Firefighters in the southern Indian city of Kochi worked on Tuesday to control toxic fumes from spreading after a landfill burst into flames five days ago, putting the area under a thick lockdown and suffocating residents.
The high Brahmapuram landfill in Kerala state is the country’s latest mountain of trash to catch fire, creating dangerous heat and methane emissions, and adding to India’s growing climate challenges.
Authorities have advised residents in the city of more than 600,000 to stay indoors or wear N95 face masks if they go outside. Schools were forced to close on Monday as a result of the pollution, officials said.
The fire started last Thursday, according to the Kerala fire department. The cause is not established, but combustible gases can fuel landfill fires from decomposing garbage. Images and videos released by officials showed workers racing to extinguish the billowing flames that sent thick plumes of toxic smoke soaring into the sky.
Although the fire has been largely extinguished, a thick cloud of smoke and methane gas continues to cover the area, reducing the city’s visibility and air quality, and emitting a lingering, pungent smell.
Several firefighters had escaped from the smoke, the fire department said.
The Kerala high court said it will take up 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 is a major contributor 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 garbage and convert them into green belts. That goal, if achieved, could relieve some of the suffering of those residents who live in the shadow of these huge dumping sites – and help the world lower its greenhouse gas emissions.
But while India is trying to lower its methane output, it has not joined the 150 countries that have signed up to the Global Methane Pledge, an agreement to collectively cut global emissions by at least 30% from 2020 levels by 2030. Scientists estimate the reduction. reduce 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 will not participate because most of its methane emissions come from farming – about 74% from farm animals and paddy fields compared to less than 15% from landfills.
In 2021, India’s Environment Minister Ashwini Choubey said that promising to reduce the country’s total methane output could threaten the livelihood of farmers and affect the economy. But environmentalists say the country is facing a dire climate challenge from its steaming mounds of trash.
Brahmapuram is just one of about 3,000 Indian landfill sites overflowing with rotting waste and emitting poisonous gases.
Commissioned in 2008, the landfill is spread over 16 acres, according to a 2020 report by the International Urban Cooperation, a program of the European Union.
The landfill receives about 100 metric tons of plastic waste every day, the study added, of which only about 1% is suitable for recycling. The remaining 99% is dumped as a pile on the site, the study said, calling it a “threat to the municipal corporation”.
“The plastic dump at Brahmapuram is increasing day by day,” he said. “It has seen several fires in recent years, which pollute the air and the environment.”
Despite its growing size and threats, the landfill is not the largest in India. The 18-story high Deonar dumping ground in the western coastal city of Mumbai claims the best spot.
Deonar has also seen extensive fires, covering around a million residents in the nearby suburbs of Chembur, Govandi and Mankhurd.
There is no formal processing of waste in most Indian cities, according to the government’s Central Pollution Control Board. Rag pickers from nearby slums often go on the high mounds and scoot through the waste for a few cents a day, but they are not trained to separate it properly.
In some cases, the rubbish is simply burned in open dumping yards on the roads.
Last year, firefighters worked for days to put out flames after a fire broke out at Delhi’s Ghazipur landfill – the largest in the capital.
Standing at 65 meters (213 feet), it is almost as tall as the historic Taj Mahal, becoming a landmark in itself and an eyesore that towers over the surrounding houses, affecting the health of those who live there.
And methane emissions are not the only hazard arising from landfills. For decades, dangerous toxins have seeped into the ground, polluting the water supply for thousands who live nearby.
At Bhalswa, one of Delhi’s other major landfill sites, residents have complained of skin-deep, painful gashes and respiratory issues from years of living near the hazardous mound.
In a 2019 report, the Indian government suggested ways to improve the country’s solid waste management, including forming the recycling sector and installing more composting plants in the country.
Although some improvements have been made, such as better door-to-door garbage collection and waste processing, India’s landfills continue to grow in size.
And with the country expected to soon overtake China as the world’s most populous nation, climate experts fear that time to act on the issue is running out.