What should have been a joyous celebration of the National New Year became a nightmare on Friday for many families living near the Meethotamulla garbage dump  — when mounds of garbage crashed down on their houses in a devastating landslide. By last afternoon, at least 19 people had been confirmed dead due to the disaster. [...]


New Year nightmare: Garbage dump turns into graveyard

* Meethotamulla catastrophe leaves at least 19 dead and many missing * Angry residents slam politicians for not heeding warnings

Pix by Indika Handuwala, Nilan Madigaspe and Gayan Amarasekera

What should have been a joyous celebration of the National New Year became a nightmare on Friday for many families living near the Meethotamulla garbage dump  — when mounds of garbage crashed down on their houses in a devastating landslide.

By last afternoon, at least 19 people had been confirmed dead due to the disaster. Five of the dead were children. Many still remain unaccounted for.

Residents said the collapse of the garbage mound started between 2.30 pm and 3.00pm on Friday. Since it was a holiday, most people were in their homes when the disaster hit. Many houses were also hosting guests, with relatives and friends visiting for the New Year.

The sheer force of the garbage landslide, said to have been caused by a fire,  left a trail of destruction in its wake. Large trees were uprooted. Swept away and destroyed were sturdy houses, several storeys high.

Four rescue teams, comprising the police and tri-forces personnel, worked their way through the Nagahamulla, Neelagewatta, Daham Mawatha and 23 Watta areas from Friday evening looking for survivors. Rescuers, who worked through the night, managed to pull out 11 people alive from the rubble and rush them to the National Hospital. Last evening, seven of them were still warded.

Army Spokesman Roshan Seneviratne said 600 armed forces personnel were engaged in rescue operations at the site.

The Government said yesterday it would meet the funeral expenses of all those killed in the disaster.

According to police, 145 houses had been damaged or destroyed by the garbage landslide. This has resulted in the displacement of 625 people from 180 families.

Pic courtesy Sri Lanka Air Force

The lack of clarity regarding how many people remained missing continued to hamper rescue efforts yesterday. Senior military officials overseeing rescue operations told the Sunday Times they still had no clear idea regarding the missing. An information center had been established at the nearby Rahula Vidyalaya where area residents could provide details of missing relatives. This, however, had not met with much success.

Even the local Grama Niladhari, who could have provided important details regarding area residents affected by the disaster, was himself among the missing, along with several members of his family.

A large number of families had been separated during the chaotic time of the disaster and its immediate aftermath. Some of those thought to be initially buried under the rubble were later found safe at other locations. As the day wore on, however, fears increased that those who remained unaccounted for may not have made it out in time.

Area resident Mohamed Ifthar told the Sunday Times he was still searching for his mother-in-law, daughter and two of his grandchildren, who were feared trapped under the rubble.

The landslide buried large swathes of ‘Dahampuragama’ at Pansalhena in Kolonnawa. Tension prevailed in the area yesterday, with angry residents venting their fury at the authorities for their failure to resolve long-standing issues surrounding the controversial garbage dump before Friday’s catastrophe. Area residents said a large drain was dug at the site several days before by workers, while a gas was also released in a bid to compress the garbage at the site by making it decay. This, coupled with heavy rains experienced over several days, may have contributed to the garbage landslide, they claimed.

Another resident, H.A. Dissanayake, said his house was situated some 200 feet from the garbage dump. Though he and his family members escaped, the force of the landslide had completely destroyed his house and everything in it, he added.

Fathima Fazlina told us that many houses in her lane had been buried in the landslide. “We don’t know what happened to people in those houses. We are still searching. No senior Government official has come here so far to help us,” she said.  

Advanced Level student Tharushi Navodya, due to sit for her exam this year, lamented that she had lost all her books and her property as she had to rush out of the house to escape. Her house too was buried under rubble.

Just after the disaster hit, area residents had tried to dig people out as best they could. Eranga Lankadeegoda, had been one such person. He said rescue efforts were hampered a great deal due to delay in getting vital earth moving equipment to the site. “We felt helpless as many people were trapped and crying out for help. Some of the bodies were in pieces.”

Feroze Khan said his house, which he had built at great cost over many years, was buried under mounds of garbage and earth. “It was three storeys high. But now, houses which were situated on higher ground have been swept along with the landslide and are lying on top of my house.”

