The cities that we reside in are a testimony to how rapidly we are urbanising. Amidst the glamour of urbanisation, there are numerous not-so-pleasant aspects that continue to remain hidden. Ironically, one of the worst kept secrets of a city is the waste it creates and its journey from our dustbin to a landfill. Landfills generally remain open for decades before undergoing closure and post-closure phases, during which steps are taken to minimise the risk of environmental contamination.
Having said that, the impact that these landfills can have on the air, soil, water and human lives is enormous. In light of a recent proposal by East Delhi Municipal Corporation (EDMC) to develop a 150-acre landfill site along with a waste-to-energy plant on the banks of River Yamuna in Delhi, it is imperative for the citizens and the authorities to be aware of the impact a landfill might have on our ground water.
By the sight of it, it is easy to guess that a landfill consists of literally everything that we dispose off ranging from the kitchen waste to medical waste. Every day, about 8360 metric tonnes per day of municipal solid waste created by Delhi finds its way to three landfills in Bhalswa, Gazipur and Okhla. While these landfills are an indispensable part of everyday living, it is essential for us to recognise the long-term threats they pose to our groundwater as well as the surface water. According to a study, landfills have been identified as one of the major threats to groundwater resources not only in India but throughout the world. It has been found that areas near landfills have a greater possibility of groundwater contamination because of the potential pollution source of leachate originating from the dumping site.
In context of the landfills, leachate is the liquid that drains from the waste and contains both dissolved and suspended material. As the water percolates through the mountain of waste, it picks up a variety of substances such as metals, minerals, organic chemicals, bacteria, viruses, explosives, flammables and other toxic materials. The highly strong and unpleasant smell of this leachate has volumes to say about its composition. The release of the leachate to the groundwater presents several risks to the environment as well as human health.
Human health is evidently largely dependent on safe and clean drinking water. The contamination of groundwater as a result of high concentration of dissolved solids is not a mere threat but a calamity for human health. Consumption of contaminated groundwater can directly lead to emergence of chronic serious ailments such as cancer, liver damage, kidney damage, reproductive and nervous system-related difficulties to name a few.
Over the last few decades, there have been several examples of how landfills have impacted the groundwater leading to serious health risks. One of the most widely recognised cases of groundwater pollution is Love Canal neighbourhood in upstate New York. Back in 1978, residents of the neighbourhood noticed high rates of cancer, indications of leukemia and an alarming number of birth defects. This was eventually traced to organic solvents and dioxins from an industrial landfill that the neighbourhood had been built over and around, which had then infiltrated into the water supply leading to a man-made catastrophe.
It won’t be an exaggeration to say that considering the current lack of regulations related to the landfills in the cities, there are many more Love Canal disasters waiting to unleash themselves upon the environment and on us. Majority of our natural resources all over the world are currently threatened with over-exploitation, ecological degradation and poor management.
The recent proposal of the EDMC to develop a landfill site on the banks of an already dead river is an open invitation to further degrade the quality of water as well as the lives of the people of Delhi. As a city that is already struggling with the deteriorated air quality, Delhi cannot afford to consciously add another blow to its physical and social environment. A group of concerned citizens have filed a petition on Change.org for the authorities to shift the site of development of landfill on the floodplains. Every signature on the petition will send out a message to the government to stop this disaster. You can sign the petition here.
It is high time that our authorities open their eyes to the reality and recognise that it is foolish to neglect one issue in the pursuit to address another. If not recognised and addressed with urgency, we, as developing cities will continue to expand and our water resources will continue to contract, all over a mountain of waste.