Liberia: Monrovia’s ‘Filth’ Becoming Health Crisis

Monrovia’s biggest drainage, the Soinwein, where residents use the drainage for defecation and garbage disposal. 

... "It's unfair to them [the slum dwellers] when it comes to their health,” said Joyce Kilikqoo, Executive Director of the National Public Health Initiative of Liberia. “They have increased mosquitoes that lead to malaria, they have increased flies and flies transport bacteria to their food.”

As the waste and sanitation problem in Monrovia becomes the subject of a diplomatic dispute, many on the front lines of the waste crisis are paying the price.

For Larwo Mulbah, who lives in Buzzi Quarter, the stench of garbage is something that they are tired of being used to — hoping that the problem would be solved so they can get some relief from what he says is now a major health and environmental crisis. 

But everyday that passes, hope fades as uncollected garbage in Buzzi Quarter continues to grow.

“Here, garbage overflows, spreading disease and filth. It also leaks with fetid water ---- and so residents burn the waste as a means of getting rid of it and the bad odor it emits,” she says. “The smoke from the burnt waste can be too much. The smoke can be all in our rooms. It can be hard for us to see clearly.” 

And as Buzzi Quarter waste is not being collected and taken away for disposal or recycling, residents have no option but to burn their waste and battle with the smoke. This is something Larwo says she has been going through for the last six years.

The constant inhalation of smoke, filled with toxic chemicals from the plastics and other substances being burned, has led to Larwo contracting asthma, a chronic lung disease that causes airways to swell and which can lead to death.  

Chemicals inhaled from the smoke, according to Larwo and other Buzzi Quarter residents, have become a major problem damaging the health of people.  And that uncollected waste by the Monrovia City Corporation, they say, had also served as a breeding ground for mosquitoes, flies, rats, and cockroaches that transport viruses and bacteria to them. 

“It's unfair to them [the slum dwellers] when it comes to their health,” said Joyce Kilikqoo, Executive Director of the National Public Health Initiative of Liberia. “They have increased mosquitoes that lead to malaria, they have increased flies and flies transport bacteria to their food.”

  Buzzi Quarter is one of the many slums in Monrovia that battle with inadequate waste disposal. Monrovia’s rapid growth since the end of the war in 2003 means slum-dwellers make up 70% of the city’s population, according to a Cities Alliance report.

Malaria there, like in other parts of the country is a leading cause of illness and death in Liberia, accounting for 46.9% percent of hospital outpatients in 2020, according to the World Health Organization. Diseases such as dysentery and typhoid are widespread. Diarrhea affects more children under 5 in Liberia than anywhere in the world. 

"Nationwide, our most common disease we have in Liberia is malaria and that is because of the way we maintain our environment,” said Dr. Moses Pewee, former Director of Communicable Disease, Ministry of Health. “Garbage overstayed in the environment becoming a home for mosquitoes and flies. We need to keep our environment clean.” 

Slums in Monrovia are mostly informal settlements with limited housing and squalid living conditions. They are overpopulated with many people squeezed into small rooms built without any urban planning or adherence to zoning regulations. 

They are home to almost a quarter of the people living in Liberia -- lacking basic services like toilets and water and have little access to sanitation, making them vulnerable to communicable diseases. 

However, many of these slum dwellers say regardless of squalid living conditions, the major threat to their existence is the failure on the part of the Monrovia City Corporation to collect resident garbage on time, leading to larger-than-life heaps of garbage that pervades the air with a fetid odor. 

But Mayor Jefforson Koijee, in a response to United States Ambassador Michael McCarthy’s opinion piece, -- which questions his administrations  response to garbage collection and proper disposal — says his administration remains committed to tackling the problem. 

He however blamed citizens for not playing their role in keeping the city clean. Mayor Koijee added that the people had the “wrong mindset” and “believe solid waste management within the City is a government’s business and not theirs.”

'Limited toilets'

Slipway is another Monrovia slum community, situated along the Mesurado River near Providence Island. Here only a few people burn garbage but the vast majority dump it along the riverbank and use the river as a latrine. Those whose homes have toilets end up running their sewage in the river or use makeshift toilets.

