Has Colombo solved its garbage problem?

Despite a number of concerns, ( check out my earlier blog for details ) the proposed development of a sanitary landfill site at Aruwakkalu close to Puttalam up on the west coast is going ahead and Colombo will have a short term solution at least to its garbage problem. The site at Aruwakkalu ( a disused limestone quarry) will cover 45 acres to begin with but could be could be expanded further if need arose. The question is; will this be enough?

the landfill site at Aruwakkalu now

and in its finished state (images; http://www.sundayobserver.lk)

The idea initially is for two trains to run daily from the collecting station at Kelaniya north of Colombo city to Aruwakkalu.  Each train will transport 1,200 metric tons of compressed blocks of solid waste in 13 rail wagons and 26 sealed containers. Eventually the processed garbage will be carried by road. The image below gives some detail of the route.

So how does this landfill work?

It’s basically a large hole in the ground which is sealed with an impermeable bottom liner to prevent leaching and pollution of groundwater.

Waste is deposited in thin layers  and compacted by heavy machinery. to form a refuse cell about 3 metres thick. At the end of each day the  refuse cell is covered with a layer of compacted soil to prevent odours and windblown debris.  When the landfill is completed, it is capped with a layer of clay or a synthetic liner in order to prevent water from entering. A final topsoil cover is placed, compacted, and graded, and various forms of vegetation may be planted in order to reclaim the land.

There are problems to be overcome.

  • methane from the decomposing garbage needs to be burned off although it can be used to generate electricity.
  • pollutant liquids ( leachates ) have to be drained off and removed to avoid polluting the soil.
The need for a sustainable solution

All living things produce waste and in order to survive they have to remove that waste. The same is true for cities. If they cannot, then eventually city life becomes unsustainable. Signs of stress emerge; garbage in the streets, garbage clogging drainage channels and canals, foul smelling air, the spread of insect borne and water borne diseases  like dengue, and negative impacts on health.

Hazards from  open dumps

Open dumping  results in a range of environmental hazards especially because:

  • a large % of the waste is organic which creates highly acidic and toxic leachates in the soil
  • high rainfall, humidity and high temperatures accelerate breakdown of organic material
  1. Dumps are breeding frounds for mosquitos. It is no coincidence that the number of dengue cases is much higher in urban areas such as Colombo. (You can find more on dengue in various other blogs on this site).
  2. Leaching from the dumps pollutes groundwater. The National Water Supply and Drainage Board has found that the ground water aquifers in the greater Colombo area are polluted, primarily because of open dumping of solid waste, and thus unsuitable for use as a source of drinking water supply.
  3. Open solid waste dumps also are a primary source of greenhouse gases such as methane and carbon dioxide, leading to air pollution
  4. In Sri Lanka, high levels of odour, dust and toxic fumes have been found emanating from uncontrolled burning of solid waste (Asian Institute of Technology, 2004).
  5. Haphazard dumping also results in the loss of wetland habitats, which impacts on fauna and flora (particularly in Attidiya and Muthurajawela areas), 
  6. Another serious issue relates to hazardous, electronic and other industrial waste and this includes oil and waste water management since very few facilities are available to recycle such waste in Sri Lanka.
  7. Large unstructured dumps are unstable and prone to collapse; see my blog on the Meethotamulla disaster
Why bother?

For countries in the developing world hoping to get a slice of the development action cities choked by garbage are not attractive places to be. Which multi-nationals would want to locate new offices and  personnel  to glorified rubbish dumps and open sewers.?

And that is what Colombo is becoming. Harsh you think?  Take a look at  a typical street scene in the city. Garbage is just dumped almost anywhere and left; no-one’s responsibility. Everyone does it, not just the poor, although the wealthy are careful not to fly tip in their neighbourhoods preferring low income areas as dumping grounds.

What you see above is random dumping of garbage in the street. But there is garbage dumping on a much greater scale, for example the temporary tip at Keradeniya ( below). Much of it goes unregulated.

Even fragile wetlands such as the Attidiya bird sanctuary haven’t escaped environmental abuse. You have to ask; what are the politicians thinking?

So how has the garbage situation got to this point?

It is estimated that Colombo generates around 8,500 tons of garbage per day but only 25%  is collected. The collected waste finds its way on to open dumps. The rest finds its way onto the streets.

The question is why? As always there is more than one explanation. Here are the main issues.

  • Population Growth: In the last 50 years the population of Colombo has more than doubled and with that the population density has risen from 138 persons per hectare to 268p/ha. Increasing population inevitably means increased amounts of garbage. 
  • Poor governance at both national and municipal level. Until very recently there has been no direction from national government. There has been very little regulation of municipal authorities, a lack of strategic planning and no control of private contractors given contracts for garbage collection and disposal. In other words a free for all with waste management apparently a very low priority for the government. A major problem is that local authorities are not held to account by government,  either for the manner of waste disposal or for the fact that they fail to service all households who are left with little alternative but to roadside dump.
  • Insufficient funding for personnel, vehicles and garbage processing
  • The spread of low-income settlements in urban areas, which go largely unserviced and don’t have access to regular garbage collection
  • Market forces that introduce cheap and unsustainable products, including Increased consumption  of plastic packaging. Inevitably, with the rise of the supermarket chains,  one use plastic bags,  and the increased use of polythene or plastic for wrapping food, there is more waste to dispose of.
  • Lack of environmental health and safety practices among waste collectors
  • Old technology, and limited land for waste disposal.

