The Sunday Leader

Colombo’s Garbage Mountain

By Gazala Anver – Photo by Thusitha Kumara

The dump at Meethotamulla

There is a mountain in the distance. An odd sight when one considers that Colombo city is a stone’s throw away as the crow flies. And then the smell hits you. It’s a mountain of garbage. For the people living in Meethotamulla, it’s a daily scourge they live with.
There was still some distance to go before we reached the heart of the matter and it smelled skywards even then, strong enough to knock a good headache into any passer by.
Skirting down an alley, following a wide drain much like a cesspool and smelling like one too and passing children playing by the drain, we made it to the end of the line of houses. But not before, with mountain goat like agility, having to walk on a concrete structure walling the drain in. If not for the smell, if there was a morning mist, it could perhaps have been mistaken for a mountain or a hill stemming out of nothing.
But it was as clear as the pale blue sky that what we saw, for miles around, was nothing but garbage, piled over garbage, piled over garbage, like a monstrous palace of sorts, inclusive of vibrant animal life, from birds as white as swans to black as crows, to dogs, cats — a veritable animal farm on its own. To the residents, this was their backyard, where rather than smelling the roses early in the morning, they received a whiff of something a lot more sinister.
Meethotamulla is a CMC garbage dumping ground, but recently it has become more than a menace to the residents. One resident, Nishthar, who looked over from his ruined garden, sarong tied to his knees to avoid the black pools of water, informed The Sunday Leader that the dirty stream water now runs through his backyard and the five year contract by the CMC to dump garbage meant that the garbage has now blocked the stream. “If it was clean water that came into my house at least then I could have had a bath!” he exclaimed, examining the mess that was his garden.
During the torrential rains, the stream, which now can barely be seen, hidden under the heaps of garbage, spilled into the houses of the residents, taking with it the garbage, which one resident described as “all the world’s garbage.” Now the drain that previously ran into the stream is filled with stagnant water that hasn’t gone down since.
The residents informed that politicians, in particular Duminda Silva, regularly visited the area and tried to help the residents. But when it came to compensation for having to put up with such horrific living conditions, there doesn’t seem to be anything in sight. “They say they will stop dumping garbage in January when the contract ends, but I don’t trust these people,” Nishthar continued. “We haven’t received any compensation, what will they give us?”
There are around 75 to 100 families living in that area, cramped into a mini hellhole with the view, smells and diseases of the backyard garbage dump. Many children, off for Christmas holidays, were playing outside, with strains of television sets and music in the background. A swarm of mosquitoes rose from one end of the drain and a water snake was also spotted. “We occasionally see a baby water monitor,” observed a resident when the snake was seen.
“As long as the drain has been here, the Nagara Sabhawa has never cleaned it,” said one resident, Ravi. “There have been many problems after the rains. We don’t know what the problem is, but the water level has not gone down.”
“After they dredged the stream, the garbage mountain fell into it. Because of it, all the water is now in our houses. We told the Gramasevaka and Duminda Silva as well,” said one resident, Shriyalatha.
“They (CMC) said they will stop dumping garbage in January, but even if they stop, they will keep all this garbage the way it is. There are a lot of diseases because of this. We bring up small children in this environment. If it rains, we are finished,” said Lakshman, looking up from the drain.
Little Lakshana, a girl of six or seven, was walking by the drain probably trying to get home. She admitted that it was a huge problem, especially when it rained. “We keep stones and planks to get from one place to another. We have to just bear up with the smell and live with it,” she said, in an almost defeated tone undermining her childhood innocence.
The CMC claims that at least 800 tonnes of garbage is collected from Colombo on a daily basis and dumped at Meethotamulla, treading on the lives of the people living in the area.
When The Sunday Leader spoke to CMC Commissioner Badrani Jayawardena about the conditions faced by the people, she said that there was no such contract signed but it all depends on the lifetime of the land. “The dumping will continue until 2013,” she said. “There is still some space left in the land, once all that is filled up, it is then that the lifetime will be up.” She added that for 25 years, garbage had been dumped in the area.
She also claimed that this site is the only one of its kind to be maintained. “No where in Sri Lanka is it maintained like this,” she said. “Everyday we put a layer of soil on top of the garbage to seal it. We do it step by step but within five days we get the area covered. The reason it looks like such a huge dump is because of the soil as well.”
According to her, the flooding has occurred not because of the garbage, but because it is a low land area. “The land is a marshy area,” she explains. “We have encountered so many problems trying to dispose of the 800 tonnes of garbage collected daily. What will happen to Colombo if the garbage is not collected and dumped?
She also said that there are proposals to deal with the garbage situation. “Companies have put forward proposals to solve this problem. The 2011 budget will allocate Rs. 75 million for the sustainable scientific disposal for solid waste,” she said. “We do help the residents as well. We do mosquito fogging and in the past few days, we have even distributed food because of the rains. The stream is also being cleaned,” she said.
The Sunday Leader tried contacting MP Duminda Silva but he could not be reached by the time the paper went to print.
What Jayawardena said however, will be of no comfort for those living in the immediate vicinity of this garbage mountain. While several residents said that they were assured that the dumping will cease in January 2011, it doesn’t look as though it is about to end anytime soon.

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