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Hazardous garbage dumping and new waste-to-energy projects in Colombo, Sri Lanka


On April 14, 2017, Colombo’s controversial Methotamulla garbage mountain collapsed, killing 32 people, leaving 8 missings, and destroying the homes of about 1,800 [1][2]. The disaster was the tragic peak of a long-standing controversy over waste management in the Colombo metropolitan area, which already before caused pollution and deathly diseases in the local population. Also after, the problem of hazardous waste dumping and was moved far away from the city while incinerators were presented as a supposed solution.

Meethotamulla became Colombo’s principle dumpsite after the previously used Bloemendhal dump had exploded and partially collapsed in 2009. Numerous homes became destroyed, but fortunately, without causing any deaths, as most residents were attending a ceremony in another part of the neighborhood at the same moment. Up to that point, waste had been dumped at Bloemendhal without any control since 1997 and caused severe environmental contamination and health hazards for hundreds of dwellers who lived next to the dump. They mobilized against the adverse impacts for years – but without being heard. The situation was aggravated by an ongoing dispute over waste management between the municipality and the private contractor Burns Trading, which together with bureaucracy and supposed bribery and intimidation stopped any action. The 2009 disaster was followed by fire outbreaks from released methane and a supreme court decision to close Bloemendhal for waste disposal after residents of Colombo had successfully filed a fundamental rights case against the company’s waste management practices. Authorities then had to find a new dumping ground, but the underlying problems remained unaddressed. In Bloemendhal, methane fires also continued after the closure, such as most recently in 2019. [1][2][3]

An interim order redirected all the waste from Colombo to a small dumping ground in the area of Meethotamulla, an area of former marshland with partly informal settlements in the suburb of Kolonnawa. While about one hectare had become authorized for dumping for a period of two years, the dumping simply continued in the following, backed with political support. Waste soon extended over more than 12 hectares and built a 50 meters high garbage mountain. In 2012, locals formed the People’s Movement against the Meethotamulla Kolonnawa Garbage Dump (PMMKGD). [1][2][3][4][5] They pointed to the lacking environmental impact assessment, considered the dumping as illegal, and filed a lawsuit against authorities. The movement staged numerous protests and blocked backhoes, demanding a guarantee that waste disposal will be stopped. While politicians reacted with renewed promises (for example in 2013: “We have asked the residents of the area to tolerate the situation till the end of this year and we hope to provide a good solution” [6]), demonstrations were often dissolved with police violence, water-cannons and the arrest of PMMKGD members. In 2016 protesters even became attacked by thugs, which the group regarded as a coordinated action against them. [1][2][3][6][7][8] Locals alleged the waste contractors and their political allies in the local administration of having economic interests in maintaining the status quo, instead of seeking an alternative dumping site [9a].

At this point, Methotamulla received about 800 tons of waste daily [5]. The continued uncontrolled dumping had led to the emergence of an informal waste economy, as several businesses and waste collectors benefited from the dump and were opposed to plans of the provincial council to sell the area to a recycling company. In addition, the dump was also frequented by 60 to 70 waste picker families, who had been collecting recyclable materials in Methotamulla for over 10 years and whose livelihoods depend on open access to waste. [4] According to a media report from 2010, dumped garbage included “left-over eatables, plastic items, zinc sheets, paper, clothes, hospital wastes, e-waste, dead carcasses and human internal organs” [10] and was rummaged by waste pickers, including teenagers, with their bare hands. Waste pickers report about difficulties to collect materials during the rain season, that they were exposed to viruses but have developed a good immune system, but there was still a permanent risk to encounter syringes, injections and other hazardous material among the trash. Also, deathly accidents have occurred, as for example, one waste picker died after being buried under a truck-load of garbage. Waste pickers said that they could make around Rs. 2,000 per day (US$ 10), but also had to bribe the municipal and security officers by paying Rs. 100 each to get permission to enter the site. Very occasionally, they could find expensive items among the garbage. The dump moreover provided them with food, often even coming warm from hotels. [10] As a study about Sri Lankan waste pickers notes, they are highly knowledgeable of recycling and often creative in making use of “waste”, but at the same time confronted with strong social stigmatization and disfavoring public policies that leave them largely marginalized and dependent on intermediaries, who often only pay low prices for recyclables [5].

