The “stupidest” solution to the Meethotamulla garbage disaster is to move this mountain of muck, as suggested by some politicians, warn experts. Colombo seems unable to handle its day-to-day waste, so how will the Meethotamulla solid waste mountain be moved, asked many sources, warning that the consequences of such an attempt will be another fiasco. [...]


Playing football with Colombo’s garbage

* Moving Meethotamulla dump stupid idea: Waste management expert calls for urgent measures to stabilise the landfill *Problem aggravated because professionals were sidelined and politicians without proper knowledge took decisions * Several sites were selected and abandoned; lack of political will and foresight blamed for current crisis

Meethotamulla dump: The answer is not to move it but stabilise it

The “stupidest” solution to the Meethotamulla garbage disaster is to move this mountain of muck, as suggested by some politicians, warn experts.
Colombo seems unable to handle its day-to-day waste, so how will the Meethotamulla solid waste mountain be moved, asked many sources, warning that the consequences of such an attempt will be another fiasco.

They were quick to point out that nowhere in the world has such a foolish thing ever been suggested or implemented.

The answer is to “stabilise” the Meethotamulla landfill, say numerous experts, including the World Bank’s former solid waste management expert, Sumith Pilapitiya. He detailed a solution to the Sunday Times.

“The Meethotamulla garbage mountain is unstable because its slopes are too steep. What needs to be done very quickly is to relocate the people so that it allows room for the slopes to be spread out making these slopes stable,” said Dr. Pilapitiya, explaining that once the slopes are stabilised which should be done quickly, gas vents should be inserted into the dump to allow the methane to be released from within the mountain, after which the methane should be flared. Thereafter, the whole area should be covered with about three feet of soil and grass grown on top. Years later, in about 15 to 20 years, when the landfill has settled and the solid waste has degraded slowly, even constructions could be put up.

This is the way out of this crisis and it has been tried and tested all over the world, he said, adding that when large landfills are being closed such measures would prevent them from collapsing, while the soil layer would stop a strong stench emanating from it.

Urging the authorities to allow professionals with technical expertise and know-how to handle such matters, Dr. Pilapitiya said that where Sri Lanka goes wrong is because crucial technical decisions are being made by politicians. “The problem with politicians actively getting involved in the decision-making process is that they have short-term interests and no accountability to the public.”

A proper solid waste management programme needs a lead time of at least two to three years, the Sunday Times understands.

For, the essential components are:

* Identifying a site and performing an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA)

* Designing the site

* Constructing the site

* Planning the requirements for a waste-to-energy process and also other waste treatment methods including biological methods

* Setting up a transportation network

Looking ahead, experts kept stressing that with any proper garbage disposal system taking at least three years, Puttalam’s Arawakkaru area behind the limestone quarries may be a good location.

“It should be turned into a ‘National Disposal Site’ with an investment plan in keeping with that, so that not only Colombo’s waste but also the waste from other areas may be transported by rail with a transit in Colombo. The plan should be for a National Disposal Site, but the construction could be in phases if 100% of the garbage will be heading there,” said an expert.

“With the Urban Development Authority (UDA) also holding discussions on waste disposal, all professionals with a technical know-how should sit together,” reiterated Dr. Pilapitiya, adding that what should be kept in mind is that whatever disposal method is undertaken there will always be some residue for disposal.

Citing the example of a waste-to-energy programme, he pointed out that the result would be lots of ash. There would be around 150 tons of ash per day from the garbage of the Greater Colombo area alone. Therefore, there should be a site for the disposal of this ash and it could be close to Colombo as ash is not obnoxious and people will not be upset with a wet landfill which has an ash-disposal pond.

Many experts were in agreement that for the disposal of solid waste there should be a site at the end of the line for non-degradable waste disposal and ash disposal.

This is why an Integrated Waste Management Programme is essential, for it would encompass recycling, composting and anaerobic digestion and also waste-to-energy for non-degradable combustible material.

Pointing out that the zero-waste concept is nonsense, Dr. Pilapitiya challenged anyone to try it out firstly in their homes by not burning anything; not burying anything; and not throwing away anything. “We can’t do it in our homes; so how can we do it in our city,” he asked, adding that there should be a political decision on where to put the waste.

Referring to the clamour of “Colomba kunu apita epa” by people, he said that then the floating population in Colombo which is larger than the resident population should be stopped from coming to Colombo for economic reasons. Is the floating population taking their kunu back to their villages? Everyone should chip in, because garbage is a national problem and it should also not become a political football to be kicked this way and that.

“Take the advice of professionals who have the know-how. Unfortunately, what happens in Sri Lanka is that within a week of a politician assuming a ministerial portfolio, he becomes the authority on any subject including garbage disposal. Then professionals have to listen to them and there is no accountability,” Dr. Pilapitiya said.

