Featured image courtesy Sri Lanka Air Force 

In 2012, I visited Madampitiya to help with research for a friend’s thesis. The subject was the spread of disease in this area, situated close to a garbage dump.

The tiny lanes in between the houses were muddy and often, filled with filthy water. This happened because when it rained (as it had been shortly before we visited) the streets would flood, and spillover from the dump would wash into the streets and sometimes, people’s houses. In fact, you would often need to step off the road and balance precariously on the side of the concrete drains that had been built, and which clearly did not do enough to address the problem.

I vividly remember one of the families I interviewed, a knife grinder who took me into his house to show me his 8-year-old daughter’s hands. They were red and peeling – she had scratched her palms raw because of the mosquitoes. She was also home sick from school. The family couldn’t afford electricity – instead using kerosene lamps at night.

Not all the families I met were of such straitened circumstances. Others had homes that they had carefully built, saving up money, over years. One thing they all had in common was their distaste for the nearby dump. It was clearly visible from most of the lanes – swarming with flies, with the occasional pig rooting through the garbage. Even if you couldn’t see it, you could certainly smell it. The people I interviewed said the stench was particularly unbearable when it was hot, forcing many to close their windows and doors to avoid the smell.

Worse, respiratory diseases and skin rashes were quite common thanks to the proximity of the dump.

Over half of the people I met that day said they wanted to move somewhere else. Yet, there were also many who said adamantly that they wanted to stay. “This is our home. We’ve been living here for years,” they said.

All they wanted was for the garbage issue and all the associated problems it created to be resolved.

The Meethotamulla dump is located just 15 minutes away from Madampitiya. A former colleague who visited Meethotamulla in 2010 found stories very similar to those I had experienced, just 5 kilometres away. Children resigned to the smell. Families whose gardens were filled with black water. Drains filled with stagnant water. Disease.

At the time, around 800 tonnes of garbage was being dumped every day in Meethotamulla in Kolonnawa. While that is a large number on paper, it is another thing entirely to see it, as I did. The mountain of compacted garbage was piled so high that standing atop it commanded a view of the surrounding area. Tractors rolled up its banks to deposit more garbage as I watched. In the distance were two buildings – a CMC official who was showing me around explained that this was a treatment centre and composting facility, built to try and alleviate the garbage problem. The buildings looked very small and far away from the top of the dump, where we were standing, and as the official pointed out, clearly more needed to be done to alleviate this problem.

The CMC Commissioner in 2010, Badrani Jayawardena said that the CMC took care to spread a layer of soil over the garbage before compacting it down, so that it was sealed. She added that the reason flooding occurred at Meethotamulla was not due to the garbage, but because it was a marshy area.

She also said that the dump would only close once its lifetime had been used up, and that dumping would only continue until 2013.

It’s 2017, and the mountain of garbage at Meethotamulla just collapsed, with the death toll now standing at 16 people.

As recently as March this year, residents were agitating against the dump. Officials meanwhile, have continually said they are working towards a long-term solution, with the help of foreign experts.

The issue of garbage disposal, and how to solve it, is complex and has long been debated. In 2015, there was a plan to transfer the compacted garbage at Meethotamulla to Puttalam, which came to a temporary standstill after environmentalists raised protests, as the new site at Arawakkalu fell within the Wilpattu buffer zone. The project was restarted at a different site, but with plans to allow the Meethotamulla dump to decompose. Other plans have included simply shifting the garbage to other areas such as Ja-Ela.

As Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Harsha de Silva pointed out, agreements were only signed to attempt to deal with this issue ‘a few weeks’ ago, despite this having been brought to the state’s attention numerous times in the past few years.

It is notable too that Minister of Disaster Management Anura Priyadarshana Yapa has not commented beyond an initial update on his official Facebook page, on the situation in Meethotamulla. In fact, de Silva gave a much more in-depth update on the problem on his Facebook page – despite disaster response not falling under his purview.

The Colombo Municipal Council meanwhile has promised to hold more discussions, including with the Minister of Disaster Management.

Several politicians have made promises to resolve the issues faced by the residents of Meethotamulla – Duminda Silva, who promised to resolve the issues there ‘within a month,’ and Hirunika Premachandra, who after polling the highest number of preferential votes at the Western Provincial Council elections said she would ‘set the Kolonnawa electorate on the right path’ and promised to work for their benefit, including solving the garbage disposal issue. President Sirisena himself promised to provide garbage disposal solutions via a proper national strategy in 2015. At the time, he promised this would materialise ‘within 3 years.’

These plans and discussions have led to little in the way of action at reducing the size of the dump in Meethotamulla, with the loss of lives as a result. While it is admirable that so many have come forward to volunteer, to post updates on what is needed, or simply to donate, the fact remains that this senseless tragedy could, and should, have been prevented.