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Colombo: The Garbage Apocalypse


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Staff Writer

Out on the roads, without the least flinch of self-respect at the congregating pests or the trampling tyres, the selfishness of our people appears to be on naked display. Bin bags disgorging week-old lunches, puddles of black slime, little hammocks of garbage nailed to walls, and bonfires in backyards—how did Colombo get the looks of an anarchist dystopia? When the Meethotamulla garbage mountain killed 32 people, Sri Lanka thought it had a garbage problem; now we seem to have a breakdown of basic decency and public order.

The Panic

More worrying than the garbage on the roads was the panic with which the government reacted. There were reports of irregular executive orders to deploy the military for garbage collection, which were followed by the predictable outrage. Opposition Parliamentarian Udaya Gammanpila shamed the government for degrading war heroes and former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa pointed out the hypocrisy of a government that had championed the dignity of soldiers while in the opposition. Signalling even more desperation, there was Lankadeepa’s report that President Sirisena had given Western Province Chief Minister Isura Devapriya an ultimatum of three days to make the garbage vanish. However, both news stories turned out to be merely partial truths.

Speaking to Roar, Military Spokesperson Brigadier Roshan Seneviratne dismissed claims that the military is being used to clean roads. He clarified that the military has merely been directed to monitor the garbage collection process and to inform the relevant authorities of any inefficiencies—a role that it had been performing for over two years.

“There was a separate unit established under the Ministry of Defence called the Colombo Beautification Unit,” said Seneviratne. “We have recce groups that watch out for points where garbage piles up and notify the police or the local authorities.”

The presidential ultimatum, too, has been disputed. The Chief Minister denied that he had received any such warning while pledging to cleanse all of Colombo’s roads of garbage dumps within a week.

Garbage piled up on streets: not an uncommon sight in Colombo now. Image credit: Roar/Thiva Arunagirinathan

Secretary to Chief Minister Devapriya, Lalith Kannangara, told Roar the Western Provincial Council is signing new agreements with private companies that offer a sustainable solution to Colombo’s garbage, aiming at the success of the recycling plant in Dompe.

“Other countries earn from their garbage,” said Kannangara, “whereas Sri Lanka spends money on garbage. This is why we needed a new kind of solution.”

He further added that the Western Provincial Council has so far signed agreements for waste management with Fairway Holdings in respect of Colombo, and with Trilogy Environmental ETS Private Limited in respect of Gampaha.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Meanwhile, the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC) spoke in contrasting notes of assurance. V. K. A. Anura, the Commissioner of the CMC, said that the garbage separation programme has proven largely successful. The CMC has made it a policy to reject garbage from households that do not separate the waste into organic and inorganic matter. According to Anura, this has increased the quotient of recyclable garbage, reducing the dumping from approximately 1,200 tonnes to 700 tonnes per day. Since the Meethotamulla disaster, this portion of garbage has been diverted to a dump site demarcated by the Lowlands Development Board in Muthurajawela.

However, the CMC’s policy has resulted in the penalised households accumulating garbage that they have no way of disposing. “It is these people who dump garbage on the roads,” said Anura. “We have been trying to battle this by arresting those who illegally dump garbage.” This is a conclusion to which Kannangara also subscribes. We are left with the question whether the CMC solved one problem by creating another.

A garbage pile-up on Kadiresan Street, Colombo 13. Citizens whose garbage is rejected by the CMC have made it a habit of dumping their garbage illegally on the road. Image credit: Roar/Thiva Arunagirinathan

After being exposed to public reproof, the individual organs of the government’s waste management apparatus seem to accept only a calculated portion of accountability and cooperate a little less cordially. The Kolonnawa Urban Council (KUC), which hosts the Meethotamulla garbage mountain, has encountered very exacting terms at the Muthurajawela dump site.

“Two trucks carrying our garbage were turned back because they had three plastic items,” said E. M. N. R. Ekanayake, the Public Health Inspector attached the KUC. He explained that this absolute enforcement of protocol is good news, had the KUC also had sufficient facilities to separate their garbage. The garbage that is collected from households has to be pooled, sorted, and loaded again onto trucks bound to Muthurajawela. The KUC has requested to use a nearby land of 120 perches belonging to the Urban Development Authority for this purpose, but no such arrangement has been made.

“We don’t even have 10 perches to unload and reload the garbage,” said Ekanayake. “For some reason, the land that we requested for this purpose has been given to a hardware store belonging to a private person.”

The Human Obstacles

In keeping with the CMC’s policy, the KUC has designated particular days of the week to collect either organic or inorganic garbage. The KUC has taken legal action against 17 individuals for dumping garbage illegally on the roads, and the police has arrested 154 such offenders within Colombo between June 24 and June 25. Clearly, the waste management system is creaking into action; these interdepartmental frictions might only be there till the rust of the years is shaken off.

Public compliance, too, might increase when the garbage collection process proves to be regular and permanent. For the moment, Ekanayake said that the public appear to resent the inconvenience that the new programme has added to their routines.

“There are times when the people attack our collectors with the garbage parcels themselves,” said Ekanayake. “They say that they have no place to store the garbage we reject.”

Ekanayake added that he understands that some of these people, especially the disenfranchised living in slums, may have difficulties adjusting to the new regime.

“Kolonnawa is made up mostly of slums,” he said, “these people barely live in a ten-by-ten block of land. Where can they separate and store garbage till we collect? So they dump it on the roads.”

Michael George Isaac, a garbage collector attached to the CMC, said that the public response to the garbage separation policy has been mixed. Image courtesy writer

The garbage collectors themselves report of the split of public enthusiasm on economic lines. Michael George Isaac, a garbage collector at the CMC, said that certain neighbourhoods tend to be more cooperative with the garbage separation.

