lack access to basic services.

As Senegal’s capital, Dakar is a place of numerous challenges. The city concentrates 25 percent of the Senegalese population and 80 percent of its economic activities. Despite its many assets, Dakar struggles with a deficit of proper infrastructure and adequate services since the city has been developed without any urban planning.

Within a context of modern economy and rapid urbanisation, the increasing volume and complexity of waste pose a serious risk to ecosystems and human health. While Dakar is “the main solid waste producer in Senegal with about 2,000 tons of solid waste per day“, waste management still needs to be aligned with the amount of waste generated. In the waste sector, Dakar’s policies has been affected by a significant structural volatility. During the post-colonial period, waste management practices have been restructured at least twelve times and reached an unprecedented instability during Abdoulaye Wade’s tenure. Over time, responsibilities for waste management have shifted between public and private sectors without clear roles for each stakeholder, while regulations have never been sufficiently enforced.

Over the last twenty-five years, Dakar has been periodically submerged in garbage. From 2006 to 2012, the city witnessed major waste crises and oscillated between tidiness and insalubrity due to strikes from waste-workers accompanied by dumping into the public space from citizens. This local dynamism in an African city tends to prove wrong those who depict the urban African as a passive victim with no role or mean of action in global dynamics. These ‘trash revolts’ were concerted acts of protest against the state and its officials in the ways they compensated waste-workers and more broadly managed public services. “Dakar’s garbagescape has become a central terrain of contestation of the legitimacy of the Senegalese state” which devolved infrastructural responsibility to workers and communities.

Remnants of the trash revolts spearheaded by Dakar residents in May 2007.

In Dakar, solid waste management is inadequate and inefficient. First, households are not properly equipped to store their waste leading to uncontrolled burning and dumping in the streets or illegal dumpsites. But challenges mainly lie at the government level with no clear and specific laws, a lack of delimitation between national and municipal obligations, constrained financial resources and ineffective planning. Indeed, less than half of Dakarois households have access to a regular collection system of garbage which most of it is disposed of at Mbeubeuss dumpsite. Located 30 kilometres from the city centre, the largest dumpsite of Senegal covers more than 114 hectares where waste is only compacted without any treatment.

While plastics, metals and whatever else can be reused are a source of livelihood for informal collectors and recyclers, many inhabitants from the Malika suburb, which is home for the open dumpsite, protest against its unsafe management. The poor sanitary conditions expose them to highly toxic substances through atmospheric pollution but also contamination of their water supply. Moreover, improperly managed waste lying in the streets or dumpsites increase the risk of infectious diseases spread by animals. Since 2015, Mbeubeuss is supervised by the state which pledged to rehabilitate the site without communicating any deadline for its implementation.

Interventions have to be made at both policy and community levels to address the problem of poor waste management in the city. First, municipal authorities should provide households with closed containers for storing waste as well as organise waste collection in collaboration with the national government. Furthermore, sorting, recycling and composting may help reduce the amount of waste, like has been done in ‘developed countries’. Last but not least, local and national authorities have to allocate enough financial resources for waste management and improve the working conditions of waste-workers.

But this urban issue is more complex than it seems. For instance, the proposed closure of Mbeubeuss and opening of a new high-tech landfill has been fiercely contested by the community of waste pickers who depend on garbage as their primary resource to make a living. In Dakar, waste infrastructure thus appear as a key challenge of the city’s urban political ecology.

3 thoughts on “The Vital and Chaotic Infrastructure of Trash in Dakar

  1. Hi,

    thank you very much for this interesting blog post. I think it’s particularly interesting how waste turns into a socio-political issue in the form of the ‘trash revolts’.

    I am really interested in the topic of waste management as Nairobi, the city I wrote my blog on, is facing exactly the same problem. Nairobi’s main dumpsite – Dandora – is situated in the middle of the informal settlement ‘Korogocho’. That means, that the ‘urban poor’ bear the brunt of the problems connected to waste, including its health hazards.

    I would be interested in whether the dynamics in Dakar are similar? Do residents of the Malika suburb belong to the poorest part of the population in Dakar? So, is there structural discrimination of the poorest residents in Dakar emerging from waste management?


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