The dump created numerous environmental problems: It polluted local water resources, caused regular waste spills all over the area, produced bad smell and toxic, inflammable gases and, as a consequence, caused the spread of respiratory illnesses and diseases, which even led to the closure of local schools for half a year, as teachers refused to work in the environment. About 4,700 families living around the dump were severely affected by contaminated air and water; community members reported about constant sickness as well as deaths in their family. Explosions from released gas caused damages at more than 100 houses. [1][2][6][8] By 2015, at least 30 people in Kolonnawa were reported to have died from dengue and leptospirosis (rat fever) related to the dump [2][3]. Soil that was used to cover waste in order to reduce the smell caused permanent dust and locals also blamed waste pickers for burning non-recyclable waste together with tires, both leading to further air contamination. In addition, the neighborhood became regularly flooded with contaminated wastewater in periods of heavy rain, and in 2016, 60 percent of the residents were reported to be ill as a result [9a][11]. The government offered incentives for affected residents to find alternative housing, but most of them did not regard the proposed payment as fair and refused [2][6]. The community instead wanted the dump to be moved and in demonstrations stated: “We suffered for 10 years, enough is enough” [3]. The municipal council then invoked the help of the national government, which repeatedly promised to find an alternative [9a]. However, just three months before the tragedy, the government had requested the municipal council to take action and to remove garbage from the dump [9b]. Just before the tragedy, a new fire had broken out at the dumpsite, caused by released methane and extreme heat, and again residents protested to make authorities act [1][2].

After the catastrophe, the national government made Colombo’s municipal council responsible for the events, saying it had handled the dumpsite negligently. In 2018, its commissioner became dismissed, but then reinstated a few months later. Moreover, the area should have become rehabilitated and displaced residents receive compensation of between $US 325 and 975, but more than two years later the rehabilitation has not happened and some people still remain displaced and without compensation. [1][2] The dumping was temporarily moved to the Kerawalapitiya dump, in the suburbs of Colombo, where the capacities were soon exceeded and residents launched protests against waste piling up in the neighborhood [12]. The search for a new dumpsite again brought up the “not in my backyard” dilemma that Colombo has been facing since the 1990s [1][14] – see for example also the case of Waga Pelpola in the EJAtlas. In the urgent need to find a solution for the waste problem, the government in 2017 announced the start of construction of a new sanitary landfill in Aruwakkalu, called for international bids for waste disposal systems and selected three waste-to-energy projects, which were presented as long-term solutions to the waste problem [10][14].

Located in a sparsely populated area 170 km north of Colombo, the Aruwakkalu landfill seemed to be a better choice after attempts to find locations closer Colombo met strong residents protests [15][16] and the city had been recently pursuing a ‘beautification’ strategy [5]. As part of the mega-project, Methotamulla should become converted into a waste collection center from which waste from the entire metropolitan area would be transported to the district of Puttalam via railway. The Aruwakkalu project came with severe ecological impacts, management practices that distorted conditions from the environmental impact assessment, and the complete ignoring of community protests against social injustice, environmental racism and “becoming the new Methotamulla”. The landfill went into operation in 2019, accompanied by mass demonstrations of the local population – see also the related case in the EJAtlas.

As of March 2020, the incinerators were already in their final construction phase. The “Colombo South Waste Processing Facility” is announced to start its operations in December 2020. It is located in Karadiyana (Colombo), which has so far served as the country’s second-biggest dumpsite and caused a headache for the local population; in 2019, the dump was even under the risk of collapse, so that families had to be relocated. [17][18][19] This waste-to-energy project is developed by the company Fairway and consists of a biological processing plant and a mass burn incinerator for solid waste. With a capacity of 12 MW, it is expected to generate electricity for 40,000 households consuming about 500 tons of municipal solid waste. [14][18][20][21] Two further plants are being built in Mutharajawela, in the area of the closed Kerawalapitiya dumpsite, together with adding 20 MW to the electricity grid. The “KCHT Power Station” is expected to process 630 tons of waste per day as part of a public-private partnership between KCHT Lanka Jang (a subsidiary of the Korean company KCHT Jang) and the districts of Colombo and Gampaha. [14][20][22] The ”Aitken Spence Power Station” is developed by Western Power Company Ltd., a subsidiary of the Aitken Spence conglomerate. It was originally proposed in 2009 to be built in Meethotamulla, but never got off the ground so that it has become relocated to Muthurajawela. [19][20] The burning of waste creates fly ash as unusable residue, which amounts to about 2 percent of the input volume and has to be deposited somewhere [19].

