A 62-metre-high pile of garbage shows the extent of India’s climate problem

New Delhi

At the Bhalswa landfill in northwest Delhi, a steady stream of jeeps zigzags through the garbage pile to dump more garbage into a pile currently over 62 meters (203 feet) high.

Fires from heat and methane gas are sporadic – the Delhi Fire Department has dealt with 14 fires so far this year – and some from the depths of the pile could smolder for weeks or months as men, women and children work nearby. trash to find items to sell.

Some of the 200,000 residents living in Bhalswa say the area is uninhabitable, but they have no money to move and have no choice but to breathe the toxic air and bathe in its polluted water.

Bhalswa is not Delhi’s largest landfill. It is about three meters lower than the largest, Ghazipur, and both contribute to the country’s total methane production.

Methane is the second most abundant greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide, but as methane traps more heat, it is a stronger contributor to the climate crisis. According to GHGSat, which monitors methane via satellites, India produces more methane from landfills than any other country.

According to the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) Global Methane Tracker, India ranks second after China in terms of total methane emissions.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that as part of the “Clean India” initiative, efforts are being made to remove these mountains of garbage and turn them into green spaces. If this goal is achieved, it could relieve some of the suffering of residents living in the shadow of these dumps and help the world reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

India wants to reduce methane production, but has not joined 130 countries Signatories to the Global Methane Commitment, an agreement to collectively reduce global methane emissions by at least 30% from 2020 levels by 2030. Scientists say the reduction could reduce global temperature rise by 0.2% and keep the world’s global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

India says it will not participate as most of its methane emissions come from agriculture – about 74% from livestock and paddy fields, and less than 15% from landfills.

Ashwini Choubey, Minister of State for the Environment, Forestry and Climate Change Ministry, said in a statement last year that pledges to reduce India’s total methane production could threaten farmers’ livelihoods and affect India’s commercial and economic prospects.

But it also faces challenges in reducing methane from steaming garbage heaps.

A young boy in the narrow streets of the slums in Bhalswa Dairy Village.

When 72-year-old Narayan Choudhary moved to Bhalswa in 1982, he said it was a “beautiful place”, but everything changed 12 years later when the first garbage started to reach the local landfill.

Since then, the Bhalswa dump has grown almost as much as the historic Taj Mahal, becoming a landmark in its own right and an eye-catcher towering over the surrounding houses. It affects the health of the people living there.

Choudhary suffers from chronic asthma. He said he was almost dead when a massive fire broke out in Bhalswa in April that burned for days. “I was in a terrible state. My face and nose were swollen. I was on my deathbed,” he said.

“We protested two years ago… many people living in this area protested (to get rid of waste),” Choudhary said. “But the municipality did not cooperate with us. They reassured us that in two years everything will be better, but here we are, no relief.”

According to a 2020 report on Indian landfills by the Center for Science and Environment (CSE), a non-profit research organization in New Delhi, the capacity of the landfill was depleted in 2002, but government standardization in recycling systems and more efforts to reduce plastic no major industry efforts. Consumption and production continue to reach the construction site with tons of garbage daily.

Narrow lanes of the slum in Bhalswa Dairy Village.

Bhalswa isn’t the only dump plaguing nearby residents – it’s one of three in Delhi that fills with rotting waste and releases toxic gases into the air.

There are more than 3,100 landfills across the country. Ghazipur is the largest in Delhi at 65 meters (213 feet) and, like Bhalswa, exceeded its waste capacity in 2002 and now produces large amounts of methane.

According to GHGSat, more than two metric tons of methane gas leaked from the site every hour in a single day in March.

“If it continues for a year, the methane leak from this dump will have the same climate impact as the annual emissions of 350,000 US cars,” said Stephane Germain, CEO of GHGSat.

Methane emissions are not the only danger from landfills such as Bhalswa and Ghazipur. For decades, dangerous toxins have seeped into the soil and contaminated the water supply of thousands of residents living nearby.

In May, CNN commissioned two accredited laboratories to test groundwater around the Bhalswa landfill. And according to the results, groundwater within a radius of at least 500 meters (1,600 feet) around the landfill is contaminated.

