Seven-year-old Ali Sangaré held up two unopened packages of biscuits as if he had just won a prize.
“This will be our breakfast tomorrow,” he said gleefully.
Then he shoved his hands back into the rubbish pile to search for more edibles.
The mounting piles of rubbish in Côte d’Ivoire’s commercial capital Abidjan are a health hazard, but many children told IRIN they are also a daily source of food.
Scavenging in rubbish tips is nothing new - plastic bottles and other saleable items abound and can yield cash. But the children IRIN spoke to said that more and more they are sifting through the rubbish in search of food.
“We bring it all home to sort out among the family,” 12-year-old Mamoudou Traoré told IRIN. “We do not have money and we have to eat.”
Poverty is on the rise in Côte d’Ivoire. Slightly under half of the country’s 20 million people are now below the poverty threshold, living on less than about US$1.25 per day - up from 38.4 percent in 2000 and the highest in 20 years, according to survey results released by the national statistics institute in November.
“Up to a few months ago we begged at the big intersections,” Traoré told IRIN. “We used to be able to bring some money back to our families to buy food. But this no longer provides much because people are not so generous any more.”
He said he and his friends used to be able to find plenty of leftovers at restaurants. “But for a long time now, it is rare to see people leaving much on their plates. So we have had to look elsewhere.”
Photo: Alexis Adele/IRIN
|Youths seeking recyclables and food at a municipal dump in Abidjan|
Traoré and his friends said they often find in the rubbish stale or expired foods that shop- and restaurant-owners throw out, as well as produce like carrots, onions, oranges and bananas.
One hygiene expert told IRIN the health risk from the mounting trash heaps is greatest for the poorest groups.
“These children are absolutely at risk of getting sick,” said Adeline Aka of the NGO Villes Saines [healthy cities].
“We all know that the increased poverty has changed families’ habits. But the situation can only become more critical if the rubbish around the city is not cleaned up. If people do not have enough money to feed themselves, they certainly do not have enough to get medical care.”
Statistics from the Ivorian Ministry of Health and Public Hygiene show that in 2007 two-thirds of patients coming to public hospitals for consultations suffered illnesses linked to poor hygiene, including typhoid fever and cholera.
Serges Eholié, a specialist in infectious and tropical diseases at the main hospital in the Treichville section of Abidjan, recently told a local newspaper that health workers have been sounding the alarm for a long time about the dangers of rubbish dumps all over the city.
The accumulation of rubbish is due largely to the government’s failure to pay collection companies, according to industry officials. In the past couple of years the companies have launched strikes over arrears.
An official with the Ministry of Cities and Urban Health told IRIN that talks with the rubbish collection companies have so far gone nowhere.
“It is not possible right now to pay them 10 billion CFA francs (US$20 million) [the amount the companies say they are owed],” Guy Désiré Alébé, the ministry’s director of health and environment, told IRIN. He said the ministry is committed to making cities clean and healthy.
He pointed to the formation of a national agency for urban health, created in late 2007, saying “you will see convincing results in the coming weeks.”