In slums like Slipway and Buzzi Quarter, open defecation is a common practice. Others use makeshift toilets and public latrines. The practice of open defecation pollutes the environment and affects water sources from hand pumps, wells, rivers and waterways. Community dwellers with no knowledge of the danger of open defecation use these water sources for drinking, cooking and bathing. It results in waterborne diseases such as cholera, typhoid and diarrhea.

Most of the people living in slums do not have regular jobs and have very little income. Most say they would not stay in the slum if they could make a living anywhere else. Many came here during the war; others have come since then as Liberia’s population has exploded. As climate change makes subsistence farming harder, experts warn these slums might grow even larger. 

Kemah Feikai, 60, said she found herself in Slipway as a result of the war. 16 years ago, she was chased by rebels from her home in Gbarpolu County to Monrovia.

“I pay L$1, 000 per month for rent. We are suffering here in a bad way for water and toilets,” said Madam Feikai. “We take bath behind our house. The landlord don’t even have time for that one, he only comes to collect his money and go and some of us we jammed, we don’t have anywhere to go, so we forced to pay and cover our mouth.”

But Bob Robertson, Director for City Planning at the Monrovia City Corporation, claims the Corporation forbids landlords from building homes without latrines and says the MCC has been fining landlords for violations. The Daily Observer however saw many recently built homes without latrines. 

For more than nine years, Josephine Kollie, a tenant in Slipway, has suffered from the stinking odor in Slipway due to open defecation, but cannot leave the area because of high rent elsewhere. 

She said the community leaders have sent several letters to her lawmaker, Montserrado County District #8 Representative Acarous M. Gray, about the conditions but he has failed to intervene or even visit them to see for himself. 

Rep. Gray’s District covers Soinwein, Buzzy Quarter, and Slipway communities. Many people here blame him, a member of President George Weah’s Congress for Democratic Change political party, for failing to address their plight.

When contacted to respond to the accusations, Rep. Gray agreed to an interview with the Daily Observer on March 21, 2022 but later said he was not feeling well. Since then, the lawmaker has not responded to text messages and calls from this reporter. 

The Slipway and other slum conditions reflect donors' frustration that several years and tens of millions of US dollars in funding have not translated into a functioning waste removal service program. 

One project, for example, funded by the European Union helped Cities Alliance loan US$3,000 to 19 community business enterprises and two private businesses to build a business that collects solid waste from households and businesses in Monrovia. This effort has failed in part because customers refuse to pay. 

Council taxes or fees for public services such as WASH are standard in other countries. But Monrovians have been resistant to paying. Some told the Daily Observer that they simply cannot afford to pay for garbage disposal while they are struggling to feed themselves. Some prefer giving it to unemployed youths, known as zogoes, to throw along the main roads and streets. 

But for J. Saah Joe Kendamah, head of the National Association of Primary Waste Community-Based Enterprises (NACOBE), some of the blame goes to the MCC for failing to provide disposal sites for the CBEs to dump the trash after they collect it.  

Kendamah also blamed the municipal government for failing to put measures in place to compel residents to pay for their waste. 

Frederick W. Cole, Director for Services Program at the Monrovia City Corporation, admitted that Monrovians have refused to comply with the CBEs in part because the City Corporation does not have any policy to force people to pay for trash disposal. 

“That policy will be able to guide everyone but, as it stands, there is no national solid waste policy so people are not used to paying for garbage,” he said. 

The standoff over payment appears to have prevented the MCC from even providing a waste collection site in communities and there is widespread lack of awareness of the waste plans. Isaac Karh, leader of the Slipway community, said he cannot stop people from dumping and defecating along the Mesurado River because the Monrovia City Corporation has failed to provide a dumpsite for them.

Abayomi Grant, Waste Management Officer at the Environmental Protection Agency, echoed the mayor’s statement. “All communities are faced with water and sanitation problems, not only slum dwellers. As you can see, the streets are littered with waste, you choose to see and flow out into the streets, you see people littering the streets with plastic bags, the marketplaces are all filled.” 

It seems clear donors will not step up to solve the problem any time soon. As the presidential election approaches next year the garbage crisis threatens to become an election issue.  

This story was produced by Tina, a Daily Observer reporter in collaboration with New Narratives as part of its Climate and Environment Reporting Project. Funding was provided by the UK Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office and the American Jewish World Service. The funders had no say in the story’s content.