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AWASH IN GARBAGE, CAIRO MISSES PIGS

The country killed all its pigs to combat swine flu, but the animals used to eat organic waste.

New York Times

CAIRO - It is unlikely anyone has ever come to this city and commented on how clean the streets are. But this litter-strewn metropolis is now wrestling with a garbage problem so severe it has managed to incite its weary residents and command the attention of the president.

When the government killed all the pigs in Egypt this spring - in what public health experts said was a misguided attempt to combat swine flu - it was warned the city would be overwhelmed with trash.

The pigs used to eat tons of organic waste. Now the pigs are gone and the rotting food piles up on the streets of middle-class neighborhoods like Heliopolis and in the poor streets of communities like Imbaba.

What started out as an impulsive response to the swine flu threat has turned into a social, environmental and political problem for the Arab world's most populous state. It has exposed the failings of a government where the power is concentrated at the top, where decisions are often carried out with little consideration for their consequences and where follow-up is often nonexistent, according to social commentators and government officials.

Speaking broadly, there are two systems for receiving services in Egypt. The government system and the do-it-yourself system. Instead of following the channels of bureaucracy, most people rely on an informal system of personal contacts and bribes to get a building permit, pass an inspection, get a driver's license - or make a living.

Cairo's garbage collection belonged to the informal sector. The government hired multinational companies to collect the trash, and the companies decided to place bins around the city. But they failed to understand the ethos of the community. People do not take their garbage out. They are accustomed to someone collecting it from the door.

For more than half a century, those collectors were the zabaleen, a community of Egyptian Christians who live on the cliffs on the eastern edge of the city. They collected the trash, sold the recyclables and fed the organic waste to their pigs - which they then slaughtered and ate.

Now, the zabaleen community has stopped collecting most of the organic waste. Instead they dump it wherever they can or, at best, pile it beside trash bins scattered around the city by the international companies that have struggled in vain to keep up with the trash.

"They killed the pigs, let them clean the city," said Moussa Rateb, a former garbage collector and pig owner who lives in the community of the zabaleen. "Everything used to go to the pigs, now there are no pigs, so it goes to the administration."

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