Swine-Flu Slaughter Leaves Cairo Without Pigs to Devour Trash
Sept. 29 (Bloomberg) — Egypt’s pigs are getting their revenge.
Five months after anxiety about swine flu prompted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s government to order the slaughter of all the country’s 300,000 hogs, the organic waste they once devoured is piling up on Cairo’s streets, contributing to a garbage crisis.
The government’s action destroyed the livelihood of about 70,000 families known as zabaleen, who were freelance trash collectors and urban pig farmers. It forced all pork processors and retail outlets to close and created a potential health hazard as neighborhoods reek of decaying garbage. Some residents, concerned that yesterday’s discarded kebab might become tomorrow’s cholera outbreak, are burning refuse in bonfires.
“No one took into consideration the economics, much less the environmental problems” the pig cull would create, said Magdi Fouad, 47, whose pork-processing and sales business, founded by his grandfather in 1945, was wiped out overnight.
To locate the impact on Mohandessin, an upscale area on the Nile River’s west bank, follow the flies. Gobs of moldering meat and vegetables lie wedged between parked cars, clustered against lamp posts and clumped under bushes. Dumpsters are rare; people customarily placed refuse in bags outside their front doors for pickup. Building superintendents try to keep them from tossing it into the street.
“You could always count on the zabaleen,” said Fayez Aissa, 51, who oversees an apartment block. “They came every day, took everything. Now rats and snakes are hiding in our garbage.”
Zabaleen — trash collectors in Arabic — are rural migrants who have harvested Cairo’s rubbish since the end of the 19th century. Families in the central district of Embaba and in Manshiet Nasr, an outlying neighborhood, were dedicated to picking up trash and sorting organic matter from metal, glass and paper.
They disposed of as much as 80 percent of organic waste, feeding it to the hogs, which often lived in sties next to zabaleens’ homes along undrained dirt lanes. Families made money from recycling and from selling pigs to meat processors.
The Agricultural Ministry ordered the pigs eliminated in April, after the outbreak of H1N1 virus in Mexico and the U.S. Police clubbed the pigs to death and bulldozed them alive under desert sand. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization called the action a mistake, partly because no link was proven between pigs and transmission of flu.
Parliament had clamored for the cull. Zabaleen are Coptic Christian, 10 percent of Egypt’s overwhelmingly Muslim population. Pigs and pork are taboo under Islamic rules, and Copts complained the ministry’s order was based on religious bias. Some zabaleen rioted in protest.
No Egyptian came down with flu before the slaughter began. Since then, 891 cases have been reported, including two deaths, according to the World Health Organization.
In 2003, city districts hired foreign firms with trucks and compactors to collect garbage as part of Egypt’s privatization drive. The enormity of the job still left plenty for the zabaleen, who would climb stairs in apartment buildings without elevators, haul down trash bags and navigate alleys too narrow for trucks.
Tons of Trash
Cairo produces 14,000 tons of rubbish a day; the zabaleen handled half, said Laila Iskandar, 62, an expert in grassroots development and chairperson of CID Consulting, a Cairo-based marketing, management and communications firm.
Now that the pigs are gone, many families have stopped picking up the trash. Some are also abandoning the recycling business, because without hogs, the tedious work of sorting through paper, cans and bottles isn’t worthwhile, said Samir Saber, 48, a zabaleen who raised pigs and a member of the Garbage Collectors and Transporters Association in Embaba.
“Now there’s nothing,” said Saber, who spends his time in cafes. He said the government paid him between $10 and $50 for each pig he lost, depending on its size; meat processors would give him as much as $200.
Compounding the rubbish problems, International Environmental Services, contracted six years ago by Cairo’s Giza district to collect garbage, suspended operations last month in a financial dispute, said Ahmed Nabil, the company’s general manager. That left no one to haul away any waste in large parts of the capital, which has 17 million people.
IES, with offices in Cairo’s Dokki district, resumed work the week of Sept. 14, even with the “cash-flow problems,” Nabil said. Giza officials didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Agriculture Minister Amin Abaza defended the cull, saying the H1N1 virus might combine with the H5N1 bird-flu virus to produce a new strain.
“We had been planning to get rid of the pigs for three years,” he said in an interview. “The swine-flu fears gave us the opportunity.”
Eliminating the pigs may create other hazards, said Abd-el Rahman Shaheen, spokesman for the Health Ministry.
“If the garbage problems continue, the organic waste can be a source of infectious diseases,” he said.
The zabaleen are scrambling to pool their resources, said Gamil Aweida, an Evangelical preacher who works with the families. Some want to open a grocery store or buy a taxi — “anything they think will make money,” he said.