Sri Lanka is NOT fifth among world’s worst polluters, but we have a crisis

by Namini Wijedasa

Widely published information that Sri Lanka is the fifth largest polluter of seas is based on an erroneous statistic first released in a World Bank study which was then used by researchers to compile a list of worst offender countries, the Sunday Times found.

Domestic and international media continue to report that Sri Lanka falls only behind China, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam in how much plastics it dumps into the sea. This is drawn from a February 2015 article in the peer-reviewed Science Magazine which states, among other things, that Sri Lanka generates 5.1kg of waste per person, per day; that 1.59 million metric tons of this is mismanaged plastic waste; and that it dumps between 0.24 and 0.64 million metric tons of plastic into the sea each year.

But the information that Sri Lanka’s per capita waste generation rate is 5.1kg per day is an unsourced, unverifiable statistic first published in the 2012 What a Waste (WaW) report of the World Bank. There is no reference for this calculation; nor is it divulged how it was arrived at.

The World Bank has now confirmed that there was an error in the waste generation number. It was identified only because the Sunday Times called for verification. A spokesperson also said: “As you know, this is a report that came out in 2012 and it is currently in the process of getting reviewed and updated. We will be able to provide you with updated data as soon as the report is available.”

In collecting data for the South Asia region for 2017 WaW, the Bank will use the Comprehensive Integrated Solid Waste Management Plan for Targeted Provinces in Sri Lanka by UNHABITAT and the Data Collection Survey on Solid Waste Management in the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka by Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). The reports are still being reviewed but per capita generation rates roughly range between 0.46kg and 0.52kg.

The 2012 WaW has depended on two sources for Sri Lanka data. One is a 2009 report from the United Nations Statistics Division which captured waste generation figures from Dehiwala-Mt Lavinia and Moratuwa. The former is 0.73 kg per person, per day and the latter is 0.67 kg per person, per day. There is no national level information cited.

The other is An Overview of the Issue of Solid Waste Management in Sri Lanka authored by K. L. S. Perera for the 2003 Third International Conference on Environment and Health. The Sunday Times accessed it online and also interviewed Mr. Perera, a retired Senior Lecturer at the Siyane National College of Education in Veyangoda. His paper states that Colombo faces a “severe crisis with respect to the disposal of around 1,500 tons of solid waste material per day” but makes no reference to 5.1kg per person, per day.

These shortcomings in WaW went unnoticed. But in 2015, a seven-member research team released an article in the academic journal ‘Science Magazine’ listing Sri Lanka as one of the worst polluters of seas based on WaW data. Headed by Jenna Jambeck, Associate Professor in the College of Engineering at the University of Georgia, the group also estimated the percentage of waste inadequately managed by each country using a “logistic regression model”. Sri Lanka fared miserably.

The Sunday Times contacted Dr. Jambeck, who is a committed environmentalist, as far back as 2015. She said, while the data taken from the World Bank and Sri Lanka estimates had also seemed high to her team, they could not cherry-pick countries to correct. She recommended that localised data from the respective countries be examined to see if waste generation estimates could be refined.

When we reconnected with Dr. Jambeck this year – as Sri Lanka’s worldwide ranking was being publicised again owing to the collapse of the Meethotamulla garbage dump and related issues – she pointed out that the goal of their work had been to create a global number. “We state that in-country data should be confirmed by on-the-ground data and research,” she explained.

Dr. Jambeck said, as she did at a press conference in 2015, that the paper is not about pointing fingers. “The data was provided to be transparent so that exactly what you are doing is possible,” she explained.“We want people to look at the data and refine it over time. We used the best available data at the time.”

But the team also created a list. This is what most media – including local journalists – pounced on; and how Sri Lanka suddenly gained global notoriety based on a statistic nobody can still account for. The list, Dr. Jambeck said, was a means of looking at “influencing factors”. As lead author, she did not single out any country (except USA, where she is from) for discussion. Journalists decided to do that.

