For over 50 years, waste pickers have frequented the Koshe landfill, on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, to rummage for food and recyclable goods to sell. Over 300 people have made makeshift homes out of cardboard and mud around Koshe, which means dirty in Amharic. But late on Saturday, the landfill collapsed killing over 100 people, a majority of them women and children.

In Koshe, scavengers and residents are known to pick through rubbish as deep as 40 meters. The landfill contains almost 300,000 tons of waste from the four million residents of Addis Ababa, and accidental collisions between scavengers and bulldozers and other heavy machinery that bring trash to Koshe are routine. But Saturday’s landslide is being called a result of years of negligence by the Ethiopian government.

For seven years, the landfill has been running out of space. The Associated Press reported that Addis Ababa city officials have also made mention of the nearby housing and schools taking up space around the landfill. As a result, the dumping stopped in Koshe for a few years. But it resumed recently after farmers in a nearby area where a new garbage landfill was being built by the city opposed the dumping of trash in their area.

Although the Ethiopian government has not given an official statement about the cause of the landslide, Ethiopia’s Information Minister Negeri Lencho said the landfill’s lack of structure might be to blame.

“The garbage is not made out of concrete or is not made out of natural rock,” Lencho said. “We will give details when all things are investigated and the cause is known, and it could also be that, because the background isn’t strong, it can fall apart on its own.”

Others are blaming new developments like the construction of a biogas plant in Koshe. The development, which is expected to generate 50 megawatts of electricity, is a partnership between the city of Addis Ababa, the United Nations Development Program and Addis Ababa University. If completed, the biogas plant will convert the garbage into a source of clean energy by capturing and burning methane produced by organic waste. Construction is said to have caused issues with the already unstable mound of trash in Koshe.

The government has made plans to resettle people who live in and around the landfill, but many wonder if the landslide will exacerbate already existing political tensions in Ethiopia. Ethiopia has been named one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies. Only a decade ago the country was ranked the second-poorest country in the world. Now it averages more than 10 percent economic growth a year, but that growth has resulted in social unrest in some communities around the country.

Last year Ethiopia saw a number of anti-government protests, which resulted in a six-month state of emergency enforced in October. Citizens, generally distrustful of the government, took to the street to protest the displacement of Ethiopia’s Oromia community as a result of the Addis Ababa master plan to expand the city. Oromia is Ethiopia’s largest regional state, making up 25 million of Ethiopia’s 74 million population as of 2007, and is on the outskirts of the country’s capital, Addis Ababa. Activists and members of the Oromo ethnic group fear that plans to expand Addis Ababa into Oromia will displace members of their community.

As for the residents of Koshe, the number of casualties, which stands at 115, is expected to rise. On Thursday an emergency worker told Reuters that they are expected to pull out more bodies in the coming days.

Ashley Okwuosa
Ashley Okwuosa is a writer and journalist based in Lagos, Nigeria.