Colombo, April 16: The landslide disaster at Meetotamulla within Colombo city limits on Friday, in which a 300 ft high mountain of garbage came down on hapless slum dwellers killing 24 and wrecking 145 houses, may have come as a surprise to the elite of Colombo who live in posh localities. But for the residents of run down Meetotamulla, it was a disaster waiting to happen for decades.
With 1500 tons of municipal waste from the capital city being dumped there everyday in a haphazard fashion, people were living in constant fear of being buried under three million tons of muck in case there were exceptionally heavy rains or an earth tremor.
Indeed, when the tropical storm ‘Roanu’ struck Colombo in May 2016, the storm waters mixed with a great deal of muck from the mound swamped their dwellings. It was reported that 60% of the population had become ill as a result of being in an exceptionally filthy environment at that time.
Unable to bear the constant stench, and apprehensive about diseases spreading, the residents of Meetotamula had, even prior to the floods, launched an agitation under the leadership of Attorney Nuwan Bopage.
The matter went to the Metropolitan Court, which ordered the Colombo municipality to remove the dump to Puttalam, north of Colombo. But the government said that the plan had to get environmental clearance first. Plans to shift the dump to other places were given up as they met with local resistance.
In sheer desperation, the Colombo municipality declared that it cannot tackle the matter 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 turn the mound into an inferno, and 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 in Sri Lanka. 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.
Land filling has been the only way followed. There has been no significant attempt to turn the garbage into compost, though more than 50% of it is bio-degradable. 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, C.Visvanathan and J.Trankler of the Thailand-based Asian Institute of Technology, say that MSWM is a huge 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.
Although more than 50% of the garbage is bio-degradable, compost making is not attempted seriously. Incinerating is expensive and therefore not considered. Dumping is the preferred option. 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, 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 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 Colombo, a private firm is converting 900 tons of garbage into compost. In Thailand, the Wongpanitch company is a huge success.
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.
(The picture at the top shows the destruction wrought by the garbage mountain landslide)