Mr. Khan was furious over years of inaction by authorities. “We have been warning them for years that this could happen. Yet, they paid no attention.”

Much of the residents’ anger was also directed towards politicians, who they said had not taken  concrete steps to stop the continued dumping of garbage at the site over many years. They claimed that both the former Government and the present one had all but ignored repeated warnings that the ever growing mountain of garbage was posing a severe threat to people’s lives.

Padma Dias, a housewife, claimed that she and her children had been among those who had been protesting continuously over the garbage dump. “The Government would send the police to beat us when we protested and chase us away. They come now and act like they are sad, but they could have resolved this before so many people died.”

Pic courtesy Sri Lanka Army

He saw the tragedy coming, but could not save them

Keerthirathna Perera

For years, Keerthirathna Perera had been at the forefront of the protests against the continued dumping of garbage in Meethotamulla.

On Friday evening, Mr. Perera had noticed that the earth at the garbage dump near his house was starting to move. “We decided to start removing our belongings from the house as a precaution. I went to my three-wheeler which was parked outside. As soon as I went outside, the landslide began,” he said.    The garbage dump came crashing down on top of Mr. Perera’s house. He found his wife half buried in the rubble. “My granddaughter was buried next to her, but only one of her arms was visible.” After frantic digging, Mr. Perera and others managed to take out his wife and take her to hospital. She is currently in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU).

However, a distraught Mr. Perera said he was unable to pull out his grandchild, who died at the scene. Several other members of his family, including his son-in-law and a grandson are still missing.


Dogs sensed the disaster

Many area residents claim that their pets, especially dogs, had sensed the impending disaster almost an hour before the landslide struck.

According to witnesses, dogs which were either locked inside houses or chained at various locations had become agitated and had tried hard to escape. Even stray dogs on the streets had behaved in an agitated manner and many had run away from the location, residents said.

Dogs which left the area before the landslide returned later and were now roaming freely around, they said.

The dump will be removed: PM

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in a response to Friday’s tragedy said the Government had drafted plans and was taking measures to resolve the Meeethotamulla garbage dump issue.

Issuing a statement from Japan, where he is on an official visit, Mr. Wickremesinghe assured the area people that the Government would provide relief to the families of all those who lost their lives, those who were injured or lost their properties in the disaster. He said a committee had been set up and it would brief the people on the compensation payments.

The Prime Minister also assured the Government would fulfil the promise to remove the garbage dump from the area. Steps had already been taken in this regard and the process was moving forward rapidly, he said.

The Premier said the Government had also agreed to incorporate several proposals put forward by area Parliamentarian S.M. Marikkar in resolving the garbage issue. He said the steps being taken to remove the garbage dump were environmentally friendly and were within the law.

20 ‘vultures’ arrested

Police last evening said they had arrested 20 people who were suspected of planning to rob properties damaged due to the collapse of the garbage dump.

In one instance, a gang of thieves, including women, had allegedly tried to rob Rs.100,000 from an individual near the location of the disaster.  The attempt was thwarted but the alleged thieves escaped.

Police have urged people not to visit the area as it may hamper rescue and relief operations.

No more garbage at Meethotamulla

In the aftermath of Friday’s garbage landslide, the Government has decided to halt further dumping of garbage at Meethotamulla.

Deputy Foreign Minister Harsha De Silva announced yesterday that two temporary locations had been identified to dump garbage from Colombo.

Colombo’s Municipal Commissioner V.K. Anura told the Sunday Times the new process would begin from tomorrow. He said the decision to stop dumping garbage in Meethotamulla did not mean that the people would see mounds of garbage lying uncollected on Colombo’s streets. “We assure the people that this will not happen. Garbage will be collected as usual.”

The Megapolis and Western Development Ministry, meanwhile, has been working on finding solutions to the city’s garbage problem.

Ministry Secretary N. Rupasinghe said providing a short-term solution to the garbage issue was the responsibility of the Colombo Municipality. “It will have to make this temporary solution work for about two-and-a-half years, during which time we will be able to find a permanent solution,” he said.

Mr. Rupasinghe said the initial plan had been to transport garbage collected in Colombo to Aruvakkalu in the Puttalam district. “However, due to protests by various environmental organisations, we had to push that back and it will take about four years for that to be completed,”

Meanwhile, the Ministry has also entered into an agreement with a power company to set up a garbage treatment plant at Meethotamulla. This facility would be ready in two years.ax


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