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World Bank interview: “We all need to be more responsible about the amount of waste we produce and how we dispose of it.”

Exclusive interview with Catalina Marulanda, Practice Manager, Urban, Resilience and Land, East Africa at the World Bank. At the upcoming Africa’s Green Economy Summit in Feb 2024, she is the moderator of session on circular economy and waste management.

Let’s start with some background on you and the work that you currently do at the World Bank.

I am originally from Colombia. I am a Civil Engineer and did a PhD in remediation of contaminated soils. I started working at the World Bank in 2001 on projects addressing chemical pollution. For over a decade, I focused on brown environment issues such as solid and hazardous waste management, wastewater management, air pollution, etc. I worked primarily in Latin America and South Asia.

For the past 1.5 years I have been managing the Urban, Resilience and Land Unit in the East Africa Region. We work with governments and the private sector on programs that make cities more productive, resilient and livable through investments, policy dialog and technical assistance.

What is the current state of solid waste management in Africa compared to the rest of the world?

The solid waste management situation at the global level is very critical. By 2050, the world will be producing roughly 4 billion tonnes of municipal waste per year. This is an enormous amount of waste! It also represents a 73% increase in the volume generated 30 years earlier, in 2020.

Despite our efforts to curb and to better manage solid waste, we are not going in the right trajectory and the global trend is alarming. Africa, in particular, is not heading in the right direction. Waste generation in Africa is expected to triple by 2050 (when compared to 2020 levels) because of economic growth, population increases and urbanisation. Africa will go from under 200 million tonnes of municipal waste generated per year, to an estimated 573 million tonnes of waste per year.

On a per capita basis, waste generation rates in Africa remain among the lowest in the world. But with more than half of the world’s population growth expected to occur in Africa by 2050, the total volumes of waste that will be produced are enormous. When you think that less than half of the waste generated in Africa is collected, and that roughly 70% of what is generated is openly dumped and burned, then it becomes clear the situation is alarming and that something needs to be done urgently.

 

Source of graphics: More Growth, Less Garbage (worldbank.org)

 

What are the main challenges you face in the work that you are doing?

Improperly managed waste is affecting us all. It is polluting the environment, contributing to greenhouse gases, affecting human health, and contributing to urban flooding. At the World Bank we are supporting national and city governments to strengthen institutions, to put in place systems and to build infrastructure that will help them manage waste in a more sustainable manner.

The biggest two challenges that we face in the sector in Africa are first, one of behavior, and second, one of financing:

  • Behavior – People have not yet internalised that waste does not disappear, and that everything each one of us generates needs to be disposed. We all need to be more responsible about the amount of waste we produce and about how we dispose of it. Educating and changing people’s behavior requires time and a lot of effort!
  • Financing – For solid waste management systems to work, they need to be funded. We are not just talking about financing infrastructure. We are talking about funding the provision of collection, transport, recycling and disposal services. These are expensive services that are provided by public and private sector entities, and that will not be viable unless financing is in place. When there is not enough money to cover the cost of all the pieces of the SWM value chain, things break down and waste starts to accumulate. SWM is not rocket science. For the most part, the solutions are known. But people are not used to paying for solid waste management services, and that is where things start to go wrong – ensuring the financial sustainability of SWM services is the most challenging part of the work.

Which African countries are doing the right things in your opinion?

Solid waste management is typically a local government agenda. National governments set the regulatory and institutional frameworks, provide financing, but the management of waste is typically the mandate of cities/local governments.

There is a lot of energy in cities across Africa when it comes to waste. We are working in Maputo, in Dar es Salaam, in the Seychelles, in Kinshasa, in Dakar where the foundations for sustainable SWM systems are being put in place. A lot of cities are testing things and setting up systems. Cities have realised that something needs to be done and they are taking action.

What keeps you excited about this sector?

What gives me energy and keeps me excited about this sector is that it is not too late to change things in Africa. As I said before, we know how to manage waste sustainably, it has been done elsewhere. We can change the way cities are managing their waste and we have a responsibility to do so.

There is no reason why countries in Africa should continue to increase the amount of waste they produce as their economies and their populations grow. Africa does not need to replicate the mistakes done by other regions! We can promote behaviors and practices that better manage and recover resources from the waste generated, and that reduce the amount of waste that is ultimately disposed.

 

At the upcoming Africa’s Green Economy Summit, you will moderate a session on circular economy and waste management. What will be your message at the event and what are your expectations?

I am very excited to participate in Africa’s Green Economy Summit, and to have the opportunity to convey a few critical messages:

  • It is urgent to prioritise solid waste management in Africa. Cities in Africa cannot continue to grow as they are right now, in the absence of SWM systems. Unmanaged waste is affecting us all, it is making cities less competitive, less livable and less resilient.
  • This is not a short-term agenda; it is a medium to long term agenda. Success requires commitment and leadership from the top. It takes time and there are no shortcuts. But it needs to be done.
  • Technology and infrastructure are only a part of the equation. The most critical piece of a successful SWM sector is its financial sustainability. Ensuring adequate funding to cover the costs of providing this basic service.
  • SWM is a public good and the government will always need to cover a share of the costs. But we are all generators and therefore we all need to contribute to pay for the cost of the service.

How important is it that SWM is part of the green economy agenda?

To me, green economy means sustainable, efficient growth. SWM is at the core of that agenda:

  • Growing efficiently means conserving natural assets and promoting resource efficiency.
  • Growing sustainably means looking after our environment and ensuring that we are protecting it for the future generations.
  • These are the two pillars of what we do when we work on solid waste management: reduce the amount of waste we generate, recycle, and recover resources, such that the amount of waste that is ultimately disposed is reduced to its maximum, in an affordable manner.

Anything you would like to add?

It is urgent to improve solid waste management in Africa. We cannot afford the economic and environmental impacts of not doing so. This is a long-term agenda and there are no short cuts! The good news is that we all have a role to play and that it can be done.

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