The unexpected menace

Martin Petersen recently visited the tsunami-hit region of Banda Aceh, Indonesia, to establish short-, mid- and long-term waste-management solutions

Taking care of waste is not a high priority on the humanitarian agenda, following a natural or man-made disaster. In the case of the tsunami, a rapid environmental assessment placed it as the number-seven priority, after issues such as lost livelihoods and local governance.

Yet, if there was a time when waste should be a higher priority, it was when the tsunami hit. After all, waste can be a killer. But it is only now that the waste-management issues have come to the fore. The challenges are numerous, demanding solutions to take care of the short-, mid- and long-term.

The day the tsunami hit, Banda Aceh lost a third of its people and a third of the city. More than 620 miles of coastal road was devastated, where 70-90% of villages, more than 1,800 bridges, lives and livelihoods were washed away, along a narrow strip of land nestling between the ocean and mountains.

The city of Banda Aceh has the same population as Reading in Berkshire – approximately 222,000. An estimate of 5 million tonnes of waste was generated by the tsunami, this is equivalent to more than 30 years of Reading’s waste being dumped in one morning. This 5 million tonnes does not take into account the waste and debris along the coast, for which we currently have no figures.

First of all, there are no disposal sites. In fact, there was only ever one landfill, located on the coast. This has been severely damaged. Now, as the prospect of a new landfill site is looming, the ‘not in my back yard’ debate is raging between Banda Aceh (the city) and Aceh Basar (best described as Greater Banda Aceh).

The ultimate solution will be to construct a central sanitary landfill, which can cater for the whole urban region.

The lack of an adequate interim or permanent disposal site has presented a new challenge: waste is being dumped at the roadside, increasing the risk of health and safety hazards.

Furthermore, immediately after the tsunami, the Indonesian government cleared much of the wreckage – Banda Aceh city was covered in 1.5-metre-deep waste – only to cause another problem by dumping it outside the city limits on to farmland and paddy fields.

With so many people now living in camps, a new problem has emerged. Waste is burnt on the public land where children play. This is not the best of scenarios and made even worse by the on-site clinics, which dispose of their waste (used needles, for example) in the same way.

So, there is an urgent need to highlight the dangers of disposing of waste, both clinical and domestic, in this way.

The short-term solution has been to deploy low-scale dumpsites, away from the public areas and away from water supplies and roads. This has reduced the risk to public health.

Recycling efforts were predominately handled by small businesses, earning revenue through trading in scrap metal such as aluminium and copper wire. However, today most of these small businesses have disappeared.

As a result, there is no real independent recycling going on. However, the NGOs, such as Oxfam, have recognised this as a potential way to rehabilitate recycling ventures by establishing small-scale shops offering people a way to make money through the collection of reusable materials.

There has never been such an amazing financial response, so there should be enough money to not only rebuild the tsunami-hit regions but to improve upon what previously existed. However, there simply isn’t enough expertise on the ground to manage the scale of the projects that are necessary for rapid progress.

Waste management is a skilled engineering discipline, and the NGOs, which considered waste as a fairly low priority, did not have the skills in place to elevate it.

RedR (, a register of technically skilled members who have been assessed for their technical capability and personal suitability, has been set up to help NGOs through the provision of experts who can respond to emergency situations anywhere in the world.

Many of the skills registered on RedR are donated by professional organisations. Oxfam used RedR to identify waste-management expertise and contacted Golder Associates, the ground-engineering and environmental services group, to obtain the skills it needed in Banda Aceh.

Bringing in Golder’s consultant meant that experience and know-how were available to assess the waste, draw up recommendations and requirements, develop a preliminary proposal template and suggest budgets.

Following a disaster, everyone in a position to help will have arrived within a week. The focus at this time is upon humanitarian needs. It takes a while for waste to come on to the radar. Golder went out in May, four months after the tsunami and at the request of Oxfam.

It became clear to Golder’s team on the ground that there were numerous overlaps. For example, two separate agencies were both writing the designs for the same landfill. And three others were all looking at the implementation of the same sewage treatment plant.

There are some wonderful initiatives but, without proper co-ordination, some of these can turn a little farcical. In one coastal village, 20 or so people were paid to construct a recycling yard for building materials. Having done this, along came another agency and paid the same people to collect all the building rubble in the village area and load on to trucks to be dumped somewhere in the mountains.

Consider this, then multiply it by 100, and you’ll be able to appreciate the scale of duplicated effort going on across Banda Aceh. Fortunately, an environment group was set up in May to handle waste-management co-ordination throughout the region.

The tsunami took all of the soil and mixed it up with as much rubble, timber, domestic waste and hazardous materials that it found in its path, which left a huge pile and a huge problem.

Undoubtedly, it needs to be sorted to remove all recoverable materials essential to the rebuilding and rehabilitation effort. However, questions remain over how to sort it and safely extract the hazardous waste. We’ve already seen people smashing asbestos material into pieces.

There is also a job to be done to educate people about health and safety and the composition of the waste. A decision needs to be made: should it be mechanically or manually sorted? The manual route, while providing paying jobs, is fraught with risk since, along with a lack of safety awareness and difficulty in identifying hazards, there is no equipment.

Even at the basic level, there are not enough gloves, hard hats or masks. A compromise needs to be found, one that is low-risk but allows for employment opportunities.

The best low-risk option is to use a mechanical sorter at the first stage, to remove hazardous materials leaving a pile that can be manually sorted allowing people to enter the process at the recycling stage. This would meet many needs, allowing for rehabilitation in a holistic and sustainable way.

Also, much of the waste is organic and can be sorted for composting, something which will be new to the area. Composting will also present small short-term business opportunities. Waste management needs to be considered as a priority in the first instance. If left unchecked, waste increases and becomes a public health issue – a killer.

In Banda Aceh we have witnessed the result of poor waste-management decisions, which have led to waste being dumped in public areas, on paddy fields and on the roadside. There is much to be done but the long-term solution is the construction of a large regional landfill. Meanwhile, awareness campaigns will be run, informing people of how best to dispose of their daily waste and what the risks are to public health and safety.

In the short to medium timeframe, the wreckage is gradually being cleared with an emphasis on recycling. Furthermore, recycling will contribute to the local economy and help with the rehabilitation effort being managed by the NGOs.

Martin Petersen is a senior waste consultant with Golder Associates

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