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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Mini Hydro Schemes; threatening Sinharaja

 

In Sri Lanka large hydro power potential has been fully utilised. There is no space to add in more plus the existing schemes are multi purpose, providing necessary irrigation water especially to the semi dry and dry zones. And this places a further limit on the capacity of Sri Lanka to generate additional electricity from major H.E.P. schemes

However, there are opportunities for the development of privately owned small scale or mini hydro schemes which could add power to the national grid in Sri Lanka. The problem is that  these schemes are causing concern amongst environmentalists because they block streams and threaten the environment of fresh water fish and fragile riverine ecosystems.

The Energy situation

The Sri Lankan government has ambitious plans to achieve high rates of economic growth in the coming years. However, Sri Lanka barely generates enough energy to satisfy the demands both domestic and industrial right now. To make matters worse, existing power supply has been plagued by disruptions and power outages in the last few months.

Since coming online the thermal power station at Norochalai on the east coast has had several reported breakdowns including a fire, a leak, a trip and an instance where generation exceeded design levels, causing a shutdown. The most recent shutdown came in March when an explosion in a stepdown transformer caused an island-wide power outage.

It doesn’t help levels of confidence in the electricity generation system to read Sri Lanka’s deputy minister for power and renewable energy, Ajith Perera, saying that the plant had been built with “outdated” technologies and substandard materials.

Add in the continuing debate over whether the next thermal power station at Sampur should be built and it  is understandable that the authorities would consider  additions to the grid from  privately owned hydro electric power generation which is both clean and renewable.

Enter the mini hydroscheme

A mini hydro project works by having water in a river diverted to a powerhouse by means of a dam built across the flow. This water rotates a turbine and flows back downstream. Not all the water can be diverted: a part has to be let flow naturally in the river, according to law.

Mini-hydro-power-gra

reprinted with permission by Malaka Rodrigo

Dam-built-on-Anda-Dola-c-Rainforest-Protectors

reprinted with permission by Malaka Rodrigo

The advantages to the state seem obvious.

  • The south west of the island is an area of high rainfall so projects such as this provide a clean and renewable source of energy
  • the state is not involved in any outlay of funds but can simply opt to buy in power from the private company
  • the scale of the development is small which should minimise environmental impact

However, this form of clean energy comes at a cost;

  • alterations to the river flow have an impact  on the physical hydrology of the river changing the volume and velocity of flow downstream, changing the river load and so impacting river channel processes, often increasing erosion downstream of the dam
  • changes to the river have an ecological impact on both flora and fauna
  • there is often damage to the environment from trucks and during construction destroying pristine environments and habitats

Add to that the question of whether the state should be reliant on private companies for additional power generation when their  main motive in building these schemes is arguably profit above any other consideration, including the environment

Some tea estates up in the hills already operate their own private schemes providing power to the tea factories. Theses schemes are generally not taking place in environmentally sensitive areas and are not the focus of this article. What is of concern is applications to develop mini hydro schemes in environmentally sensitive areas such the Sinharaja rainforest reserve.

Case Study

The proposal to build a  mini hydro plant at a waterfall and beauty spot is posing a real threat to Athwelthota river; home to 39 freshwater species 19 of them endemic to Sri Lanka.

maxresdefault

source Youtube

The Athwelthota is one of many rivers that flows out from the northern flanks of the Sinharaja rain forest reserve in southern Sri Lanka. Sinharaja is a world heritage site, and the country’s last viable area of primary tropical rainforest. More than 60% of the trees are endemic and many of them are considered rare. There is much endemic wildlife, especially birds, but the reserve is also home to over 50% of Sri Lanka’s endemic species of mammals and butterflies, as well as many kinds of insects, reptiles and rare amphibians.

forest reserve.tiff

source Google sites

Athwelthota is a paradise for freshwater fish, with a number of species discovered in this unique habitat. The CEJ and the Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle (WCSG) have published a poster showing the indigenous fish that could be endangered by the proposed mini-hydro project in Pilithudu ella, Morapitiya-Athwelthota.

