Colombo Telegraph

Meethotamulla Disaster & The Unraised Question

By Ameer Ali

Dr. Ameer Ali

The collapse of the garbage mountain at Meethotamulla has killed around 40 people so far. This is indeed a terrific tragedy and it is not the first time that innocent people have lost their life because of inverse prioritization of management objectives and tasks by state agencies and their private service providers. However, since this event happened a number of so called experts have raised the question of waste management in Colombo and suggested a number of possible solutions ranging from shifting the garbage to different locations to application of better technology. Even foreign governments like China and Japan have come to Sri Lanka’s assistance.

Yet, none of the solutions suggested so far has raise the most fundamental question of how to reduce the amount of garbage that is daily accumulating throughout the country. Waste accumulation is a global problem and without reducing the quantity of waste that humans produce all technological solutions to recycle or destroy the garbage will involve more scarce resources unaffordable to many developing nations. In fact, according to a study in 2012 by a former World Bank development specialist Hoornweg and co-author Perinaz Bhada-Tata the global cost of dealing garbage is estimated to rise from $205 billion a year in 2010 to $375 billion by 2025, with the sharpest increase in developing countries. To my knowledge no such comprehensive and comparable studies have yet been made in relation to Sri Lanka. This is another evidence of misplaced development priorities by the authorities.

In suggesting solutions to the global garbage problem the same study identifies, “a move towards stable or declining population, denser and better-managed cities consuming fewer resources, and greater equity and use of technology”. Sri Lanka’s population growth rate of less than one percent a year is comparable to any middle income country. The use of better technology will require greater investment from a debt ridden economy. Foreign assistance in this area can become quite handy. But the other two suggestions, better management of cities and equity are issues that calls for an administrative system and governance free of corruption, nepotism and discrimination. Even if these were to improve that will not help in reducing the current rate of garbage accumulation.

The ruling economic paradigm that elevates the free market to the position of a welfare arbiter and promotes a lifestyle that ennobles unbridled consumption cannot guarantee equity and protect the environment. When the system encourages people to consume things that they do not need with money they do not have and may be to impress someone they do not like inequity and waste become unavoidable. The rising income disparity and environmental damage are global issues emanating from the school of free market economics into which Sri Lanka has enrolled as a faithful pupil. A great many things that are heavily advertised and dished out to the impulsive consumer in indestructible polythene bags and packages are in reality a waste. This consumer culture has to change if humans want to live in a safe environment with equitable distribution of income and welfare. Without a systemic change there will be many more Meetotamullas.

*Dr. Ameer Ali, School of Business and Governance, Murdoch University, Western Australia

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