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Aruwakkalu landfill, Puttalam, Sri Lanka


Sri Lanka’s newly opened Aruwakkalu sanitary landfill is located in the district of Puttalam, 170 kilometers north of Colombo. It was proposed as a long-term solution to the ongoing waste crisis in the country’s Western Province but has been highly controversial for its severe environmental impacts, the complete ignoring of community voices, and the questionable and costly shifting of Colombo’s waste problem to the periphery. Its construction was announced in 2017, just after the tragic garbage dump collapse in Meethotamulla killed 32 people and because no other location could be found in the metropolitan area due to longstanding problems of hazardous dumping and resulting “not in my backyard” protests by residents – see also the two related case entries in the EJAtlas.

Located on abandoned limestone quarries of the cement company Holcim and in the buffer zone of Sri Lanka’s Wilpattu National Park, the landfill is expected to receive 1,200 tons of waste per day over the following ten years - a period that could be extended. According to the initial plans, the Meethotamulla dump should become converted into a waste collection center from which waste from the metropolitan area would be transported to Aruwakkalu via railway. The project with a cost of $US 107 million was first proposed in 2014 and originally agreed to be funded by the World Bank, but without getting off the ground. After the dump collapse in 2017, the government intensified its efforts to start the project and the company China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC) – blacklisted by the World Bank between 2009 and 2011 and by the Bangladeshi government in 2018 for supposed bribery [1] - controversially won the bidding process and became contracted; a large part of the financing was eventually provided by a loan of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank [2]. Constructions started in 2018 and were expected to be finalized by March 2020, but waste already started to be transferred by trucks in March 2019 as Colombo’s interim dump in Kerawalapitiya was badly overflowing and garbage started to pile up in the streets of several neighborhoods. [1][3][4][5][6]

Locals and environmentalists have been objecting to the landfill project since the very first announcements in 2014 [1]. They pointed to its threats to the groundwater, the ecosystem, fisheries and wildlife, and the rural communities of Serakkuliya, Karathivu, Gangewadiya, and Eluwankulama. The site coincides with areas frequented by elephants and other wild animals and borders with a pristine mangrove patch. Environmental scientists stated that the area is unsuitable for dumping, that especially the waste processing center is situated in a critical area, that dynamiting at the nearby cement factory could cause cracks in landfill effluents, that leachate could contaminate the mangroves, the habitats, and the lagoon, and that heavy rain will lead to overflowing of the landfill and spread of wastewater. The landfill risks the livelihoods of about 16,000 families who depend on the lagoon and its ecosystem. They moreover criticized that conditions laid down in the environmental impact assessment were now completely violated and that the community – despite protests – was not consulted and ignored by the impact assessment. The area where the cement company excavates also coincides with a unique Miocene fossil site, from which only a small part called ‘Wedi Pitiya’ is still preserved but now overlaps with the landfill site. Another point of criticism is that the costs of garbage transportation - eventually taking place from a transfer station in Kelaniya – are enormous, amounting to about Rs. 4 million per day ($US 52,000). [3][4][5][6]

In an attempt to stop the project, the campaign “Clean Puttalam” was started, uniting a broad civil society movement consisting of residents, NGOs, youth groups, women’s associations, religious leaders, and political groups. Since 2016, the movement, which received support from across the country, has launched regular demonstration marches, strikes, petitions, awareness programs, and public debates to discuss the impacts of the landfill project. It also participated it dialogues with politicians and reported about a lack of answers and long-term planning by those advocating the project. [1][7][8] Also environmentalists such as Hemantha Withanage of the Centre for Environmental Justice called the project a crime and not worth the cost, and instead suggested zero-waste and recycling policies to tackle the root causes. Waste management expert Sumith Pilapitiya confirmed that the chosen location was the worst possible, but noted that from a technical point of view, the landfill concept would be good – if managed properly. As advice to minimize the damages in Aruwakkalu, several experts suggested to dump waste in another abandoned limestone quarry further south, but Holcim was not in favor of this and said it was not responsible for the project. [3] Already before the landfill project, the company’s cement production, as well as a nearby coal power plant, had caused substantial ecological impacts on the local ecosystem and nearby villagers, who among others suffered from mercury contamination [7][8]. Local activist and sociologist Ansah Nazeeha pointed out: “We are already burdened with enough problems. We can’t tolerate more injustices” [8] and “If the Puttalam lagoon is polluted the livelihood of the people who rely on fish and prawn farming, salt-making and tourism will be badly affected” [8].

In July 2018, the landfill and the constructions were blocked for four days; in September mass demonstrations took place against the landfill, and in October a women’s march; in November railways were blocked. Some activists were later produced in court. At the end of 2018, a 100-day resistance was announced by Clean Puttalam, while the Inter-Religious Committee (DIRC) of Puttalam declared “Black Days” and invoked the population to wear black armbands, headbands, and flags and to protest quietly against the opening of the landfill. [1][8] Protests continued at the beginning of 2019 before waste started to arrive. On one day of mass mobilization, workplaces and shops closed and students stayed away from school. Demonstrations in Puttalam became violently dissolved by the police; further protests took place in Colombo. [8][9][10][11][12] The president of DIRC stated: “We have scientific evidence to show that this landfill can cause severe harm to the environment and people, also pollute the lagoon. This landfill is not suitable for Puttalam” [8]. According to media reports, garbage was dumped without any treatment, and also an explosion in a drainage tank in the landfill area was reported. Throughout 2019, demonstrations in Puttalam continued and blocked arriving trucks and main roads. Authorities blamed protesters for vandalism and obstruction and announced legal consequences for four protest organizers; a court then prohibited demonstrations, while garbage trucks – which were used because the railway facilities were still not finalized – received police protection. [4][5][6][13][14] At the end of 2019, residents of the nearby towns of Serakkuliya and Karathivu again staged protests. They reported that fish have started to die as the lagoon was affected by leachate and complained about air contamination and uncontrolled dumping in areas outside the landfill. [6] In December 2019, a local politician even announced a hunger strike onto death [14].

