Peace for the World

Peace for the World
First democratic leader of Justice the Godfather of the Sri Lankan Tamil Struggle: Honourable Samuel James Veluppillai Chelvanayakam

Friday, April 21, 2017

Meethotamulla disaster and political apathy

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe recently visited those displaced by the Meetotamulla garbage dump tragedy upon his return from official visits to Japan and Vietnam. 

By Prof. O. A. Illeperuma- 

Last year I wrote a piece (Island May 24, 2016) on the danger of disposing garbage in open dumps such as the one at Meethotamulla and the immediate need to go for a sanitary landfill. While people in the vicinity of Meethotamulla have been agitating, picketing and clashing with the police, the government adopted the easy wait-and-see approach. Now the worst has happened and the government should wake up from its deep slumber and as a matter of national priority should go ahead with the construction of a sanitary landfill. It was Mr. KaruJayasuriya who as the Mayor of Colombo had the foresight to understand the seriousness of the garbage disposal problem. He initiated the construction of a sanitary landfill with World Bank assistance. The site at Alupotha, Meepe was selected by specialist scientists after carefully studying the topography, underlying soil type, proximity to densely populated areas and possible effects on sensitive ecosystems. However this entire project was to be funded by the World Bank and after haggling for five years from 1995 to 1999 and even after awarding the tender to a Chinese company for US$ 800 million the project was abandoned in 1999.Main reason given was the objections raised by the Parliamentarians representing the Avissawella area and also various NGOs who instigated the residents of the area to protest against this move. However, the exact reasons for dumping this project are best known to the politicians at the top who decided on abandoning the project without giving a valid reason.

As I pointed out in my earlier letter, there is a risk of an explosion in this kind of waste dumps due to accidental fires where there is excessive build-up of methane due to the decomposition of organic matter under oxygen poor (anaerobic) conditions in the marsh. In fact, methane is popularly known as marsh gas generated from paddy fields and marshes under water logged conditions. Several years ago, there was a massive fire at the Bloemendhal garbage dump and it kept on burning for about a week.Finally only rains extinguished this fire. Even a lighted cigarette end is enough to ignite a massive fire which will burn inside the waste dump. When fire fighters tried to extinguish the fire it appeared at some other end of the dump. Recent landslides in waste dumps in Ethiopia and Philippines have been attributed to explosions caused by burning methane gas. At Meethotamulla this is the most likely cause and television footage clearly shows a part of the fire. It is unlikely that, unlike a mountain of soil, excessive rain can cause such a massive upheaval.

Open dumping of garbage in low-lying marshes is the least desirable way to dispose waste. Besides using valuable land near urban centres, open dumps can pollute land, air and water, pose fire hazards and create unsightly nuisances, breed mosquitoes, flies and rats. During the major fire at Bloemendhal waste dump, a large number of residents had to seek medical attention owing to a plethora of respiratory illnesses. Developed countries always use sanitary landfills to dispose garbage where at the end of each day a thin layer of soil is applied and compacted. There is no undesirable smell nor any chance of mosquito breeding. The leachate from the landfill gosthrough treatment plant to destroy any bacteria and only pure water is fed into the surroundings. Since these landfills are lined with heavy duty polythene, there is no danger of contaminating the water table.

Increased affluence results in the generation of more waste, particularly non-biodegradable matter. An average American produces 1000 times more non-biodegradable waste than an average Indian. In Sri Lanka too with the increases in per capita income and affluence we produce much more garbage in the form of plastic containers, food packaging, water bottles and these simply increases the bulk of waste that the municipalities have to deal with.

The modern approach to waste management is the 3R method meaning, reuse, recover and recycle hierarchy. Incentives should be given to reuse polythene bags. In the UK, customers often bring older shopping bags during grocery shopping for which they are paid 5 pennies. Similarly, children should be educated on the dangers of polythenes and plastics. They can be encouraged to provide used polythene bags when their parents do the shopping. School curriculum should include modules on waste management.

Waste should be considered as a resource rather than a nuisance. The polythene content of our waste is rapidly increasing and if burnable waste can be segregated at the source of collection then incineration is the best option to produce power. Wet garbage consisting of waste food and other organic materials can be used to generate biogas again suitable for producing power. Similarly there are many recyclable materials such as polythene, iron, aluminium, tin, newspaper and glass. Electronic waste is a major problem with respect to its disposal and is a veritable source of precious metals such as gold and silver in addition to lead. Also, a majority of its electrical components can be removed and resold. In other countries there are specialised firms dealing with the recovery of resources from waste.

In order to solve the garbage problem, a paradigm shift is necessary about the way every citizen thinks about garbage. The present attitude of "out of sight, out of mind" approach will have to change if we ever have to solve this problem. Even city dwellers can easily have a compost bin to make compost and use it to grow at least a few vegetable plants. In Kandy, the municipality has ruled that non-biodegradable materials such as polythenes are collected only on a certain specific day of the week and workers refuse any polythene waste on other days. This type of mechanism is feasible in any other municipality. However, even in Kandy they are all dumped together at its disposal site and this separation at the sourcehas become a futile exercise. Other countries either recycle the plastics or burn such garbage in incinerators to produce power. In our country, a meaningful solution to the garbage problem is virtually impossible owing to the politicians whose first interest is in making commissions out of any project. Several years ago, a proposal from a Sri Lankan entrepreneur from Canada to establish a plastic recycling plant in Sri Lanka left in disgust due to such political interference.

It is surprising that the private sector has shown no interest in making money out of garbage. In other developed countries there are a large number of companies turning garbage into marketable products such as compost, recycled polythene and the recovery of iron and aluminium. Even for a small company or an individual to produce compost out of garbage requires only space and there is no rocket science involved.

The way forward to the Government is a two-fold approach where the existing garbage mountains at Bloemendhal and Meethotamulla are removed and the immediate establishment of the sanitary landfill at Meepe. In 1995, this area was sparsely populated and had only a few illegal settlers. There are no sensitive ecosystems in the near vicinity and the site is far from populated centres. These settlers can be provided with compensation and relocated. Kelani valley railway can be used to transport garbage. People around this area should be educated to ensure that groundwater contamination is not a problem. Delays in implementing this only solution to the garbage problem will be detrimental to the future economic development of the country such as attracting potential overseas investors. Population in Colombo is around 650,000 but one million people come to the city for various needs. These temporary visitors too create considerable garbage and hence this is a national problem. Slogans such as "we do not need Colombo garbage" are both unrealistic and make no sense. Politicians on both sides should see the seriousness of the problem and come out with a concrete set of proposals to deal with the ever increasing garbage problem.Let us hope that tragedies such as the one at Meethotamulla will never be repeated and the Government should take a firm stand against protesters who stand on the way to implement a solution to an urgent national problem.