If a mini hydro plant is built, some believe that  the change in flow will be a death sentence for many species living in this micro-habitat,

  • Different fish need different micro-habitats, . For example, the gal padiya or sucker fish lives deep in fast-flowing water; some fish species live in relatively calm water while others prefer fast-flowing water.
  • But if part of a stream is diverted the habitat downstream changes and fish will be affected even though a percentage of water might be allowed to flow freely.
  • With flow changes the PH value of water too could change and very sensitive species could become affected.
  • Some fish migrate upstream to breed and when the stream is blocked this movement is disrupted,

In Athwelthota, 39 freshwater species have been recorded, 20 of them endemic to Sri Lanka.

Most of the mini-hydro projects are being constructed in the biodiversity rich wet zone, so the damage they cause is actually worse than with the large dams,  Not only the fish but other animals such as amphibians and freshwater crabs too are affected.

Athwelthota is also home to Sri Lanka’s only aquatic orchid. Near a waterfall lies a special “spray zone” full of water vapour and this special habitat could be totally lost,

Overall 37 projects are under consideration/construction; many in or on the boundaries of the Sinharaja Rain Forest Reserve.

Construction is being carried out in the Northern Sinharaja Rainforest buffer zone at Kosgulana, approximately 4km east from the Kudawa main entrance. A dam is being built blocking the Kosgulana river in Sinharaja buffer zone and several acres of rainforest have been cleared and concrete laid along the once pristine and protected riverbank. Large trucks and machinery used for construction have driven a wide track through what was once a small footpath in the Sinharaja buffer zone, between Kudawa and Kosgulana,

Another project in the rain forest where 2.5km of concrete penstock has been constructed in the Dellawa district is also said to be “causing massive environmental destruction to the stream, the wildlife and the forest The mini-hydro project will destroy a total 6.5 km stretch of the Anda Dola as water is being diverted from the weir to the powerhouse, several kilometres away. This will result in the local extinction of many endemic and endangered fish species recorded in the Anda Dola.

and what impact might this have on tourism going forward.. not everyone wants to dump themselves on a beach for two weeks…

Final thought

Sri Lanka as a country is changing. With the new government there is a greater concern for the environment and a growing resistance on the part of environmentalists to the power of local politicians and businessmen who have been allowed to ignore the environmental laws of the country. It will be interesting to see how successful they are going forward.

In any case micro hydro schemes are not the answer to Sari Lanka’s growing energy problem. Put together they will not generate the additional power needed. Neither can the island continue to afford to import large amounts of oil to generate power.

Maybe that does mean going ahead with the Sampur coal fired power station in spite of all the objections. Or maybe the government and its foreign funding partners should be looking much more seriously at wind power and solar power as alternatives rather than dumping outmoded and dirty technology on an unsuspecting population.

Acknowledgement: I am grateful, as ever, to Malaka Rodrigo for allowing me to take much of the above from his excellent article: Mini hydros; clean energy comes at a high cost to nature featured in his blog: Window to Nature

You should also read his latest blog which is a follow u on the first one at

http://www.sundaytimes.lk/160828/news/flawed-approvals-of-mini-hydro-projects-spell-river-land-destruction-206573.html

 

Sampoor Power Station; dead in the water? environmental impact case study

The Ministry of Power and Renewable Energy has decided not to go ahead with the construction of the Sampur Coal Power plant, see Daily Mirror report 14/09 in what many will see as a victory for environmentalists. 

In November 2015 The Sunday Times also reported that the new power plant earmarked for Sampur near Trincomalee was a non starter. The main reasons given were that:

  • the plant has failed to meet the Environmental Impact Assessment criteria laid down
  • Sampur has been earmarked for 800 returning IDP Tamil families (internally displaced persons) who do not wish to see a large power station built on land so close to them.

On the face of it you can see why.

The Sampur plant

The proposal is to build a 500 megawatt coal fired power station on the east coast at Sampur across the bay from Trincomalee.

Trincomalee.8

Trincomalee: Location

SM71812

source: Ministry of Power

The power station is proposed to be built on 500 acres of land currently sectioned off as a high security zone by the Sri Lankan Navy but was formerly land belonging to the local Tamil population driven from their lands during the final months of the war which ended in 2009.

It will be a joint venture with the National Thermal Power Company of India using low grade coal imported from India.

