Saturday, September 17, was Inter-American Cleanliness and Citizenship Day or DIADESOL. This day was instituted in 2002 and held simultaneously in Latin American and Caribbean countries during the third week of September, on the third Saturday.
The purpose of this day is to raise awareness in the society about the importance of caring for our environment and its relation to the proper management of solid waste that we generate on a daily basis. It seeks to educate civil society about the importance of keeping clean homes, cities, roads, waterways and places of recreation. DIADESOL is promoted by the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), and the Inter-American Sanitary and Environmental Engineering Association, among others.
However, on Friday, September 16, about 12:00 hours, I saw an act that prompted me to write this letter. I saw a male ‘junkie’ emptying a garbage bin at the corner of Quamina and East Streets, at what appears to be a new garbage dump site, and there is another one at the corner of Quamina and Cummings Streets. As a matter of fact, there are several of them across the city. However, the man emptied the bin and then proceeded to roll it back to a residence in East Street and collected what appeared to be his payment for the task completed.
I stopped at the junction for a few moments trying to figure out what just happened. It was not the first time that I saw someone dumping garbage along the roadways but something about this act stirred something in me. I was processing a number of questions – why would we do this to our environment? How could someone dispose of their garbage in this way in broad daylight in the city streets? Where is the citizenship in this? When did we get here? Do we have to live with this situation, behaviour and attitude to our environment? Can something be done? Do we want to do something about it? My answers were, yes we can do something. But what can we do?
However, before I propose some simple but practical solutions, let me say that I think it is an excellent idea to have a cleanliness and citizenship day because it underscores the fact that we have rights but we also have responsibilities, in this case to our environment and health. Environmental health requires not only that there is basic sanitation that operates in a sustainable manner but also that citizens develop proper sanitary behaviour.
There are many constructions under way in the city and elsewhere. Firstly, building materials are many times stored over drainage facilities and as such, this causes partial and sometimes total blockage. These materials if stored properly could be one less cause of drainage blockages which could translate into reduced flooding. Another point to note, contractors and individuals mix cement on the roadways and very often the mixing is not done on a piece of galvanized sheeting or other material. So when the cement dries, heaps of concrete remain and the roadway is uneven.
Yet another problem is that the building materials sometimes occupy almost half of the roadway which forces traffic to either reduce speed or stop completely. A further point to note is that many contractors after the completion of construction leave builders‘ waste outside the property. This can range from sand, to cement, to concrete or bricks or other materials. This practice also contributes to the clogging of drainage system and in addition, it looks unsightly outside of some of these newly built, fancy buildings. Sometimes after the construction, the remaining building materials are left at the sides of the roadways indefinitely.
Personnel and contractors from utility companies would conduct repairs or maintenance to their facilities and leave the waste at the worksite or in the environs of the worksite. This waste can range from pieces of wire to electrical equipment or pieces of pipe, among other things. The workers for these utilities could clean up their worksite, or better, take away their waste when their jobs have been completed.
I have visited police stations and I have seen garbage being dumped either at the gate or at the back of the building. Generally, I think police stations could focus a little more on cleanliness and citizenship. Maybe they could organise a clean-up campaign every four months. The force is certainly not short of human resources. There are police recruits, perhaps prisoners and the staff of the force. I was in an Amerindian community recently and it was a pleasant experience to see one Friday, there was a community clean-up day and by the afternoon, the entire community was clean. This is the kind of community spirit I am recommending. The only point which I brought to their attention was that the garbage dump was in front of the square. This, however, I think is cultural; we still need to develop as a part of our culture, appropriate locations for solid waste disposal.
Strategic alliances can also be fostered between private and civil society sector agencies and the municipalities. The municipalities may be short of resources but the partnership approach can add value to ensuring a clean and healthy environment. For example, a few months ago a private sector agency was planning a training session with persons who operate grass cutters. I contacted a colleague at a municipality and indicated to the person that this presents an excellent opportunity for a partnership between this private sector agency and the municipality. The private sector organisation was bringing the financial resources and mobilising the beneficiaries to train them to operate the grass-cutting machines. One of their reasons for the activity would have been profit-based because the private sector is driven by profit, but the municipality on the other hand, as a public sector agency is driven by rights – in this case to ensure that the right of citizens to live, work and enjoy recreation in a clean and healthy environment is upheld. So the municipality could have provided a resource person along with some information handouts for participants.
The training could have then focused on two areas – training the weeders in how to operate the grass-cutting machines and cleanliness – collecting and disposing of the garbage, weeds/grass in the proper manner. This could include weeding/cutting, raking and even placing the grass in bags. Weeders can have the bags for use and add a few dollars to their cost as a part of their service. I am not sure if the suggestion was taken; nevertheless, it is not too late.
Finally, I would like to propose the Community-Led Total (CLTS) approach as a possible solution to our solid waste management problems. CLTS is an integrated approach used in countries where open defecation is practiced, and is promoted widely by the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC). It entails the facilitation of the community’s analysis of their sanitation profile, their practices of defecation and the consequences, leading to collective action to become open defecation free (ODF). It promotes an approach where the community takes the lead in examining the problem, analyzing it and working towards resolving it.
The starting point for CLTS is to assist people to do their own sanitation profile through appraisal, observation and analysis of their practices and the effects these have. This kindles feelings of shame and disgust, and often a desire to stop OD and clean up their neighbourhood.
Ultimately the local government and municipalities have to develop strategies for healthy communities and are tasked with the responsibility to generate adequate policies and implement them. I do believe that there is an urgent need in Guyana to strengthen the capacity of communities to collect and dispose of and perhaps treat solid waste at the level of the households and community.
I am convinced that many citizens would do what is right, if they knew what the right thing was. Therefore education and awareness and a structured behavioural change approach like CLTS could enable a cleaner and healthier environment in Guyana.
I would like to end this letter with a ‘Solid Waste Pledge’ which I wrote as the National Coordinator for the 2003 ‘Cleanliness and Citizenship Day’ activities that were coordinated by PAHO in partnership with government, private and civil society sectors and I sincerely hope that we would recite this pledge and endeavour to act on it.
‘I pledge myself to collect, treat and dispose of my solid waste in the proper places.
‘To educate myself on proper solid waste collection, disposal and treatment practices.
‘And to always exercise a responsible attitude when collecting, treating or disposing of my solid waste.
‘To be obedient to the Waste Management and Environmental Laws of Guyana.
‘To be always conscious of the effects my actions may have on my fellow Guyanese and the environment
‘And to dedicate my energies towards a clean and healthy Guyana.‘