What can cities learn from Sri Lanka’s landfill tragedy?

The 19-acre, 300-foot-high garbage mountain at Meethotamulla, Sri Lanka. Part of the landfill collapsed on the afternoon of 14 April, the day Sri Lankans celebrate the traditional New Year. (Amantha Perera)

MEETHOTAMULLA, Sri Lanka — The massive Meethotamulla garbage dump is eerily silent these days. Only the sounds of heavy earthmovers working in the distance create a background hum.

The crows flutter above the 19-acre, 300-foot-high garbage mountain, parts of which slid down the afternoon of 14 April, the day Sri Lankans celebrate the traditional New Year. Today, it looks as though a giant has stepped on the side of the mound, sending parts of it cascading downhill and crashing into the neighbourhood below.

A week after the tragedy, the death toll stood at 32, with eight others officially listed as missing. Another 1,700 who lived at the foot of the dump, just east of Colombo, have been moved to safer locations.

Standing at the bottom of the heap, N. Keerthirathana stares blankly at the top and back down to where his three-storied house had stood just two days earlier. Large concrete columns now jut out at odd angles from the stinking garbage. “Is this what I fought for? Is this what is left for me now?” the retiree, who is pushing 70, mutters absentmindedly.

Keerthirathana lost three children, his wife and a son-in-law in the tragedy. His losses are especially painful given that for years he has been the public face of the battle launched by residents living near the dump to get rid of it.

There are, after all, many other options for local authorities to deal with the waste that has been piling up at Meethotamulla over the years. But in a reflection of urban dynamics seen in major cities throughout the continent — indeed, in fast-urbanizing areas throughout the developing world — policymakers here have been unable to put in place the necessary changes to keep up with the growing garbage being produced by Sri Lanka’s growing cities.

[See: How Mysuru became India’s ‘cleanest city’]

That is especially true of Colombo, the island’s capital. In fact, the problems at Meethotamulla are a direct result of Colombo’s exploding population combined with paralysis on the part of urban planners and policymakers. Unfortunately, it’s a recipe that’s being followed around the globe.

The World Bank estimates that the global urban population leaves a garbage footprint of at least 1.2 kg per person every day. Further, solid-waste production in the world’s cities is expected to almost double by 2025, to 2.2 billion tonnes per year.

Meanwhile, effectively managing solid waste remains one of the costliest responsibilities faced by many developing cities. “Effective waste management is expensive,” the World Bank said in an assessment released just a week before the Meethotamulla disaster, “often comprising 20-50 percent of municipal budgets.”

[See: How Seberang Perai’s first female mayor is reducing waste and boosting citizen engagement]

The example of Colombo is a cautionary one, then, of how continually pushing off difficult policy decisions — whether due to politics, finances or anything else — can allow the inconvenience of garbage disposal to metastasize into a full-blown public hazard.

Festering since 1989

It’s not as though the Meethotamulla collapse took anyone by surprise.

At the time of the disaster, Keerthirathana was leading a group called the People’s Movement Against the Meethotamulla Garbage Dump. For years, the movement has staged protests and met with local officials and politicians; the latest such meeting took place just two weeks before the tragedy. Throughout, their aim had been to a find a solution to the daily arrival of over 2,000 metric tonnes of garbage into the dump — all from Colombo.

“All we got were false promises that things will be done in two weeks, two months. Or the police chased us away when we stopped the dump trucks from getting in or protested on the streets. Now we have the dead bodies to show that our fears were real.”

N. Keerthirathana
Former head of the People’s Movement Against the Meethotamulla Garbage Dump

“All we got were false promises, that things will be done in two weeks, two months. Or the police chased us away when we stopped the dump trucks from getting in or protested on the streets,” Keerthirathana said. “Now we have the dead bodies to show that our fears were real.”

[See: How women in Malawi are turning waste into wealth]

Amila Manathunga, another resident in the area, recalls a time when Meethotamulla was all lush green, a small stream snaking through the paddy fields. That was a long time ago — almost a quarter century back, but not so long that many residents don’t understand the arc of the problem.

In 1989, the first garbage trucks began arriving in Meethotamulla. The area was first used to dump garbage from surrounding towns. “A few years later, garbage from the Colombo municipality began arriving,” Manathunga recalled.

