How one of Delhi’s tallest structures is contributing to climate change

Intense summers are not uncommon in Delhi, but when temperatures soared to 48 degrees this June, it was a record even by city standards. Could emissions from the East Delhi Ghazipur landfill have had a role to play?

It is almost as tall as the Qutb Minar and growing in height every day, threatening to grow taller than the Taj Mahal. It spews deadly methane gas into the atmosphere and pollutes ground water. It provides a risky and toxic living for ragpickers and is a major health hazard for all those living around it. It claimed two lives when a part of it collapsed in 2017, and poses a continuous fire hazard. And yes, it is causing changes in the climate of the city.

This is the Ghazipur landfill in East Delhi, now represented in Parliament by former India cricket captain and BJP MP Gautam Gambhir. A deadly monster that no one is willing or able to fight, its stench radiating out several kilometres, despite a ban on garbage dumping at Ghazipur and orders by Lt Governor Anil Baijal for the site to be cleared, as far back as 2017.

The order, however, has been blithely ignored and garbage continues to be dumped at the landfill, which is currently almost the size of 40 football fields, more than 65 metres (213 feet) high, and growing in height by nearly 10 metres each year. Last year, the Supreme Court in fact commented that red warning lights would soon be needed at the dump to alert passing jets!

Methane emission

What is not frequently articulated, though, is the impact on climate over the medium to long term brought about by the landfill. Delhi’s semi-arid climate is characterised by extreme dry conditions in summer and winter, with temperatures ranging from 18.7 degrees to 40.3 degrees. It has an average annual rainfall of 714.6 mm. But for the first time this year, summer temperatures in Delhi touched 48 degrees Celsius.

The landfill emits huge amounts of methane gas which, as noted by Ajay Nagpure, Head of Air Pollution at World Resources Institute (WRI), is responsible for global warning and climate change. A study conducted in 2012 on methane emission from Delhi’s landfill sites showed that the amount of the gas emitted from the three landfill sites of Bhalswa, Ghazipur, and Okhla were 91.23 Gg/year, 3845.20 Gg/year, and 77.42 Gg/year respectively. (Gg or gigagram, is a unit of weight, one Gg being one million grams.)

“Municipal Solid Waste is one of the critical problems which Indian cities face currently,” said Nagpure. “As per my study, 85% of municipal solid waste generated per day is collected and transported to the landfills of Delhi. With continuous accumulation and no proper handling or management of municipal solid waste, these landfills are responsible for different problems with adverse impact — both at a local and global scale. Locally, these landfills cause air pollution and various health risks. Burning of municipal solid waste releases a significant amount of particulate matter (PM 2.5).”

On the Ghazipur landfill, Nagpure said, “controlling or capturing methane release from these types of landfills can help rapidly reduce climate change risk. Also, temperature affects methane, one of the important Green House Gas (GHG) gases, and increases diffusive gas flow in the landfill. Methane diffusion increases with rising temperature.”

According to Dr Nagpure, temperatures soaring to 48 degrees Celsius may not be due to the immediate impact of the landfill, but rather due to the release of methane gas from it over a long period of time. On whether the methane gas from the landfill can be used productively, he said it is being done in the USA but there is a need to adopt a scientific approach to extract the gas and supply it for domestic use.

“The landfill will need to be covered and then pipes laid below them so that the methane gas can be supplied for use in households. Here there is no scientific approach to dealing with landfills,” Dr Nagpure said.

Hazards galore

The waste dumped at the Ghazipur site includes domestic waste, such as kitchen waste, paper, plastic, glass, cardboard, cloth, and also construction and demolition waste consisting of sand, bricks and concrete blocks. Further, waste from the adjacent poultry market, fish market, slaughterhouses, dairy farm and non-infectious hospital waste is also dumped here.

Trucks from different parts of the city collect and bring waste to this site and dump them randomly without any segregation. Only the rag pickers who rummage through the garbage do some segregation as they collect glass material, plastic and metals for selling them to recycling units. Two bore wells are also operational at the site which are used for washing the refuse removal vehicles and maintenance of heavy earth moving equipment.

Normally, the biodegradation of organic waste in anaerobic conditions — cut off from oxygen and deep inside the garbage mountain — causes a build-up of methane. Since its ignition temperature is only 50 degrees Celsius, whenever it finds a vent and emerges into the atmosphere, it can catch fire. It just takes a casually thrown beedi or cigarette stub or a lit matchstick to trigger a fire at the landfill. Several fires have erupted in recent years. In October 2017, a fire raged in the 70-metre-high landfill for seven hours before being extinguished. Another fire was reported in March 2018.

As the stinking structure continues to grow, the risks to those living nearby also multiply. The waste on this mountainous pile is loose, uncompacted and exposed leading to aerobic decomposition and generating heat and methane. This means that under the right conditions, spontaneous fires can break out, further destabilising the whole structure. Also, a landfill analysis by researchers noticed a tension crack about 60 metres long and half a metre wide, an indication of potential slope failures.

All the waste generated by Delhi’s 21-million population is dumped in Ghazipur and two other landfills, all of which hit maximum safe volume at least a decade ago. Environmental advocacy groups have been calling for the Ghazipur dump’s closure, saying it’s unsafe for anyone to live within five kilometres as it poses significant health risk, including cancer.

In November 2017, a landfill rehabilitation analysis was done by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “Waste disposal practices are not well controlled, which has led to the formation of steep and unstable slopes,” wrote the authors of the EPA report. “Subsurface fires, smoke emissions from the surface of the waste, animals scavenging waste and informal sector waste recyclers were all observed during the site visit.”

The recommendations were simple: Waste filling at the top of the landfill should cease immediately and the EDMC should close the Ghazipur site and move operations to a new landfill as quickly as possible. But the closure only lasted a few days.

“It all needs to be stopped as the continuous dumping has severely polluted the air and ground water,” said Chitra Mukherjee, the head of Chintan, an environment advocacy group. A local doctor said she sees about 70 people every day, many of them infants and children, mostly for respiratory and stomach ailments caused by the polluted air and water.

But despite all research findings and lived experiences, the closure of the site does not appear to be anywhere on the horizon. Several alternative solutions are being mulled over, which we shall look at in a follow-up article.

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