A groundwater sample from the Bhalswa landfill in northwest Delhi.

In the first lab report, ammonia and sulfate levels were significantly higher than the acceptable limits mandated by the Indian government.

Results from the second lab report showed that the levels of total dissolved solids (TDS) – water-soluble inorganic salts and organic matter – detected in one of the samples were almost 19 times the acceptable limit, making it unsafe for human drinking.

The Bureau of Indian Standards sets the acceptable limit for TDS at 500 milligrams/liter; this is a figure considered roughly “good” by the World Health Organization (WHO). Values ​​above 900 mg/l are considered “weak” by WHO, and values ​​above 1,200 mg/l are considered “unacceptable”.

According to Richa Singh of the Center for Science and Environment (CSE), the TDS of water taken near the Bhalswa field was between 3,000 and 4,000 mg/l. “This water is not only suitable for drinking, but also unsuitable for skin contact,” he said. “So it cannot be used for purposes such as bathing, cleaning dishes, cleaning clothes.”

D., senior director of medical oncology at the Gurugram Fortis Memorial Research Institute. Nitesh Rohatgi urged the government to examine the health of the local population and compare it to other parts of the city, “so that in 15 to 20 years, we don’t look back and because we’ve had higher cancer incidence, higher health hazards, higher health problems and we didn’t look back and fix them in time. We have no regrets.”

Most people in Bhalswa rely on bottled water for drinking, but they use the local water for other purposes – many say they have no other choice.

“The water we get is dirty, but we desperately have to store it and use it for washing dishes, bathing and sometimes drinking,” said resident Sonia Bibi, whose legs are covered in a thick, red rash.

Jwala Prashad, 87, who lives in a small cottage in an alley near the landfill, said the stinking pile of garbage had made her life “hell”.

“The water we use is pale red. “My skin burns after a bath as I try to soothe the red sores on her face and neck,” she said.

“But I can never afford to leave this place,” he added.

Jwala Prashad, 87, at the hand pump in front of her home in Bhalswa Dairy Village.

Every day, more than 2,300 tons of Municipal Solid Waste reaches Delhi’s largest landfill in Gazipur, according to a report released in July by a joint committee formed to find a way to reduce the number of fires at the site.

That’s the bulk of the waste from the surrounding area – only 300 tons are processed and disposed of in other ways, according to the report. And less than 7% of old waste was bio-mined, which involves digging, processing and potentially reusing old garbage.

The report states that Delhi Municipality uses drones every three months to monitor the size of the garbage heap and experiment with ways to extract methane from the garbage dump.

But there is a lot of garbage coming in every day to keep up. The committee noted that biomining was “slow and overdue” and the East Delhi Municipal Corporation (now merged with the North and South Delhi Municipal Corporations) is committed to “flattening the garbage mountain” by 2024.

“No effective plan has been made to reduce the height of the garbage mountain,” the report said. The report also added, “It should have suggested long ago that dumping garbage there in the future would contaminate groundwater systems.”

CNN sent a series of questions to the Indian Ministries of Environment and Health along with data from the water testing survey. There was no response from the ministries.

In a 2019 report, the Indian government proposed ways to improve the country’s solid waste management, including formalizing the recycling sector and establishing more composting facilities in the country.

While some improvements have been made, such as better door-to-door garbage collection and waste handling, Delhi’s landfills continue to accumulate waste.

In October, the National Green Court fined the state government more than $100 million for failing to dispose of more than 30 million metric tons of waste at three landfills.

“The problem is Delhi doesn’t have a concrete solid waste action plan,” said Singh of CSE. “So we’re talking about landfill remediation and treatment of old waste here, but think about the fresh waste that is generated regularly. All of this is thrown into these landfills every day.”

“(So) let’s say you process 1,000 tons of heritage (waste) and then you throw away 2,000 tons of fresh waste every day, it’s going to be a vicious cycle. It will be a never-ending process,” Singh said.

“The management of old waste is of course mandated by the government and is very, very important. However, you cannot start the process without having an alternative fresh waste facility. So that’s the biggest challenge.”

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