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Meetotamulla: Shameful failure,

human tragedy

Meetotamulla children with national cricketer Rangana Herath in


their temporary accommodation. (AFP photo by Ishara. S.
Kodikara).
by Rajan Philips-April 22, 2017, 7:42 pm

The shame of Meetotamulla is that for 40


years successive Sri Lankan governments have not been able to
find a location for an engineered, or sanitary, landfill to deposit
Colombos garbage. Its tragedy is that people had to die because
a makeshift mountain of garbage came crashing down on their
dwellings. The problem, in its simplest formulation, is that
Colombo has no place to bury its garbage and nobody else wants
to bury Colombos garbage in their backyard. Underlying this
simplicity are vested interests, identified as the kunu mafia, who
want to keep making quick and dirty money hauling Colombos
garbage to any open dump within the City. The mafia does not
want Colombos garbage to leave Colombo. At the overarching
level, our multiple layers of government cannot get their act
together and find a burial place not just for Colombos garbage
but for all the garbage generated in the entire Western Province.

Garbage, more than any other human product, aptly captures Sri
Lankas geo-political lopsidedness. The daily national garbage
output is estimated as 1,300 metric tons. Nearly 60% is produced
in the Western Province. No other province exceeds 10% of the
national output. The Eastern and Central provinces are at 8%, the
Southern Province at 7%, North Western Province 6%, and all the
others are garbage minions at 3% or less. The Western Province
(WP) and Colombo might seem to be punching garbage well
above their population weight: WP with about 30% population is
producing 60% of national garbage, and Colombo with less than
15% of the population is accounting for 30% of garbage. In reality,
the contributors to the Citys and the broader Metropolitan
Colombos (which is really the entire Western Province) garbage
include not only the residents of Colombo and its metropolis but
also the daily visitors to Colombo from everywhere else. So
Colombos garbage problem is a national problem!

The City of Colombo grew in population and economic


concentration while burying its garbage in its outskirts like
Wanathamulla and Orugodawatte, which can no longer be
recognized for what they were once. Former dump yards now
sport residential dwellings and industrial warehouses. Kolonnawa
which came late to the game has not been so lucky and has been
the victim of rapid increases in the quantities and varieties of
garbage concomitant with Colombos rather disorderly
transformation under the open economy in 1977. I say disorderly,
because inadequate attention was given to building up
institutional and infrastructure capacity to accommodate
Colombos rapid changes as urban development picked up pace
after 1977 like never before. There was no systematic and
consistent effort to build up capacity in transport, water service,
and sanitary service. Garbage was at the bottom of the pile of
neglects, and now it has risen to the top drawing international
attention for Sri Lanka, after Ethiopia.

The elusive landfill search

In fairness, however, the national government has been searching


for a landfill for Colombos garbage since the late 1980s. A World
Bank funded initiative did find a suitable location at Alutpotha,
close to Hanwella in the Avisawella area, 40 km from Colombo.
According to Prof. OA Ileperumas periodical contributions on the
subject, the site is located between hillocks, has suitable (clay)
soil conditions, is in a sparsely populated area and has no
significant ecological features nearby. The site was assessed to
have capacity to receive not just the City of Colombos, but all of
the Western Provinces garbage from Negombo to Panadura. The
site is also located close to the abandoned KV rail line making rail
haulage feasible. The initiative went as far as awarding the
construction contract to a Chinese company with total World Bank
funding, but ran into roadblocks of protests by environmental
groups, nearby villagers and local politicians. The project dragged
from 1991 to 1999, and through three presidencies, before it was
abandoned. By all accounts, it was political failure at every level.

Since that time, Colombo has been operating on makeshift


dumpsites, mistakenly called landfills, with no alternative location
in sight. There are apparently two Waste Management Facilities,
so called, in the Western Province, at Karadiyana for the
southwestern parts of the province, and in Kolonnawa for the rest.
Meetotamulla, in Kolonnawa, became a temporary recipient after
the dumpsite at Bloemendhal became inoperative apparently
owing to methane fire. Meetotamulla residents went to the
Supreme Court and won a restraining order, in 2009, which
restricted the use of the location to two years and two acres. The
restrictions were not honoured and the site has been in operation
for six years in violation of the court ruling. When the people
protested in 2011 against continued dumping in violation of the
court ruling, the government rather than abiding by the court
ruling unleashed the police on the protestors.

