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The methane emissions in Delhi are increasing due to the overflowing garbage dumps, making it difficult to breathe.
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The methane emissions in Delhi are increasing due to the overflowing garbage dumps, making it difficult to breathe.

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The towering piles of waste in Delhi are reminiscent of mountains, attracting birds, flies, pests, and cows. The overpowering smell of decay permeates the area. These massive “garbage mountains” are so large, spanning several miles and reaching heights of over 200ft (60 metres), that they can be seen from all parts of the city.

Every day, over 10,000 tonnes of waste from Delhi, including vegetable scraps, glass bottles, plastic packaging, batteries, broken toys, and unwanted clothes, are disposed at the garbage dumps in the Ghazipur, Bhalswa, and Okhla neighborhoods.

The inhabitants of Delhi, who regularly inhale the most polluted air in the world, commonly perceive these landfill sites as bleak symbols of the city’s inability to address the growing issue of waste and contamination.

Children play while picking rubbish at the Bhalswa landfill site, Delhi, 9 October 2023View image in fullscreen

However, the real danger posed by the towering garbage dumps in Delhi is one that is mostly unseen. Satellite data, which has only been shared with the Guardian, shows that the landfills in India’s capital have become a major source of methane emissions. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that can trap 82 times more heat than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.

Based on information from Kayrros, a company specializing in environmental intelligence, there have been a total of 124 methane leaks classified as “super emitters” in Ghazipur, Bhalswa, and Okhla since 2020.

As a result of the prevalent practice of cooking with fresh ingredients, a significantly large amount of waste produced in India is classified as “wet waste”, including food leftovers and discarded vegetable peels. In the areas of Ghazipur, Bhalswa, and Okhla, over 50% of the daily waste disposal consists of biodegradable materials.

The city of Delhi, which is home to 32 million people, does not have a proper system in place for separating and disposing of garbage. As a result, the wet waste is often mixed together and not properly managed, leading to the production of large amounts of methane gas as it decomposes. Unlike in developed countries, the sites in Ghazipur, Bhalswa, and Okhla do not have a system for collecting and containing the methane gas, allowing it to freely escape into the atmosphere.

According to Bharati Chaturvedi, founder and director of Chintan, a group focused on sustainable waste management in India, Delhi struggles with separating waste, especially wet waste. Once this waste is deposited in landfills, it becomes a problem for the municipality as it produces methane, leading to fires and pollution that cannot be controlled.

She stated, “Even basic methods of decreasing methane are not implemented in Delhi. We must compost this waste on a large scale, but a major issue is the lack of available land. Additionally, there is no demand for compost, making it financially unrewarding to handle organic waste in any other way.”

Smoke rises off the piles of rubbish, where there are small fires, from the Bhalswa landfill site against the backdrop of the city in the morning light, Delhi, 9 October 2023View image in fullscreen

The Delhi government has made a commitment to resolve the issue of the Ghazipur, Bhalswa, and Okhla dumpsites by 2024. However, officials have acknowledged that a significant amount of unsorted waste is still being brought in daily and the given deadline is considered impractical by at least one unauthorized official who spoke to the media. The Aam Aadmi party-led Delhi state government has declined to address the matter, despite repeated attempts to obtain a statement from them.

Waste dumps, fossil fuel locations, and livestock emit methane, which contributes to 25% of global warming. According to specialists, if countries like India, which has the world’s largest population of over 1.4 billion people, cannot regulate their methane emissions as their population grows, it could pose a significant challenge in limiting global temperature increases to 1.5C above preindustrial levels.

The release of methane from India’s numerous landfill sites, primarily located in urban regions, has significantly increased in recent times. This is mainly due to the growing populations in cities like Delhi. Landfills and garbage dumps are responsible for over 14% of India’s overall methane emissions, making it the second largest source after agriculture.

2 emissions from 32,685 cars

Kayrros’ analysis of satellite data shows that Ghazipur, Bhalswa, and Okhla may now be large stores of methane. In Ghazipur, the data reveals that the landfill has been responsible for 37 significant methane leaks since 2020, with the most severe occurring in November 2021 at a rate of 156 tonnes per hour – equivalent to the CO2 emissions of 32,685 cars.2

In June 2019, the site released a larger amount of emissions compared to before, emitting 360 tonnes per hour. This is equivalent to the carbon emissions of 57 million cars running continuously.

In 2020, 19 significant methane leaks were discovered in Okhla, and 19 were also found in Bhalswa. One of the leaks in Bhalswa occurred in March 2023 and resulted in the release of 208 tonnes of methane per hour, which is equivalent to the emissions of 33 million cars.

