Unsanitary truths

Today, almost two and a half years since Barkat was elected mayor, the city is cleaner but not nearly clean enough.

Dirty street 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Dirty street 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
For years now, Jerusalem has suffered from a sanitation problem. True, things have improved since the days when former mayor Ehud Olmert would sarcastically challenge city council members – coalition and opposition – proclaiming that “the streets of Jerusalem are clean, but what can I do if people throw their garbage outside the bins?” The subsequent mayor, Uri Lupolianski, made a genuine effort to improve the situation.
He was the first to admit that the Old City, an international tourist site, was really dirty. In 2006, he devoted a special NIS 80 million budget to an intense sanitation program in the Old City (the new Marshall Plan, as it was called and presented to the press), but the city remained neglected and the streets dirty.
During Lupolianski’s term (2003 to 2008), the head of the city council’s opposition, Nir Barkat, led some sanitation operations – with press coverage, of course – aimed at challenging the mayor and showing that he could accomplish more. Barkat did what he could (and had to, as leader of the opposition and soon candidate for the 2008 elections), but he made only a dent in alleviating the problem.
Today, almost two and a half years since Barkat was elected mayor, the city is cleaner but not nearly clean enough: The streets are dirty, especially in public areas and commercial and industrial zones. There are not enough trash cans in residential areas and the city center. There are too few cleaning crews working in the evenings, causing an intolerable level of filth at entertainment venues and restaurants around closing time. Not to mention the specific problems in the haredi neighborhoods, where bins are sometimes set on fire during demonstrations to exacerbate the problem.
In the Arab neighborhoods the problem is even more acute, since there is a severe lack of infrastructure, such as streets wide enough to enable a garbage truck to make its way through.
Officials in the sanitation department were careful not to admit it, but two sanitation workers told me bluntly that “the most difficult neighborhoods to keep clean are the haredi and the Arab ones.”
The reasons they gave (one of them was a resident of Sur Bahir) were the lack of bins and cleaning personnel but also the lack of attention and care the residents pay to their environment.
According to a municipal spokesman, the Arab neighborhoods that are on the other side of the security barrier but within the municipal boundaries are cleaned by local residents employed by the sanitation department on a cantractual basis.
The garbage is collected four times a week.
While the issue of changing the attitude of some of the city’s residents toward their environment is a serious one, but not the sanitation department’s prime responsibility, there is no question that this department has a severe shortage of workers.
Last week, at a session of the tenders committee at Kikar Safra, city council member Meir Turgeman managed to stop the procedure of handing over the job of cleaning the city to private companies as has already taken place in the Old City. This week, a decision was made to award the tender for the privatization to Ford Municipal Services, which is already responsible for cleaning the Old City.
Turgeman says he is fighting to prevent the signing of the agreement between the company and the municipality due to a suspicion that Ford does not treat its workers fairly.
Over the years, the dirt in the streets of the capital has become a problem that has raised the concern of the residents. Following two scathing reports on the issue by the municipal comptroller, Shlomit Rubin (in 2006 and 2008), the state comptroller himself, Justice Micha Lindenstrauss, decided to look into the matter (together with the situation in other large cities as well). In July 2009, less than six months after becoming mayor, Barkat was summoned to the Knesset to a hearing of the State Control Committee to respond to the State Comptroller’s Report, which dedicated a large chapter to the dirty streets of Jerusalem.
One of the first outcomes of that report was the privatization of part of the sanitation department to clean up the Old City. Ford Municipal Services won the tender.
While there is no question that this move did improve the situation – though there is still room for improvement – the company’s treatment of its employees has elicited much criticism. There are even allegations that the company employs underage workers.
Until the issue of privatization is resolved, the situation, despite some significant improvements, is still far from satisfactory. Large parts of the city are cleaner, especially residential areas, but the city center and the industrial zones are usually dirty.
“There is no way this is going to improve significantly unless the administration does two things: increase the number of employees and increase the sanitation department’s budget,” says Turgeman.