The next milestone in garbage saga is the Puttalam solution, with


conflicting attributions to patency. Demonstrating crass
insensitivity, former President Mahinda Rajapkasa has claimed he
was ready with the Puttalam solution in 2014, but he could not
implement it because he was defeated in 2015. Others have
attributed patency to Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and are insisting that
the present government go ahead and implement the Puttalam
solution. To my mind, the Puttalam solution appears to be a rather
Cadillac solution in comparison to the earlier Alutpotha proposal.

The Puttalam solution involves transporting garbage from


Kolonnawa by train on an exclusive new rail corridor over 170 km
to be deposited in the limestone quarry pits used for cement
manufacture in Puttalam. The selected 30 ha lands at Aruwakkalu,
north of Puttalam, are located within the one mile buffer zone of
the Wilpattu National Park, in proximity to the Kala Oya/Lunu Oya
estuary, and overlaying a well-known heritage geological site. As
usual, cabinet approval for the project was given in August 2014
before the Environmental Assessment was completed. As usual as
well, there were conflicting messages in regard to project
implementation, with the Rajapaksa government indicating that
the project would be undertaken. Holcim Cement Corporation
(worlds biggest cement manufacturer of Swiss origin, that
became even bigger after merging with its rival Frances
Lafarge), and Holcim denied all or any involvement.

In any event, the present government could not proceed with the
Puttalam solution owing to the obviously significant
environmental impacts associated with this site. It is ridiculous to
suggest, as is being done in some circles, that buffer zone
restriction could be set aside by the government because it is for
a government undertaking! At the same time, there have been
other sober suggestions that the whole concept need not be
abandoned because it is possible to find a more acceptable site in
the same area but to the south of the site identified in 2014. It
beats me why this more southerly location could not have been
through the Environmental Assessment and the government
advised accordingly before the recommendation was presented to
the cabinet for approval.

Looking ahead

For its part, the present government while not proceeding with
the Puttalam solution does not seem to have been working on
other alternative solutions. There have been suggestions that
something was in the works while the Meetotamulla tragedy
happened, but no minister has come out with any specific
information. And in a cabinet of centurions there is no one
assigned to tackle Colombos garbage. To make matters worse,
Minister Champika Ranawaka, perhaps the only engineer in the
cabinet, has demonstrated that he still doesnt get it. To say, as
he did, the day after Meetotamulla, that in future no garbage will
be allowed on UDA lands is not to demonstrate an understanding
of the problem, but betray the worst form of urban disease, NIMBY
(Not in my Backyard), at the cabinet level. And he has got into an
unseemly a public spat with the Western Province Chief Minister.
The two are accusing each other of negligence and incompetence
while showing no training or capacity to work as a team in the
face of a common problem.

From a socio-technical standpoint, while the practice of dumping


garbage in open pits might be as old as society, handling solid
waste in the modern urban context involves both progressive
social practices and the use of technology. Engineering alone will
not solve the garbage problem, and it can only address what is
left after reducing, reusing and recycling waste as much as
possible. There is no other way. Technologically, while incineration
is considered unsuitable for Sri Lankan waste given its high
organic and moisture contents, gasification for bio-gas generation
is a possibility.

As for landfills, there is apparently only one engineered, or


sanitary, landfill in the whole country, and that too in a location
where it might be least needed. I am referring to the sanitary
landfill in Dompe built in 2014 with South Korean support. It has
capacity to receive 90 tons of garbage daily, but is serving a
Pradeshiya Sabha that generates 15 tons of garbage in a day. I
am not sure if any thought was given to building a larger facility
at this location to cater to larger (garbage) catchment area. It
surely seems a missed opportunity given the elusive search for
landfills over 30 years.

Moving forward, the first order of business for the government is


to stabilize the garbage mountain at Meetotamulla and
proactively contain the effects of future mishaps. In my view, the
private sector should not be entrusted with building new sanitary
landfills, but the government could hand over existing dumps to
the private sector for profitable mining under strict environmental
guidelines. The search for landfill sites and creating new sanitary
landfills should be co-ordinated between the three levels of
government. Local involvement in the process will only help local
acceptance. It would be futile to search for one grand site for all
the garbage from Colombo and the Western Province. Instead,
multiple locations for smaller landfills will reduce attendant social
and environmental impacts, and reduce as well the intensity of
objections and protests.

Given their proximity, the Western, Northwestern and


Sabragamuwa provinces could be treated as one large garbage
catchment area for identifying suitable landfill sites. And where a
site is located outside the Western Province, it should not be for
the purpose of receiving garbage only from Colombo, but for
addressing the garbage needs of adjacent towns and villages as
well. This again goes to emphasize that the national, provincial
and local governments should be working not at cross-purposes
but in co-ordination and collaboration.
Posted by Thavam