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Cambodian Garbage Scavengers Face Deadly Health Risks


In countries around the world, hundreds of thousands of poor people face daily hazards to earn meager livings by scavenging for recyclable goods. In Cambodia, hundreds of scavenger families find their lives changing - they will lose their homes and livelihoods when the government closes the dump where they work. Rory Byrne has this report from Phnom Penh.

Officially, it is the Steung Meanchey landfill site, but those who live here call it Smokey Mountain.

Steung Meanchey dump is a seven-hectare mountain of smoking garbage on the outskirts of the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh. Here some 2,000 workers, including about 600 children, sift through 700 tons of garbage a day.

In developing countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, garbage scavengers are among the poorest workers. In Cambodia, they typically earn about one dollar a day.

Ten-year-old Ya has been recycling bottles and cans at the dump for three years.

He says the situation here is terrible. He has to get up very early to work and finishes late in the evening. Ya says his life is very difficult. Collecting garbage brings him less than $1 a day which is not nearly enough to cover his expenses.

Most of the scavengers live in wooden shacks around the dump. There is no access to clean water or sanitation and epidemics are commonplace.

The risks here are high. Sharp-edged metals and broken glass leave nasty wounds. And garbage scavengers suffer high rates of serious diseases, such as hepatitis, tuberculosis and even AIDS. A number of scavengers have been killed or seriously injured when they were run over by garbage trucks.

She says it is very dangerous to work here - people can step on metal shards or nails for example or get hit and crushed by the dump trucks. She says she has injured herself with many things, like old needles.

Annette Jensen is the director of A New Day, a charity that provides free food, shelter and schooling to more than 100 children from Steung Meanchey dump.

"To see the children miserable, dirty, sad looking at the garbage dump and then have them arrive with their little plastic bag with all their belongings and move into the center. And to see their excitement about taking a shower. To see their excitement about getting their little bag of shampoo. And to see them clean, putting on their school uniform and going to school has just been amazing," says Jensen.

But most of those working on Cambodia's landfills are not so lucky, and for children like Ya, going to school remains a distant dream,

Ya has he would go to school if he could stop working at the dump. He says he wants to go to school but cannot because his family is so poor.

Ya and his family now face a new challenge: the government plans to close Steung Meanchey and relocate the 535 families living there to land about 50 kilometers south of Phnom Penh.

The government will let them have tiny plots on which to build new homes. An official in charge of the project notes the location is near Udong Mountain, a tourist site, so that there are jobs available in the region. And he says, families are not being forced to move, but most are volunteering.

Still, no families have left so far. Many scavengers say they will be happy to leave the dump, but they are worried that they will not be able to make a living because the relocation camp is too far away from the city.

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