Still, it was not until 2009 that Meethotamulla began growing to gigantic proportions. Ironically, that sudden growth happened because citizens elsewhere had successfully petitioned against another such dump, located in an area in the heart of the capital called Blomendhal. The Supreme Court stopped garbage disposal at Blomendhal and allowed two acres to be used at Meethotamulla. That dumping never stopped or lessened until 14 April.

Each working day, Colombo discharges the largest amount of waste in Sri Lanka, driven in particular by a massive daily commute of office workers. Every workday, Colombo’s population of 650,000 balloons to over 1.5 million.

[See: Behind Edmonton’s push toward zero waste: A Q&A with Mayor Don Iveson]

Patali Champika Ranawaka, now a development minister who held the environment portfolio when the 2009 judgment was handed down, admits that the Meethotamulla tragedy was avoidable. But he says that solutions to the garbage problem have always been halted by protests.

“This is not a problem that came up recently. As far as I know, every attempt to solve this problem in the last two decades had been thwarted by political and public protests,” Ranawaka said two days after the tragedy.

He said that efforts had been made as far back as 1997 to set up safe disposal units outside Colombo. The projects never got off the ground, however: Each time, politicians and citizens began protesting, demanding that Colombo’s waste not be brought to their villages. Ranawaka claims that the protests were politically motivated.

Indeed, a decision was made to stop disposal at Meethotamulla as far back as December 2015, according to Ranawaka. “The municipal authorities located several places where they could dump the garbage, but public protests prevented any further action,” he said.

Landfills ‘no longer viable’

Experts warn that the garbage situation in Colombo is at a critical level, and that authorities’ option are extremely limited — at least insofar as landfills are concerned.

“There is no more land available which will be suitable technically as well as socially to use as landfills. That option is no longer viable,” said Ranga Pallawala head of Janathakshan, an NGO that promotes sustainable development options. “The garbage disposal levels are also very high, [so] that you have to look at viable sustainable and safe solutions very quickly.”

[See: Buenos Aires embraces “cartoneros” in push for zero waste]

What about solutions beyond simple landfills? Municipal authorities in Sri Lanka lack the finances to set up sustainable recycling projects, Ranawaka said. “It costs between 7 to 10 rupees [around USD 0.07] to recycle a kilo of waste. No one has funds for that,” he said. Currently there is no indication that the central government would subsidize this kind of activity.

Colombo accounts for over a third of Sri Lanka’s daily generation of 6,000 to 7,000 metric tonnes of garbage, according to official statistics. But of that, 58 percent is biodegradable, and Pallawala stresses that authorities need to look at the garbage’s composition when devising new disposal methods.

Digging out after the Meethotamulla collapse. “There is no more land available which will be suitable technically as well as socially to use as landfills. That option is no longer viable,” said one NGO worker.

Already some local solutions have been proven workable. For instance, several small municipal authorities in the island (such as Kalmunai and Balangoda) have set up compost manufacturing plants where they recycle organic garbage.

Sustainable disposable measures also are being implemented in some parts of Sri Lanka. In the Eastern Province, about 300 km from Colombo, the Kalmunai Urban Council runs a small recycling project, as does the Balangoda Municipal Council in the central hills. Again, however, these are small localities — in Kalmunai, the population is just above 100,000, with manageable garbage loads.

[See: From waste picker to recycling manager]

Could any of these approaches be scaled up to the mountains of garbage created each day by Colombo? While Pallawala says they could, he and others are clear that doing so would have to be well planned and carefully carried out.

Authorities should look first to recycling the high percentage of the biodegradable garbage, he said. They also need to prioritize getting households to separate their garbage before it leaves their homes.

“The first priority must be avoiding and reducing waste at the source, using options like home composting, domestic biogas — using reusable items,” he said. “In other cases we should look at recycling, using waste-for-energy generation and other uses. Initially there is the need for investments, but in the long run the benefits outnumber the costs.”

New technologies also could help Colombo sidestep the vicious combination of land constraints and mounting garbage.

“Where land constraints exist, cities like Colombo can consider proven methods of higher-level treatment technology such as waste-to-energy — namely incineration,” said Ron Slangen, Asian Development Bank’s senior urban development specialist in the region.

