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Crushed Beneath A Garbage Mountain: Colombo’s New Year Tragedy

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Shaahidah Riza

Shaahidah Riza

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On Saturday, the day after the Sinhala and Tamil New Year, Dayani sat huddled at the threshold of a temple, in Vihara Mawatha, Meethotamulla. Her agonised shrieks, calling for a dead husband and three sons, penetrated the surrounding chaos and stench. Dayani was one among several whose families were trapped in debris caused by the collapse of part of the Meethotamulla garbage dump collapse which took place on Friday. Most families in the vicinity of the garbage dump were caught up in New Year’s celebrations, when tragedy struck at around 3:30 p.m.

Residents in the area had heard a loud crash, when a part of the garbage dump, behind Rahula Vidyalaya in Meethotamulla, collapsed straight into the settlement around it, destroying houses and causing panic. Dayani’s family, like many others in the vicinity, had been spending a quiet avurudu indoors when the sudden collapse forced everyone to flee their homes.

Dayani was rescued by the troops who were soon deployed to conduct search and rescue operations, but her family did not make it through.

In the immediate aftermath, the Police and the tri forces were deployed to contain the situation, upon Presidential instructions. According to relief workers on site, the authorities had previously dug trenches around the dump, which are believed to have minimised the impact of the collapse.

Angered area residents, however, allegedly set two backhoes on fire, adding to the chaos when parts of the dump also subsequently caught fire, aggravating the situation.

According to military sources, on Friday, at least 15 people were hospitalised, and more than 600 troops were deployed for relief work and rescue operations. The Air Force had also deployed a Bell 212 helicopter equipped with a Bambi bucket to douse the fire.

Disaster Waiting To Happen

Colombo’s Meethotamulla garbage dump has been at the centre of criticism and controversy for years. Image credit: Roar/Nazly Ahmed

Ever since news of the collapse broke, criticism levelled at the authorities has drawn attention to the fact that this was a disaster waiting to happen. It is no secret that residents have been raising their concerns regarding the dump for years. The dump has also been at the centre of disputes, and protests about the issue were held as recently as last month.

Member of the Kolonnawa Urban Council, Saliya Wickramasinghe, told Roar yesterday (April 15) that a similar collapse had taken place a few years ago, but on a far smaller scale.

“At that time about 20 houses were destroyed,” he said, adding that residents had been given temporary shelter and money to purchase furniture. According to Wickramasinghe, the problems pertaining to the garbage dump had gone unresolved as the local government elections were not held, and that there was no authority who could have looked into the matter.  He explained that the garbage dump has been maintained by the Colombo Municipal Council for the last two years. Wickramasinghe claims that the canal surrounding the garbage dump, which has not been cleaned, contributed largely to the collapse of the dump.

“During the tenure of the previous government, the canal was cleaned regularly by the military. But when the CMC took over since the last two years, it has not been cleaned. They only focused on garbage maintenance. Just prior to the Sinhala and Tamil New year, the Kolonnawa area experienced some rain. Due to the rains, all the water collected beneath the garbage dump. The garbage deluge became wet, and the weight intensified and pressure was applied to the ground. Adjacent to the garbage dump is Daham Pura, the area where the tragedy took place. The land in that area is of loose soil, and due to downward pressure from the garbage dump, the soil broke through and overturned, causing a spring effect,” he said. This uprooted several trees in the areas and overturned several houses, as well.

When Roar visited the site of the disaster yesterday, a resident from Vihara Mawatha described how, on Friday, she was having her lunch at around 2:15 p.m., when black water started to surge through her floor. She said she then felt her house ‘rise’, almost as though levitating. Realising that danger was looming, she packed an overnight bag, gathered her children and alerted her neighbours before vacating to safer grounds. Within an hour she heard a crash, and, when she looked towards where her house stood, saw that ten houses, along with hers, had collapsed and were covered in debris.

Dead, Missing, And Displaced

Residents mourn loved ones lost to the tragedy. Image courtesy writer

As of 10:30 a.m. today (April 16), the death toll from the disaster stands at 21, according to Military Spokesperson, Brigadier Roshan Seneviratne.

Rahula Vidyalaya, a school in the area, was temporarily established as a shelter for those displaced, and also as a media centre. According to the Disaster Management Centre (DMC), 180 families (and 625 people) have been affected. Brigadier Seneviratne told Roar that of the 21 who died, five were children, and that search efforts are ongoing to locate missing persons.

Taking Precautions

The disaster site was cordoned off to civilians as police and military were deployed to carry out search and rescue efforts. Image credit: Roar/Nazly Ahmed

Although more families from the area had been advised to evacuate yesterday, Brigadier Seneviratne said that there were still some people who were staying in their own homes in the vicinity of the garbage dump. He said that the army and the STF have been stationed to provide security for them. When Roar inquired into the likelihood of another collapse, he said, “There are possibilities for that to occur, which is why people are being advised to move out. However, we have to wait for expert opinion on that.”

Speaking to Roar, Minister for Disaster Management Anura Priyadarshana Yapa explained that the relief operations will proceed to recover all possible survivors, and also provide first aid to those injured. He noted that the DMC’s main priority was to identify casualties and survivors. He also added that the National Building Research Organisation(NBRO) was presently assessing the situation. Commenting on this assessment he said, “if this is not taken care of properly, it can collapse once more. So we have asked the NBRO to assess the situation. They have prepared a report which indicates that if there was another collapse of the garbage dump, we want to determine the expanse of the area which will be affected, if another collapse occurs,” he said.

“With regard to the displaced, the next step would be to provide them with shelter. We will provide them with housing facilities and make sure that there will be no garbage coming into the area. We will have to rehabilitate the existing garbage dump. This is something we have to prioritise. We will have to find a lasting solution for garbage in Colombo, and its surrounding suburbs,” he said, adding that the state will bear the funeral expenses of those who lost their lives in the disaster.

Funeral Controversy

To the affected residents, however, these gestures come too late. According to Saliya Wickramasinghe, the government had instructed families to have the funeral cortège at the resident temple, but the people wanted to conduct the funerals by the side of the road, as part of an anti-government stance. Wickramasinghe said he and other community leaders in the area were trying to diffuse the tension.

At 10:00 a.m. today, it was learnt that the funeral services of four of the victims were carried out at the Meethotamulla temple. More religious proceedings will take place at 4:00 p.m.

Relief Efforts

President of the Kolonnawa Masjid Federation, I. Y. M. Hanif, told Roar that the people in the danger zones have been evacuated and placed in a nearby school, Terrence Vidyalaya. He said that the DMC had requested the Kolonnawa mosque to assist with the relief work, and provide volunteers to expedite the process. Hanif said they had been able to gather around 65 volunteers to assist in water distribution and other relief work.

Other relief efforts have also been initiated.

Meanwhile, Joint Opposition MP Dinesh Gunawardene held an emergency meeting yesterday with representatives of the Kolonnawa Urban Council, in order to ascertain the steps that could be taken to contain the crisis. Rescue operations are still ongoing to recover dead bodies, and the public has been advised to refrain from unnecessarily visiting the site of the disaster. Watch this space or follow

Rescue operations are still ongoing to recover dead bodies, and the public has been advised to refrain from unnecessarily visiting the site of the disaster. Watch this space or follow @Roarlk on Twitter for updates.

Featured image credit: Roar/Nazly Ahmed

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