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Decline in large fires at Delhi’s garbage mountains, shows data

Feb 24, 2024 05:16 AM IST

Delhi's landfill fires dropped from 159 in 2017 to one in 2023, attributed to preventive measures and improved waste treatment processes.

The number of fires at Delhi’s three landfills have dropped consistently over the past six years, falling from 159 in 2017 to one last year, according to data the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) submitted to the state environment department last month, with agencies attributing the fall to a raft of preventive measures and improved waste treatment processes.

This is the first time in decades when there hasn’t been a single fire in a landfill in Delhi after the monsoon and in the winters. In 2022, we had four major fires and one minor fire in June,” said an MCD official who oversees the management of landfills in Delhi. (PTI)
This is the first time in decades when there hasn’t been a single fire in a landfill in Delhi after the monsoon and in the winters. In 2022, we had four major fires and one minor fire in June,” said an MCD official who oversees the management of landfills in Delhi. (PTI)

According to data shared by the civic body on January 18, and seen by HT, 159 fires tore through Delhi’s three garbage mountains – in Ghazipur, Bhalswa, and Okhla – in 2017. This number has dipped consistently since then. It fell to 120 in 2018, 48 in 2019, eight each in 2020 and 2021, five in 2022, and then just one in 2023. There have been no fires so far this year, said officials.

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The last time a fire broke out at a landfill in Delhi was on June 12 last year, when a blaze ripped through parts of the Ghazipur waste mountain. The fire was controlled by late that evening but smoke continued to emanate from the dump site till next day.

This is the first time in decades when there hasn’t been a single fire in a landfill in Delhi after the monsoon and in the winters. In 2022, we had four major fires and one minor fire in June,” said an MCD official who oversees the management of landfills in Delhi.

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Officials from the Delhi Fire Services (DFS) confirmed the data and attributed the dip to “better preventive measures taken by all agencies.”

Siddharth Singh, programme manager of the environment governance and solid waste management at the Centre for Science and Environment, said that there was no reason to be sceptical about the number of fires going down as biomining is taking place on all three sites. “But we should wait for another summer so that the measures can be put to test for a longer period and another cycle is repeated,” he said.

Members of the local sanitation workers’ unions said that the number of fires have gone down but they cannot confirm the exact numbers. Delhi Fire Services has also verified that the landfill fire was reported on June 12, 2023.

The three landfills in Delhi collectively hold 172.83 lakh metric tonnes of legacy was as on January 31, 2023 tonnes of legacy waste, and apart from being eyesores, present neighbouring residents with a host of persistent threats. The stench from the waste mountains roil the air and leachate from the waste seeps into underground water systems, exposing people to serious short-, medium- and long-term illnesses.

The Ghazipur landfill in Delhi was among the largest emitters of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that causes atmospheric warming, analysis of satellite data drawn between 2019 and 2023 by Kayrros showed. The company that has multiple satellites observing environmental emissions showed a total of 1,256 “super-emitter events” across the world.

Towering infernos

At their tallest, the landfills at Ghazipur, Okhla and Bhalswa were 65 metres, 50 metres and 62 metres high respectively, though officials have said they have shrunk since then owing to better, faster treatment.

“The landfills were 50-65 metres tall and have now been reduced by 10-15 metres at various points,” said an MCD official.

A year-long phenomenon at Delhi’s three oversaturated dump sites, the fires usually break out due to a build-up of methane, which emanates from decomposing wet municipal waste such as kitchen, food and horticulture waste.

“In the summers, methane generation goes up, combined with rising temperatures, which causes trapped methane to build up inside the landfill layers. Even a small spark can ignite a fire. It is a natural phenomenon, so the MCD’s strategy has mostly focused on early detection of small fires which can be doused before they get out of control,” an MCD official said.

The frequency of such fires usually rises in April-June and October-November, as the methane from decomposing wet waste builds up and sparks ignite the flames, said another official who oversees landfill management.

Civic body officials said the fires had largely been brought under control due to a range of measures – biomining, better monitoring and improved segregation, apart from on-site steps at each landfill.

An official aware of the matter said that in 2022 and 2023, MCD introduced a new action plan to tackle such fires – from mandatory spark arresters in all trucks moving within the landfill perimeter, a range of CCTV cameras, and deployment of fire tenders to declaring and maintaining a “no-smoking zone” at the landfill and adding sensors to monitor the sub-surface temperature.

ALSO READ- 32% of Delhi’s daily waste at mercy of elements: ASCI

In April 2022, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) observed that the dumpsites in Delhi and other cities are “like time bombs” and took note of the fires at the Ghazipur landfill in April 2022, which burned for three days and let out plumes of toxic smoke into the neighbourhood.

The green tribunal set up a joint committee headed by former Delhi high court judge justice SP Garg. The panel mandated installing spark arresters – a device that prevents emission of flammable debris from combustion sources, such as internal combustion engines – in trucks and heavy machinery at landfill sites.

The MCD official quoted above said “The spark arresters are installed in the exhaust systems of the vehicles. Each unit costs 2,000- 3,000.”

Decline in large fires at Delhi’s garbage mountains, shows data
Decline in large fires at Delhi’s garbage mountains, shows data

Watchful eye

So far, at least 31 CCTV cameras have been installed at Bhalswa, 30 at Okhla, and 22 at the Ghazipur landfill. “The footage is monitored at the control rooms that have been set up at each site under the supervision of an engineer. The CCTV coverage is on all sides of the mounds and is expected to help in detection of any smoke plumes early on so that an alert can be sounded to the DFS,” the MCD official said.

A DFS official said that since last year, a fire tender has been reserved at a fire station near each landfill.

Apart from this, the inner temperature of the mounds is periodically measured, and a log is maintained with the help of temperature sensors, but their overall utility remains to be tested, officials said.

Another reason for the drastic drop in fires at the three landfills, according to an MCD official, is biomining – the scientific process of excavation, treatment, segregation and gainful re-utilisation of aged municipal waste or legacy waste – which started in 2019, after an NGT order.

“The churning of waste exposes it to air leading to oxidation, and releases any trapped methane pockets,” added the MCD official.

To be sure, the NGT panel had also recommended fire alarm systems, which are yet to be introduced at the three sites.

ALSO READ- Delhi’s waste needs to be managed better

An MCD report dated December 12, 2023, on the actions taken to prevent fires at landfills, includes installation of 23 perforated pipes in the garbage mounds for methane and carbon monoxide measurement.

The MCD official said that each site now has a fire tackling system. “Apart from the dedicated fire tender for each landfill, we also hold joint drills and training of the MCD staff with the fire department,” the official added.

The landfills also impose a significant monetary cost on the Capital.

A 2022 study conducted by experts from the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), CPCB and the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Delhi, assessed that the environmental damage due to Bhalswa was worth 155.9 crore; Okhla caused ecological damage to the tune of 151.1 crore; and Ghazipur has led to an environmental damage of 142.5 crore.

“The long-term solution should be investing in neighbourhood composting infrastructure, three-month running cost, and a buy-back scheme for compost at pre-fixed prices. This can ensure the viability of treated wet waste,” said Bharati Chaturvedi, environmentalist and founder of Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group.

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