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The North - Not a good example to follow

GTZ Waste Management Projects: Avoiding the Mistakes Made by the Industrialized Countries

For the waste management projects run by the Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ), there are two important starting points: first, promoting awareness among community decision-makers and broad sections of the population; and second, getting local private-enterprise waste management schemes accepted. One of the main objectives is to try, through careful dialogue with partners, to prevent the mistakes made by the industrialized countries being copied in the Third World. Peter Bosse-Brekenfeld discussed this with Klaus Erbel, Head of GTZ's "Water, Waste Management and Resource Protection" division.

gate: What would you see as the main problems connected with waste disposal in the Third World?

Erbel: One of the main problems is the terrific rate of urban growth in developing countries. In the past 40 years the urban populations of some countries have quadrupled - a growth rate that in Europe would be utterly inconceivable.

One consequence of this has been illegal housing, with slums and squatters areas springing up on the outskirts of towns and cities. These settlements usually have no proper refuse disposal systems, because the municipal authorities don't recognize the illegal settlements and certainly don't want to encourage them.

A second problem is the lack of awareness of the health hazard that results from inadequate waste disposal. As long as municipal authorities and some sections of the population are of the opinion that refuse can simply be left where it is - in the streets, in courtyards and between buildings, it stands to reason that the government won't give priority to waste disposal. Money will be invested in productive areas - trade and industry, for example, the power supply network and perhaps also water supplies. Everything connected with disposal will be put on a back burner and allocated a smaller budget.

As a result, the disposal rate in many Third World cities is only between 30 and 50 per cent. In other words, in many cities more than half the refuse is simply left where it is, or dumped into canals, rivers, lakes or the sea. That isn't disposal, it's simply shifting the problem, with serious consequences - pollution becomes a cycle. Inappropriate refuse disposal can lead to contamination of the groundwater. This in turn affects drinking water reserves, and municipalities are unable to treat the water as necessary.

Problem cycle

gate: That sounds like a vicious circle. Is there any order of priority in this mountain of problems?

Erbel: It's very hard to say which is the central problem. One problem leads to another, and the second to the third. Perhaps the best place to start is with the lack of awareness. The mayor and the inhabitants of a city must be made aware of the health hazards cholera, for instance - and the almost irreparable environmental damage that can result from neglecting waste disposal. Take the example I mentioned a minute ago: once the groundwater reserves are contaminated it's impossible to purify the water easily, in an ordinary sewage plant. It takes years, if not decades, by natural exchange processes.

Unless this awareness is created, we in Technical Cooperation will be talking to deaf ears. If that happens, project activities to remove the waste and establish orderly landfill sites will be noted with approval and supported. But if there is no awareness of the problems it is very unlikely that they will be continued when the project ends. Incidentally, the target group for information and awareness building includes not only decision-makers but also broad sections of the population. The place to start is in schools. Where subjects like environmental protection and hygiene are concerned, children can certainly influence their parents' behavior.

gate: Piles of rubbish can't very easily escape people's attention. So it's rather hard to understand this lack of awareness. Isn't it also just a question of shortage of money?

Erbel: Of course, simply creating awareness isn't enough if the necessary financial resources aren't available. But the amount of money and know-how needed varies from city to city, region to region and village to village. If the inhabitants are either unable or unwilling to find substantial amounts of money for waste disposal, then appropriate - and often also low-cost - technologies must be applied. In many a Third World city, handcarts or donkey carts still represent an acceptable and rational solution, especially in slum areas, where the streets are narrow or only just passable.

Not a good example

gate: The industrialized countries have only started using ecologically sounder waste management methods in the past few years. How much of their experience can be applied in the Third World?
Erbel: On no account should we create the impression in the developing world that we in the industrialized countries can serve as an example in every respect. We have made a lot of mistakes. In Germany after the Second World War, a very bad example was set with the "throwaway" attitude. Fortunately, we have in the meanwhile realized the error of our ways. With the greatest possible care, and without being overbearing, we must try, through dialogue with our partners in the Third World, to prevent our mistakes being imitated there.