With regard to further waste-to-energy projects, the Sri Lankan government now, however, seems to row back its ambitions as it has realized that the created energy was too costly and had to be further subsidized [14]. This confirms raised objections by experts who argue that waste-to-energy projects are not economically viable as, despite the increasing waste volumes, garbage in Sri Lanka is still largely organic and high in moisture content. Moreover, incineration would compete with recycling, as already now Sri Lanka’s recycling facilities have not enough materials to recycle due to problems in separation and collection. [13][14] The director of the Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ), Hemantha Withanage, also pointed out that Aruwakkalu would already receive 60-70% of the waste of the entire Western Province, and therefore there was actually not enough solid waste left to burn. The need to permanently fuel waste-to-energy plants to make them more viable would thus incentivize illegal waste business and imports – and make Sri Lanka an international junkyard. In fact, the majority of waste in Colombo is said to be controlled by the mafia, and the country has already recently become a major destination for international waste, following the import bans for several types of waste in China. [14]

For Sri Lanka’s informal waste pickers, these developments are unlikely to bring an improvement, as waste is more and more enclosed, just to then go up in flames, while no comparable efforts seem to be on the way to encourage recycling and support informal recyclers. Reflecting on Sri Lanka’s trajectory of open-air dumping in the cases of Bloemendhal and Methotamulla, and the landfill plans in Puttalam, Jayasinghe et al. (2019) note that informal recycling practices are clearly not recognized in the county’s waste management policies. These are strongly biased towards large-scale models and dominated by political strategies, vested interests, a discourse of ‘development’, and the framing of waste as a crisis rather than a resource. In all this, informal waste pickers remain highly marginalized, often discriminated and considered as “unclean”; their knowledge and practices are subordinated to inadequate and socially unjust waste management systems and discourses. Along with this social stigmatization, waste pickers also report about precarious living and working conditions and the problem of increasingly restricted access to waste by private companies, which exacerbates the collection of recyclables. [5]

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Hazardous garbage dumping and new waste-to-energy projects in Colombo, Sri Lanka
Country:Sri Lanka
State or province:North Western Province
Location of conflict:Kolonnawa, Colombo
Accuracy of locationMEDIUM (Regional level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Waste Management
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Urban development conflicts
Waste privatisation conflicts / waste-picker access to waste
Landfills, toxic waste treatment, uncontrolled dump sites
Specific commodities:Land
Domestic municipal waste
Recycled Metals

Project Details and Actors

Project details

Colombo South Waste Processing Facility:

Located in Karadiyana, this 12 MW WtE project consists of biological treatment plant that can process about 140 tons of high moisture content organic waste per day, as well as a mass burn plant that will process 500 tons of municipal solid waste per day in order to power 40,000 households. It is developed by the company Fairway Holding and expected to start operations in December 2020. The investment is of US$ 91 million. [14][18][20][21]

KCHT Power Station:

Located in Muthurajawela, this WtE project is expected to process 630 tons of municipal solid waste per day and is operated by the company KCHT Lanka Jang Pvt. Ltd, a subsidiary of the Korean KCHT Jang. The investment is of US$ 95 million. [14][20][22]

Aitken Spence Power Station:

This WtE project is expected to process 700 tons of municipal solid waste per day and is operated by the company Western Power Company Ltd., a subsidiary of the Aitken Spence conglomerate. Originally proposed for Meethotamulla in 2009, it is now built in conjunction with the KCHT project in Muthurajawela. The investment is of US$ 98 million. [19][20]

The informal recycling sector:

