The Unfolding Ecological Disaster at Aruwakkalu | Sunday Observer

The Unfolding Ecological Disaster at Aruwakkalu

The Aruwakkalu garbage dump
The Aruwakkalu garbage dump

On the 14th of April 2017, as families were preparing for Sinhala and Tamil New Year celebrations, the Meethotamulla garbage dump collapsed. In what residents of the area have since described as an ‘avalanche of waste’, 32 people were killed and 135 houses damaged. The disaster raised numerous questions about waste disposal in Sri Lanka, and the bureaucratic process by which this site was designated for its purpose. It also left a burning question as its aftermath – where would the garbage go now? The government’s answer to this was to fast-track the Aruwakkalu Sanitary Landfill project, which is located 32 kilometres from Puttalam.

Referred to as the ‘Metro Colombo Solid Waste Management Project’,disposal at Aruwakkalu commenced in August 2019. The landfill project is accepting waste even though the site’s construction remains far from complete because the Kerawalapitiya garbage dump – (where Colombo’s waste was originally sent to ) – apparently exceeded its capacity in early August this year.

Throughout the proposal and construction of the entire project, there were repeated assurances by the Ministry of Megapolis and Western Development (MMWD) and other proponents that it was a “world-class” solution to Sri Lanka’s solid waste disposal problem.The environment the project occupies includes the ecologically rich and delicate Puttalam lagoon, home to extensive mangroves and diverse marine life and bird populations; the Wanathavilluwa aquifer, part of the largest network of aquifers (underground freshwater reservoirs) in the country; and borders the Wilpattu National Park.The “sustainable and scientific” project claimed to have systematically considered the environment and would therefore have no adverse effect on it.

Now that waste disposal has begun at the site,the authorities’ assurances are being exposed as patently hollow, which is what many local residents and activists indeed claimed from the start.These residents and activists continue to point out the numerous health, economic and environmental crises that are spiraling in the region as a result of the project, problems which are likely to worsen with time.

Improper Waste Disposal

The project documents and the public statements by MMWD representatives maintained that the waste that would be disposed at the site will only be solid waste that would be sorted and compressed before being brought to the site. According to residents of the area, however, the waste being disposed daily at the site is neither sorted nor compressed, and could include not just solid waste but medical and sewage waste as well.

The most perceptible consequence of this improper waste disposal is the odour of garbage in the area. Because the waste is neither sorted, compacted nor properly packed, and because the project facilities are yet to be completed, the waste is being disposed of effectively in open air pits. This has led to the stench of the waste spreading across Serakuliya and Karaitheevu. Compounding this, the wind direction changed in September from west to east, meaning the smell is being carried inland to populated areas. Residents who are increasingly gathering in protest speak of being unable to breathe or even drink and eat because of the smell. The more waste that is disposed here, the more it will become unbearable.

The smell is not limited to simply the project site. More than15 garbage trucks a day move from Colombo to the site. The waste transportation was intended for rail through the Kelaniya Transfer Station, but the railway facilities are yet to be completed, necessitating the use of garbage trucks. Again, because the rubbish has not been sorted or compacted, leachate and waste particles seep from the trucks and residents who live along this route have even reported difficulties breathing difficulties.

Livelihood Challenges

There is not much distance between the site and the lagoon, and no proper reinforcement has been built. Ongoing construction of the project could therefore result in the regular seepage of waste water straight into the Puttalam lagoon. This is in addition to waste water flowing into the lagoon during heavy rains- floods triggered by heavier rains could be even more disastrous.

The consequences of the lagoon becoming polluted are extremely serious. Aside from the direct health and environmental threats, it is devastating for the many residents who depend on the lagoon for livelihoods in fishing, aquaculture and salterns. Local fishermen and prawn farmers are already reporting that fish and prawn stocks are plummeting, forcing them to abandon their livelihoods.People who consume fish, shellfish or salt from the lagoon also face serious risks to their health.

Another threat posed by the project is its indisputable potential to increase human-elephant conflict. The smell of waste is carried to the nearby Wilpattu National Park with its large elephant population. Elephants cut across villages such as Raalmadu, Eluwankulama, Mangalapura and Gangewadiya to get to the garbage site, putting crops, property and human lives which lie in the way at risk. Residents point out how elephants have already wrecked numerous coconut plantations in their path. As the waste disposal continues, this damage can only increase.

Long Term Environmental Consequences

The Aruwakkalu project raises issues with deeper, long term consequences beyond these immediate effects. The dump site is a former limestone quarry which was filled in and forested many years ago, which was deforested and dug up again for the purposes of the project. The dynamite used at the quarry has made the ground prone to seismic vibrations. Groundwater contamination by the leachate, heavy metals and other chemicals in the waste is therefore a grim reality. The Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) and Environmental Protection License (EPL) issued by the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) commit the project to install proper liners at the landfill, yet waste disposal is occurring without these being in place properly. There have also been several reports of pipelines bursting, and the damage being uncontainable. Just this week, (on the 7th of October), there was a massive explosion at one of the leachate tanks which was apparently caused by flare lighting to dispose of landfill gas, being activated for the first time.

In addition, the project sits on the Wanathavilluwa basin,whose limestone aquifers are a major source of drinking water, not just for the region but the entire island. The fragility of the project site risks the groundwater becoming contaminated. This would then spread along the sedimentary limestone and sandstone shelf which stretches from Puttalam all the way to Mannar,putting the health of a large number of people at risk. It is for this specific reason that international guidelines, such as those issued by the World Bank, expressly caution against building landfill sites on limestone sites, a fact blatantly ignored by the project planners.

‘Development’ in Sri Lanka

Some of these issues were highlighted in the EIA issued in August 2017, but the CEA minimised them by downplaying them or requiring the MMWD to take proactive mitigating steps. Now that waste disposal has commenced, it is clear that these steps are not being taken properly. This raises the question of where the responsibility lies now that the environmental standards are being breached.

The EIA process for the project attracted submissions from numerous residents, environmentalists and scientists, yet the published reports in 2015 and 2017 do not acknowledge their concerns. Residents and activists also describe how in the handful of public meeting since then, MMWD officials have not adequately answered or assuaged any of their questions. Several meetings with the Minister, Hon. Patali Champika Ranawaka, were especially acrimonious with the Minister implying that the site could host waste not just from Colombo but the entire island.

The consequences of the landfill project have the potential to devastate not only the community and the environment it has been imposed on, but those far beyond it. Aruwakkalu becomes yet another in a long line of “development projects” in Sri Lanka, hastily commissioned and imposed upon vulnerable people with minimum consultation, and with no accountability for when – (and it’s always a when) - they go wrong.