For 11 years, this city of 700,000 has been dumping its waste in a suburban field five miles southwest of the center, forming great hills of rotting food, plastics, batteries, appliances, medical waste, and construction materials. Fires smolder throughout the dump, and more are set all the time by the 20 families who live here, eking out a precarious living by collecting metals and other valuables left in the ashes. The resultant clouds of smoke -- laden with dioxins and heavy metals -- drift over the surrounding neighborhoods, where many parents no longer allow their children to play outside.
One of the poorest countries in Europe, Albania is confronting an environmental crisis that goes well beyond the capital's garbage woes. While many of its Eastern European neighbors spent the past decade and a half rebuilding from communism, this beleaguered nation staggered from one social upheaval to the next. Now that the dust has settled, Albanian environmental experts are taking stock of the situation and trying to get the attention of foreign donors, whose support will be essential for getting anything done. And getting things done is a requirement; as the country works to join the European Union, it must meet a set of strict environmental standards.