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How dumping sites contribute to green house gases

A cloud of smoke in London, Nakuru City on February 3, 2022, following unclear burning of solid waste at Gioto dumpsite. [Kennedy Gachuhi, Standard].

Joseph Nyaga leans on his door at his house at Hilton estate overlooking Gioto dumping site in Nakuru. For the past few days, the smoke erupting from the dumping site has been suppressed by the rains, an issue he says has been a challenge to many locals neighbouring the dumping site.

“There has been a lot of smoke engulfing the neighbourhood for months. The rains seem to have suppressed it. It was so bad that the visibility along the Nakuru-Eldama Ravine road was so poor along Gioto area,” Mr Nyaga says.

In February, residents petitioned Nakuru county government to extinguish the fires, noting that the situation had exposed them to grave respiratory risks.

And while who started and how the fire was started remained a puzzle, just as putting it out had been a challenge, Nakuru Environment chief officer Muriithi Kiogora says the fire seemed to have been spreading underneath the waste before emerging on the surface.

“It is not yet clear how the fire started. Someone may have been smoking or burning materials to extract scrap metals before the scrap metal trade was banned,” Mr Kiogora said, adding: “The decomposing waste produces methane gas, which is highly flammable. The waste runs deep in the ground, where the fire has spread. Putting out the fire with water bowsers is not enough,” he said.

While solid waste management has been a challenge in most counties, including Nakuru, the smoke emanating from the dumping sites always remains to be little understood. People living within dumping sites have been blamed for burning waste, but a little understood phenomenon is also linked to rampant fire incidents within the sites during the dry season.

Poor solid waste management is linked to increased generation of methane from the anaerobic decay of waste in dumpsites, and the emission of nitrous oxide from open burning of garbage. “Most counties still cannot handle the issues of waste management. Complaints arising from waste management forms the biggest percentage of complaints reported by the public across the country,” Dr John Chumo, Secretary, National Environmental Complaints Committee said.

He said while most counties are yet to fully segregate their waste and graduate to managing landfills from dumping sites, majority of counties still grapple with the challenge.

According to the report by NECC, indiscriminate dumping of waste in urban areas creates risks of disease, flooding and environmental pollution.

Open burning of waste, the report noted, also causes significant air pollution that impacts human health and contributes to changing climates.

“These impacts are not always local, but can be far-reaching. Methane and black carbon released through open burning of waste are short-lived climate pollutants with strong effects on regional and global climate change,” the report says.

Heaping garbage in dumping sites also leads to the release of methane, a highly flammable gas, especially during dry season.

“During dry season, fires in dumping sites is a common phenomenon. This is as a result of methane gas that is produced when waste decay. When exposed to high temperatures, the dumping sites bun naturally,” Dr Chumo said.

The phenomenon of burning dumping sites, he said, is also related to forest fires. “In the forests are dead trees, when they fall and decay, they also produce methane gasses that are flammable and often burn during prolonged dry season. This means forests can also be sources of greenhouses gases when they burn because all the carbon stored will be released back to the atmosphere,” he said.

According to United Nations Environment Programme, decay of organic proportion of solid waste contributes about 5 per cent of global GHG emissions. However, poor management of waste in most African countries has been hampered by weak organisational structures, lack of appropriate skills, inadequate budgets and weak legislation. Lack of enforcement, coupled with low public awareness and lack of political will worsen the problem.

“Available data shows 125 million tonnes per annum of municipal solid waste was generated in Africa in 2012, of which 81 million tonnes (65 per cent) was from sub-Saharan Africa. This is expected to grow to 244 million tonnes per year by 2025. However, with an average waste collection rate of only 55 per cent (68 million tonnes), nearly half of all generated in Africa, remains within our cities and towns, dumped onto sidewalks, open fields, storm water drains and rivers,” Dr Chumo said.

In Kenya, he says, management of solid and liquid waste has become a challenge in the counties, with increasing population putting pressure on the available infrastructure.

“Over the years most local authorities did not prioritise establishment of proper waste management systems and hence the county governments have inherited this state of affairs. Sewerage systems are strained and most of them do not have the capacity to handle incoming liquid waste from households and other establishments,” said Dr Chumo.

He said while cases of waste management is still a challenge in most counties, locally, some improvements have been made in Kajiado, Ngong dumpsite, where the county government is converting the dumpsite into a sanitary landfill, and in Kibarani dumping site in Mombasa, where it was decommissioned and converted into a recreation site.

“But a lot needs to be done, starting from personal responsibility of not dumping waste in undesignated places. Counties should also strive to segregate waste to encourage recycling as well as enforce laws that will discourage dumping of waste,” he added.