The Case against 
  1. Damage to the marine environment of Shell Bay: Shell Bay is home to 56 hard coral species, 160 of coral associated fish species and many other invertebrates including the rare giant clam. The Mahaweli Ganga ( river) also exits to the sea nearby bringing a high nutrient concentration and all these factors contribute to make Trincomalee Bay a unique ecosystem with high biodiversity ranging from tiny organisms to large whales.

1357318175_0!!-!!Hikkaduwa coral reef

Negative impacts will likely include the following:

  • when operational the discharge of cooling water from the power station will raise the water temperature of Shell Bay by 4 degrees celsius; sufficient to result in bleaching of the coral which will then die
  • contamination of the water from sulphur. and mercury as a result of the burning of coal
  • chlorine  will be used to clean the water and if discharged without treating, it can first impact on tiny organisms like planktons and can have a major impact on the food chain

2. Air Pollution

If the plant uses imported Indian coal (coal with a high ash content) then engineers suggest that significant amounts of air pollution will occur locally resulting in:

  • acid rain (from nitrogen oxide and sulphur oxide  carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere)
  • significant amounts of ash/dust particles and unburnt hydro carbons which can cause lung damage
  • ash and sludge which will have to be buried in large landfill sites

3.  Social Issues

The new government have already begun the proceed of resettling tamil families back into the Sampur area and, as the Sunday Times recently pointed out:

“the unfavourable impact of a coal power plant has been a major worry for the people who are waiting to come back to their land in Sampur. They fear their precious agricultural lands are contaminated and the air they breathe would be polluted.” ...

… not without reason you might think.

It is also suggested in some areas that the land set aside for the plant in fact belongs to displaced families and so should not be used for industrial development.

4.  Political Issues

  • The Tamil National Alliance are firmly against the project and see this ( the high security zone) as an a attempt to keep out the Tamil population. They allege:

” a hidden agenda to the project to permanently evict Tamils from the Muttur east region.”

  • The restoration of lands taken from the Tamils features high on the agenda of many external governments,
  • At the same time  Sri Lanka is under pressure from foreign governments to show it is making progress in this aspect of post war reconciliation and in the field of human rights

So for these reasons it was politically expedient to reconsider siting the plant at Sampur.

5.  Power exports

Some of the power would have been sent via a new grid to Southern India; Sri Lanka would not get the full benefit of the new generating capacity although it would suffer all of the disadvantages outlined above.

So you might think the case against is overwhelming. But it is not that simple

The Case For
  1.  Sri Lanka needs power

The Sri Lankan economy is growing at around 7% annually; fairly impressive when compared to the  low growth economies of the developed world. However, continued growth in the manufacturing and business sector is going to drive up energy demand, particularly electricity demand. Some are even predicting that Sri Lanka will be in energy deficit by 2017.

current projections (see page 282) suggest that electricity demand is likely to increase by around 5% per annum but meeting this target may prove difficult and expensive given that the Island is not self sufficient in terms of energy production.

The country has no domestic production of coal, crude oil, or natural gas, and as a result all the fossil fuel demand is met through imports.

At the moment that means oil which now accounts for just over 50% of power generation.

BUT relying on oil-fired power comes at a heavy price pushing up the cost of electricity to the consumer.

(How lucky then that the recent fall in oil prices allowed the government to reduce electricity prices and the cost of petrol.. trouble is it won’t last. Prices will go up again!)

Sri Lanka needs to move from a dependence on imported oil is an urgent issue for Sri Lanka’s power sector to address, but options are limited:

  • hydro electric power is already at close to full capacity
  • nuclear power as an option is not under serious consideration yet and in any case would be way too expensive and take too long to get up and running
  • solar/wind/geothermal/wave power; are all in their infancy

Which means the only viable option for developing large “base line” energy supplies in the short term, is to build new coal fired power stations.

So far one major plant has been built on the west coast at Norochchalai which will generate around 17% of Sri Lanka’s energy.

 

Noracholai_3

The Norochchalai  Power Plant

However it won’t be enough; That is why the Government entered into an agreement with  to build a large 500 mega watt power plant at Sampur near Trincomalee.

