21 January 2013

Namibia: Dumpsites Feed, Sustain the Poor

Keetmanshoop — People scavenging for scraps of discarded food at the dumpsite on the outskirts of Keetmanshoop say although the site poses serious health risks, it has become a source of livelihood for them.

New Era recently visited the area and looked at the miserable lives of many residents who scavenge for food and other useful materials on a daily basis by combing through the rubbish in the hope of laying their hands on anything minutely valuable - ranging from food, jewelry and plastic to aluminum, brass, empty bottles, wood and wooden boxes.

The site covers an area of close to 120 hectares of unfenced land, which spreads out in pockets of small illegal dumpsites close to established residential areas and even into a cemetery. This is despite promises by the local authorities that plans are underway to relocate the dumpsite elsewhere.

Officially, it is the Keetmanshoop landfill site, but those who scavenge there call it 'Die Dip', which translates loosely as the dump. Those who frequent the site include children, who allegedly dodge school to get there. Some of the children were in the company of a parent, but in most cases they were on their own.

Many residents, while complaining about the uncontrolled dumpsite, also raised the spectre of a looming health crisis in the area. Medical doctors warned that people could easily contract HIV/AIDS from accidental needle pricks from discarded medical waste at the dumpsite.

"They are bringing the garbage from different areas of town and dumping it here in this open ground," said a resident who lives in the Kronlein location.

Hundreds of people, including children, sift through tons of garbage to eke out a desperate living. Many say they will be happy to leave the dump, but they are worried they will not be able to make a living elsewhere, because they will not get work in town where employment opportunities are extremely limited.

Fifty-one-year-old Jan Kaffer has been collecting food, bottles and cans and other materials for sale to customers in the location for years.

"They the town officials do not care about us," lamented Kaffer. He told New Era the situation is terrible and desperate. He has to get up early to visit the dumpsite and often returns late in the evening.

Kaffer says his life is very difficult. Collecting garbage brings him less than N$1 a day. According to him, he has no dignity and no reputation to defend and scavenging therefore does not bother him. Many of the people at the dumpsite believe it is better than stealing or begging for handouts.

"The risks here are high, but we have to survive. Sharp-edged metal and broken glass leave nasty wounds. It is better to end up here instead of resorting to crime by stealing," one man said.

Andries Kooper, a 50-year-old man, regards himself as an experienced handyman who makes his living from collecting mostly aluminum, copper, brass, iron and other metals from the dumpsite.

"I normally come here in the morning, pick out metal and other things that can be sold. This is how I have been surviving from the age of 30 and supporting my family," said Kooper. He claims he is comfortable with his 'job', adding that it is his only means of survival as he regards himself as unemployable, because of his health and age.

When asked about the health risks posed by the dumpsite, Kooper said he often gets flu and headaches but this does not stop him from returning to the dump. Kooper normally salvages about 24kg of metal, which earns him about N$25 per kilogramme.

Epidemiological studies conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO) and others show that people living near dumpsites are prone to negative health effects such as women giving birth to babies with low birth weight, birth defects and respiratory diseases.

The studies also show an increased prevalence of fatigue, sleepiness and headaches. Moreover, dumpsites emit different kinds of gases. Landfill gas typically contains 45 to 60 percent methane and 40 to 60 percent carbon dioxide. The gas also contains small amounts of nitrogen, oxygen, ammonia, sulphides, hydrogen and carbon monoxide.

The gasses are produced by bacterial decomposition, which occurs when organic waste is broken down by bacteria naturally present in the waste and in the soil used to cover the landfill.

Organic waste includes food, garden waste, street sweepings, textiles, wood and paper products.

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