When a trash mountain spelt tragedy | Daily News

When a trash mountain spelt tragedy

Residents of the Colombo neighbourhood of Meethotamula had little idea that the urban-waste monster in their backyard would choose the Sinhala and Tamil New Year’s Day to collapse.

No tourist who has ever visited Colombo would associate the word “garbage” with the city. Possibly the cleanest capital city in South Asia, the sea-facing metropolis has for long been setting high benchmarks for the region. That is why last week’s “garbage landslide” near Colombo—when a pile of rubbish collapsed, killing at least 32 people and destroying nearly 150 homes—came as a rude shock.

April 14 began well for residents of Meethotamula, a lower-middle class neighbourhood not far from the Sri Lankan Parliament. They marked the morning of their traditional Sinhala and Tamil New Year’s Day with prayers and temple visits. They had little idea that the urban-waste monster in their backyard would choose that day to collapse. That too, spelling a tragedy of such magnitude. In a matter of hours, the trash pile morphed from a health hazard to a massive death trap.

In the days that followed, the Army sifted layers of rubbish to look for bodies of those who were killed when the 300 feet (90 m) high pile of waste gave way.

Almost a week after the incident, crumbling concrete walls and slabs pop out of the slush, meek under the weight of a garbage mountain. At a nearby camp, survivors are organising funerals for their relatives, including children, who were caught unawares or died trying to help others.

It is not that residents did not draw attention to it earlier. In fact, they had been protesting since 2011, asking civic authorities to clear the dump site. The stench had become unbearable, and their children were often falling sick.

A preventable accident?

Officials almost always responded, saying that a new project was in the pipeline, or that a long-term plan was being drafted. Neither took off. Conservancy agencies continued dumping nearly 800 tonnes of garbage every day at the same spot, the pile only mounting by the day. While the rest of Colombo sparkled, some thousand residents on the city’s northeastern edge were paying the price.

Leaders, past and present, have only been quick to point fingers in the other direction. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose brother and then Secretary to the Ministry of Defence Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, led the urban development authority, tweeted saying the tragedy was preventable. He pointed to his government’s 2014 plan for solid waste management, which he accused the successor government of ignoring.

While President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have assured residents of full support and compensation for relocation, some others in power have attributed the disaster to the failure of their predecessor government.

Now, a week after the incident and amidst a blame game played by politicians, Colombo looks and smells different. Piles of garbage stand unattended around street corners and shopping zones, choking the areas with the odour of perishing food waste and persistent plastic.

The government and its civic agencies are suddenly faced with a very basic question—where do we dump the city’s waste? Everywhere the conservancy vehicles go to empty the city’s garbage, residents are erupting in protest.

In all probability, Colombo’s posher neighbourhoods will be the first to return to their cleaner days. Residents will continue segregating waste at source, as per the practice introduced by the government some months ago. But where will their waste head to this time? 

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