Colombo, April 17: The landslide disaster at Meetotamulla within Colombo city limits last Friday, in which a 300 ft high mountain of garbage came down on hapless slum dwellers killing 26 and wrecking 84 houses fully and 36 partially, could have been averted if steps had been taken to remove the dump even as late as January 2016.
With 1500 tons of municipal waste from the capital city being dumped there everyday in a haphazard fashion, people living around the mound had been in constant fear of being buried under three million tons of muck, in case there were exceptionally heavy rains or an earth tremor.
They had approached the court and agitated on the street under the leadership of Attorney at Law Nuwan Bopage. But to no avail.
The Mahinda Rajapaksa government, which did a lot for urban development, had a plan to shift the dump to Aruwakkalu in Puttalam district and carry the garbage from Colombo by rail every day. But the shifting did not take place for want of environmental clearance. The people of Meetotamulla allege that politically connected contractors who collected and deposited garbage and the Municipal Council had a vested interest in a “non-change” policy.
When a tropical storm struck Colombo in May 2016, the waters, mixed with a great deal of muck from the mound, swamped dwellings at Meetotmulla. It was reported that 60% of the population had become ill as a result of being in an exceptionally filthy environment at that time.
The Colombo Municipal Council threw up its hands in despair and appealed to President Maithripla Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to take over. While Sirisena and Wickremesinghe were silent, the Megapolis (Urban Development ) Ministry said that it has an ambitious plan to convert the dumping ground into a “beautiful place,” and that eventually the problem will cease to exist.
But one cloud burst and a mysterious fire last Friday were enough to send down tons of garbage on the hapless people staying at the bottom of the dump.
Lack of Policy
The Meetotamulla disaster has been the result of a lack of a proper garbage disposal policy. Although the earlier government of Mahinda Rajapaksa had initiated a “clean up Colombo” drive, and improved garbage collection, the beneficiaries were only the upper classes living in the posh localities.
The garbage collected from their homes and other places in Colombo was dumped in the low lying and run down Meetotamulla slum area, which the elite would never see.
There have been only half hearted and fitful efforts to treat the collected garbage or use it productively, though there are known technologies to turn trash into gold. According former Urban Development Authority Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, even World Bank experts said that sanitized land filling (dumping) was the best for Sri Lanka and Puttalam was chosen as the ideal site for this.
Even though most of the garbage was wet and made of bio-degradable matter, compost making was not considered a viable option.
Therefore, there has been no significant attempt to turn the garbage into compost. There are a dozen recycling units in the government and the private sector, but they are small scale. Except in some outlying municipalities, there has been no serious attempt to divide garbage into various categories so that some of them can be diverted to industries to be recycled; some can be composited; and some buried or incinerated.
In a paper on Municipal Solid Waste Management (MSWM) in Sri Lanka, India, China and Thailand, Prof.Chettiyappan.Visvanathan and J.Trankler of the Thailand-based Asian Institute of Technology, say that MSWM is a humongous problem in these countries because of inadequate attention.
And this is despite the fact that their populations are getting urbanized rapidly (31% are urbanized now); and each individual is releasing 0.2 kg to 1.7 kg of garbage every day, the Sri Lanka-born Visvanathan says.
Compost making is not attempted seriously. Incinerating is expensive and therefore not considered. Dumping or land filling is the preferred option. Even in land filling, sanitization is not guaranteed. In India 90% of the garbage is dumped; in Sri Lanka the figure is 85%; in Thailand 65%; and in China 50%.
Even garbage collection is poor with 50% of trucks out of order at any given time. There are financial constraints. In Sri Lanka, MSWM gets only 3.5% in the annual budget of the local authorities.
On the brighter side, in India, rag pickers and manual scavengers are doing a great job by picking up things which can be re-used or recycled. Some municipalities in Sri Lanka (as in Ratmalana and Moratuwa) have started separating the garbage at source so that they could be used profitably.
Governments have now realized that the private sector can also help. In India, Excel Industries Ltd., has established bio-organic soil enriching plants in Kolkata, Bengaluru and other places. The fertilizer produced is sold at a good profit. In Sri Lanka too there are a least a dozen private firms involved in recycling. In Thailand, the Wongpanitch company is a huge success. But many more are needed to turn trash into gold. Apart from fertilizer, trash could yield gas and electric power.
Thanks to the grisly tragedy at Meetotamulla, the Sri Lankan government has decided not to dump garbage there anymore. And the Japanese government has offered to give technical assistance for better garbage disposal, as they did 20 years ago by supplying mechanized garbage collection trucks, Sri Lanka’s first.
But what is not clear yet is whether or not land filling (sanitized or un-sanitized) will continue to be the main method of garbage disposal, with only the site of dumping shifted from Meetotamulla to another place. One wonders if the government is seriously thinking of other ways of garbage disposal which could yield usable products.
It is hoped that Japan, which is extremely eager to help Sri Lanka now for geo-strategic reasons, will offer technical advice and financial help to bring about changes for the better.
(The featured picture at the top shows Prof.Chettiyappan Visvanathan of the Asia n Institute of Technology, Thailand)