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Sri Lanka

Care for our common home: Sri Lanka's deadly garbage disaster

Pope reminds us to tackle 'pollution, waste and our throwaway mentality'

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Care for our common home: Sri Lanka's deadly garbage disaster

Japanese officials with a disaster relief team survey the site of a garbage dump collapse that killed 32 people on the northeastern edge of Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo on April 21. The Japanese disaster relief team was advising the Sri Lankan government on measures to deal with the huge rubbish dump and relocate hundreds of families in the neighborhood following the April 14 disaster. (Photo by Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP)

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A garbage landslide that killed 34 people in an impoverished Colombo suburb in April was the worst man-made disaster in Sri Lanka's recent peace-time history. Efforts to resolve this major socio-economic-related problem have achieved limited success so far.

The Meethotamulla disaster was the result of careless garbage disposal that did not consider the safety of the local community. There was no planning or forethought by the city's local authorities when they began dumping waste on the two-acre marshy patch of land. When the people of the area protested, they were told it was only a temporary measure.

With the escalation of local protests in 2012, the government of the time threatened dissenters and used judicial power to disproportionately break up the protests. The well-founded concerns of the people were silenced and the promises made by the authorities to remove the waste never materialized.

Meanwhile, the offices of the local authorities were embroiled in mafia-type corruption schemes. Some individuals paid bribes for their waste to be tipped while lorry drivers sought bribes for their part in the dumping process. Corrupt officials saw it as an opportunity to earn easy cash instead of working to find lasting solutions.

Neither the current government leaders nor previous officials predicted the disaster. But attempts were made to seek foreign investment to handle the task with some ministries reporting over 100 such proposals. However, there was no urgency on their part to expedite the projects. They made no real effort to reach a lasting solution for the Meethotamulla dump or, indeed, in similar cases around the country.

The people mostly responsible are the decision-makers at each level of governance: local, regional and national. It was their failure to implement any plan to recycle the waste or resolve the crisis. Some representatives of local political institutes had traveled abroad to study the set-up in other countries and their garbage disposal practices. Sadly, it seems the officials took advantage of these jollies and tax payers' money but without any intent to make systemic changes.

President Maithripala Sirisena has appointed a retired high court judge to investigate the tragedy and draft proposals for future government action. This one-man commission must investigate those responsible for their political follies. Which officials took trips abroad? Which politicians enabled and profited from the garbage mafia? 

It is reported the same groups sought bribes from the potential local and foreign investors. These culprits must be exposed. The guilty parties should be punished by, at the very least, removing them from their positions of power. As some have indicated, this failure to implement an adequate scheme should be labelled a "crime against humanity," with the perpetrators punished accordingly.

The catastrophe is an eye-opener and warns us of potential disasters to come in other parts of the country where similar criminal dumping practices have taken place. 

The public are partly culpable for negligent waste disposal habits that have aggravated the problem. The three pillars of environmental waste management, "reduce, reuse and recycle," are essential for reducing the amount that ends up in landfill.

Addressing this situation requires public education programs that encourage citizens to reduce their footprint in the first instance, and separating the waste into groups that makes recycling and waste management far easier for the authorities: to sort food items from non-food items, paper from glassware, and plastics, polythene and digital waste into their respective units.

Likewise, government legislation is an effective tool for influencing waste management, from production to landfill.

Financial backing is required to achieve any institutional or systemic changes. Yet, in Sri Lanka, where politics and business meet, corruption is endemic. It is a sickness within our society. A 10 percent fee is often leaked as payment to individual politicians or their respective agents. The current regime came into power in 2015 with a promise to eliminate corruption and punish the evil doers. Almost two years have elapsed and there is no sign that it will end, particularly through the rule of law.

From the perspective of religion, I tend to venture down the Christian biblical path of thinking regarding environment spirituality. In 2015, Pope Francis issued an encyclical titled Laudato si' on the care for our common home and "pollution, waste and our throwaway mentality." The pope's reflections are an eye-opener, not only for Catholics to adhere to and apply to their local situation, but every strata of society.

Everyone generates garbage at home and in their work place. We are all duty-bound to change the course of events, not to merely throw away without care or responsibility. It is all our responsibility to reduce the waste by managing and then facilitating the division of garbage into, at a minimum, three groups: biodegradable, non-degradable and non-degradable items.

All religious leaders have a duty to work for the protection of the environment and adopt the role to condemn everyone responsible for the Meethotamulla disaster. It is unfortunate that Catholics have not considered the pope's Laudato si encyclical seriously, studied it and put it into practice as a testament of Christian witness.

Father Reid Shelton Fernando is an human rights activist and former Archdiocese of Colombo coordinator of the Christian Workers Movement.

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