Besides providing numerous environmental services, Sri Lanka’s informal recycling sector supports thousands of families and plays a significant role in poverty reduction. It lowers management costs for local councils due to lower waste volumes and at the same time brings savings for manufacturing industries. Collected recyclable materials are either used by small-scale processors in the country (e.g. producers of household and industry items), or exported, as for example PET bottles to India. [5]

Level of Investment for the conflictive project284,000,000
Type of populationSemi-urban
Start of the conflict:1997
Company names or state enterprises:Burns Environmental & Technologies Ltd (BET) from Sri Lanka - Operator of Bloemendhal landfill
Fairway Holding from Sri Lanka - Incinerator operator in Karadiyana
KCHT Lanka Jang (KCHT) from Sri Lanka - Operator of incinerator
Western Power Company (Pvt.) Ltd from Sri Lanka - Operator of incinerator
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)
Urban Development Authority (UDA)
Central Environmental Authority (CEA)
National Government
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:People’s Movement against the Meethotamulla Kolonnawa Garbage Dump (PMMKGD)
Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ)
Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA)

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityHIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)
Reaction stageIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups mobilizing:Local ejos
Local government/political parties
Social movements
Local scientists/professionals
Forms of mobilization:Artistic and creative actions (eg guerilla theatre, murals)
Development of a network/collective action
Development of alternative proposals
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Media based activism/alternative media
Objections to the EIA
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Street protest/marches
Refusal of compensation


Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Fires, Floods (river, coastal, mudflow), Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Soil contamination, Waste overflow, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion
Potential: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Food insecurity (crop damage), Global warming, Soil erosion, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity
Health ImpactsVisible: Accidents, Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide, Occupational disease and accidents, Infectious diseases, Deaths, Other environmental related diseases
Potential: Malnutrition, Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…)
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Increase in violence and crime, Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment, Loss of livelihood, Militarization and increased police presence, Violations of human rights, Loss of landscape/sense of place, Displacement
Potential: Social problems (alcoholism, prostitution, etc..), Specific impacts on women, Land dispossession


Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Corruption
Criminalization of activists
Institutional changes
Court decision (victory for environmental justice)
Court decision (failure for environmental justice)
Technical solutions to improve resource supply/quality/distribution
Violent targeting of activists
Application of existing regulations
Proposal and development of alternatives:The Sri Lankan Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) and the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) suggest Zero Waste strategies to be implemented and adopted in the national legislation [14][23]. Organizations such as the WIEGO (Women in Informal Employment – Globalizing and Organizing) and the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers (Globalrec) suggest a socially inclusive model of recycling, as already practiced in numerous cities around the globe – from Pune in India to Belo Horizonte in Brazil. Also Jayasinghe et al. (2009) call for an acknowledgment of grassroots waste management practices - such as from informal waste pickers – as these support livelihoods and contribute to the cost-efficient reduction of waste volumes and environmental conservation. [5]
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:Until 2020, 86 percent of Sri Lanka’s waste ended up in open dumps, of which only six percent are composted and four percent recycled [20] - while conditions there were hazardous for both waste pickers and the local population. The recycling rate is not likely to change to the better with the start of incineration. All mentioned dumping projects have been pushed forward by the governments despite public protests and often even with coercive measures against these. Sri Lankan waste management policies generally follow a “out of sight, out of mind” top-down attitude [5], while protests often follow the “not in my backyard” pattern [1][13], leaving the underlying patterns of waste conflicts unaddressed. With such unsustainable and socially unjust solutions, and waste being largely privatized and inadequately dumped, also the informal recycling sector and its role in providing livelihoods for the poor remains more and more sidelined [5].

Sources & Materials

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

[5] Jayasinghe, R.; Azardiadis, M.; Baillie, C. (2019): Waste, Power and Justice: Towards a Socially and Environmentally Just Waste Management System in Sri Lanka. In: Journal of Environment & Development 28 (2), 173-195.