But there is also another factor; Sri Lanka has a litter culture. Littering is commonplace. Almost everywhere you will see people adding to existing piles or starting new ones; just like this guy.

Littering appears to be acceptable in the public consciousness. Simply put; anti litter laws are not enforced if they exist at all, littering goes unpunished. Nobody cares.

Open Waste dumping is ingrained into Sri Lankan society as a result of:

  • Inadequate municipal collection and disposal
  • Apathy on the part of the public
  • The fact that Sri Lankans don’t really see dumping garbage as a problem, and there seems to be  no motivation to be different;  to recycle,  or to compost.

Attitudes  both political and public need to change

So what are the fixes?

Many argue that landfill is a short term fix not least because of the problems of identifying other potential sites and the resultant public outcry that would ensue in areas targeted for landfill.. Aruwakkalu will eventually fill up. More sites will be needed but given the difficulties the government have experienced finding its first large scale site, can we be sure there will be other sites coming on stream?

1.  The need to re-focus

The recent partial collapse of the open dump at Meethotamulla  which caused more than 30 deaths and damaged or destroyed many low income houses was a wake up call for age government and had the effect of creating a call for a national integrated waste management plan under the control of a government minister. We have to wait to see whether this materialises. However, leaving under-funded municipal authorities to their own devices hasn’t worked.

2.  New approaches

Developing sanitary landfill sites is a step forward and will make a difference but it cannot be the only solution not least because of the expense involved given that the Sri Lankan government is cash-strapped.

Many argue that composting offers an additional way forward given that a large % of waste is organic. The question is; how do you make this happen?

Supporters argue that  community  participation  should be at the core of a drive to more composting a move that could lead to a number of  benefits. Proponents argue that community based composting projects :

  • are cost effective
  • cheaper and therefore not  constrained by limited municipal budgets
  •  reduce the amount of solid waste
  • build environmental awareness within the community
  • would encourage segregation and recycling of waste
  • generate strategies for waste management tailored to local community skills and perceptions
  • build local community involvement through engagement, and developing skills.
  • add an income source for the local community with the sale of recycled materials and compost.

One such example are Community Based Solid Waste Management Projects in Matale and Ratnapura Cities (Integrated resource Recovery Centre Project-IRRC) projects supervised by the Colombo based N.G.O. Sevanatha

‘In Matale, the SEVANATHA with its subsidiary company called Micro Enrich Compost (Pvt) Limited is currently managing the IRRC project. This project has conducted extensive community awareness to motivate the people in residential and non- residential areas to separate waste at source and hand over it to the collectors of the IRRC. In Matale city, the IRRC is handling around seven (07) tons of organic waste at present and working towards achieving nine (09) tons per day capacity soon. It also collects all the recyclable materials and further segregates them for selling at the local market.

Considering the success of IRRC project in Matale, the UN-ESCAP has provided the funding and technical support replicate this model in Ratnapura Municipal area where the city council has provided required support for the project. Accordingly, five (05) tons per day capacity IRR Centre was built at Kanadola in Ratnapura town. This centre was opened in January 2014 and currently running its operation as in Matale. SEVANATHA through its MEC (Pvt) Ltd manages this project in Ratnapura in partnership with the Municipal Council of Rathnapura.” (reprinted from the Sevanatha website)

Final thoughts

The situation in Colombo is dire, and seems to be getting worse. The previous government was successful at keeping the streets clean but at the expense of creating the massive open dump at Meethotamulla. The new landfill site will go some way to getting the existing situation under control but on its own it will not be enough. Even if new landfill sites are found it is hard to see them providing a sustainable solution on their own. There is a crying need for  recycling projects and composting projects to add to the mix.

Educating politicians to take the garbage problem seriously has proven difficult in the past. Educating the public to take better care of the city environment has also proven difficult. However, the current government have ambitious plans for economic development in the coming years.This means attracting foreign direct investment, but in order to be attractive Colombo has to present a greener less polluted face to the world.

Garbage collection and disposal cannot be left to private companies and individuals. it is the state’s responsibility. What is needed then is the appointment of a minister with overall control of garbage collection, street cleaning and the urban environment, with Municipal councils answerable to the ministry; with clear guidelines laid down for all councils to follow and investment in modern equipment, vehicles and personnel to back it up.

The government have recently banned single use plastic bags; big deal! What they need to do is actively prosecute fly tippers and enforce the laws against dumping that exist. Education in the schools is the next step. if the current generational deaf to the threat of a garbage contaminated society then maybe it is up to the younger generation to take the lead.



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.


  • 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