Colombo garbage mountain collapse: time for the government to act

Colombo generates well over 1000 tons of garbage every day most of which ends up at the Meethotumulla rubbish dump on the outskirts of the city., because until now there has been no alternative site for waste disposal in the city (if you discount the canals that is; which many residents seem to see as an alternative waste dump)

STOP PRESS: action at last

On April 14th a large section of the dump collapsed onto the surrounding settlement resulting in an estimated 28 deaths, ( although this figure may well rise) displacing a further 625 people and extensively damaging 145 houses.

The sheer scale of the dump, which dominates the skyline around should have been enough to warn authorities of the need to take action.

 

source: Hiru News

 The dump contains an estimated 24 million tons of garbage (made up of all types of waste) rising to upwards 90 metres and covers around 7 hectares. It dominates the entire area.

In May 2016 the dump had to be closed for 10 days due to extensive flooding and the Colombo Municipal Council was forced to obtain a court order to remove 3000 tons of accumulated waste to the Piliyandala site to the south of the city.

Questions:

  • Why was the  site allowed to be imposed on the low income residents of Meethotumulla in the first place? It wouldn’t happen in Colombo 7 would it?
  • Why despite continued protest and concerns expressed by local residents over health issues and the instability of the dump, has nothing been done?
  • If the Aruwakkala site is not viable, what contingency plans exist?

On 15th April, The Daily Mirror (Sri Lanka) published a scathing attack on the authorities, by the pressure group; Decent Lanka 2015,  in the wake of this latest disaster the headline of which reads: “Dump, dumber, dumbest” The article lays the blame squarely at the feet of local and national politicians: please click on this link and read the article:

Key quotes (source Daily Mirror. lk)

“This tragedy has been in the making for over eight years now due to the callous and irresponsible attitudes of both the political leadership and the bureaucracy.”  The article lists a whole catalogue of broken promises and failure to act an is worth a read through if only to re-inforce a belief that politicians are simply not interested in the lives of ordinary people”
 “This is all about how public policy is shaped without public concerns taken into account. It is all about planning without needs assessments and professional and technical inputs.  It is all about a dumb and corrupt bureaucracy tying up with equally ignorant and corrupt politicians in finding the largest source of funding as first priority to draw up proposals thereafter.”
A little bit of theory

The relevance of water in this context, is that percolating water destabilises loosely compacted mounds of garbage and slope failure is always going to be the most likely outcome. The surprise is that this disaster has taken the authorities by surprise. It was a disaster waiting to happen.

The garbage dump would have become saturated by water percolating down through the unconsolidated waste.Therefore, the garbage and the mound would have become “top heavy”. Water seeping out at the base of the tip would have further de-stabilised the base of the mound, and the slope failed.

To quote American Geophysical Union (AGU): blog Dave Petley

“It is undeniable that this site was unsafe.  The garbage mound is clearly too high and too steep, inviting a rotational failure.  With houses so close to the toe of the slope the hazards were severe.. This is another case in which we know and understand the hazards, but fail to manage them.  The results are once again tragic.”

This photo taken by the Sri Lankan Airforce shows clearly what happened. The base of the slop failed and half of the mound fell away onto the houses below.

The question is not how this disaster could have been prevented BUT:

  1. Why the dump was allowed to grow to become this size in the first place?
  2. Given the continuing complaints and disquiet about the site why has nothing been done since the last protests by local residents in 2016?

I found this extract in Ceylon Today:

The Ministry of Megapolis and the Western Province Chief Minister are at loggerheads over the Meethotamulla Garbage Dump, says Provincial Council Member from Kolonnawa Saliya Wickremesinghe. He noted that last May Western Province Chief Minister Isura Devapriya had promised a solution, which involved negotiations with a British company that provided waste management solutions. Speaking to Ceylon Today, Wickremesinghe added that Devapriya then promised to commence work at the site within six months from last May. So far, the people of Meethotamulla had not witnessed any progress.

A case of “fiddling while Rome burns” to borrow a metaphor.

It would be unfair though,  to blame the lack of a solution on the current government alone. This dump dates back to days of the previous regime. So both should shoulder the responsibility along with Colombo Municipal Council who administer the site. The fact is that nothing has been done to make this dump safe, and so the worst fears of the local residents have been realised.

What this latest episode does do, however, is to bring into sharp focus the absence of any coherent solution to Colombo’s garbage crisis. In another blog I examined one possible solution; the Aruwakkala project. However, even this proposed solution is not straightforward and raises significant environmental concerns over its viability; click on this link to article

the proposed site for the garbage dump close to Puttalam

Currently there are no secure and safe Sanitary Landfill sites in Sri Lanka and incineration is not considered to be viable due to the high moisture content of much of the waste.

So to quote a phrase: “what to do?”

It is an inconvenient truth that sanitary landfill sites will need to be found for the growing volume of urban waste. If the government’s plans for Megapolis in Western province materialise then even more waste is likely to be generated in future. Planning needs to begin now!

Perhaps the authorities could look again at incineration plants but they come with their own “health warnings” in terms of pollutant gases escaping into the atmosphere

Otherwise the accent has to be on generating less waste and recycling more of the waste that is produced. Some community recycling schemes have been implemented amongst middle and lower income communities, for example: Community Based Solid Waste Management Project in Matale and Ratnapura Cities undertaken by the Colombo based NGO Sevanatha (www.sevanatha.org.lk). The fact is that:

  • 60% of wase is bio-degradeable., and can produce compost, biogas and fertiliser
  • metal waste, glass waste and paper waste can be recycled

However, it doesn’t get done, partly because communities don’t buy in to these projects unless they can see the potential for some financial gain. Partly because the political will is not there.

And there are other constraints:

Issues working against effective waste collection and disposal
  1. Local authorities don’t have resources/skills to develop effective waste management policies
  2. Poor on-site labour management; inefficient working practices
  3. Meeting costs of operations; no provision for recycling, separation, composting in local authority budgets L
  4. Low returns from recycled waste make recycling unprofitable without subsidies
  5. Bureaucratic delays slow everything down

It is unlikely that one solution alone will be enough to deal with what is fast becoming a crisis. Responsible land fill, incineration and recycling are all aspects of the solution. What it does need is for politicians to focus on finding a solutions rather than dispute with one another. It is all very well to develop ambitious plans for a brighter tomorrow for Sri Lanka; viz the Megapolis project (see elsewhere in this blog); however, they need to get the simple basics of good environmental management right first.

Required Reading: this excellent article published on 22/04/17 in the Daily Mirror
Gone to Waste

Some useful references

Climbing out of the garbage dump : Envirtonmental Foundation

Sevanatha: http://www.sevanatha.org.lk

The headline photo: source Sri Lankan Air Force

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