[2] Roar Media (2017): A Brief History Of The Meethotamulla Garbage Dump. 23.04.2017. (Online, last accessed 30.03.2020)

[3] Roar media (2017): The Science Behind The Meethotamulla Disaster. 29.04.2017. (Online, last accessed 30.03.2020)

[6] Wipulasena, A. (2013): The air is foul with disease, despair and deferred solutions. The Sunday Times, 14.04.2013. (Online, last accessed 30.03.2020)

[8] Sathisraja, A. (2016): In Meethotamulla, the suffering just gets worse. 29.05.2016. (Online, last accessed 30.03.2020)

[9] Balachandran, P. (2017): Mahinda Govt Plan to Dump Meethotamulla Garbage in Puttalam was Stopped by Politically Connected Contractors. NewsIN Asia, 20.04.2017. (Online, last accessed 30.03.2020)

[11] Fast News (2019): Dumping of garbage at Kerawalapitiya stopped. 06.08.2019. (Online, last accessed 30.03.2020)

[17] Daily News (2019): Fairway recommences Karadiyana Waste Management Project. 05.09.2019. (Online, last accessed 30.03.2020)

[18] Daily FT (2017): Two waste-to-energy plants to get off the ground today. 10.08.2017. (Online, last accessed 30.03.2020)

[19] Sirimane, S. (2020): First Waste-to-energy plant to open in May. Daily News, 28.08.2020. (Online, last accessed 30.03.2020)

[21] Economy Next (2018): Sri Lanka’s HNB syndicates R9bn loan for waste-to-energy plant. 02.06.2018. (Online, last accessed 30.03.2020)

[22] GAIA (2017): GAIA Statement on Sri Lanka Garbage Landslide.

[22] GAIA (2017): GAIA Statement on Sri Lanka Garbage Landslide. (Online, last accessed 30.03.2020)

[9a] Balachandran, P. (2017): Mahinda Govt Plan to Dump Meethotamulla Garbage in Puttalam was Stopped by Politically Connected Contractors. NewsIN Asia, 20.04.2017. (Online, last accessed 30.03.2020)

[9b] Groundviews (2017): A Tale of Incompetence – RTI Reveals CMC Inaction Leading Up To Meethotamulla Tragedy. 20.06.2017. (Online, last accessed 30.03.2020)

[9b] Groundviews (2017): A Tale of Incompetence – RTI Reveals CMC Inaction Leading Up To Meethotamulla Tragedy. 20.06.2017.

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

[4] Video: “Meethotamulla garbage dump: the unseen story”. Youtube, 18.01.2016. (Online, last accessed 30.03.2020)

[4] Video: “Meethotamulla garbage dump: the unseen story”. Youtube, 18.01.2016. (Online, last accessed 30.03.2020) *

[7] Video: "Meethotamulla garbage dump: tense situation in Kolonnawa". Youtube, 24.05.2015. (Online, last accessed 30.03.2020)

[7] Ada Derana (2015): Meethotamulla garbage dump: tense situation in Kolonnawa. Youtube, 24.05.2015. (Online, last accessed 30.03.2020)

Other comments:* Video translation provided by Bandula Jayaweera

Meta information

Contributor:EnvJustice Project (MS)
Last update20/04/2020
Conflict ID:5014



Villagers regularly faced waste water floods during rain season

(Photo credit: Indika Handuwala)

Dump collapse 2017

(Source: AzzamAmeen; Twitter)

Waste pickers at Methotamulla dump

(Ada Derama, extracted from a 2016 video report)

Locals staged numerous protests, but faced strong police repression

(Ada Derama, extracted from a 2015 video report)

Methotamulla dump contaminated soil, water and air

(Photo credit: Craig MacDonald)

Demonstrations against Meethotamulla dump were held even weeks before the disaster in 2017


Fire at Bloemendhal dump - troubles continue even 10 years after the stop of dumping

(Source: Ada Derama)

Uncontrolled dumping at Methotamulla led to the emergence of an informal waste economy

(Ada Derama; extracted from a 2016 video report)

Protests against dump in 2017

(Ada Derama; extracted from a 2017 video report)

Image of the biological processing plant to be built in Karadiyana


Image of the biological processing plant to be built in Karadiyana

(Aitken Spence)

What remains: Methotamulla garbage mountain in 2019

(Photo credit: Nazly Ahmed)