Napping for Good beneath the Heap of Dirt

The landslide of the mountainous rubbish dump, the most devastating incident of its kind, happened in Addis Abeba, Kolfe Keranio District on Saturday, March 11 2017 at about 8.00pm local time.

Although the City Administration officials roughly unveiled various estimates of casualties on different occasions, no one is exactly sure how many lives perished. Many were adversely affected following the catastrophic landslide of the Qoshe dump which has been piling up for over a century.

Regardless of its minimal value by way of alleviating the enormous burden of their plight, a three-day national mourning was formally declared by the country’s House of People’s Representatives on March 15, 2017. The hapless victims had been suffocated and grievously robbed of their precious lives.

In fact, that holds true for public authority in charge to magnify the disaster and send out a clear message of collaboration to mobilize resources necessary for the rehabilitation of the remaining citizens affected by the wicked calamity.

To begin with, let it be disclosed that the age-old Repi solid garbage collection site, which has come to be known as ‘qoshe’, an Amharic coinage for dirt, is an open, unfenced field whose total area reportedly covers about 36ha of land. Every year, over 300,000 tonnes of solid waste are transported from the city and thrown away here making it the country’s largest artificial avalanche of garbage. It appears to have risen10 meters high and is at risk of collapsing someday. This jeopardizes the very life and health of the communities living and working pretty close to the huge landfill.

In other words, the horrific calamity was not and is not something that has not been expected to happen on the part of both the local inhabitants and the city authorities themselves. Far from posing a formidable public health risk and environmental menace, the possibility of its frightening slide into the sheltering residential makeshift homes inhabited by a dozen of poverty-stricken families was more than a stark reality in site.

Dagmawit Moges, Addis Abeba city spokeswoman unveiled to VOA’s Amharic Program on March 18, 2017, that 113 bodies of mostly women and children were identified and pulled out of the ruins of the rubbish dump. Paradoxically, her guarded pronouncement directly clashes with one of the initial objectives for which the City’s authority were constituted in the first place.

It is interesting to note that the Addis Abeba City government guarantees special care and support for “children, women, the disabled, the elderly and other disadvantaged segments of the community” while striving “to make the city a place where the well-being and comfort of its residents are safely kept.”

Be what it may, I am not trying to mechanically probe into the exact number of victims who have died or their livelihoods have been destroyed because of this painful plague. Even a single life should matter amidst the insurmountable grief and distress. The systematic response appears to have been rather limited, in the face of calamity mercilessly engulfing and swallowing the destitute and marginalized section of the community.

Unfortunately, the poor nation is, in my view, already tired of counting similar bodies and mourning the dead in our recent past. Sad to memorize, we should have had enough of the tragedy and grief caused by the alarming succession following the Irrecha tragedy and the Libyan desert butchery of our innocent compatriots, to name, but a few.

Given that this is another preventable and regrettable catastrophe, it should not be attributable to natural causes such as an earthquake and tsunami. Who is to blame for such a shocking and dreadful encounter should perhaps be the crucial issue that needs to be examined seriously and resolved swiftly in an accountable, transparent and responsible manner. Many of the failures by authorities at all levels, top to bottom, to act on time in the face of disasters such as this one usually go unattended and unpunished in accordance with law. Mourning the dead and expressing condolences to the survivors is not sufficient by any means.

Is there any legal remedy available for those citizens stricken by the disaster and have lost their loved ones and basic livelihoods as a consequence?

The law is abundantly clear on how to address the problem and deal with its multi-dimensional ill-effects. Without any doubt, the dumping ground which slowly altered into an artificial mountain of all sorts of garbage is the Addis Ababa City Administration’s responsibility. Thus, the metropolitan entity with its District and Wereda structures is legally obliged to take appropriate care of its untidy-looking municipal refuse in a safe and environmentally-sound manner. Failure to do so would automatically entail both civil and criminal liabilities for the harm to be sustained by the community and natural environment therefrom as a result of its improper handling. Worse, any criminal negligence proven against the pertinent officials and employees entrusted with the management of the site would sound adequate to hold the perpetrators accountable for the dereliction of their respective duties and responsibilities with an uncompromising tone, so to speak.

It must be kept in mind that the inherent dignity of a human being constitutes the core value of international human rights. Consequently, the human beings are the subject of all civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights duly recognized and protected in an integrated approach.

The environmental right which forms the category of a third-generation human rights also adhered to by our 1995 Constitution without any slightest deviation from the formulation of the body of international human rights’ instruments such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) of 1966. The Constitution proclaims that “all persons have the right to a clean and healthy environment” to the extent practicable.

In fact, it turns out to be the cardinal duty of the government to “ensure that all Ethiopians live in a clean and healthy environment” as has been reiterated under the basic law of the land. The constitution further emphasizes, in the strongest term possible, that “all citizens, who may have been displaced or whose livelihoods have been adversely affected as a result of a state-driven program have the right to commensurate monetary or alternative means of compensation, including relocation with adequate government assistance”.

Apart from the broadly-constructed constitutional provisions, the country’s latest Solid Waste Management Proclamation unequivocally charges each and every urban municipality, including the Addis Ababa City Administration itself “with the heavy responsibility to ensure that a regular environmental audit has been conducted as to the safety of any solid waste collection and disposal site” under its custody. The Proclamation obliges that the undisputed owner of a solid waste disposal site like Qoshe to make the necessary modifications or cease its activity in view of another suitable place should its continued operation pose a risk to public health or the natural environment.

Undeniably, the infamous Repi municipal solid waste collection and disposal site was designated and commenced to render service as far back as 1964, long before the official enactment of the present proclamation under discussion. Nevertheless, that historical antecedent alone does not, in any way, exonerate or relieve the City administration from multiple liability for the damage caused as it has continued to use the site for successive decades.

In fact, the law clearly entitles the victim to formally institute both civil and criminal actions against the City administration in accordance with the relevant provisions laid in the civil and criminal codes. Interestingly enough, the civil action may be brought against the offender regardless of the proof of fault on the basis of the principle of ‘strict liability’ which is in the Civil Code. The only procedural limitation imposed on the applicants for the civil remedies sought is that they must bring their claims to the attention of the competent court within two years from the date of having suffered the damage resulting from the catastrophe.

Likewise, the Federal Attorney General office might be able to initiate the criminal investigation into the behavior of individual appointees and ordinary municipal officers whose very tasks are closely associated with the day-to-day management of the city’s huge garbage collection and disposal site.

I have to underscore that I am not strongly advocating for the civil and criminal prosecution of the city officials and employees in any respect. Instead, what I want to highlight is that there will be no actions or omissions without corresponding consequences whatsoever. Thus, always keeping in mind that it is the normal duty of the public to adequately answer for what it does or fails to do when required by law. The public authority has an unwavering responsibility.

By Merhatsidk Mekonnen
Merhatsidk Mekonnen is a lawyer with decades of experience in prosecution and legal advice. He can be reached at

Published on Apr 01,2017 [ Vol 17 ,No 882]



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