Firefighters in the southern Indian city of Kochi struggled Tuesday to contain the spread of toxic fumes after a landfill burned down five days ago, leaving the area in a thick haze and suffocating residents.
The towering Brahmapuram landfill in Kerala state is the country’s latest heap of rubbish to catch fire, generate dangerous heat and methane emissions and contribute to India’s growing climate challenges.
Authorities advised residents of the city of more than 600,000 to stay indoors or wear N95 face masks when going outside. Schools had to close on Monday due to the pollution, officials said.
The fire broke out on Thursday, according to the Kerala Fire Department. The cause has not been determined, but landfill fires can be caused by combustible gases from decomposing waste. Images and videos released by officials show workers scrambling to extinguish the blazes that sent thick plumes of toxic smoke rising high into the sky.
While the fire has been mostly extinguished, a thick cloud of smoke and methane gas continues to blanket the area, reducing visibility and air quality in the city while emitting a lingering, pungent odor.
Some firefighters had fainted from the fumes, the fire service said.
Kerala’s top court said it will hear the case on Tuesday.
India creates more methane from landfills than any other country, according to GHGSat, which monitors emissions via satellites. Methane is the second most abundant greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide, but it contributes more to the climate crisis because it traps more heat.
As part of his “Clean India” initiative, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said efforts are being made to remove these mountains of waste and convert them into green zones. If met, that goal could alleviate some of the suffering of the residents living in the shadow of these massive landfills – and help the world reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.
But while India wants to cut its methane production, it has not joined the 150 countries that have signed the Global Methane Pledge, a pact to jointly reduce global emissions by at least 30% by 2030 from 2020 levels. estimate the reduction could cut global temperature rise by 0.2% – and help the world meet its goal of keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.
India says it won’t join because most of its methane emissions come from agriculture – about 74% from farm animals and paddy fields versus less than 15% from landfills.
In 2021, India’s Environment Minister Ashwini Choubey said a commitment to reduce the country’s total methane production could threaten farmers’ livelihoods and affect the economy. But environmentalists say the country faces a dire climate challenge from its steaming mounds of waste.
Brahmapuram is just one of about 3,000 Indian landfills overflowing with decaying waste and emitting toxic gases.
The landfill was commissioned in 2008 and is spread over 16 hectares, according to a 2020 report from the International Urban Cooperation, a program of the European Union.
The landfill receives about 100 tons of plastic waste every day, the study added, of which only about 1% is suitable for recycling. The remaining 99% is dumped in heaps at the site, the study said, which called it a “threat to municipal business.”
“Plastic landfill in Brahmapuram is getting bigger day by day,” he said. “It has seen several fires in recent years, polluting the air and the environment.”
Despite its growing size and threats, the landfill is not the largest in India. The Deonar landfill in the western coastal city of Mumbai, which is some 18 stories high, claims the top spot.
Deonar has also seen sporadic fires break out, engulfing about a million residents in the nearby suburbs of Chembur, Govandi and Mankhurd.
According to the government’s Central Pollution Board, there is no formal waste processing in most Indian cities. Rag pickers from nearby slums often trek up the towering hills and sift through the rubbish for a penny a day, but they are not trained to separate it properly.
In some cases, the waste is simply incinerated in open roadside dumps.
Last year, firefighters spent days extinguishing the flames after a fire broke out at Delhi’s Ghazipur landfill, the largest in the capital.
At 65 meters (213 feet) tall, it is almost as tall as the historic Taj Mahal, becoming a landmark in its own right and an eyesore towering over surrounding houses, affecting the health of the people who live there. affect.
And methane emissions aren’t the only danger posed by landfilling. Over decades, dangerous toxins have seeped into the soil, polluting the water supply of thousands of people in the area.
In Bhalswa, another of Delhi’s major landfills, residents have complained of deep, painful skin wounds and breathing difficulties from living near the dangerous mound for years.
In a 2019 report, the Indian government recommended ways to improve solid waste management in the country, including formalizing the recycling sector and installing more compost plants in the country.
Although some improvements have been made, such as better door-to-door waste collection and treatment, India’s landfills continue to grow in size.
And as the country is expected to soon overtake China as the world’s most populous nation, climate experts fear time is running out to take action.
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