“It is a snapshot in time,” she continued, about the list. “Ten years ago, it would be different, and ten years into the future, it would be different.’ The researchers found that middle-income countries with rapidly developing economies, large coastal populations and coastline, and where infrastructure has lagged behind this development, had larger issues with waste.

Sri Lanka fits the bill. Even ten years ago, however, waste generation figures were not as high as cited in the 2016 WaW. The Central Environmental Authority does not have a centralised repository of historic data, said J. M. U. Indrarathne, Deputy Director General (Waste Management).

But the 2003 JICA Study on Improvement of Solid Waste Management in Secondary Cities in Sri Lanka found average waste generation rates in seven study towns to be 0.98kg per person, per day (from 0.88kg in Matale to 1.18kg in Kandy). That the CEA lacks its own data in a country floundering about in waste generation and disposal issues is a matter of discussion.

In the end, however, lists and rankings are immaterial. Sri Lanka has a serious problem with waste generation and disposal. The status quo has not improved for decades. Whether it is fifth or 50th in the global rankings, this country is a serial polluter and successive governments have done nothing to mitigate this.

Waste management study: SL repeatedly failed to fix issues
A 15-year-old Japanese-funded study into waste management exposes how Sri Lanka has repeatedly failed to fix longstanding issues despite expert suggestions for improvement.Environmentalists warn that world rankings – wherever the country may stand in them – are purely academic.

“The fact stands that our seas and land are badly polluted and increasingly so,” said one campaigner, who did not wish to be named. “And our Government is doing precious little, if at all, to mitigate it. I do not care where we rank. Being anywhere on the polluter list is equally bad. The message or objective of that ranking is to shock people into realising we have to change.”

The 2003 JICA Study on Improvement of Solid Waste Management in Secondary Cities in Sri Lanka identified eight leading problems. These are just as current today as they were then. They comprise widespread scattering of waste in towns; the terrible condition of landfill sites; and huge solid waste management expenditure (20 to 30 percent of the budget of local authorities). There is difficulty controlling the many waste collection workers; and a high absentee and turnover rate, ranging from 10-20 percent.

As early as 15 years ago, the study also pointed to little remaining capacity of existing landfill sites. There were many complaints from citizens, it said, but there was also lack of public cooperation. There was also no plan for the future. “Most of these are not technical issues but institutional ones,” the study warned. “Technology alone cannot solve these problems.”

“Good governance is the key,” it stressed. Improvement could be made through institutional and managerial capacity, “without spending much money”. The report also stated plainly that there were two main problems faced by local authorities. One was the rapid increase of waste, which meant they had to collect more and more. Another was that the standard environmental requirements for landfills were becoming stricter.

“Therefore, you cannot simply dump waste anymore,” it warned. “You have to improve landfill operation to reduce the environmental impact.”

Experts identified an insufficient understanding of solid waste management. The sections in charge of solid waste management in local authorities were considered low in status. Organisation was weak owing to poor cost control and planning. There were no future plans. Most authorities dealt with issues using their own staff and equipment without considering citizen involvement.

Exhaustive recommendations were made, covering everything from improving garbage collection efficiency and final disposal to reducing solid waste management costs and increasing public participation.

The 2016 JICA Data Collection Survey on Solid Waste Management in Socialist Democratic Republic of Sri Lanka observes that generation in Sri Lanka has increased from around 6,400 tons per day in 1999 (UNEP, 2001) to 10,786 tons per day since 2009 (University of Moratuwa and NSWMSC, 2013). The reason for this is economic growth after the end of the civil war.

Generation in the Western Province is largest, accounting for 33% of the country’s total. The Uva Province occupies the smallest share at just 5%. Some local authorities operate several disposal sites so the number of final disposal sites was 349 in 2013, exceeding the number of total local authorities which is 335.

Waste generation will keep going up. It will not matter what list Sri Lanka is, or isn’t, on. Experts agree that solutions – many of which have already been offered through research and study – have to be implemented, now.

(This article was published in the Sunday Times)

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