If the waste avoidance and recycling principles are applied early enough, a Third World city may be spared one problem or another. In Germany the recycling principle has been fully accepted, at least in theory. We have separate containers for paper, glass and tin cans. More and more organic matter is being recycled in composting plants. Measures of this kind are particularly important for developing countries, because recovery of reusable substances is even more Important to them than it is to us, for economic reasons.

gate: What help can GTZ offer in the field of waste management?

Erbel: To quote an example, we advise our partners in municipal authorities that a correct solution for waste disposal is decentralization and mainly private enterprise. Decentralization means that instead of the government or the municipal authorities being responsible for disposal, responsibility can lie with local committees formed in the various districts, for instance. These committees could award a contract for waste disposal in the district in question to a small private entrepreneur. He would finance the cost of the equipment needed with money raised on the money market.

This principle works in practice in a whole series of Third World towns and cities. The inhabitants approve of contracts being awarded to small, motivated and efficient private firms. They pay them regularly and are proud that their district has become much cleaner. GTZ's job is to encourage private initiatives of this kind - as an organizational process - by giving advice, plus a certain amount of financial assistance to get them started. The technical advice is not limited to waste collection. It also covers disposal, for instance at orderly landfill sites.

Government supervision

Technical Cooperation cannot and will not finance and organize waste disposal for entire towns or cities out of its own funds. The principle of the pilot project must be applied with the aim of achieving a multiplication effect. In this or that district of a city a demonstration is given of how the problem can be got under control. Our hope is that the methods used will then be copied in other districts.

gate: What is the role of government authorities in this concept?
Erbel: The role of state or municipal authorities should be limited to what is absolutely necessary. We have repeatedly found that, in the long run, neither the municipality nor the state can raise enough money to effectively maintain infrastructure measures of the non-productive kind. But the public authorities must always fulfill a monitoring function. They must ensure not only that the profit made by private-enterprise contractors is fair, but also that the waste is disposed of in an ecologically sound manner. Naturally, with some private contractors there is a tendency to maximize takings, and dispose of the waste in the cheapest possible way.

The state or municipal authorities delegate partial responsibility, but in the final analysis they must retain overall responsibility. If something goes wrong, or one of the contractors abuses the waste disposal contract as a monopoly, the authorities must give that firm a "rap on the knuckles". This is why we recommend engaging private contractors only for limited periods - say three to five years - and then putting the contract out to tender again.

gate: What's the situation like as regards financing systems? If the "polluter pays" principle is to be adhered to, problems are likely to occur, especially in slums, that is, districts with a high proportion of very poor inhabitants.

Erbel: Problems always arise when people are asked to make a contribution which they think is disproportionately high or which they simply can't afford. Our answer to this is that the technology used must be in keeping with the ability to pay. It is remarkable how willing even poor inhabitants of slum districts are to pay regularly when they see that their surroundings are becoming appreciably cleaner. The amounts involved aren't very high - the equivalent of about two packets of cigarettes or a bottle of beer a week. People are happy to pay this price to enable their children to play in a more or less clean environment instead of on heaps of rubbish.

In many industrialized countries a bad example was set with the “throwaway” attitude. Cartoon ED. Bern

Toxic waste

gate: Export of toxic waste from the industrialized countries to the Third World and the poorer countries of eastern Europe represent a major global problem. This practice must undermine your efforts, at least in the mind of your target groups. In development aid you advocate sensible recycling concepts, but there are traffickers in toxic waste from the North practicing precisely the opposite of what you preach. To what extent are you confronted by this problem in your projects?

