While the day of Sinhala and Tamil New Year was filled with celebrations and joy for most Sri Lankans in and out of the country, it was a dark day for the people in Meethotamulla, Kolonnawa.
Friday, April 14 – The area’s infamous garbage dump collapsed around 3 p.m., burying and damaging a vast number of houses. The affected areas of around the garbage dump are; Nagahamulla, Dahampura and Visithune Watta.
People in the area, police and security forces rushed to the scene to help and rescue those buried under the garbage. However, the dump had already collapsed several times, making it extremely difficult for the rescue services to reach those trapped and buried.
- The death toll: 31 (as of 9 p.m. – April 18)
- Still unaccounted for: 6 (according to Police), 30 (according to DMC)
- Affected: 625 people
- Families: 180
- Damaged houses: 145
*Sources: Police HQ and Armed Forces
Garbage from Kolonnawa, Kotikawaththa and Mulleriyawa have been dumped in Meethotamulla for 30 years. Later, garbage in the Colombo Municipal Council limits has also been dumped as per a ruling by the Supreme Court in 2008.
Around 800 tonnes of garbage is dumped at this 20 acre landfill each day. The dump stands at around 300 feet / 91 meters high.
Sparking more worries, on April 16, the National Building Research Organisation called for the evacuation of people living in 130 homes surrounding the Dump. The NBRO’s Geology and Landslide Research Unit says the surrounding area has been labelled as a danger zone.
UPDATE – April 18:
One body -buried under debris- was recovered after search and rescue recommenced on Tuesday. Rescue Services called in the Police K9 Units to support the efforts.
Furthermore, the Embassy of Japan in Sri Lanka announced that Japan will provide tents, mattresses, water-purifiers and other electric equipment for the displaced.
A program is also in place to prevent the spread of diseases among the displaced persons.
Locals decline Police’s attempts to bear alms giving expenses
“… We do not expect any sponsorship from the police or the state. They are yet to call us to find a solution for this issue. If they are giving us money that is a disrespectful thing to do for the dead …” – Attorney-at-Law Nuwan Bopage (Chairman – People’s Movement against the Kolonnawa Garbage Dump)
A team from Japan?
Prime Minister of Japan has contacted his Sri Lankan counterpart to issue his condolences over the loss of life as a result of the tragedy.
Shinzo Abe has added that a technical team is likely to visit Sri Lanka at the earliest to take stock of the situation and assist in remedial measures.
Instructions from the Head of State
President Maithripala Sirisena has instructed officials to disregard financial constraints in providing relief to the affected people.
“All institutions must carry out their tasks to ensure the safety of the people living in this area, to evacuate people living in areas that are at risk, providing them alternative housing, and ensure their welfare. There will be no shortcomings in financial provisions from the government to carry out the relief effort. ” – President
Statement from the Ministry of Finance (Monday, April 17): The Ministry says a sum of Rs. 100,000 would be paid for each death and a maximum of Rs. 2.5 million would be paid for damage to property.
According to Min. Ravi Karunanayake, compensation has been paid for natural disasters across the country since 2016 through a disaster insurance scheme.
Rescue and relief
Rescue and relief operations continue and are conducted by the Sri Lanka Army, Air Force, Navy, Police Special Task Force and Police.
Major General Sudantha Ranasinghe said that investigations are being carried out to ascertain of a possible second collapse, though there is no sign of one.
The search operations include;
- Army Personnel: 1015
- Excavators: 15
- Dump trucks & Tippers: 15
*Source: Brig. Roshan Seneviratne – Army Media Spokesperson
According to Brig. Roshan Seneviratne, the ongoing operations and surrounding situation is being monitored by cameras put up by SL Army.
A ten member group from the Peradeniya University Geology unit and a group of specialists from the Geological survey and Mines Bureau have been called in to assist the investigation process, says Police.
Meanwhile, the Police Media Spokesperson has urged the public to refrain from visiting the location as the front portion of debris might collapse again while being cleared.
Sunday, April 16: Three more bodies were recovered during the search operation in the early hours of Sunday. Bodies of six people are currently lying at the Kolonnawa Raja Maha Viharaya.
