Ethiopia’s deadly rubbish dump landslide sparks land rights battle
By Tom Gardner
(Reuters) – Aworar Meka had been living and working at the Reppi rubbish dump in Addis Ababa for only one month when tragedy struck.
A giant landslide at the 50-year-old dump, the Ethiopian capital’s only landfill site, hit his neighbourhood on March 11, destroying dozens of homes and killing at least 115 people.
Meka was one of the lucky ones; the 28-year-old, his wife, and young son survived. Their home, a makeshift tent made of tarpaulin and corrugated iron, narrowly avoided being crushed.
“It was only chance that we escaped,” Meka told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
But more than six weeks on, he and the other 30-odd households relocated to one of the government-built housing project down the road from Reppi feel angry and abandoned.
“We expected help to come. But it was a false hope,” Meka said.
Survivors resettled in another project, several kilometres away in a place called Asko, said they had been told not to talk to the media.
Meka was one of hundreds of people who lived near the dump, many of whom made a living scavenging recyclable waste that can be sold on, like plastic bottles.
Some of his neighbours were longtime residents with comfortable houses on plots of land they owned. Many had moved there after their shanty town homes in other parts of the city had been demolished to make way for new development, since the land around Reppi was cheap.
By the time Meka and his family arrived in the area it was no longer so affordable, with upmarket developments encircling the dump and high-rise construction visible in the near distance. The promise of a park in the area once the land was finally rehabilitated drove prices skywards.
He and others like him became what the city’s authorities called “squatters” – informal settlers without title to the land they build on whose numbers have multiplied in the last decade as Addis Ababa’s population has exploded.
After the landslide Meka and 78 other households were defined by the authorities as “category four victims” – the largest and most vulnerable of four categories ranging from formal residents with land title, to renters and finally squatters.
The city’s authorities said victims like Meka would be offered rental housing in government-built homes for which they would pay as little as 30-80 Ethiopian birr ($1.32-$3.51) a month.
If they could prove their status as former Reppi residents, local authorities would also give them 15,410 birr a month for the next three months to pay for food and transport and to help them get back on their feet.
Most, like Meka, have lost their only source of income since leaving the dump.
But unlike former formal settlers, they will not receive a plot of land with new title deeds, nor the one million birr compensation per household promised for constructing new homes.
“We don’t want them to develop dependency syndrome,” said Dagmawit Moyes, spokesman for Addis Ababa city administration.
WHO OWNS THE LAND?
Disputes over victim status were common in the days following the landslide.
“Lots of individuals came forward claiming to be residents,” said Moyes.
Those who could not prove they had been in the area at the time of the disaster were refused resettlement and compensation, leading to confrontations with the authorities and some arrests.
One of Meka’s neighbours in the new government-built accommodation who did not want to be interviewed was refused the 40,000 birr compensation promised for each family member that lost his or her life, according to fellow residents.
He could not prove his wife and child had died because he never found their bodies.
Meka and his neighbours are angry because compensation for “category four” victims has not been forthcoming.
None of them has received financial compensation, and promised support from local authorities to help them find new employment has not materialised, they said.
“Of course I should be compensated,” said Meka. “I am unemployed and I have a family to look after.”
He and his neighbours did not know whether their new homes were temporary or permanent, and worried they would not be able pay the rent if they did not find jobs in the area.
“If the local officials tell us to leave we don’t have documents to go to court,” Meka said.
He and fellow residents said they had visited the local district office a week ago to demand electricity, which the government homes still lack, but had received no response.
“We are trying to reach out to officials but they are becoming less and less accessible,” he said.
“Nothing has arrived,” added John Gezahgne, another resident. “It was all empty promises.”
Moyes, the city administration spokesman, said that all those eligible would “definitely be paid”, but that the process was now in the hands of the district authorities.
Meanwhile people continue to scavenge at the dump, despite the government’s promise to close it, and new people have moved to the area.
Megne Orlango, a 21-year-old labourer, set up shelter across the road from the dump three weeks ago because it was the cheapest place he could find to live.
“If they don’t stop dumping waste here there will be another incident,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“But I will stay here despite the risks.”