A 62 meter high garbage dump shows the scale of India’s climate challenge

A 62 meter high garbage dump shows the scale of India's climate challenge
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New Delhi

At the Bhalswa dump in northwest Delhi, a steady stream of jeeps zigzags around the rubbish heap to dump more rubbish into a pile that is now more than 62 meters (203 ft) high.

Fires caused by heat and methane gas break out sporadically (the Delhi Fire Department has responded to 14 fires so far this year) and some deep in the stack can smolder for weeks or months, as men, women, and children work nearby, sifting through trash to find items to sell.

Some of the 200,000 residents who live in Bhalswa say the area is uninhabitable, but they cannot afford to move and have no choice but to breathe in the toxic air and bathe in its polluted waters.

Bhalswa is not the biggest dump in Delhi. It is about three meters lower than the largest, Ghazipur, and both contribute to the country’s total methane gas production.

Methane is the second most abundant greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide, but it contributes more to the climate crisis because methane traps more heat. India generates more methane from landfills than any other country, according to GHGSat, which monitors methane through satellites.

And India ranks second only to China in total methane emissions, according to the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) Global Methane Tracker.

Ragpickers at the Bhalswa dump on April 28, 2022, in New Delhi, India.

As part of his “Clean India” initiative, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said that efforts are underway to remove these mountains of rubbish and turn them into greenery. That goal, if achieved, could alleviate some of the suffering of residents living in the shadow of these dumpsites and help the world reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.

India wants to lower its methane production, but has not joined the 130 countries who have subscribed to the Global methane commitmenta pact to collectively reduce global methane emissions by at least 30% from 2020 levels by 2030. Scientists estimate that the reduction could reduce global temperature rise by 0.2% and help the world reach its goal of keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

India says it will not join because most of its methane emissions come from agriculture: about 74% from farm animals and rice paddies versus less than 15% from landfills.

In a statement last year, Minister of State at the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, Ashwini Choubey, said committing to reduce India’s total methane production could threaten farmers’ livelihoods and affect India’s business and economic prospects.

But it also faces challenges in reducing methane from its steaming garbage piles.

A boy in the narrow streets of the slums of Bhalswa Dairy Village.

When Narayan Choudhary, 72, moved to Bhalswa in 1982, he said it was a “beautiful place”, but that all changed 12 years later when the first rubbish started arriving at the local dump.

In the years since, the Bhalswa dump has grown almost as tall as the historic Taj Mahal, becoming a landmark in its own right and an eyesore that towers over the surrounding houses. affecting the health of the people who live there.

Choudhary suffers from chronic asthma. He said he was almost killed when a huge fire broke out in Bhalswa in April that burned for days. “He was in terrible shape. My face and nose were swollen. I was on my deathbed,” he said.

“Two years ago we protested…many residents of this area protested (to get rid of the waste),” Choudhary said. “But the municipality did not cooperate with us. They assured us that things will improve in two years but here we are, with no relief.”

The dump ran out of capacity in 2002, according to a 2020 report on India’s landfills from the Center for Science and Environment (CSE), a nonprofit research agency in New Delhi, but without government standardization. in recycling systems and increased industry efforts to reduce plastic. .of consumption and production, tons of garbage continue to arrive daily at the site.

Narrow streets of the slum at Bhalswa Dairy Village.

Bhalswa isn’t the only dump causing distress for nearby residents: It’s one of three dumpsites in Delhi, brimming with rotting waste and spewing toxic fumes into the air.

Nationwide, there are more than 3,100 landfills. Ghazipur is the largest in Delhi, standing at 65 meters (213 ft) high, and like Bhalswa, it exceeded its waste capacity in 2002 and currently produces huge amounts of methane.

According to GHGSat, on a single day in March, more than two metric tons of methane gas leaked from the site every hour.

“If sustained for a year, methane leakage from this landfill would have the same climate impact as the annual emissions from 350,000 US cars,” said GHGSat chief executive Stephane Germain.

Methane emissions are not the only hazard arising from dumps like Bhalswa and Ghazipur. For decades, dangerous toxins have seeped into the ground, contaminating the water supply for thousands of residents who live nearby.

In May, CNN commissioned two accredited laboratories to test the groundwater around the Bhalswa landfill. And according to the results, groundwater within a radius of at least 500 meters (1,600 feet) around the dump is contaminated.