Previous concerns with hazardous air emissions from such WTE facilities have now been addressed through advances in systems to control air pollution, he noted. But there’s still the question of funding.

[See: How Durban set the global standard for providing water and sanitation for the poor]

“In order to make these options more financially viable, cities can explore various revenue sources, including the sale of electricity or charging higher fees to commercial and industrial waste generators like hotels and hospitals,” Slangen said. “Considering the environmental and health impacts to residents and the tourism industry, the economics impact of such facilities are considerable.”

Slangen said that private-sector participation in waste management is now an essential, but also that there is growing precedent of how this can take place. He pointed in particular to China, where the ADB’s private-sector department so far has supported six WTE projects.

Other countries in the region also provide some promising examples of multilateral-supported projects around municipal waste. The World Bank, for instance, has projects in Nepal and Pakistan from which Colombo could take some lessons.

In Nepal, five municipalities were provided USD 4.3 million to improve garbage collection and disposal. That included the effective management of an engineered landfill, a project that today accommodates the garbage of some 800,000 people.

And in Lahore, Pakistan, a teeming city of over 9 million people, a USD 5 million project supported setting up a composting facility and the sale of international “carbon credits” under the U. N. climate agreement. “Activities resulted in reductions of 150,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalents and expansion of daily compost production volume from 300 to 1000 tons per day,” the bank stated recently.

‘Things will go on as usual’

Meanwhile, the Colombo government has talked about launching new, more modern ways of dealing with the capital city’s waste. But thus far, few specific actions have been taken, and no official time frame has been offered within which to expect any policy changes.

Officials claim that the government signed agreements to set up sustainable disposal schemes just before the Meethotamulla disaster. “It’s ironic that it was only a few weeks back that agreements were signed to begin waste-to-energy projects to finally deal with this perennial issue,” Harsha de Silva, a member of Parliament from Colombo and the deputy minister of foreign affairs, wrote in a Facebook post the day after the landslide.

A composting facility using garbage run by the Kalmunai Municipal Council is one of the few such operations in Sri Lanka. (Sanajana Hattotuwa)

It is unclear where these agreements stand today. But for now, the government’s immediate concern appears to be finding a new place to dump Colombo’s trash — now that the use of Meethotamulla is out of the question. De Silva pledged that “no more garbage” would be dumped at Meethotamulla after two temporary dumping sites had been identified. As for any potential protests? “Law enforcement officers will provide access to unblock protesters driven by petty political issues,” he wrote.

[See: Developing countries face a catastrophic lack of urban planning capacity]

In fact, in the aftermath of the Meethotamulla tragedy, the same old dynamics appear to have been set in motion. The government was forced to obtain a court order to use the new locations, and public protests erupted even before the first trucks arrived. Those demonstrations even turned violent, leading to the use of tear gas and water cannons.

The situation ultimately compelled Sri Lanka’s highest authority to get involved: President Maithripala Sirisena outlawed citizens from preventing the collection or disposal of garbage. A week after the Meethotamulla disaster, garbage trucks rolled in to dump their loads at locations around Colombo, while protesters held placards and watched silently.

The situation remains tense. Further, few feel confident a permanent solution is anywhere on the horizon.

Meanwhile, Meethotamulla is unlikely to be inhabited again, even if is no longer receiving Colombo’s waste. Residents have been moved out, and the government already has handed over 80 new apartments to affected families.

The army has built an earthen bund around the base of the dump as a precautionary measure against further collapses. However, their work was hampered when a team of Japanese experts found high methane levels around the dump and recommended that the soldiers be moved out.

[See: In India, training the next generation of urbanists]

For Keerthirathana, however, the battle is done. He says the personal losses are too much to bear. “It was all for nothing,” he said. “Things will go on as usual. The dumping will continue — if not here, somewhere else, till the next tragedy.”

Authorities say that will not be the case, that things will change. But for now, the only realistic option to rid the cities of piling garbage mounds is dumping. “Lets see what happens,” Keerthirathana said with a shrug.

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Amantha Perera is a journalist based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. He writes for a variety of international outlets concentrating on humanitarian, climate and post-conflict issues. Full bio

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