At the Bhalswa landfill in northwest Delhi, a steady stream of jeeps zigzag over the pile of rubbish to dump more rubbish on a heap more than 62 meters (203ft) high.
Fires caused by heat and methane gas break out sporadically – Delhi’s fire department has responded to 14 fires so far this year – and some deep under the pile can smolder for weeks or months, while that men, women and children work nearby, sifting through rubbish for items to sell.
Some of Bhalswa’s 200,000 residents say the area is uninhabitable, but they cannot afford to move around and have no choice but to breathe the toxic air and bathe in its contaminated water.
Bhalswa is not Delhi’s biggest dump. It is about three meters lower than the largest, Ghazipur, and both contribute to the country’s total methane production.
Methane is the second most abundant greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide, but a more powerful contributor to the climate crisis because methane traps more heat. India creates more methane from landfills than any other country, according to GHGSat, which monitors methane via satellites.
And India is second only to China in total methane emissions, according to the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) Global Methane Tracker.
As part of his “Clean India” initiative, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said efforts were being made to clear these mountains of waste and convert them into green areas. This goal, if achieved, could alleviate some of the suffering of residents living in the shadow of these landfills and help the world reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.
India wants to lower its methane production, but it has not joined the 130 countries who have signed the Global Methane Pledge, a pact to collectively reduce global methane emissions by at least 30% below 2020 levels by 2030. Scientists estimate that this reduction could reduce the temperature increase by 0.2% – and help the world reach its goal of keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.
India says it won’t join because most of its methane emissions come from agriculture – around 74% from farm animals and rice paddies compared to less than 15% from landfills.
In a statement last year, the Minister of State for the Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Climate Change, Ashwini Choubey, said the commitment to reduce India’s total methane output could threaten farmers’ livelihoods and affect India’s trade and economic prospects.
But it also faces challenges in reducing methane from its smoldering mounds of waste.
When Narayan Choudhary, 72, moved to Bhalswa in 1982, he said it was a “beautiful place”, but that all changed 12 years later when the first rubbish started arriving at the local dump.
In the years since, the Bhalswa landfill has grown almost as tall as the historic Taj Mahal, becoming a landmark in its own right and an eyesore towering over surrounding homes, affecting the health of the people who live there.
Choudhary suffers from chronic asthma. He said he nearly died when a big fire broke out in Bhalswa in April and burned for days. “I was in a terrible state. My face and nose were swollen. I was on my deathbed,” he said.
“Two years ago we protested…many people in this area protested (to get rid of the trash),” Choudhary said. “But the municipality did not cooperate with us. They assured us that things would be better in two years but here we are, with no relief.
The landfill exhausted its capacity in 2002, according to a 2020 report on Indian landfills by the Center for Science and Environment (CSE), a nonprofit research agency in New Delhi, but without government standardization of recycling systems and efforts increased industry to reduce plastic. consumption and production, tons of waste continue to arrive at the site daily.
Bhalswa isn’t the only landfill causing distress to nearby residents – it’s one of three landfills in Delhi, overflowing with rotting rubbish and emitting toxic gases into the air.
Across the country, there are more than 3,100 landfills. Ghazipur is Delhi’s tallest, measuring 65 meters (213 feet), and like Bhalswa it exceeded its waste capacity in 2002 and is currently producing huge amounts of methane gas.
According to GHGSat, in a single day in March, more than two metric tons of methane gas leaked from the site every hour.
“If prolonged for a year, the methane leak from this landfill would have the same climate impact as the annual emissions of 350,000 American cars,” said Stephane Germain, CEO of GHGSat.
Methane emissions are not the only danger that arises from landfills like Bhalswa and Ghazipur. Over the decades, dangerous toxins have seeped into the ground, polluting the water supply for thousands of residents living nearby.
In May, CNN commissioned two accredited labs to test the groundwater around the Bhalswa landfill. And according to the results, groundwater within a radius of at least 500 meters (1,600 feet) around the landfill is contaminated.
In the first lab report, the ammonia and sulphate levels were significantly above the acceptable limits imposed by the Indian government.
Results from the second lab report showed that the levels of total dissolved solids (TDS) – the amount of inorganic salts and organic matter dissolved in water – detected in one of the samples was nearly 19 times the acceptable limit. , making it unfit for human consumption.
The Bureau of Indian Standards sets the acceptable limit for TDS at 500 milligrams/litre, a figure considered roughly “good” by the World Health Organization (WHO). Anything above 900 mg/l is considered ‘bad’ by the WHO, and more than 1200 mg/l is ‘unacceptable’.
According to Richa Singh of the Center for Science and Environment (CSE), the TDS of water sampled near the Bhalswa site was between 3,000 and 4,000 mg/l. “This water is not only unfit for drinking, but also unfit for skin contact,” she said. “So it cannot be used for purposes such as bathing or cleaning utensils or cleaning clothes.”
Dr Nitesh Rohatgi, senior director of medical oncology at Fortis Memorial Research Institute, Gurugram, urged the government to study the health of the local population and compare it to other areas of the city, “so that in 15 at 20 we don’t look back and regret that we had higher cancer incidence, higher health risks, higher health problems and we haven’t looked back and don’t have not corrected them in time.
Most people in Bhalswa depend on bottled water for drinking, but they use local water for other purposes – many say they have no choice.
“The water we get is contaminated, but we have to store it and use it for washing utensils, bathing and sometimes also for drinking,” said Sonia Bibi, whose legs are covered in a thick red rash.
Jwala Prashad, 87, who lives in a small hut in an alley near the dumpsite, said the pile of putrid rubbish had made her life “a living hell”.
“The water we use is pale red in color. My skin burns after bathing,” he said, as he tried to soothe the red nicks on his face and neck.
“But I can’t afford to leave this place,” he added.
More than 2,300 tons of municipal solid waste arrives at Delhi’s biggest landfill in Ghazipur every day, according to a July report by a joint committee formed to find a way to reduce the number of fires at the site.
This is the bulk of the surrounding region’s waste – only 300 tons are treated and disposed of by other means, according to the report. And less than 7% of legacy waste had been biomined, which involves the excavation, treatment and potentially reuse of old waste.
The Delhi Municipality deploys drones every three months to monitor the size of the waste heap and is experimenting with ways to extract methane from the mountain of waste, according to the report.
But too much waste arrives every day to keep up. The committee said the bio-extraction had been “slow and late” and it was “highly unlikely” that the East Delhi Municipal Corporation (which has now merged with the North and South Delhi Municipal Corporations) achieves its goal of “flattening the mountain of waste” in 2024.
“No effective plan to reduce the height of the mountain of waste has been developed,” the report said. Furthermore, “it should have been proposed long ago that future dumping of waste in these areas would pollute groundwater,” the report adds.
CNN sent a series of questions along with the data from the water testing questionnaire to India’s environment and health ministries. There was no response from the departments.
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 better waste treatment, Delhi’s landfills continue to accumulate waste.
In October, the National Green Tribunal fined the state government more than $100 million for failing to dispose of more than 30 million metric tons of waste at its three landfills.
“The problem is that Delhi has not put in place a concrete action plan on solid waste,” said CSE’s Singh. “So we’re talking here about cleaning up landfills and treating old waste, but imagine the new waste that’s being generated on a regular basis. All of this is dumped into these landfills every day. »
“(So) say you process 1,000 tonnes of legacy waste and dump 2,000 tonnes of fresh waste every day, it will become a vicious cycle. It will be a never-ending process,” Singh said.
“Legacy waste management, of course, is government mandated and very, very important. But you simply cannot start the process without having an alternative fresh waste facility. So that’s the biggest challenge.