“It’s not that we don’t collect garbage,” said Isaac, “we don’t accept garbage from people who don’t separate. It’s them who pay some drug addict to throw it on the road.”

Nature, Garbage, Or Tax Money—Something’s Got To Give

Recently, Minister of Megapolis and Western Development, Patali Champika Ranawaka, dramatically announced the Metro Colombo Solid Waste Management Project—a megastructure capable of detoxing and decomposing our mountains of gunk, leaving no stains behind. A processing plant in Kelaniya would prepare the garbage into compressed blocks and send them to a sanitary landfill in Aruwakkalu, Puttalam. Engineered with the assistance of the Korean government, the complex in Aruwakkalu is also expected to recycle plastic and paper and to separate e-waste. According to Minister Ranawaka, the Aruwakkalu was chosen for the hollowed quarries that cement companies have left in the area, which can easily be converted into landfills. The complex will at first limit itself to garbage generated within Puttalam as a pilot project, and then later address garbage on a national scale.

Addressing a press conference on June 26, the Minister stressed the need for the country to invest earnestly in waste management if it doesn’t want garbage to be a recurring crisis. The complex in Aruwakkalu is projected to cost approximately LKR 15 billion—a sum that he implored the public to view in comparison with the investments that the government has made for other development projects.

“This [money needed for the recycling plant] is not a huge amount,” said Ranawaka, “it’s about the cost of constructing three kilometres of the [Colombo-Kandy] Highway.”

A protest by residents of Karadiyana, carrying the slogan “We don’t want Colombo garbage”. Image courtesy lankatruth.com

The Minister also spent an alarming amount of time discouraging “pseudo protests” to sabotage a national solution, even on environmental grounds. It is true that selfish protests echoing “we don’t want Colombo garbage” gridlocked any attempt to solve the Meethotamulla garbage mountain. However, the public should remain wary of the long-term repercussions of Minister Ranawaka’s proposal on the environment. With its location in Aruwakkalu and planned conversion of quarries into sanitary landfills, this project looks suspiciously like a clone of the previous government’s project that was defeated by environmental objections. Minister Ranawaka has assured that the project is awaiting its Environmental Impact Assessment to be launched. He also maintains that this megastructure is placed 3.5 km away from the Wilpattu National Park, which is outside the buffer zone of one mile around the reserve.

“The World Bank has sent their officials and approved this project,” said Ranawaka, explaining that the government has taken due care planning the project, “if there is anyone who wants to protest this project, they have to take the responsibility for Colombo’s garbage and problems it causes.”

Giving Up Ginger For Chilli?

A cow feeds from an illegally dumped bin-bag in Nugegoda. The irresponsible behaviour of some citizens is causing havoc for the whole of Colombo. Image Credit: Roar/Muditha Katuwawala

Minister Ranawaka has cause to anticipate resistance. The project proposed by the previous regime tripped off every alarm for even the most complaisant environmentalist. Its proposed landfills were a mere 300 metres away from the Wilpattu National Park, brashly within the mile-long buffer zone. The leachate, or the putrid slime that a garbage pile is known to ooze, was in danger of mixing freely with the nearby Lunu Oya River. It was understood that Wilpattu National Park, declared a wetland of international importance by the Ramsar Convention, would be a fatal casualty if the project were ever to succeed.

Executive Director of the Centre for Environmental Justice, Hemantha Withanage, warns that Minister Ranawaka’s project has inherited most of those evils.

“The only difference between the two projects is the distance from Wilpattu National Park,” said Withanage adding, “but make no mistake, the project is bad for the environment this time, too.”

He explained that the bottom of the landfill is only separated from a nationally important underground rock imbued with water—called an aquifer—by a layer of tarpaulin, which can easily crack with the passage of time. If the aquifer is contaminated, the entire ecosystem of Wilpattu could be poisoned. The Wilpattu National Park supports many important species, such as the vulnerable migrant bird, the lesser adjutant (Leptoptilos javanicus), and the endangered and endemic Sri Lankan leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya). Withanage further noted that the site also contains archaeologically important fossils of the Miocene age, the destruction of which would erase a part of our history forever.

“Ministers think that development means the destruction of our resources,” said Withanage. “There is a better alternative. Sri Lanka needs to adopt a zero waste policy.”

In keeping with a zero-waste policy, Withanage advocates the total ban of polythene in the country. He asserted that it is not an ideal that developing nations can’t afford; Rwanda, a much poorer country than Sri Lanka, Withanage explained, has successfully banned polythene. If garbage is effectively separated, every single inorganic item could be profitably recycled, or exported to countries such as China that have the technology to do so. World renowned waste management principles such as the Extended Producer Responsibility, which burdens the producer of pollutants to collect and recycle their products after use, can be implemented to effectively devolve the government’s work. He said that the price of an alternative solution of such long-term benefits would be cheaper than the cost of transporting garbage for 170 kilometres from Colombo to Aruwakkalu.

“Minister Ranawaka’s solution is only going to cost money for the country,” said Withanage, “whereas a zero-waste alternative will generate income for the country.”

If the Aruwakkalu project is authorised, Minister Ranawaka said that work would begin by September 2017 and finish by 2019. With a capacity to absorb garbage for the next 10 years, Minister Ranawaka’s paean to the project sounds as reassuring as a lullaby, while the environmentalists’ warning sounds as welcome as a bus horn. Whatever music we would have to face, the public would have chosen it, either by action or by omission.

Featured image: Pedestrians walk past a garbage pile-up on a road in Manning Market, Pettah. Image credit: Roar/Thiva Arunagirinathan

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