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Aruwakkalu landfill, Puttalam, Sri Lanka
Country:Sri Lanka
State or province:North Western Province
Location of conflict:Puttalam
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Waste Management
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Waste privatisation conflicts / waste-picker access to waste
Landfills, toxic waste treatment, uncontrolled dump sites
Pollution related to transport (spills, dust, emissions)
Specific commodities:Domestic municipal waste
Recycled Metals

Project Details and Actors

Project details

Located in the province of Puttalam, Aruwakkalu landfill is expected to receive 1,200 tons of waste per day (the same amount that Colombo produced in 2019), transported from Colombo via railway. Waste started to be dumped in 2019. the landfill is operated by the China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC). [3][4] The project costs are of US$ 107 million, and financing was provided by the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank [2]. The landfill area of 30 ha has many abandoned quarries from where limestone was extracted by Holcim Cement Company over the past decades. It is planned to receive 4,700,000 cubic meters of waste over the upcoming 10 years. [3] The site is surrounded by small villages such as Serakkuli, Karaitivu, Periyanagavillu, Mangalapura, Eluwankulam and Gangewadiya, who largely live from fishing. [4]

Project area:30 ha
Level of Investment for the conflictive project107,000,000
Type of populationRural
Affected Population:50,000
Start of the conflict:2014
Relevant government actors:Ministry of Megapolis and Western Development (MPWD)
Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (MENR)
Colombo Municipal Council (CMC)
Western Province Waste Management Authority (WPWMA)
Central Environmental Authority (CEA)
National Government
International and Finance InstitutionsAsian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB)
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Clean Puttalam
Inter-Religious Committee (DIRC) of Puttalam
Mass Movement for Social Justice - Colombo (MMSJ)
Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ)
Palaeobiodiversity Conservation Programme

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityHIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)
Reaction stagePREVENTIVE resistance (precautionary phase)
Groups mobilizing:Recreational users
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
Religious groups
Local ejos
Social movements
Fisher people
Local government/political parties
Trade unions
Local scientists/professionals
Forms of mobilization:Development of alternative proposals
Hunger strikes and self immolation
Public campaigns
Artistic and creative actions (eg guerilla theatre, murals)
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Media based activism/alternative media
Objections to the EIA
Street protest/marches
Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Occupation of buildings/public spaces
Development of a network/collective action
Official complaint letters and petitions


Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Soil contamination, Waste overflow, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity, Other Environmental impacts
Potential: Fires, Floods (river, coastal, mudflow), Food insecurity (crop damage), Global warming, Soil erosion, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover
Other Environmental impactsHuman-elephant conflict
Health ImpactsPotential: Malnutrition, Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide, Deaths
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Violations of human rights, Loss of landscape/sense of place
Potential: Displacement, Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment, Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Militarization and increased police presence, Social problems (alcoholism, prostitution, etc..)


Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Corruption
Criminalization of activists
Under negotiation
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:The choice of location is clearly problematic and will cause a number of irreversible damages to local habitats and ecosystems. Instead of pursuing more sustainable zero waste strategies, the government spends money on costly garbage transport in order to shift environmental pollution out of sight. The project has been implemented at all cost, despite massive protests and opposition of a broad civil society alliance, and without any consultation of local communities whose livelihoods are affected.

Sources & Materials

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

Environmental Impact Assessment Report of the Proposed Project on Metro Colombo Solid Waste Management, Ministry Of Megapolis and Western Development, August 2017.

[10] Hiru News (2019): Protest against garbage dump in Puthlam – Riot police disperse protestors. 22.03.2019. (Online, last accessed: 31.03.2020)

[12] Lanka Views (2019): Opposition to Aruwakkadu Dumping Yard in Colombo. 20.03.2019. (Online, last accessed: 31.03.2020)

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

[9] Meelparvai Newspaper (2019): A Protest in Galle Face against dumping of garbage at Puttalam, Aruwakkadu, which was dumped at Meethotamulla. (Picture footage on Twitter)

[11] BBC News Sinhala (2019): Puttalam tense due to a protest against Aruwakkalu (Video footage on Twitter)

Other documents

Environmental Impact Assessment report 2017

Meta information

Contributor:EnvJustice project (MS)
Last update23/04/2020
Conflict ID:5020



Aruwakkalu sanitary landfill in 2019

(Source: The Sunday Morning)

A demonstration march in front of the landfill in September 2019


Waste from Colombo is is going to be transferred by railway

(Cartoon by RC Pradeep; Source: Twitter)

Villagers protest in August 2019

(Source: The Sunday Morning)

Image showing the impacts of the landfill

(Clean Puttalam)

Demonstrators in 2019 faced police violence


Demonstrators in 2019 faced police violence


Community protests against dumping in 2018

(Source: Groundviews; Twitter)

Demonstration in Puttalam in 2018

(Photo credit: Afna Fairoos; Twitter)

Demonstrations against the project in Colombo

(Photo credit: Mujeeb ur Rahman; Twitter)

Protesters in Colombo 2019

(Meelparvai Newspaper; Twitter)

Placard against expensive waste transport and the

(Meelparvai Newspaper; Twitter)

Campaign image pointing to the project's impact on wildlife

(Clean Puttalam Campaign)

Protest march in 2018

(Clean Puttalam)

Protests in 2018

(Clean Puttalam)