A groundwater sample from the Bhalswa spillway in northwest Delhi.

In the first laboratory report, the ammonia and sulfate levels were significantly higher than the acceptable limits required by the Indian government.

Results from the second lab report showed that the total dissolved solids (TDS) levels, the amount of inorganic salts and dissolved organic matter in the water, detected in one of the samples were nearly 19 times higher than acceptable limit, which makes it unsafe for human consumption.

The Bureau of Indian Standards sets the acceptable limit of TDS in 500 milligrams/liter, a figure seen roughly as “good” by the World Health Organization (WHO). Any value higher than 900 mg/l is considered “poor” by the WHO, and higher than 1200 mg/l is “unacceptable”.

According to Richa Singh of the Center for Science and Environment (CSE), the TDS of water taken near the Bhalswa site was between 3,000 and 4,000 mg/l. “This water is not only not suitable for drinking, but also not suitable for skin contact,” he said. “Therefore, it cannot be used for bathing or cleaning utensils or cleaning clothes.”

Dr Nitesh Rohatgi, senior director of medical oncology at Fortis Memorial Research Institute, Gurugram, urged the government to study the health of the local population and compare it with other areas of the city, “so that in 15 to 20 years we can They don’t look back and regret that we had a higher incidence of cancer, higher health risks, higher health problems and we didn’t look back and correct them in time.”

Most of the people in Bhalswa rely on bottled water for drinking, but use the local water for other purposes; many say they have no other choice.

“The water we receive is contaminated, but we have to helplessly store it and use it to wash utensils, bathe and sometimes also drink,” said resident Sonia Bibi, whose legs are covered in a thick red rash.

Jwala Prashad, 87, who lives in a small shack in an alleyway near the dump, said the pile of putrid rubbish had turned her life into “a living hell”.

“The water we use is pale red. My skin burns after taking a bath,” she said, trying to soothe the red cuts on her face and neck.

“But I can’t afford to leave this place,” he added.

Jwala Prashad, 87, at the hand pump in front of her home in Bhalswa Dairy Village.

More than 2,300 tons of Municipal Solid Waste arrive every day at Delhi’s largest landfill in Ghazipur, according to a report published in july by a joint committee formed to find a way to reduce the number of fires at the site.

That’s most of the waste from the surrounding area: only 300 tons is processed and disposed of by other means, according to the report. And less than 7% of legacy waste had been biomined, which involves excavating, treating, and potentially reusing old trash.

The Delhi Municipal Corporation deploys drones every three months to monitor the size of the garbage heap and is experimenting with ways to extract methane from the garbage mountain, according to the report.

But too much garbage arrives every day to keep up. The committee said that biomining had been “slow and late” and that it was “highly unlikely” that the East Delhi Municipal Corporation (which has now been merged with the North and South Delhi Municipal Corporations) would achieve its goal of “flattening the garbage mountain”. by 2024.

“No effective plans have been made to reduce the height of the garbage mountain,” the report says. In addition, “it was long overdue that future dumping of garbage into them would contaminate groundwater systems,” the report added.

CNN sent a series of questions along with the data from the water analysis questionnaire to the Indian Ministries of Environment and Health. There has been no response from the ministries.

In a 2019 report, the Indian government recommended ways to improve the country’s solid waste management, including formalizing the recycling sector and installing more composting plants in the country.

While some improvements have been made, such as better door-to-door garbage collection and waste processing, Delhi’s landfills continue to accumulate waste.

In October, the National Green Court fined the state government more than $100 million for failing to dispose of more than 30 million metric tons of waste at its three landfills.

“The problem is that Delhi does not have a concrete action plan on solid waste,” said Singh of the CSE. “So we’re talking here about landfill remediation and legacy waste treatment, but imagine fresh waste that’s generated on a regular basis. All of that is dumped every day in these landfills.”

“(So) let’s say you’re treating 1,000 tons of legacy (waste) and then you’re throwing out 2,000 tons of new waste every day, it’s going to become a vicious cycle. It will be a never-ending process,” Singh said.

“Management of legacy waste, of course, is a government mandate and it is very, very important. But you just can’t start the process without having an alternate fresh waste facility. So that’s the biggest challenge.”

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