The final rites for a family of four were observed at the Kolonnawa Public Cemetery. Final rites of two more will be observed at the Kotikawatta Public Cemetery, Colombo.
Furthermore, a special police unit has been stationed at Rahula College to record entries on missing people and damage to property.
The displaced are currently living in surrounding schools and places of worship – while the Government has taken measures to meet their needs.
A complex owned by the Paddy Marketing Board was selected to house the displaced. The people living in schools and places of worship will be moved to the complex on Friday, April 21.
Personnel from the Civil defense force are leading the renovation process of the complex – making is suitable for people live in.
“We are hoping to finish the work by Wednesday. His Excellency the President has also issued an order for the government to bear the cost of all personal expenses on the part of the displaced people”, said Inspector General of Police Pujith Jayasundera.
Monday, April 17: Final rites were observed for 11 people killed in the tragedy.
Nine were laid to rest at the Kolonnawa Public Cemetery. The nine include the wife, grand-daughter and son-in-law of N. Keer
thi Rathna, the convener of ‘People’s Movement Against the Kolonnawa Garbage Dump’.
Final rites were also held for three more in Maligawatta. While two of them were from the same family, the third is of Ahmad Sajik -a grade 10 student of President’s College Rajagiriya.
“The bodies have been wrapped in polythene and the coffins have been sealed. The bodies have not been embalmed. This is unjust.” – Resident
“They sealed the body and brought it here. It was wrapped in polythene and they had taped around it. Forgive me but look at this body. This is a nasty thing they have done. A coffin only costs 1,500 rupees.” – Resident
The fate of Rahula College
The Ceylon Teachers Union says the Government is directly accountable for the loss of lives of school children and the damage to school property in the disaster.
According to the union, when Rahula College was closed down after a section of the dump collapsed on January 2, 2013, the public had called for the dump’s removal.
The CTU says that while they continuously called on the government to remove the dump and reopen the school, no action was taken and the school remained closed.
The Peoples Movement Against the Kollonnawa Garbage Dump
“This was a gold mine for the politicians in the past. The Colombo Municipal Council awarded a tender worth Rs. 600 million at Rs. 800 million and made sure the other Rs. 200 million when into the pockets of the politicians.” – Attorney At Law Nuwan Bopage (Chairperson – People’s Movement Against the Kollonnawa Garbage Dump)
Bopage claims the garbage is being dumped using lorries belonging to Mayor of Kollonnawa, Deputy Mayor and Councilors in the opposition. “They made this a method of income.” he added.
Attorney At Law Nuwan Bopage also said: “Our children have been buried by this same garbage, over 60 families are under the debris. The politicians who created this mountain of garbage used it for petty political gains..”
The movement also said that they were invited by the Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe in February 2015. During the meeting, Premier had promised of a solution within 6 months. However, the movement added, though the election was won following the six months, there is no solution to-date.
“Mahinda Rajapaksa, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremesinghe all these people should be sent to prison on charges of murder. They have to be given the death penalty. All the politicians who did not take any action while we were suffering for 6 years should resign. We did not come and settle near this garbage dump. They put the garbage where we lived.” – The Peoples Movement Against the Kollonnawa Garbage Dump
“Deceiving the People”
Western Provincial Councillor Susil Kindelpitiya says that he is willing to go before Courts to obtain justice for those affected by the tragedy.
Recalling a recent incident, Councillor Kindelpitiya said that he, together with the PC chairman, managed to remove ten families from the location during the past week. Kindelpitiya revealed that he had to fight for it while a group, including several politicians, tried to stop a few from leaving. The WP Councillor charged the politicians of “deceiving the people”
Councillor Susil Kindelpitiya put forward three questions for the urban commissioner;
- Why weren’t the people evacuated?
- Whose business needs were you (the commissioner) trying to fulfill by not evacuating the people?
- Why is garbage being dumped in this location even now?
Kindelpitiya requested the commissioner to reveal the contractor and the business deals “at least now”.
“i will go before the supreme court next week to file a case with my own money to request for information on these these corrupt business deals and we will reveal who is responsible. If the commissioner does not reveal this information we will file charges against him under the right for information act…” – He added.
