A gigantic garbage dump in India catches fire and thousands of people suffocate in its toxic fumes

(CNN) — Firefighters in the southern Indian city of Kochi worked on Tuesday to control the spread of toxic fumes after a garbage dump caught fire five days ago, engulfing the area in thick fog and suffocating residents.

The gigantic Brahmapuram dump in Kerala state is the latest mountain of rubbish to catch fire in the country, generating dangerous heat and methane emissions and exacerbating India’s growing climate problems.

Authorities advised residents of the city of more than 600,000 to stay indoors or wear N95 masks when going outside. Schools had to close Monday because of the contamination, authorities said.

The fire started last Thursday, according to Kerala firefighters. The cause has not been established, but landfill fires can be started by combustible gases from disintegrating garbage. Images and videos released by authorities showed workers rushing to extinguish blazes that sent thick plumes of toxic smoke rising into the sky.

Although the fire is largely under control, a dense cloud of smoke and methane gas continues to blanket the area, reducing visibility and the city’s air quality, while emitting a persistent pungent odor.

Some firefighters have passed out from the smoke, the fire department said.

The Kerala High Court said it would take up the case again on Tuesday.

A thick toxic cloud has covered the area, choking residents. (Credit: Reuters)

India generates more methane from landfills than any other country, according to GHGSat, which monitors emissions by satellite. Methane is the second most abundant greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide, but it contributes more to the climate crisis because it traps more heat.

Under his “Clean India” initiative, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that efforts are being made to remove these mountains of rubbish and turn them into green areas. That goal, if achieved, could alleviate some of the suffering of residents living in the shadow of these massive garbage dumps, and help the world reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.

But while India wants to reduce its methane production, it has not joined the 150 countries that have signed the Global Methane Pledge, a pact to collectively cut global emissions by at least 30% from 2020 levels by 2030. Scientists calculate that this reduction could cut global temperature rise by 0.2% and help the world meet its goal of keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

India says it will not join because most of its methane emissions come from agriculture: 74% from farm animals and rice paddies, versus less than 15% from landfills.

In 2021, India’s Environment Minister Ashwini Choubey stated that committing to reduce the country’s total methane production could jeopardize farmers’ livelihoods and hit the economy. But environmentalists say the country faces a serious climate problem because of its steaming garbage piles.

The rubbish mountains of India

Brahmapuram is just one of the country’s 3,000 garbage dumps brimming with rotting waste and emitting toxic gases.

Commissioned in 2008, the dump stretches across 16 acres, according to a 2020 report by International Urban Cooperation, a program of the European Union.

The dump receives about 100 metric tons of plastic waste every day, adds the study, of which only 1% is suitable for recycling. The remaining 99% is dumped in a pile on the site, according to the study, which describes it as a “threat to the municipal corporation.”

“The Brahmapuram plastics dump is increasing in size day by day,” he said. “It has suffered several fires in recent years, thus polluting the air and the environment.”

Despite its growing size and threats, that dump is not the largest in India. The one in Deonar, in the western coastal city of Mumbai, about 18 stories high, ranks first.

Sporadic fires have also broken out in Deonar, affecting nearly a million residents of the nearby suburbs of Chembur, Govandi and Mankhurd.

There is no official waste treatment in most Indian cities, according to the government’s Central Pollution Board. Garbage collectors from the nearby slums often climb the mounds and scavenge through the rubbish for pennies a day, but they are not trained to sort it properly.

In some cases, the garbage is burned in open dumps on the roads.

Last year, firefighters worked for days to extinguish the flames after a fire broke out at the Ghazipur garbage dump in Delhi, the largest in the capital.

At 65 meters high, it is almost as tall as the historic Taj Mahal, becoming a monument in its own right and an eyesore that towers over the surrounding homes, affecting the health of the people who live there.

And methane emissions aren’t the only danger from the landfill. For decades, dangerous toxins have seeped into the ground, contaminating the water supplies of thousands of people who live nearby.

In Bhalswa, another of Delhi’s great garbage dumps, residents have complained of deep, painful cuts to their skin and respiratory problems from years of living near the dangerous mound.

Smoke from burning garbage at the Bhalswa dump in New Delhi, India, April 27, 2022. (Credit: Adnan Abidi/Reuters)

In a 2019 report, the Indian government recommended ways to improve the country’s solid waste management, including formalizing the recycling sector and installing more composting plants in the country.

Although some improvements have been made, such as better door-to-door garbage collection and waste processing, India’s landfills continue to grow in size.

And with the country expected to overtake China as the world’s most populous nation soon, climate experts fear time is running out to act on the problem.

CNN’s Manveena Suri contributed reporting from New Delhi.

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