2. Cost:

It is argued that the current site incurs the lowest development cost; environmental protection and pollution mitigation measures plus consideration of alternative site would add to the cost already standing at $512 million

3.  Politics

The the Sri Lankan government agreed to partner an Indian company in the development of this power project. It has already “disappointed” the Indian authorities by not co-building the Norochchalai complex with them but going with the Chinese design and build. Reneging on this agreement could further damage relations between the two countries

Something has to happen

The question is: what happens now? Sri Lanka cannot build sustainable economic growth on the back of rising oil imports, nor can it squeeze more energy from existing renewables like HEP.

Nuclear power is not an option either.

That leaves wind and solar as alternatives, unless of course the government simply decide to build a coal fired plant somewhere else (maybe less environmentally sensitive?)

The energy clock is ticking and if the plant is not going to be built in Sampur, energy will have to come from another source; and with major growth projects such as the Megapolis plan for Western Province already under way the decision on how to generate more energy needs to come soon.

 

 

Colombo and its garbage problem: is the Aruwakkalu project a viable solution

I came across this excellent article written by Malaka Rodrigo and with his permission have re-printed pretty much in its entirety. His blog Window to Nature is well worth a read and is a real good source of information for all geographers interested in people and environment issues.

For any student of geography this is an really good and detailed case study of one of the main (but often overlooked) problems of urban growth and development; and for anyone living in Colombo dealing with the day to day problems of waste disposal I guess it will ring a lot of bells. What it tells us is that for every solution to a major urban problem there are a number of environmental costs. How to balance the human and physical environment; how to develop a sustainable approach to solid waste disposal; these are major questions for Colombo going forward but can be found in most large cities not just in the developing world

So here it is: it is longer than usual but well worth reading through. However, before you read through the report have a read through the following:

Garbage disposal has been a major headache for Colombo which generates as much as 1,200 metric tonnes of rubbish every day. The main dumping site is located in the eastern suburbs of Colombo at Meethotumulla low income residential area. It was opened in 2010 when an existing site in Colombo was closed down but is bursting at the seams. Currently the dump site , which is 90 metres high dominates the area and pollutes the surrounding neighbourhood.

As the situation has deteriorated, a new project to collect the garbage, and transport it by train and dump it in a sanitary landfill site in Puttalam emerged as a solution.  Environmentalists  raised serious concerns over the project. As a result it appears that this scheme has been shelved, at least for the moment.

This has left Colombo Municipal Council and the Government without any kind of plan; and while they procrastinated the dump at Meethotumulla grew in size and became increasingly unstable. This has led to a kind of paralysis in decision making. Were the authorities hoping the problem would go away? It did not, and the result was the partial collapse of the dump killing 28 people and leaving many more homeless. (see below)

note: a large section of the Meethotumulla dump collapsed onto local houses on 14th April; for more information click on the live link below:

https://geosrilanka.wordpress.com/2017/04/17/colombo-garbage-mountain-time-for-the-government-to-act/

Government Paralysis ? or how to pass the buck

Check out this excellent article published in the Daily Mirror (Sri Lanka) on 22/04/17 GONE TO WASTE (live link) says it all; no additional comment needed.

 

 

IMG_1039

The Meethotamulla garbage dump reprinted with permission Malaka Rodrigo

The compacted waste was to be be packed in 20-foot containers and sent by train to the landfill site at Aruwakkalu, just North of Puttalam, about 170 kilometres away from Colombo.

The 30-hectare Aruwakkalu site, leased out to Holcim Cement Company, has many abandoned quarries, from where limestone was extracted by the Cement Corporation some 20 years ago.

The site was designed to absorb up to 4,700,000 cubic metres of garbage for 10 years in 2 phases.

MeethotamullaGraphicnew

reprinted with permission; Malaka Rodrigo

Environmental Nightmare: reasons to challenge the location of this proposed landfill site

To the dismay of environmentalists, the site is within the one mile buffer zone of the Wilpattu National Park – a fact that has been highlighted in the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report.

  • The document points out that the site is frequented by several wild animals, including elephants and warns that once the garbage comes, it can attract more elephants to the area, aggravating the human-elephant conflict, especially in the fishing village near the site.

The EIA report recommends several steps to prevent elephants and other animals from coming to the area. They include erecting an electric fence and closing up the landfill on a daily basis after the garbage has been deposited.

