10 June 2019 | CARLY CASSELLA | Science Alert
As tall as the towers of London Bridge, New Delhi’s Ghazipur landfill continues to grow at a startling pace. Within a year, it is set to rise higher than the Taj Mahal, one of the country’s most iconic monuments.
Nicknamed ‘Mount Everest‘ by locals, the expansive pile of fetid matter is already more than 65 metres (213 feet) tall. As India’s Supreme Court recently warned, it’s well overdue for some aircraft warning lights.
When Ghazipur first opened in 1984, this was – of course – never the intention. By 2002, the landfill had reached capacity at 20 metres and should have been closed.
Today, the 21 million people living in New Delhi rely mainly on this ever-growing monstrosity and two other landfills, all of which hit maximum volume at least a decade ago.
“About 2,000 tonnes of garbage is dumped at Ghazipur each day,” a Delhi municipal official told the AFP on condition of anonymity. That amounts to about 10 metres of growth each year.
Not only is the huge expanse of rubbish an eyesore, it is also a hazard; on multiple occasions, the East Delhi Municipal Corporation (EDMC) has tried and failed to shut it down.
Last year, the complacency of officials turned fatal. Two locals were killed in a landslide after a section of the mountain collapsed from heavy rains. The deaths prompted a closure of the landfill and a landfill rehabilitation analysis from 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 report.
“Subsurface fires, smoke emissions from the surface of the waste, animals scavenging waste, and informal sector waste recyclers were all observed during the November 2017 site visit.”
The conclusions 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.
For all that, the closure only lasted a few days, and the open dump site has continued along the same lines ever since.
As the stinky structure continues to grow with no end in sight, the risks for locals are manifold. Because the waste on this mountainous pile is loose, uncompacted and exposed, it encourages aerobic decomposition and generates heat and methane.
This means that under the right conditions, spontaneous fires can spark easily, further destabilising the whole structure.
During the landfill analysis, researchers also noticed a tension crack about 60 metres long and half a metre wide, a further indication of potential slope failures.
What’s more, the landfill has absolutely no liner system, which means it is sitting straight on the ground. All dumps produce something called leachate, but without something to catch this black liquid at Ghazipur, the whole thing oozes continuously into a local canal.
“It all needs to be stopped as the continuous dumping has severely polluted the air and ground water,” Chitra Mukherjee, the head of Chintan, an environment advocacy group, told the AFP.
Residents of East New Delhi were complaining about the stinking pile long before a landslide claimed two of their own. Some have said the poisonous smell makes breathing virtually impossible. A local doctor said she sees about 70 people each day – mostly for respiratory and stomach ailments caused by the polluted air. Many are babies and children.
Between 2013 and 2017, it’s estimated that Delhi saw 981 deaths from acute respiratory infection.
Indian cities are responsible for millions of tonnes of waste annually, and the numbers are only projected to rise. Members of the Aam Aadmi party, which is the ruling party of Delhi, have responded to a petition to clean up the “ticking time bomb” within two years.
They are also resisting a plan by city authorities, run by the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, to create two new landfills on the nearby Yamuna flood plains, which drain directly into a river.
India is one of the world’s largest garbage producers. The country is also facing a waste crisis. Unless something is done soon, the Ghazipur landfill and others like it may soon grow too large to clean up.