Garbage Avalanche in the Paradise Isle


The probable death toll from the Meethotamulla garbage avalanche of April 14 stands at 40, with 32 persons confirmed dead and 8 still missing (as of 3 pm 20 April 2017). The type of disaster we experienced on the Sinhala and Tamil New Year day, deplorably, is an extremely rare occurrence in the civilized world. There had been only a handful of reported precedences of this nature. Although there had been garbage dump collapses in the Western world - in California (1988) and Ohio (1996) in the US, Coruña, Spain (1996) and Athens, Greece (2003), fatal events with massive destruction of property were reported only from the third word. These include the disasters that occurred in the outskirts of Manila, Philippines in 2000 where 278 people died, Bandung, Indonesia in 2005 (143 fatalities) and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, only last month with 113 fatalities. The absence of mortality (and destruction of property) in the developed world and their presence in our part of the world hints at the level to which the precautionary measures are adopted with regard to land filling in the two parts of the world. Close on the heels the Ethiopian calamity, now the paradise isle has reported another, in most shameful way.


Health and Environmental Effects of Garbage Dumping

Besides the unsightliness, large garbage dumps pose a number of health and environmental problems to the residents living around. These decrease the quality of life and even the life years of them.

Garbage dumps are great polluters of the environment – be it air, land and water. Bad odour emanates from these sites. Ammonia and hydrogen sulfide are responsible for most of the odours that emit from the landfills.

Fermentation of organic domestic waste creates conditions favourable to the survival and growth of microbial pathogens. These pathogens spread infectious diseases, especially related to the gastro-intestinal, dermatological, respiratory systems. The outcomes of these include diarrhoeal diseases including cholera, dysentery and typhoid, skin infections and respiratory infections. Also, these sites attract flies, cockroaches and rodents such as rats and bandicoots, all household nuisances. Further, these sites facilitate breeding of these species and spread of diseases to humans from them. These include diarrhoeal diseases in the case of flies and cockroaches and leptospirosis and even plague (as there was a bad outbreak in Surat, India in 1994) from the rodents. Further, these sites provide vital breeding ground for mosquitoes, leading to spread of diseases transmitted through them ncluding dengue and filariasis.

Landfill gases are produced when bacteria break down organic waste. The amount of these gases depends on the type of waste present in the landfill, the age of the landfill, oxygen content, the amount of moisture, and temperature. For example, gas production will increase if the temperature or moisture content increase.

Fire and explosions occur at the garbage dump sites. These mishaps are commoner during the rainy seasons. Water seeping into the garbage helps production of methane, leading to explosions and fire.

Inhalation of toxic gases is a great public health problem for the residents who live in the vicinity of garbage dumps. Methane and carbon dioxide produced, can also collect in nearby buildings and displace oxygen, thus leading to respiratory problems among residents.

Contamination of surface water bodies like streams, rivers, and lakes, groundwater and soil occur with organic, chemical and radioactive pollutants. Thus, drinking water becomes tamasic (due to bad odour and taste) and unsafe to drink (due to the pollutants).

Toxic substances accumulate in the food chain through the plants and animals that feed on it. This can lead to radioactive and chemical poisoning. Certain chemicals if released untreated, e.g. cyanides, mercury, and polychlorinated biphenyls are highly toxic and exposure can lead to disease (especially cancers) and death. Children as a group are more vulnerable to the deleterious effects of hazardous waste. Further, injuries from playing on or around the dump site pose a risk to the children.


Association with cancers

Studies from around the world have detected excesses of cancer among residents exposed to hazardous waste. For example, according to a study conducted in the municipality of São Paulo, Brazil between 1998 and 2002 using the Bayesian spatial model, deaths from cancers in the liver, bladder and leukemia were more among the people living close to a garbage landfill compared to the people living 2 km radius outside. Further studies have shown increased incidence of low birth weight and birth defects among the residents close to the landfills than in the people living away from them.


The role of plastics

The unhygienic use and disposal of plastics and its effects on human health has become a matter of concern. Coloured plastics are harmful as their pigment contains heavy metals that are highly toxic. Some of the harmful metals found in plastics are copper, lead, chromium, cobalt, selenium, and cadmium. In most industrialized countries, coloured plastics have been legally banned.

While most of the issues listed above are in relation to human health, in addition innumerable damages to plant and wildlife habitats too occur in the vicinity that seriously affect the ecosystem.

Considering these facts it may not be difficult for our intelligent readers to comprehend the extent of the calamity the Meethotamulla residents had to live with during the last two decades or so with a noxious garbage dump piling up under their very nose.


The history and politics of Meethotamulla disaster

Meethotamulla garbage dump (or correctly speaking mountain) was a huge public health and social issue for the people living in the vicinity, now for a many decades. In the late 1980s, amidst the opposition of the residents of the area, the local authorities of Kolonnawa, Mulleriyawa and Kotikawatta began dumping garbage at this site, which was a wet land set aside for flood control off the Kelani River basin. Following a Supreme Court ruling prohibiting dumping of garbage at the Bloemendhal site (our immediate neighbor) in 2009, dumping garbage at Meethotamulla got into full gear with full state patronage. The then government did not give two hoots to the growing agitation of the people against this. The public’s legitimate uprisings to free their immediate environ from this worsening nuisance were crushed using the both, official and unofficial junta, as lamented by Attorney-at-law Nuwan Bopage, convener of the People’s Movement against the Meethotamulla garbage dump. The garbage "mountain" grew in extent and height. Approximately 1,250 tons of garbage was dumped here on a daily basis. From about two acres in 2009, it grew to almost 20 acres in extent and 300 metres in height by 2017.


Garbage Mafia and

Garbage Politics

Side by side the garbage mountain grew a "garbage mafia", with the backing of the local politicians. Hand in glove with its political masters, the mafia controlled all the activities of the garbage dump including sorting and re-selling of wastes and managing industrial waste coming from outside, mainly from Kaduwela, Biyagama and Ranala Pradeshiya Saba areas. According to Ravindra Kariyawasam, director, Center for Environmental and Nature Studies (CENS), who was in the forefront of the struggle along with the residents of the area, the industrial waste that were directed to the garbage site from the areas outside Colombo through the backdoor included even e-waste. Offloading this waste fetched Rs. 4,000 a truckload for these villains, who were also ready to flex their muscles at the beck and call of their political masters at the slightest hint of public agitation. They had been the kingpins behind the assaults carried out on the demonstrating residents in 2013 and 2015. Kariyawasam, in a strongly worded letter to the President Maithripala Sirisena as the Minister of Environment, has brought this up to his attention.

Now that the Meethotamulla issue has ended in the most catastrophic manner, yet the issue of garbage disposal in the Paradise Isle is far from over. Garbage dumping at Muthurajawela, Kiridiwela and Karadiyana in the outskirts of Colombo city and number of other regional locations goes on even to this day amidst all the health, social and environmental risks mentioned above. Both the national and local authorities have failed miserably in finding lasting solutions to this problem. And it has become the double urgent need of the hour to bring this up in the agenda setting of the national priorities to find a sustainable remedy and prevent mass destruction of lives as happened last week.




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