Erbel: As I already mentioned, we have no reason to be self-righteous, on the principle that "we're doing everything right and you're doing almost everything wrong. Just copy our technologies and strategies and everything will be all right". Especially as regards the disposal of toxic waste by exporting it, the western countries are anything but a good example. Whether fortunately or otherwise, we at GTZ have nothing to do with the problems of toxic waste exports from industrialized to development countries. So far, there have obviously been no applications in the context of Technical Cooperation for assistance in coping with such problems.

Another problems that we're now starting to tackle is disposal of the Third World's own toxic waste. Developing countries have neither the financial nor the organizational means of getting this waste out of the country. They have to find means of disposing of it themselves - either near the factory which generates the toxic waste or at least within the country. In this connection, incidentally, the "polluter pays" principle is far more applicable than with municipal waste. Otherwise financially unsustainable disposal schemes are the result, with potentially critical consequences for public health.

Improved project sustainability needed

gate: As a field of development cooperation, waste management is still a fairly recent development. Is it possible to tell whether the projects GTZ is promoting are sustainable?

Erbel: I won't beat about the bush the lack of sustainability in the waste management sector is a serious problem. We would be the last to claim that this objective has already been achieved in all our projects. But it's impossible to say definitively whether a project is sustainable until two to three years after completion of the measure. Almost all the measures we have implemented in this field are still running.

The reasons why sustainability of projects in the waste management sector is such a big problem are as follows: first, due to the weakness on the executing agencies in our partner countries; second, as already mentioned, due to low priority given to waste management; third, due to the still rather low level of awareness of the problem, with the result that people are reluctant to pay for waste disposal; and fourth, due to the relatively low level of technological know-how in waste management, in particular as regards landfill.

So far, the only concept which I am sure has a very good chance of being sustainable is organization of waste disposal on a private-enterprise, decentralized basis. There are some models which work very well. We know of cooperatives which after two or three years are able to buy more machines and tools from their earnings and thus expand their service. Above all in districts on the outskirts of cities, they enjoy widespread popular approval. If the target group, that is, the people who generate the waste, are prepared to pay for waste disposal there is really no reason to doubt that a simple, decentral concept of this kind will be sustainable.


Explosive growth of the cities, a lack of awareness of the problems, and a shortage of financial resources are the causes of the low level of refuse disposal in the Third World. There are hardly any functioning waste management systems in these countries: One key starting point for GTZ projects is in promoting awareness among municipal decision-makers. Privately and decentrally organized projects are a success. But the Head of Division responsible at GTZ stresses in the interview that the industrialized countries have no reason to be self-righteous: they themselves have only recently drawn the obvious conclusions from the results of the previous throw-away mentality.


L'explosion des villes, l'inconscience des probls ainsi que le manque de moyens financiers vent a l'origine de la faible part accorde a des dets dans les villes du Tiers Monde. Une bonne gestion des dets n'existe pratiquement pas dans ces pays. Une approche importante des projets de la GTZ dans la sensibilisation des dnteurs de pouvoirs dsionnels a l'elon communal. Les projets prives et
dntralisont des tares prometteurs. Dans l'interview, le responsable de la GTZ souligne cependant que les pays industrialises n'ont aucune raison de se comporter en pharisiens, car ils n'ont tire que rmment les enseignements de cette idogie de la consommation a outrance qui et ait encore la leur trier.


El crecimiento de las ciudades, la falta de conciencia en lo relativo a los problemas existentes y los escasos recursos financieros son causes de la insuficiente de basuras en las ciudades del Tercer Mundo. La gestiona de desechos pricamente no funciona en esos paises. Una de los principales metas iniciales de los proyectos de la GTZ consiste en sensibilizar al respecto a los encargados de tomar decisiones en las autoridades comunales. Han tenido to los proyectos organizados por particulares y de forma descentralizada. No obstante, el jefe del departamento competente de la GTZ subraya en la entrevista que los pas industrializados no tienen motivo pare infatuarse, puesto que desde trace apenas poco tiempo se han sacado allas co- nsecuencias de la antigua mentalidad derrochadora.