The environmental consequences of the methane leaks from these dumpsites have become doubly devastating in Delhi’s scorching summer months, when the highly flammable gas regularly catches fire, turning the trash mountains into toxic, burning infernos. The fires sometimes take weeks to put out, sending choking fumes into Delhi’s already highly polluted air.

Residents living near the sites consistently refer to the summer season as a “nightmare”. Mohammad Rizwan, a 36-year-old shop owner near the Ghazipur dumpsite, stated that the people living in the vicinity are the most unfortunate in Delhi.

Over the last two decades, I have witnessed the transformation of a small pile of garbage into the enormous mountain it is today,” he remarked, gesturing towards the towering wall of rubbish. “In the summer months, it is engulfed in flames on a weekly basis due to the buildup of gas, making this place even more repulsive. The toxic fumes and smoke make it nearly impossible to breathe, causing sickness among everyone who resides here. It is a hazardous environment to live in, but unfortunately, I have no alternative. This is where my home and means of survival are located.”

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Ragpickers burn wires to extract copper at the Bhalswa landfill site, Delhi, 9 October 2023: two young women, one in an orange sari and headscarf, the other in yellow, squat by flames on the piles of rubbish. The woman in orange is covering her mouth against the smokeView image in fullscreen

For Delhi’s thousands of ragpickers, who make a living climbing on to the trash mountains every day to find materials – plastic, glass, wires, metals – which they can sell for a few rupees, the methane fires can prove particularly deadly. Though it is illegal to enter the dumpsites, the archaic and dangerous practice continues. The Guardian met ragpickers as young as four working on the Ghazipur and Bhalswa sites, collecting and segregating rubbish.

Seven-year-old Rizwan Sheikh, wearing dirty green pajamas and orange plastic sandals, shared that he would often scale the Ghazipur trash mountain twice a day to gather plastic and metal items to sell. However, he had to navigate through a dangerous area filled with food waste, shattered glass, and discarded needles. On a successful day, he would earn 150 rupees (equivalent to £1.50), which was sufficient to purchase his beloved dinner of biryani.

During the summer, Rizwan shared that it can be daunting and challenging due to the presence of wildfires. He admitted that there are times when he doesn’t want to go up but feels obligated to do so because his father passed away and he needs to support himself financially.

During a visit to the village near the Bhalswa dumpsite, the Guardian witnessed a funeral ceremony for a man in his 30s who had passed away due to lung and kidney issues. He had previously worked at the dumpsite.

Mohammad Insab, aged 32, stated that it is a common occurrence for people to die at a young age due to health issues in this area. He expressed concern that the garbage dump is causing harm, but the government has not taken any action and the waste continues to accumulate.

In March of last year, the finance minister of Delhi, Kailash Gahlot, vowed that his government would eliminate the “mountains” of waste in the city. This promise was also echoed by the chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal. However, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), responsible for managing the Ghazipur, Bhalswa, and Okhla waste sites, stated that they would not shut down the sites until a proper system was in place to sort and process 100% of Delhi’s waste, which experts believe is unlikely to happen in the near future.

MCD said it had begun the process of removing legacy waste, such as aged plastic and metals, from these sites. In a written statement, it said it was “on schedule” to remove 3m metric tonnes of rubbish at Bhaslwa and Okhla by May this year, though admitted that it was lagging behind at Ghazipur.

However, according to Dr. Richa Singh, a program manager at the Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi, this process of biomining old garbage does not address the issue of new biodegradable waste. As a result, the cycle of uncontrolled methane emissions will persist.

The main cause of methane and air pollution from fires is the daily dumping of fresh wet waste at these sites, according to the speaker. Simply removing old waste will not solve the bigger issue; we must put an end to the practice of dumping mixed waste.

A young girl in a dark red dress and brown headscarf holds a bag filled with rubbish over her head. She is standing on piles of trash with the city seen in the background

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Environmentalists were worried that the proposed alternatives to landfills were just as harmful. One concern was the promotion of waste-to-energy plants, which burn segregated waste to generate heat. These plants in Delhi have been poorly regulated, operated in an opaque manner, and have faced numerous fines for their high levels of pollution.

Singh expressed hope for India’s waste management future, focusing on sustainable and socially inclusive methods of segregation. This would involve incorporating the millions of people in India who rely on sorting and selling waste into the solution.

The speaker stated that despite being a developing nation, the government is determined to achieve a garbage-free country. By effectively managing waste, they hope to significantly decrease methane emissions.

Source: theguardian.com