Pollution Problems in the Maghreb Countries

New Challenges for Refuse Collectors

Migration into cities in Northern Africa has led to rapid growth of urban centres. The environmental impact in many places has been severe. In particular, municipalities face problems with regard to sewage and garbage disposal. More civil participation should improve local services. By Norbert Glaser

Street in a poor district of Casablanca, Morocco (photo: dpa)
Morocco faces various environmental problems. What is needed above all is a separate waste collection system in large cities like Casablanca or Agadir

​​Rapid urbanisation presents major problems for the Maghreb. Environmental specialists like Youssef Jaouhari believe population growth in many places has reached alarming proportions: "The Agadir area has a million population growing at a rate of 4.2% a year."

Population growth across the country is only 3.6%. "Many people move to the area in the hope of finding work and a better life," the Moroccan expert reports.

"The consequences are unplanned settlements, lack of drinking water, refuse and sewage problems". Environmental legislation is in place but directives are needed to enforce it and personnel and laboratories are needed to check that the law is observed.

Starting to create an awareness for the environment

"We have only just started creating an awareness for the environment," says topographer Jamal Zergani, deputy head of technical services for the Inezgane Ait Melloul/Agadir prefecture. "Many people don't think twice about pouring oil waste into a drain."

Most ships tip oily water from cleaning straight into the sea. The food industry and fish processors behave in similar ways. Zergani's colleague Khadija Sami considers it irresponsible: "Agadir is not just a city with a flourishing economy. It is also a city of culture. We have ten kilometres of sandy beach."

Located between the sea and the Atlas Mountains, Agadir is a city of more than just scenic contrasts. The capital of the Souss Massa Draa region has more than 21 000 hotel beds. In recent years, the government has vigorously promoted the construction of holiday complexes.

Two-thirds of employment is in tourism. The rest is spread evenly across agriculture, fishing and industry. 340 food processing plants form the region's industrial base. Agadir is Morocco's second-biggest port and the world's largest sardine-fishing port.

Agadir is also a vibrant region from a demographic viewpoint. Four-fifths of the population are under 40 years of age. In the years ahead, pressure on natural resources is likely to increase.

So in 2002, with the support of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the UN Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT), the Moroccan Ministry of Land Management, Water and Environment produced an environmental profile of the city and launched a local Agenda 21 project.

Called for by the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, local Agenda 21 projects aim at identifying practicable solutions through grass-roots consultation. Geared to the motto "Think global, act local", they are a born of the awareness that many of humanity's problems in the future will arise at local level.

In a first 'City Consultation' in Agadir, representatives of civic organisations, administration and political parties agreed on three priorities: "improvement of quality of life", "tourism and sustainable development" and "urban and social integration of unplanned settlements".

A second 'City Consultation' in 2004 approved action plans, which have since been implemented as pilot projects.

Similar processes have been launched in Marrakesh and Meknès. Specialised knowledge and valuable insights into the workings of companies, associations and local administrations will enable the seven women and ten men to push forward the Agenda 21 process in their home city.

Algerian perspective

Urbanisation has been a major issue in North African countries for 20 years – one that presents problems that local administrations can only tackle by finding coordinated and coherent solutions tailored to local conditions. Local Agenda 21 processes can make important contributions. Civic participation helps bring social, environmental and economic interests into better alignment.

"We would like to learn from Morocco's experiences," says Fatima Mebarki from Annaba in Algeria. Employed at the city hall of the port on the Tunisian border, she has the job of making sure that the environmental interests of the 385,000 local population receive due consideration.

Algeria's fourth-biggest city is a location for major branches of industry, such as iron ore processing, fertiliser manufacture and pharmaceutical production.

Most of their emissions (dust, ammonium nitrate) are pumped into the air unfiltered. Respiratory ailments and asthma are the result. The incidence figures for both of these complaints in Annaba are higher than the national average.

The dirty air is a hindrance to tourism, although the city of Saint Augustine attracts a million visitors a year. Mayor Kouadria Nouredine fully appreciates that more needs to be done for the urban environment.

He sees urgent need for action in areas like urban development, air pollution control, traffic and waste water management. Annaba accounts for a third of all Algeria's industrial effluent. An Agenda 21 process will change all that. The city fathers want to focus it mainly on industry and tourism.

Most of Algeria's urbanised regions are on the coast. This is where population and industry crowd together – with precious few sewage plants, waste dumps or treatment facilities for hazardous waste. Infrastructure does not meet demand. Drinking water shortages are becoming increasingly acute.

In recent years, the government has created a Ministry of Land Management and Environment, enacted the country's first environmental legislation and drawn up a national action plan. The Blida area has been declared a model zone. In close cooperation with the local employers' association, the ministry intends to develop exemplary solutions in areas like waste disposal, materials recovery (composting), transport and hygiene.

Morocco has gone a step further. In 2002, the government devolved more powers to municipal authorities. This did not lead directly to local Agenda 21 processes but it did help prepare the ground.

The Sustainable Cities Programme sponsored by UN-HABITAT, UNEP and UNDP provided coordinators for start-up phases in Agadir, Marrakesh and Meknès. They pushed the process forward on the ground. Since the beginning of 2006, the municipalities themselves have been in control.

For the area around the old royal city of Meknès, the priority is to create a regulated waste disposal system. "We don't have a working refuse collection service," says Amina Lakhmissi, sounding a note of self-criticism. "Garbage in Meknès is collected by a French company. Neighbouring municipalities don't even have that service."

Private refuse collectors in Moroccan cities

In Ouislane, Toulal and El Mechouar, private refuse collectors search through the waste for recyclable materials. Problems arise repeatedly – for example, when scavenging collectors scatter waste all over the street. Environmental expert Lakhmissi reckons around 15% of recyclable materials (paper, plastic, glass, aluminium) are recovered in this way.

Half a million people live in the greater Meknès area. A modern refuse treatment plant set up in the early 1980s closed within two years because of technical and financial problems. "Since then, waste has ended up on a small landfill site on the northern outskirts of the city," Lakhmissi says.

But the situation is due to improve. The city authorities plan to integrate the informal recyclers into a separate waste collection system. Lakhmissi is confident it will work: "Sustainability is a new concept for us. But many local citizens are willing to embrace it."

The new system will not just provide safeguards for air, water, soil and health; thanks to the reduced volume of waste, it will also extend the life of the landfill.

In Agadir too, the Agenda 21 participants expect great things from a separate waste collection system. The average citizen generates 0.7 kilograms of waste a day, which makes for a total daily disposal load of 210 tons. But 70 – 80% of the waste is organic and could be used to make valuable compost.

That would solve a good deal of the city's waste problem. What is needed is a separate waste collection system, which currently exists only on paper. At present, like Meknès, Agadir relies on an army of informal waste workers to recover recyclable materials like cardboard, metal and paper.

Morocco has had a go at composting in the past. Except in Rabat, though, none of the European-style public facilities that were set up ran for more than six years. At present, there are four private composting facilities in operation in the greater Agadir area. The problem they face is getting to grips with the technology.

Norbert Glaser

© Magazine for Development and Cooperation 2006

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