Meethotamulla: Life In The Shadow Of Waste

By Christian Hutter

Staff Writer

When in the suburb of Kolonnawa, it is hard to miss one spot in particular. With a height of three hundred feet and spanning over an area of almost sixteen acres, the Meethotamulla garbage dump is a perpetual and ‒ thanks to the stench that it emits ‒ gut wrenching sight.

Cows graze on grounds close to the landfill. The garbage mountain makes up the backdrop, and electricity lines span high over the area.
Cows graze on grounds close to the garbage mountain, which makes up the backdrop; electricity lines span high over the area.
Garbage piles high, and not only on the dump itself ‒ the immediate surroundings of the dump are filled with waste.
Garbage piles high, and not only on the dump itself ‒ the immediate surroundings of the dump are also scattered with waste.

The dump, with its 23.5 million tons of garbage that has been disposed of there since its inception, is now more of a dilemma than a proper solution for garbage disposal. Its peak can be spotted through small alleyways, and if you reach a small hilly area in the south of you Meethotamulla, you get an imposing view of the never ending amount of household waste. Big machines work their way through it and swarms of crows circle around it greedily.

A man carries waste across a street. Collecting waste from the mountain is a venture that promises an income, but comes with a downside. It is dangerous to work on the dump, and people working there often fall sick.
A man carries waste across a street. Collecting waste from the mountain is a venture that promises an income, but comes with a downside. It is dangerous to work on the dump, and people working there often fall sick.

What is harder to see, hiding in the shadow of the dump, deep in the settlements around it, is the suffering and the inhumane conditions the residents of this area have to endure. Among these are major health issues, violence, and drug abuse that haunt the area. The canal that goes around the dump, with its black water full of garbage, is a breeding paradise for dengue mosquitos, which is not a surprise considering that many of the recent dengue-related deaths were reported from around this area. The often low-income residents who live directly next to the dump have little to no prospects, leading to a desperate adaptation to their environment, sometimes becoming small-time criminals, selling and abusing drugs. This sometimes results in the imprisonment of fathers, leaving mothers with the task to look after their children alone.

The canal that moves from the dump towards the city. Black water filled with waste and mosquito larvae.
The canal that moves from the dump towards the city. Black water filled with waste and mosquito larvae.

The Sri Rahula Vidyalaya school, located directly next to the garbage dump, has made it their duty to look after children from such families, and provides education and a safe space away from a troubled home. Although most would praise such an effort, the fact that there is a school just twenty metres away from the dump is troubling. In 2012, the school had to be closed down for an entire term because there was a worm infestation among students. Poisoned water and soil has led these children into a circular phase of sickness, which unsurprisingly inhibits them from attending their daily classes.

Morning prayers at the school. The dump in the background is an everlasting sight for these students.
Morning prayers at the school. The dump in the background is an everlasting sight for these students.
hildren of the school play on the school playground. The dump lies just metres away, with only the dirty, stinky canal between the school premises and the waste dump.
Children of the school play on the school playground. The dump lies just metres away, with only the dirty, stinky canal between the school premises and the mountain of garbage.

Iroshi, a teacher from the school, was kind enough to take me around the area and show me the houses of the people living around the dump. What I have witnessed was heartbreaking. The area directly next to the dump was one of the places directly affected during the floods earlier this year, and as the story follows, houses and interiors were destroyed, making them uninhabitable. Even now, when it rains, there are roofs that leak and houses that soak up the water for days. These are no conditions in which children can grow up healthily.

A young girl sits in her family’s bedroom. Five people sleep here every day. Because of the floods earlier this year, this family had to be evicted from their old home and now live here. Rent is a lot higher and the family struggles to pay for basic necessities and education for their children.
A young girl sits in her family’s bedroom. Five people sleep here every day. Because of the floods earlier this year, this family had to leave their old home and now live here. Rent is a lot higher and the family struggles to pay for basic necessities and education for their children.
The kitchen area. Most interiors are below basic standards. Many of the utensils were donations that came in after the floods.
The kitchen area. Most interiors are below basic standards. Many of the utensils were donations that came in after the floods.
The family’s mother and her youngest. The father works at a steel factory all day and barely makes enough money to support his family.
The family’s mother and her youngest. The father works at a steel factory all day and barely makes enough money to support his family.

Although I paint a heartbreaking scene, humans have always looked above the negative throughout evolution. There still exists a population of people full of life and joy, defying the hard living conditions as best as they can.

A child sits on the bed that she shares with her sister and her brother. Her father tells me that he is struggling to support his children. His son is mentally disabled and can’t go to school because of a lack of funding. The father doesn't even have enough money to pay for a blood test, which is essential to determine the health condition of his son.
A child sits on the bed that she shares with her sister and her brother. Her father tells me that he is struggling to support his children. His son is mentally disabled and can’t go to school because of a lack of funding. The father doesn’t even have enough money to pay for a blood test, which is essential to determine the health condition of his son.
An elderly resident of the area stands in his bedroom.
An elderly resident of the area stands in his bedroom.

The dump is only the tip of the iceberg. The problem of waste and recycling that we face today, not only in Sri Lanka, but in most parts of South Asia, is a problem that has deep roots that we have to grab, rip out, and burn. We have to teach our children to be aware of what consequences arise when they throw away materials, be conscious of where these materials come from and how to handle them properly. Something like this can only start at the root and in this case, the root is the waste producers: large companies. Such corporations can start by training their employees on how to recycle food waste and packaging as well as how to minimise the use of plastic. This is not a matter that will change overnight, but every step counts.

A young girl stands in the entrance to her home. Most houses are in such a bad state, that even when it only rains slightly, the ground gets covered with water and the houses fill up.
A young girl stands in the entrance to her home. Most houses are in such a bad state, that even when it only rains slightly, the ground gets covered with water and the houses fill up.
Much of the damage caused by the floods is still not fixed. Residents struggle with the repairs.
Much of the damage caused by the floods is still not fixed. Residents struggle with the repairs.
The upper floor of the house. Most houses, like this one, are in bad shape. They lack basic infrastructure like toilets and running water, things that we can’t imagine living without.
The upper floor of the house. Most houses, like this one, are in bad shape. They lack basic infrastructure like toilets and running water, things that we can’t imagine living without.

This photo story seeks to portray the living conditions of the people in the Meethotamulla area. The families welcomed a complete stranger into their homes, and agreed to be photographed. I tried to explain, as well as I could, what I wanted to capture in my work ‒ which is a deeper understanding of the problems they faced. They were more than happy to talk about their situation. For them, the dump is the origin of their problems, leaving them sick and with no real hope or prospects. The plans the officials have for the dump are nothing more than empty words to the residents. Over the years there have been talks about how to proceed with the dump but nothing ever really happened to resolve the residents’ existing dilemma. They want to see real action, so that they can hope for a brighter, cleaner, and healthier future.

 

How do you feel about this story?
Fascinated
Informed
Happy
Sad
Angry
Amused