Solid waste management in vulnerable contexts

IMC Worldwide Senior Consultant and solid waste management expert Veronica Di Bella highlights the challenges of solid waste management, referencing our recent work in internally displaced persons' camps in Myanmar.

Tuesday 06 January 2015, Private: Veronica Di Bella

Waste, directly and indirectly, is one of the biggest challenges of the urban world. Problems and issues of solid waste management are of particular importance in rapidly growing cities of developing countries.

Cities in low and middle income countries suffer from serious problems with waste management as waste volumes continue to rise and new hazardous waste materials are introduced. Numerous studies have demonstrated how poor waste management impacts on the health of local communities.

To make matters worse, waste management usually has a low priority on the political agenda of such countries, as they struggle with other important issues such as hunger, health problems, water shortages, unemployment and even civil war.

Providers of aid and support to these countries often adopt waste management solutions that have worked well elsewhere but are unsuitable for a particular context. The challenges are then compounded by a widespread lack of technical skills at the institutional level and often within supporting local and international organisations.

These challenges are even more acute in camps for refugees or internally displaced persons (IDP), where solid waste management is often seen as a secondary issue in such emergency contexts. Governments tend to see refugee camps and IDP camps as temporary, and therein lies another major issue.

Meanwhile, international agencies working in these scenarios often approach the problem in a fragmented, uncoordinated manner, adopting collection methods that are not uniform and sometimes not appropriate for an environment that can change rapidly due to increasing numbers of refugees and the progression of seasons.

We saw this in IDP camps in the Rakhine State of Myanmar earlier this year, while IMC provided solid waste management support alongside Malteser International, the humanitarian relief agency of the Sovereign Order of Malta. In addition to its relatively low development status, Rakhine currently faces one of the largest man made crises in recent years: ethnic violence. The recent conflicts in this area displaced more than 100,000 people, who are now secluded in about 20 refugee camps.

Our primary focus was one of these 20 camps, where among the key waste-related issues were open and burning of solid waste. Animals such as chicken and goats, often the only source of income for displaced people in the camps, were eating undisposed waste, and children were playing among it. In addition, open defecation was a widespread practice.

While most of the international organisations in the camps promoted the construction of water pumps and latrines, there has been relatively little focus on the management of the solid waste being generated.

Our role there was to develop a solid waste management plan for the camp where Malteser International was working and to deliver a tailored solid waste management training programme for Malteser’s team in the camps and in the local office. The training programme was developed to increase the knowledge of Malteser’s technical local staff and to raise awareness among camp personnel of the importance of solid waste management in this context.

While there, we also had the opportunity to communicate with other NGOs involved in water and sanitation in the camps, join them on site visits, see how they are managing solid waste, and analyse what types of waste are being generated and what could potentially be recycled.

We also mapped, though the use of a GPS, all the water and sanitation facilities which had been built in the camp in order to provide Malteser International with a tool for planning the next activities.

In addition, we also provided technical recommendations for the improvement of solid waste management in Sittwe town.

In situations like these, it is essential to consider solid waste management as a part of a holistic approach to water and sanitation, and more broadly, to the health of people and environments in vulnerable contexts like the IDP camps in Myanmar.

Ultimately, the better the solid waste management strategy, the better the health of the surrounding communities.

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