BAMAKO (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Standing over a pit full of stinky, black water in downtown Bamako, Omeka Konate digs out used plastic, paper and cans and throws them over his shoulder.
For 35,000 CFA francs (about $60) a week, he clears garbage that is clogging the streets and gutters of the Malian capital, which he says routinely spill over and flood nearby shacks.
“This dirty water flooding our city - it’s poison,” he explained, shaking mud off his oversized gumboots.
“It brings us mosquitoes and mice, and health problems like malaria,” he said.
Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world and the authorities struggle to provide adequate public services in the capital.
In Bamako – one of the world’s fastest growing cities, according to City Mayors, a think tank – population growth makes the issue of garbage disposal and wastewater treatment still more acute, creating what some call an “open-air toilet”.
“As the population grows, people consume and waste more ... so our city is exploding,” said Ahmadou Maiga, deputy assistant to the mayor of Commune 4, one of Bamako’s six districts.
“Some areas look and smell like an open-air toilet,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from his office.
Koudeja Keita has a plan for whenever heavy rains, compounded by untreated wastewater, flood her ground-level shack: take shelter in the local school with her family of 10.
“But we’re only allowed to bring the bare minimum so rice, sugar, beans - we have to leave it all behind,” she said, crouching on a thick rock in her courtyard.
Her husband built a brick wall, 50 cm high, to try and stop the water spilling into their home but it is not always enough.
“It (flooding) is getting worse and more frequent, sometimes we have water up to our knees.”
She said her family had not received any help from the authorities, and hopes to save enough money to move to a safer area.
According to Protos, a Belgian charity that promotes access to safe water, more than 85 percent of Bamako households handle their own sanitation – meaning they have to dispose of any wastewater and excrement themselves.
“That fuels the spread of diseases like diarrhoea and malaria, keeping adults out of jobs and children out of school,” said Johan Slimbrouck, program manager at Protos.
The charity is helping build Bamako’s first ever treatment plant for faecal sludge, which is expected to open next year.
“The human waste will be turned into fertilizer and sold on the market,” he said by email.
Maiga said Bamako lacks a proper sewage system and that most wastewater is evacuated into the Niger river, which runs through the city.
His administration is working with organizations like Protos to build sewers across the capital.
“They are not that deep and do not cover the entire city, but it’s better than human waste being out in the open,” he said.
Key to solving Bamako’s wastewater crisis is removing garbage that clogs its streets and waterways – and that starts with conquering the city’s “Mount Kilimanjaro of trash”, said Maiga.
Just a few hundred meters from the glitzy offices of embassies and aid agencies, flies swarm over mountains of plastic bags, rotten food and other waste, which locals have named after Africa’s highest peak.
Sanaba Traore has been collecting plastic bottles and other discarded packaging for five years, which she sells to local factories for 1,000 CFA francs ($1.70) a day.
“There’s about 100 of us every day, anyone can pick stuff here,” she said, fixing a used pizza box to her head as a makeshift sun hat.
She lives 20 km away, but makes the journey every day in a shared taxi.
“I make twice as much as when I was selling vegetables,” she said, the stench of rot heavy in the air.
Although “Mount Kilimanjaro” has existed for years – it is now the size of a two-storey building – Maiga said the city administration began tackling the problem last year and has turned what was a giant mountain of rotting rubbish into a “small hill”.
Each day, a dozen garbage collectors load trash onto trucks and dump it outside of town, Maiga added.
“But we cannot do it all alone, we need partners, like NGOs, and for people to waste less, especially plastic,” he said.
In 2010, Africa was estimated to have 4.4 million metric tonnes of mismanaged plastic waste – a figure that could rise to 10.5 million tonnes in 2025 if nothing is done, scientists said in a study published this month.
While the clean-up spells bad news for job-hungry waste pickers, Traore is hopeful about her future.
“There will always be garbage somewhere for me to pick,” she said, placing her stash of plastic bottles in a yellow fish net.
“It’s a good business.”
Reporting by Zoe Tabary @zoetabary, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit news.trust.org