Trash mountain vs humans: ‘survival of the fittest’ | Sunday Observer

Trash mountain vs humans: ‘survival of the fittest’

The tragedy on New Year’s day at Meetotamulla made us understand the gravity of Colombo’s ‘human-garbage’ conflict .

Like a monster in prey, the giant mound of garbage collapsed when the whole country was in a festive mood, and the families gathered in their homes to celebrate.

The families in the foot of the trash dump too gathered home to celebrate one of the country’s prominent calendar events – Sinhala and Tamil New Year. If not for the much awaited celebrations, the death toll could have been much less with kids in school and adults in workplaces or out running errands.

Oblivious to the lurching danger hovering above them, some families were still having their Avurudu lunch while others were engaged in post lunch chatter with the relatives of their extended families.

With no warning they were buried alive beneath a rotting mound of garbage. For eight years, they have been fighting with for a solution from the state, to stop the garbage from being dumped and to remove the dump from their midst. While the marsh had been used for many years before that to illegally dump garbage, the site became an official dump site only in 2009.

The demand was to relocate the garbage dump. But ironically, the affected families will be relocated in other areas by the state. This may include the families in the danger zone and surving members of 98 fully and partially damaged houses in the tragedy struck areas. Authorities are still studying the implications of moving out all the families in the danger zone. The trash mountain has emerged the fittest in its battle against humans – ‘survival of the fittest’.

As shameful as it sounds to die a horrible death at the foot of a giant garbage dump, this is not the first of such case in the world. Last month in Ethiopia over 60 people died when a mountain of trash collapsed in the outskirts of the capital Adis Ababa.

The National Building Research Organisation (NBRO) was summoned to the scene on April 14 soon after the tragedy, to assess the probable cause for the New Year day disaster. They were required to advice on action to prevent a further catastrophe. Having had experience with only earth lips and other natural disasters, it is their first assignment with a trash mountain.

“Our offices are on the site since April 14, they have completed demarcating the danger zone to prevent further tragedy,” Director General of NBRO Dr.Asiri Karunawardena explaining the Sunday Observer the current situation on Thursday said.

The local geologist team is assisted by a Japanese expert team sent in by JICA. The Japanese team will advice the government on solid waste management, geo technical aspects and socio economic concerns.

A team from the World Bank is expected to extend support to find a permanent solution for this unregulated trash site in Meetotamulla.

The initial undertaking is to minimize the risk and avoid further catastrophe during the coming rainy season.In a report prepared by NBRO’s Dr Karunawardena, it is claimed that there had been more than 100mm of rainfall in Colombo in the three days prior to the catastrophe. “High rain fall may have caused part of the southern slope of the waste dump to ‘fail’ (collapse) damaging many houses situated at the toe region of the failure. These houses were completely ‘pushed away’, tilted or buried in the debris along with their inhabitants,” Dr.Karunawardena explained. Sunday Observer has not been able to verify the rainfall figures from the meteorological department at press time.

The scientists with the NBRO have reported with the infiltration of rain water the weight of the dump had increased significantly. This additional weight could have caused the instability in underneath soft soil. The site is a marshy land containing 8 meters of unstable peat soil beneath the dump.

‘The weight resulted in a lateral movement of the peat layer in the direction of the houses. A significant upheaval has taken place at the toe region and 79 houses located in this area were severely destroyed. ‘

Dr.Karunawardena dismissed any explosion related causes going by the findings so far in response to certain reports indicating that there may have been a pocket methane explosion when residents set fire to a excavator that was working during the avurudu time.

The site observations have shown several cracks with wide lateral opening on the location and adjacent areas compelling the NBRO to warn that people in over 230 houses need to be relocated. Blocking of some drains caused a minor flood situation as well.

The NBRO Director General said the structural flaws in the houses, which do not conform to building standards on marshy terrain, aggravated an already vulnerable situation. This fact attributed to the houses being swept away with the loose soil.

Investigations are continuing at the dump site. The scientists have also concluded that the site was not feasible for a trash dump of this magnitude. Initially, in 2009, only an extent of two acres had been demarcated for the landfill. But today, it has expanded up to a massive 22 acres. The dump is 516 metres long and 304 meters wide with the highest point of the mountain reaching 48 metres. The NBRO estimates the site could contain 1 million metric tonnes of trash. The unofficial estimates of the volume of the garbage dump are much higher.

Geologist and Emeritus Professor Kapila Dahanayake who visited the Meethotamulla site on Tuesday said although it was too early to come up with an accurate conclusion as to what had caused the dump to collapse, the unregulated and haphazard dumping patterns too may have contributed to the tragedy.

“Prior to demarcating this area the officials have not consulted expert advice, it is such an unfortunate situation, “ Emeritus Prof.Dahanayake said.

The government as a long term plan is looking into the feasibility of re-locating the garbage mound in Puttlam.

Impact area map of  the failure at solid waste disposal site

Probable cause of failure