August 16th, 2013
The five former Soviet republics of Central Asia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, are characterized as landlocked countries on the Eurasian continent. They are often referred to as the ‘Stans’ and collectively are most famous for the Silk Road, which transported goods, people, and cultures between Asia and Europe. Huge mountain ranges, deserts, and vast steppe lie between the Caspian Sea and the Chinese border, leading to geographic extremes and nomadic cultures, although the common legacy of Soviet Russia is still strong and Russian is the lingua franca in government and law. All five Stan countries struggled economically after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, when their GNI per capita rapidly decreased, only beginning to improve around the late 1990s.
Lack of proper maintenance, local investment, and poor institutional capacity since the end of the Soviet Union has led to the deterioration of human and physical infrastructure. National resources of human skills have diminished, since many specialists have either retired or emigrated. Physical infrastructure is rotting and any equipment remaining is hanging on its last thread, and in this respect municipal solid waste (MSW) collection is no exception.
The long arm of the past
MSW collection in many former Soviet republics is performed by side loader vehicles with a pivot mounted loading arm — referred to locally as a ‘manipulator’— which is capable of loading up to three containers without a change in vehicle position. Historically, this stage of collection development usually follows the manually loaded tractor-trailer and dumper truck systems.
The bins used in this system are very solid communal 600 litre conical steel boxes, which possess advantages for which they are not always given the credit they deserve. The simple design of the containers allows for local production and keeps the unit price (per litre of collection volume) as low as possible. They are a perfect example of the ‘Keep-It-Simple-Stupid’ design principle, as there are no moving parts such as wheels or hinges. This not only makes the construction easier but also makes the bins subject to less damage and theft and allows for straightforward maintenance procedures. Furthermore, these sturdy steel containers do not have to be moved or relocated during the loading procedure, preventing musculoskeletal disorders in waste collectors.
Decision makers, lying beyond the operation level, usually underestimate these benefits. The steel construction is essential in this region of the world, where the habit of burning waste is not likely to be overcome in the short term. A disadvantage, compared with Western container systems, is the lack of a visual barrier — that is, a lid. However, this flaw is solvable and should be left as a challenge for the system’s suppliers. Recent bin models have been equipped with lids; however their technical feasibility and durability have yet to be proven. Another drawback is diminished ease of use for those that have to carry their waste lengthy distances to the container; however, individual household container systems, costing significantly more, would not be cost effective.
These five Stan countries suffer from a financial catch-22 in waste management, independent of the economic situation: citizens have a low willingness to pay for unreliable services from a waste management system that is falling apart; but without these fees municipalities cannot afford to run the system to an acceptable standard, let alone invest in improving the situation.
Landlocked countries often find it more difficult to tap into world economic growth, as their lack of a coastline tends to focus trading relationships primarily with their neighbours. Current conditions in Central Asia have attracted donors and International Finance Institutions (IFIs), with an increasing number of projects being funded in the MSW management sector.
But frequently these investments are prone to a common problem of overreaching: often projects attempt to implement Western standards, such as the EC legislation, when softer standards, such as the European Solid Waste Minimum Standard (1573/2007 resolution of the Council of Europe) in fact create faster and more effective improvements. Although investments have led to improvements, the greatest successes are achieved when expectations are more realistic than glamorous.
Another tendency of international projects is to focus on upgrading disposal infrastructure when the bigger problem lies in deteriorating collection systems. Project terms of reference often place a large emphasis on creating sanitary disposal sites, when in fact more attention should be paid to the fact that the majority of citizens in former Soviet republics suffer from a lack of containers and infrequent collection. The conditions of the collection systems pose significant environmental risks, contributing to the disastrous air quality in all dwelling structures. Illegal dumping and burning of excess waste is typical, even in upmarket city districts, as many waste management companies cannot cope with the amount of waste generated.
A further risk is that Western donors may fail to fully take into account the financial situation of their beneficiaries. Although overall donor intentions are positive — aimed at upgrading and improving waste management systems — if beneficiaries are unable to pay back the loan the risk is that money will be taken out of municipal or even national budgets, resulting in less funding for other essential sectors such as health care and education. This is a problem not exclusive to the region, but prevalent in many development projects.
Stan on their own feet
Solid waste collection in the region may be characterised by collapsing municipal systems, but at the same time a remarkable amount of creativity is employed to ensure that services continue. Vehicle drivers usually double as waste collectors and ingenious truck mechanics. Due to the hands-on and generally repair-friendly designs of Soviet vehicles, skilful drivers can fix and overhaul core components – engines, differential gearboxes, and any other part of the container pick-up system. Furthermore, written off vehicles are salvaged for scrap parts that can be used to build other operational components such as collection vehicle trailers. This often takes place in conditions that a Western waste operator would neither know how nor dare to approach. Some parts, such as gearboxes, are repaired in-house (though often outdoors) when they would mostly likely be sent back to the supplier by even a professional mechanic here in the West.
This operational resilience should surely inspire hope for the possibility of real improvements in the MSW collection systems across the Stans. With a hardworking, skilled workforce to implement them, new measures need only to be properly tailored to the circumstances of place and time which determine the scope of current possibilities. Municipal waste collection in the Stans may have a long way to go by Western standards, but we will get off on the wrong foot if we start by trying to impose those standards when there are waste issues affecting daily life which need addressing first of all.
All photos by the authors