  • The forest adjacent to the landfill site is also home for a critically endangered legume crop, a wild relative of ‘Bu-kollu’ (Rhynchosia velutina) which has so far been spotted only in two places in Sri Lanka.
  • The environmentalists also express concerns over the impact of the project on the Kala Oya/Lunu Oya Estuary which supports the largest, richest, and the most pristine mangrove patch in Sri Lanka and is also just 200 m northeast of the site.

Hemantha Withanage of the Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) says the project is a crime and not worth the cost. He says the solution lies not in dumping garbage at landfill sites but addressing the root cause.

“Go for a zero-waste model promoting recycling. It will be a sustainable solution. Sometimes drastic measures such as banning polythene and plastic might have to be taken – but it will help in the long run,” he said.  Mr. Withanage said the people must also act with responsibility to minimise garbage.

The US$ 107 million landfill site project was approved by the previous government after a cabinet paper was submitted by the then President Mahinda Rajapakse in his capacity as Minister of Urban Development.

Environmentalists fear that just as the previous regime showed scant respect for EIAs and tweaked the findings to do development at ‘any cost’; the present government also could distort the EIA.

Many experts recognise that the solid waste problem requires an urgent solution but it does not mean creating another environmental crisis.

Due to the limestone base and dynamiting, the base of the solid waste pit could be permeable.

The leachate will contaminate the pristine habitats of the Kala Oya. Some experts suggest that to minimise the negative impacts, the solid waste should be dumped in the abandoned Holcim pits which are more towards the interior of Aruwakkalu. But the company is not in favour of this suggestion, environmentalists say.

This is why the present site has been selected for the project even though its negative impacts are apparent. It is also feared that uncontrolled dynamiting could damage the bottom lining of the landfill site, paving the way for leakages.

When contacted, a Holcim spokesperson said the quarry was being blasted with permission from the Geological and Mines Bureau and the company was following standard protocols. They said the landfill was a government project and it had nothing to do with it.

However, the project needs approval not only from the Central Environment Authority (CEA) but also from the North Western Provincial Council and the Wildlife Conservation Department (DWC) as the site is located within the buffer zone of a national park.

 

Wedi Pitiya: 25 million year geological heritage site cannot go under garbage 

Palaeobiologists who explore prehistoric biodiversity have joined environmentalists to oppose the Aruwakkalu project as it is likely to harm South Asia’s prime Miocene fossil site.The quarry that Holcim excavates contains fossils belonging to the Miocene era some 25 million years ago. During this era, this area had been a sea bed and the cement raw material that is being dug is in fact calcified fossilised shells or bony remains of many sea creatures which died millions of years ago.

The site known as ‘Wedi Pitiya’ is particularly unique as it is in its vicinity that P.E.P. Deraniyagala documented nearly 40 species of prehistoric invertebrates and marine vertebrates such as Dugongs, dolphins, whales and sea turtles from their bony remains belonging to the Miocene era.

This indicates that ‘Wedi Pitiya’ could in fact be a deeper zone of the sea. The Red Bed which lies above the Miocene Bed also contains stone tools, potsherds, beads and bony remains of prehistoric human habitation dating back to more than 250,000 years.

Considering its place in the history of Sri Lanka and its evolutionary importance to biodiversity in view of possible future finds, the Palaeobiodiversity Conservation Programme under the Biodiversity Secretariat of the Ministry of Environment, in collaboration with the Forest Department (to whom the land belongs) and the Department of Archaeology has identified a 300m x 500m area at ‘wedi pitiya’ along with 3 other sites in Aruwakkalu to be gazzetted as a protected area.

This tiny area will be the only remaining Miocene area in Sri Lanka after the Holcim Company has finished mining Aruwakkalu, but sadly a section of ‘Wedi Pitiya’ has been included in the proposed landfill site.

“Aruwakkalu is a gold mine for palaeobiodiversity studies. The excavation for limestone made visible a large cross section of a wall showing the fossil layers and this could easily attract foreign students studying paleobiodiversity to Sri Lanka,” says Kelum Manamendra-arachchie, who is Sri Lanka’s palaeobiodiversity expert.

