For years, residents of a slum outside of Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, have been calling on the government to remove a massive and growing pile of garbage in a landfill next to their homes.
Slums and garbage dumps tend to grow alongside each other everywhere, as the poor around the world erect homesteads on land unwanted by those with resources or choose to locate where they can harvest cast-off materials in the hope of eking out a meager income.
On Friday, the slum-dump dwellers of Colombo were finally heard, when a 300-foot-high pile of garbage next door was transformed into deadly landslide that killed at least 30 people and destroyed 79 homes. Ten people are still missing, but survival is “very unlikely,” officials said Monday.
According to reports, floods and a fire caused the Meethotamulla area landfill to shift and collapse late Friday, as the country celebrated its official New Year’s day. Police on Saturday said they thought an explosion set off the landslide, but they are still unsure if it was man-made or natural from methane released by the decaying waste.
“We heard a massive sound. It was like thunder. Tiles in our house got cracked. Black water started coming in,” one survivor named Kularathna told Reuters. “We tried to get out but we were trapped inside. We shouted for help and were rescued later.”
Another survivor told the BBC his mother was thrown 30 feet by the groundswell of waste.
“The hill came down in quite a strong manner where in some areas we had to dig up to 20 feet, and in some areas it might be little further,” military spokesman Roshan Senivirathna told Reuters.
The dump site is the largest in the city, where around 800 tons of waste was deposited daily. Residents of the low-income area – many of whom live in shanties – demanded for years that the government remove the landfill citing health problems.
Fetid water streamed into their neighborhoods, they said, and collected around their homes during the hottest months, providing ideal breeding grounds for mosquitoes. When tropical storm Roanu struck last May, some reports say as many as 60 percent of the population of Meethotamulla became ill from the unsanitary environment.
“We’ve been protesting this since 2011,” Nuwan Bopage, a lawyer who represented families in a 2015 lawsuit to close the dump, said according to the New York Times. “A minimum of 15 protests were held. On three occasions, the protests were attacked. Twice people were arrested. That was the kind of response the protests got.”
Even the Deputy Foreign Minister Harsha de Silva acknowledged the landslide was the culmination of “a problem running for decades, perhaps as long as 20 years,” according to the Colombo Gazette. However, he also said it was “unfortunate” that not all the families who were given payments to move away did so, and it was “ironic” that just weeks ago, the government had signed agreements to begin “waste-to-energy” projects to deal with the persistent problem.
But what’s truly ironic is that the Meethotamulla landfill was actually a result of the former president’s “clean up Colombo” initiative, which took trash from the wealthier parts of Colombo and dumped it into the low-lying slums.
This weekend, the prime minister announced that dumping in Meethotamulla is now suspended, and the landfill will be removed as part of an infrastructure plan.
“Meethotamulla tragedy is a callous reminder of pitiful state of affairs in this country: absence of any long-term planning and governance bereft of any sense of coordination between multiple agencies and institutions, of which rigidity of laws only match their overall incompetence,” Ranga Jayasuriya, a Sri Lankan journalist, wrote in the Daily Mirror.
The incident has lit a fire under the Sri Lankan government not only to adopt safer alternatives for waste disposal, but also to prioritize thoughtful urban planning as more and more vulnerable people migrate toward cities.