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Besieged Afghan City Faces Trash Pileup

Mounds of trash, which are likely to spread disease among Lashkar Gah's 200,000 residents, are piling up.
Mounds of trash, which are likely to spread disease among Lashkar Gah's 200,000 residents, are piling up.

LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan -- Most officials in the capital of southern Afghanistan’s Helmand Province are busy trying to stop the teeming city from falling to the Taliban, who now virtually surround it.

But Lashkar Gah’s mayor, Matiullah Baheer, has another problem to address. Mounds of trash, which are likely to spread disease among its 200,000 residents, are piling up.

Lashkar Gah’s garbage problem worsened when some 6,000 families, mostly rural farmers, fled the advancing Taliban to take refuge in the capital. Their arrival has meant the city’s garbage dumps to quickly surpass capacity. Sanitation conditions have taken a downturn as many homes still lack flush toilets, its streets are littered with garbage, and few residents are concerned about hygiene outside their homes.

“We are now engaged in a campaign to raise awareness about the need for cleanliness,” Baheer said. “We cannot accomplish anything without the full cooperation of residents.”

As the city’s population has swelled, Lashkar Gah’s revenues have declined due to a lack of security. In recent months, the Taliban closed a major road connecting the city to Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second city, some 130 kilometers to the east.

The city’s dilapidated Waste Collection and Sanitation Directorate is struggling with an insufficient number of vehicles and only a few dozen sanitary workers.

Ahmad, a janitor, who goes by one name only, is exhausted and disappointed.

“We are constantly trying to clean the city streets and drains,” he said. “But the residents think that it’s only us, the sanitary workers, who are responsible for keeping things clean.”

Lashkar Gah used to be known as Little America because it was once home to U.S. engineers and agricultural specialists. They were responsible for building Helmand’s Kajaki hydroelectric dam and an extensive canal network in the 1950s and ’60s.

The city’s wide avenues and sprawling estates turned into a dustbowl during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s and the subsequent civil war in the 1990s.

Since the demise of the hard-line Taliban regime in 2001, Lashkar Gah has seen a lot of reconstruction, with newly paved streets and new buildings, markets, clinics, parks, and schools. But the development is overshadowed by a mushrooming population and the influx of families to its relative safety from the surrounding rural agricultural districts.

Sardar Mohammad Sarwari, a city resident, said people need to help the municipal authorities keep Lashkar Gah clean.

“Basically everyone has to lend them a hand in keeping our city clean,” he said.