“The Aruwakkalu site is the only visible Miocene site in Sri Lanka. Its prehistoric artefacts, the traditional fishing village of ‘Gange Wadiya’ and the legend of Kuveni can be utilised to promote ‘geo tourism’. So it is pity that our heritage is going to be covered by garbage,” Mr. Manamendraarachchie said.

 

“The site is the worst, but concept is good” – Waste Management expert 

The 30-hectare land chosen for the sanitary landfill is the worst possible area in Aruwakkalu, says Solid Waste Management expert Sumith Pilapitiya.

Primarily, the site is too close to Kala Oya, an important water source in the area. Secondly, it is located within the Wilpattu Buffer zone, an ecologically sensitive area.

The site is also close to ‘Gange Wadiya’, the only human settlement in the area and, therefore, the traditional livelihood of the villagers will be disturbed, he explains.

However, unlike many other environmentalists, Dr. Pilapitiya believes that in the absence of a solution to Colombo’ solid waste problem so far, a sanitary landfill at Aruwakkalu could be a good idea only if an alternative suitable site is selected in the same area.

The search for landfill sites within a 50 km radius from Colombo to dump wastes has been going on since 1990 with little or no success amid protests from residents living near the possible sites.

Experts describe this dilemma as typical of the NIMBY syndrome- all want a solution to Colombo’s waste problem, but at the same time they say, “Not in my backyard (NIMBY)”.

This compels the authorities to go for temporary solutions which in turn lead to environmental pollution, the magnitude of which is much bigger than the originally proposed solution. The crisis over the Meethotamulla dump is a classic example.

Aruwakkalu in Puttalam is not a populated area and it has already suffered environmental damage as a result of limestone quarrying by cement companies. Since a suitable landfill site cannot be found closer to Colombo without drawing public protests, this could be a viable option, if the project is properly implemented, Dr. Pilapitiya explains.

To address the concerns raised by some environmentalists, he proposes to select a site further south, more towards new Holcim quarries. “There is about a 15 km stretch of land between the currently selected site and Holcim excavating sites; so there is space for an alternative site,” he says.

Asked about how safe it is to transport solid waste in train wagons, Dr. Pilapitiya says there are specially designed rail rolling stock and containers that will not even let the smell out. He says the authorities should go in for such rolling stock and the cost of buying them could be added to the project.

Considering all these options, Dr. Pilapitiya proposes to make it a National Level project to solve not only Colombo’s solid waste problem but also those of other major cities.

The waste management expert also proposes to sort garbage and compost the perishable waste to minimise pollution and the load to be sent to the sanitary landfill. In this way, the dangerous leachate generated at the landfill site could also be minimised.

People are afraid of sanitary landfills, but if designed and managed properly, a sanitary landfill is good as it will confine pollution within the site, Dr. Pilapitiya says.

Commenting on other solutions proposed for the solid waste crisis, the expert renowned for his waste management work in Sri Lanka and abroad, says some propose incineration that involves the burning of waste material at high temperature as a solution, but garbage in Sri Lanka is largely organic and high in moisture content, and therefore this method is not economically viable.

Another option is plasma gasification – a process in which carbon-based waste is converted into fuel – gas that can be utilised to generate electricity. This has been successfully implemented at small and medium levels to deal with solid waste within a local council area. But Dr. Pilapitiya points to the project’s high human and capital costs and asks whether the authorities could afford it.

“When over 2/3rd of the Pilisaru funded compost plants in the country cannot be operated without odour and flies, I would not advocate sophisticated technology,” he says.

However, if the service provider is from the private sector and has the funds and capacity to sustain a hi-tech project, such an alternative could be explored.

Decision makers should study the waste disposal mechanisms that are being successfully operated in other South Asian countries – this is because the garbage is more or less similar in composition — and take a decision on a proper technology, he advises.

“Under these circumstances, my preference would be for composting the organic portion of the waste and landfilling the residual waste in an engineered, sanitary landfill. If the engineered, sanitary landfill is properly constructed, even if operations slip a little, the pollution can be largely contained,” says Dr. Pilapitiya.

This article is reprinted with minor edits with the permission of its author Malaka Rodrigo. It was also published in the Sunday Times 04.10.2015 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/151004/news/environmentalists-derail-garbage-train-to-aruwakkalu-166659.html

Photo Credit: thepublicsquare.com

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