Published on Sustainable Cities

Cleaner streets mean healthier communities: The story of the “Zika Warriors”

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Last November, 345 “Zika Warriors” took to the streets of Jamaica to fight the spread of the Zika virus in 30 communities. These local residents trained as vector control aides to prevent Zika primarily by improving waste management in their communities, including cleaning up public spaces and destroying mosquito breeding sites. In addition, they distributed bed nets to pregnant households.

As we observe World Health Day today, we look back with great thanks to the significant reduction in Zika in these communities. Anecdotal evidence suggested that the Zika Warriors significantly stemmed the spread of the virus, especially compared to the 2014 Chikungunya outbreak that led Jamaica to declare a state of emergency.

As a first responder to the pandemic, the Jamaica Social Investment Fund (JSIF) designed this program within an existing waste management program of the World Bank’s Integrated Community Development Project, directly benefitting more than 140,000 citizens.

Zika Warriors clean out drains to prevent standing water and safely dispose of garbage.  
(Photo: Milton Clark / JSIF)
This success story stems from just one of many World Bank projects seeking to bring waste from the source to a formal disposal – or recovery – site. Cities, especially in low-income countries, often suffer from poor waste disposal situations.  Streets and waterways are frequently rife with indiscriminately dumped waste and aggregated garbage is often burned openly. The potential health consequences of improper waste management are dire—such as infectious diseases, respiratory conditions, cancer, birth defects, injuries, amongst others. In areas where waste is not collected frequently, the incidence of diarrhea is twice as high as—and acute respiratory infections are six times higher than—in areas where waste collection is frequent, according to surveys conducted by UN-HABITAT in 2009.

Just like Jamaica, many other developing countries face the great challenge of controlling the spread of diseases linked to solid waste.  Investing in comprehensive waste collection, disposal, and treatment systems is an important pathway to reducing the public health threats from municipal waste—through directly eliminating breeding grounds for vermin and reducing air pollution from waste burning.
Community Environmental Wardens and Zika Warriors removing waste quickly after a storm.
(Photo: Milton Clark / JSIF)
Last summer, the World Bank hosted a discussion with experts— Tijen Arin of the World Bank, Helga Vanthournout of McKinsey and Company, and Graham Alabaster of the World Health Organization—on what developing countries could do to improve waste management to address health concerns in urban areas.

Participants agreed that collecting data on solid waste and health impacts is an essential starting point, since a country cannot solve a problem without first understanding it. A first step is for countries with nascent analytics systems to develop a robust data collection system and focus on developing indicators. These may include open burning rates, air quality, dumpsite prevalence, and disease incidence rates. Adding a geospatial dimension to the analytics near disposal sites may be particularly revealing with regards to health and affected populations.
Aside from this, governments may also consider taking action by ensuring that the public is informed and supportive of safe disposal practices, providing protective equipment and good working conditions for informal waste collectors, and ensuring that the private sector disposes of hazardous waste responsibly.

There is no single answer for improved public health outcomes when it comes to waste management. All actors, from residents to companies and governments, must play their role in ensuring that waste reaches a safe endpoint.

How have waste disposal practices – good or bad – impacted your community’s health and wellness? How has your community taken action? Tell us in a comment below.

Read more about the World Bank’s work on solid waste management here .


Silpa Kaza

Urban Development Specialist, World Bank

Jiwon Park

Social, Urban, Rural, and Resilience Global Practice, World Bank

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