The secret “special discussion” behind closed doors
A special discussion was held at the Ministry of Disaster Management on the steps that should be taken with regard to the situation at the Garbage Dump. However, the media did not have the opportunity to cover and report on this “special meeting”.
Attorney at Law Nimal Bopage (Secretary to Ministry of Mass Media) has issued a release, requesting for the co-operation of everyone with regard to the relief and rescue operations that are being carried out in the area.
BUT…, even though the Ministry of Mass Media has made such a request, the Director General of Information has taken steps to cover up the decisive meeting held by government representatives.
These actions by the DG of Information Dr. Ranga Kalansuriya resulted in the government losing the opportunity to provide answers to the questions and queries the media has to raise.
It comes without surprise that even the Politicians were tight lipped over a long period of time when News 1st reported on the Meethotamulla Garbage issue on several previous occasions.
Left out, but not out – News 1st spoke to the attendees of this “secret meeting”
Patali Champika Ranawaka (Minister of Megapolis and Western Development): “.. A decision has been made by the government to handle the funeral expenses of the victims, compensation for those affected through this incident will be paid as soon as possible.”
Dr. harsha de Silva (Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs): “.. we cannot dump garbage in meetotamulla anymore so a decision was reached to dump garbage from colombo in dompe and karadiyana for the next 2 weeks. There is a legal issue pertaining to Karadiyana so we have advised the Colombo municipal commissioner to reach a settlement with the magistrate in the area for the next 2 weeks.
S.M. Marrikar (UNP MP): “.. The government should be responsible for this even though this dump began under the previous government, the current government for the past 2 years could not even stop the dumping of garbage at this location.
Marikkar also demanded that the victims of the tragedy be given new homes in the Kolonnawa Pradeshiya Sabha.
Susil Kindelpitiya: “Stop exploiting this issue for political gains, meet with the people and resolve this. How many ministers and MPs represent Colombo, the Minister of finance is from Colombo , there are countless MPs, but how many people came here to look into the plight of these people? ..”
A scientific approach
The Minister of Disaster Management Anura Priyadarshana Yapa says a scientific approach should be taken to waste management. The minister said that five facilities are being developed in the country with the goal of “scientifically disposing waste”.
The five facilities will be an addition to the facility already operational in Dompe, which is the only location in Sri Lanka and all of South Asia, to scientifically dispose waste.
“I proposed to quickly provide homes in the Kolonnawa Division which have been built under various projects undertaken by the Urban Development Authority.” – S.M. Marikkar (MP – UNP)
Meanwhile the Colombo Municipal Commissioner responded to News 1st inquiries on a certain chemical.
According to Commissioner V.K. Anura, CMC uses a chemical to suppress the stench of the waste. Incidentally, this chemical had been used on the Meethotamulla dump around two months ago.
Several parties have claimed ownership for the Meethotamulla Garbage dump in the recent past. They are;
- The Colombo Municipal Council
- The Ministry of Local Government and Provincial Council
- The Urban Development Authority
- The Western Provincial Council
- Pradeshiya Sabha and Provincial Council members
However, the situation now is the complete opposite. Not one of the above have taken responsibility for the tragedy which took place.
Statement from the Ministry of Megapolis and Western Development: The Ministry has banned the dumping of garbage in lands owned by the Urban Development Authority.
The Ministry says that if a local council or other public institutions requires land to dump waste, then such institutions should use the provisions allocated to cover the cost.
The statement says that Colombo Municipal Council has been advised to halt dumping waste in Meethotamulla and the CMC has been advised of alternate locations.
Garbage mounting in Colombo
Garbage has been accumulated in a number of locations around the City following the festive season. We witnessed the way garbage had been dumped in a number of locations in the city including Borella, Bambalapitiya and Torrington.
The Kesbewa Magistrates Court has issued an order yesterday, that garbage belonging to the Colombo Municipal Council be dumped at the Karadiyana Garbage Dump from yesterday – April 17, until the 28th of April.
Meanwhile the residents of Kotikawatte protested opposite the Kotikawatte General Cemetry opposing the CMC dumping garbage at the Solid Waste Recycling Plant in Kotikawatte.