A tale of a landfill and its ravages
Abdus Salam, a long-time resident of Mridha Bari area, said the stench from Matuail landfill nearby has become unbearable in the last five to six years.
"They are now dumping waste everywhere in the lakes and ponds, advancing towards our houses from all directions.
"Nobody wants to live in this neighbourhood. Even our relatives do not want to visit us."
Another resident, Arshadul Alam, said, "You will find many vacant houses here. House owners who earn by renting out flats are some of the biggest sufferers.
"We cannot blame others for not staying here because when they burn the waste in the landfill during the dry season, we feel choked and suffocated."
This is the case for hundreds of thousands of people living near the landfill. They suffer daily from the constant stench and air and plastic pollution.
The 100-acre Matuail sanitary landfill, the largest waste disposal site in Dhaka, can no longer justify its sanitary moniker due to poor leachate management, lack of daily covering of the garbage with soil, and greenhouse gas emissions.
Located in the capital's Demra, the landfill receives around 2,500 tonnes of solid waste from Dhaka South City Corporation (DSCC) areas every day. Due to a severe shortage of equipment, manpower, and dumping space, it is now little more than an open-air crude dumpsite.
There is another landfill in Aminbazar, which is for waste dumping from Dhaka North City Corporation areas. This too is in disarray with workforce shortage and no segregation and recycling facility.
POOR WASTE MANAGEMENT
With no recycling facilities, experts warned Matuail landfill's poor waste management and maintenance can cause severe pollution.
Abdullah Al Muyeed, chief operating officer of Citywide Inclusive Sanitation-FSM Support Cell at the Department of Public Health Engineering (DPHE), said, "A major portion of our solid waste contains more than 70 percent moisture content.
"When such a huge volume of solid waste has been transferred to a landfill site, it is very difficult to maintain aerobic conditions [presence of oxygen] inside the waste matrix.
"This excess pressure of a huge amount of untreated solid waste changes the aerobic conditions to anaerobic [absence of oxygen] over time, resulting in the emission of greenhouse gases like methane."
Following international headlines of large emissions of methane over Dhaka in April this year, Shafiullah Siddique Bhuiyan, project director of the Matuail landfill, said they are collecting satellite images of previous months and years, with the help of Bangladesh Space Research and Remote Sensing Organisation (SPARSO) and the Department of Environment (DoE), to calculate the emission rate of greenhouse gases.
DSCC, which manages the site, does not acknowledge the four tonnes of methane per hour figure that an emissions-tracking company came up with, but it does not itself have any estimation of greenhouse gases from the landfill.
"We do not think such a huge amount of this gas emits from this site as it is a sanitary landfill. We have a functional leachate treatment plant, automated weighbridge and our waste collection and management system is quite efficient. You can see it for yourself," he told The Daily Star.
During a recent visit to the landfill, this correspondent observed massive mounds of solid waste -- including plastic and kitchen waste -- uncovered and untreated at the waste site, emanating a horrific stench.
In some places, these waste mounds tower at almost 70 feet -- equivalent to a five-storey building -- above ground.
Leachate, a toxic by-product generated from compacted high-moisture content waste, has leaked all over the site, as the leachate collection drains are either full to the brim or completely choked by solid waste.
Leachate management is crucial as it can percolate down to groundwater and consequently into surface water sources.
Project Director Shafiullah said, "We need to install leachate collection drains for every 20-25 feet layer of solid waste.
"Currently, the solid waste layer is around 70 feet high. So, we should have at least three layers of leachate drains; instead, we have only one layer of leachate drain at present."
Also, most parts of the site are left without any soil cover -- in a sanitary landfill, dumped waste is supposed to be compacted and covered by soil on a daily basis to prevent interaction between the waste and air, reduce odour, and make a firm surface for better handling by heavy equipment.
LACK OF LAND, EQUIPMENT, MANPOWER
Officials concerned say they have only around 40 percent of the heavy equipment they need to process the daily 2,500 tonnes of waste. Also, existing equipment is damaged frequently as they have to operate on uncovered waste, in contact with overflowing leachate.
Both of the two back loaders that are used to move waste, one of the two tyre dozers, two bulldozers, three of the five pay loaders, and two of the five excavators are damaged.
The landfill also has a manpower shortage, with only 10 cleaners and four engineers managing this enormous dumpsite.
As a stopgap measure, the landfill authorities have also engaged 10 DSCC mosquito controllers and 10-12 technicians to work with the cleaners during their free time.
Due to such a severe shortage of equipment and manpower, large amounts of daily collected waste are left untreated and uncovered.
Shafiullah said, "As a result, we cannot put daily soil cover but when we finish using a section of the landfill we cover it with soil. We have already stopped using some parts of the landfill and covered it with soil and planted trees on it."
The landfill is also short of space for waste disposal.
Originally established in 1989 with 50 acres of land, the landfill's waste collection capacity was exhausted in 2006 and another 50 acres of adjacent land was added to the landfill. These 50 acres' capacity was also exceeded last year.
More than 25 acres of the landfill area have been unusable since February this year when a high-voltage pylon of Power Grid Company of Bangladesh collapsed onto part of the site.
Due to this, the landfill authorities are dumping waste in a nearby lake -- relentlessly polluting its water and soil.
An engineer stationed at the landfill said, "We dump waste transported here by rickshaw vans in the lake because the collapsed high-voltage electricity line has made all the low-lying platforms unusable."
The remaining platforms are too high for these vans to access, he said, "So, we have no other alternative to using this lake. Once the line is removed, we shall remove the waste from the lake," he added.
Due to a lack of land, the DSCC is vertically extending the already exhausted dumping site by accumulating higher and higher waste mounds every day, instead of covering them with soil and planting trees.
A large amount of plastic waste is also a major concern for the authorities as there is no waste segregation and recycling facilities at the landfill. They do not allow waste pickers who collect recyclable waste from dumpsites inside.
As a result, heaps of plastic waste are only getting larger by the day. Waste like polythene bags often get blown away and pollute nearby waterbodies, sewerage lines, and residential areas.
During the dry season, this plastic waste is set ablaze -- creating severe air pollution in area nearby where Abdus Salam and Arshadul Alam live.
PROPOSED REHAUL OF WASTE MANAGEMENT
Despite local communities suffering, the DSCC has already taken steps to expand the landfill, acquiring a further 81 acres of land.
Air Commodore Badrul Amin, chief waste management officer of the DSCC, said, "We got clearance from the DoE for this expansion and our land acquisition is complete."
However, experts believe expanding the landfill is not a sustainable solution with reducing waste, segregating waste, and more efficient waste treatment needed.
Badrul said they were waiting for the local government and rural development (LGRD) ministry's approval of the "Clean Dhaka Master Plan 2018-2032".
On February 23 last year, Japan International Cooperation Agency (Jica) submitted a draft of the plan to the LGRD ministry for review. The draft was approved by both the city corporations of Dhaka.
One of the major objectives of the master plan is to implement systematic waste collection, segregation, recycling, reuse, and incineration facilities to reduce waste burden in landfills.
Badrul said, "Once approved and we get the funds, we shall be able to reduce more than 75 percent of the waste through reusing, recycling, and incinerating.
"We are hopeful all of the current problems will be solved gradually in the next 10 years."