The Sunday Times understands that without any political will from successive governments since the 1990s for the implementation of a solid waste management plan, the dumping of garbage at Meethotamulla began in the early 1990s.

When there were public protests at Meethotamulla, garbage was dumped at Bloemendhal for some time before reverting to Meethotamulla in 2007-08.

“At least five years ago, a National Solid Waste Management Strategy was developed by the Environment Ministry but never implemented. This is because politicians just sweep the dust under the carpet for short-term gain and due to vested interests,” added an expert.

Meanwhile, the Sunday Times learns that the huge issue of garbage disposal was red-flagged as long as 20 years ago. However, no measures saw the light of day because the decision on the location of a landfill site was taken over by politicians of all hues.

“These politicians have kept on postponing a decision, without handling public outcries but giving in to such pressure in vote-catching bids until the Meethotamulla crisis occurred,” said another expert, adding that the mess continued, with politicians pretending there was no problem and turning a blind eye to the dumping at Meethotamulla.

It was Dr. Pilapitiya who stressed: “Please don’t blame a poor official who had no option but to continue using Meethotamulla for dumping, when there was absolutely no political will to find a viable garbage dumping site to end the crisis.”

The Sunday Times travelled down the garbage trail and found the lack of political will at every twist and turn of this mucky saga.

Early 1990s — The Metropolitan Environmental Improvement Programme (MEIP) is drawn up under the Policy Planning Ministry. The aim is to secure funding from the United Nations Development Fund (UNDP) and the WB.

The National Building Research Organization (NBRO) is funded to carry out a study to identify a suitable waste disposal site within a 50-km radius of Colombo. The NBRO comes up with a shortlist of key sites. The Government is to request WB funding for an Integrated Solid Waste Management Programme once a proper site is identified.

Mid-1990s – The Colombo Environmental Improvement Project (CEIP) is initiated.

* The NBRO, meanwhile, has identified several key sites, with the first on the list being at Padukka off the Avissawella Road. Although an environmental impact assessment (EIA) is to be carried out, the Government gives in to public protests, without dealing with them for the greater good. With politicians making the decisions, the site is abandoned.

* The next on the list is the Galudupita marsh in Welisara. Professionals, however, warn the Government that the marsh would have to be engineered as a landfill as otherwise the environmental impact would be negative and such engineering would come with a huge price-tag. The EIA is done and funding secured from the WB, while there are mild public protests and bids called to hire a contractor to design the site, when the then Government realises the exorbitant cost, as professionals had pointed out before but not heeded. Finally, Galudupita as a landfill site is abandoned on the grounds of being “uneconomical”.

* Meepe, also on the Avissawella Road, is next on the list. According to experts, of the three sites of Padukka, Galudupita and Meepe, this was the best. For, it is not a wetland, it is not that populated and geo-technically the site seems good. An EIA is carried out, approval from the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) obtained but when public protests erupt, without dealing with them, Meepe is also abandoned. Citing the lack of political will and commitment, experts say that it was around this time that the Western Provincial Council elections were on the cards and two of the three contenders for the post of Chief Minister from the major political parties, without thinking of the long-term benefit to the country but playing to the gallery, publicly pledged at meetings held in the area that they would not make Meepe a landfill site. It was only one candidate who was the then Mayor of Colombo who avoided a meeting in the area, as he knew that a landfill was an essential need. “He, of course, lost because he didn’t go after the populist vote,” an expert recalled.

Late 1990s – Underlining the fact that there did not seem to be political will, the WB withdraws the funding for solid waste management. “If the politicians had the foresight, wisdom and courage to take strong decisions on the advice of professionals, Sri Lanka would not have faced the Meethotamulla tragedy,” said another expert, reiterating that at all these sites, unlike Meethotamulla, it would not have been an open dumping ground but an engineered sanitary landfill.

Sadly and tragically, since then there has been no political will to address this issue directly, lamented an expert, a view strongly echoed by many others.

Terrible mistake to dump garbage in MuthurajawelaMuthurajawela, being suggested for garbage dumping, is the worst location environmentally as it is a valuable wetland, the Sunday Times understands.

Stressing that it would be a “terrible mistake” to dump garbage in Muthurajawela, sources said that Muthurajawela is a Protected Area coming under the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) with both fauna and flora in a mangrove setting. It is also a swathe of land bordering the sea and the hydraulic conduction of pollutants in this wetland would be far greater than on dry land. Even if there is private property within this Protected Area, those properties are also governed by the law and certain activities are taboo.

Not only will the wetland be affected by the garbage but in the longer-term the Negombo lagoon and the sea off this area would also suffer major adverse effects, it is learnt.

Former World Bank expert and former DWC Director-General, Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya expressed serious concern that the DWC had not objected to this proposal to dump garbage at Muthurajawela. “Why has the DWC been silent on this critical issue?”

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