As Trash Avalanche Toll Rises in Ethiopia, Survivors Ask Why
By Hadra Ahmed and Jacey Fortin
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (New York Times) — At the moment when she lost her home and family, Hanna Tsegaye was spending her Saturday night with a neighborhood friend.
Around 8 p.m. on March 11, Ms. Hanna, 16, heard a strange sound, like rushing wind, and felt the ground shake beneath her feet. She rushed outside and saw that an enormous pile of garbage at a nearby landfill had collapsed.
Her home, which had been a couple of hundred yards from the trash heap, was buried. So were her parents and two siblings.
At least 113 people, according to the latest government estimate, were killed when part of the Repi landfill, in the southwest of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, collapsed. In the days since, grieving survivors have been tormented by a pressing question: Could this tragedy have been prevented?
“We don’t know how such a thing could happen,” a weeping Ms. Hanna said. “Hopefully, someone can tell us and find a solution for the future. I hope this can be a lesson for the government, and that they remember us.”
The disaster is at odds with the image Ethiopia wants to project as a rapidly developing country. Poverty rates have decreased by more than 30 percent since 2000, according to the World Bank, and government officials have claimed economic growth in the double digits over the last decade. Addis Ababa, home to the African Union, is a bustling city where new malls, hotels and apartment buildings are constantly being built.
But that has caused large-scale displacement for the poor in the capital. The government has been constructing high-rise apartment blocks on the edges of the city to house people at subsidized rates, but critics say those efforts have been plagued by corruption. Many of the displaced have resorted to building makeshift shelters in dangerous and undesirable areas, including on and around the Repi landfill.
“The government must take responsibility for what happened and come up with a better plan for a sustainable solution for these people,” said Girma Seifu, who was the only opposition member in Parliament until a 2015 election gave the governing coalition every seat.
Repi is now a mass grave. More than a week after the collapse, a horrible smell of trash and decomposing bodies still wafts through the neighborhood, which is crowded with survivors, mourners and volunteers. Corpses are still being pulled from the refuse.
“The idea that they died buried in dirt, just like they lived in dirt, is heartbreaking,” Mr. Girma said.
A security worker at the site, who did not want to give his name for fear of retribution, said that he thought the death toll could exceed the government’s estimate by hundreds of victims, and that many families were finding it difficult to identify the recovered bodies.
Repi, which covers more than 60 acres and whose vast heaps of waste are blanketed by a noxious haze, has been Addis Ababa’s main dumping ground for about half a century. The site is also known as Koshe, derived from the Amharic word koshasha, or dirty.
Hundreds of people used to comb through the refuse every day, looking for scraps to use or sell, even though basic landfill infrastructure for drainage, containment and odor control was essentially nonexistent.
The government had planned to shut down the site and open a new landfill outside the capital early last year. But that was in a town called Sendafa in the Oromia region, home to the country’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo, who have long complained of marginalization at the hands of the government.
Oromo grievances erupted into widespread protests starting in late 2015, and security agents often responded with deadly force. After Oromo farmers blocked garbage trucks from dumping at the Sendafa site in July, Repi had to resume its role as Addis Ababa’s main dumping ground.
Some work has been done there in recent years. A project to capture and flare methane fumes, to limit greenhouse gas emissions, has been operational since 2013.
There is also a major project under construction, set to open this year, that aims to burn 1,400 tons of Repi garbage daily and generate 185 gigawatt-hours of electricity annually. Cambridge Industries, the development and construction company that is spearheading the project, estimates that it could power 25 percent of the capital’s households.
Samuel Alemayehu, the East Africa managing director for the company, commended the government for investing in renewable power. But he said the deadly landslide was “absolutely horrific” and “should not have happened at all.”
The government has not yet given a cause for the collapse, but is starting an investigation, said Negeri Lencho, a government spokesman.
He added that officials had created a committee “to provide victims with sustainable support because they have lost their homes, and the government is responsible for resettling these people.”
Community members have volunteered time, money and supplies in the aftermath of the disaster. Martha Tadesse, 26, a photographer, used to tutor students in the Repi area. Now, she is attending funerals and helping to organize donations of baby food, clothing and sanitary pads.
“I do see many people being involved, due to social media,” she said, adding that people have been reaching out to offer help.
But for those who lost their homes and families, this outpouring of support came too late. Repi has long been considered a blight on the city’s outer limits, and the people who live in the area describe a lifetime of governmental neglect — made worse by discrimination from their compatriots.
Adane Kebede, a young man who lost friends in the collapse, said other Ethiopians had sometimes refused to speak with him because he grew up near the landfill.
“No one considered us worthy” before the disaster, he said. “But death does not discriminate. We are now visible. Hopefully the world will know our sorrow.”