Waste the Unexpected Menace – Post Tsunami

Martin Petersen, a senior waste consultant with Golder Associates, visited the tsunami hit region of Banda Aceh in May this year, to establish short, mid and long term waste management solutions.

Taking care of waste is not a high priority item 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 such issues 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.

30 Years of Waste Dumped on One Morning

Before discussing the waste management challenges in Banda Aceh, it helps to grasp the scale of waste.

The hard facts are that Banda Aceh lost approximately a third of its people and a third of the city was destroyed. 1,525 kilometers of road was either completely or partially destroyed. This is the equivalent of a road between London and Rome or New York and Chicago.

This is the coastal road, where between 70-90% of villages, over 1,880 bridges lives and livelihoods were washed away, along a narrow strip of land nestling between ocean and mountains.

In terms of perspective, the city of Banda Aceh has the same population (approximately 222,000 as Reading) in Berkshire. With an estimate of 5 million tonnes of waste having been generated by the tsunami in Banda Aceh, this represents the equivalent of more than 30 years of Reading waste being deposited one Sunday morning on Reading’s streets!

Who wants to be the Waste Manager waking up to that situation! These figures do not take into account the waste and debris along the coast, for which we currently have no figures.

While two thirds of the city continues to exist as was, there are a number of camps established to house displaced persons.

The waste from the camps differs from the rest of Banda Aceh, since much of it is packaging and plastic from the aid distributions, not typical for the region.

All the camps are similar in design, have an on-site clinic, generating clinical waste, and a central amenity area where the kids play football and run around doing what kids do best!

Not In My Back Yard

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 ‘don’t put it in my back yard’ debate is raging between Banda Aceh the city and Aceh Basar, best described as Greater Banda Aceh.

The long term and 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 onto farm land and into paddy fields.

This situation clearly needs to be resolved since it affects the livelihoods and food chain of the population.

Moreover, with so many people now living in camps, a new problem has emerged. Waste is burnt on the public land, within the camps and where the children play.

Not a good scenario, but made even worse by the on-site clinics, which dispose of their waste, used needles etc. in the same way.

Therefore, 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, away from water supplies and roads. This has reduced the risk to public health.

Prior to the tsunami, domestic waste was mostly handled by the household.

Householders would dig a hole on their land and take responsibility for burning their own rubbish.

Hence the belief that it is acceptable to burn it in their own back yard. However, the waste did not include a high percentage of plastic and packaging materials, which it does today, a consequence of the aid effort.

Recycling, Reuse, Rehabilitation

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.

So 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.

These recycling centres offer people a way to make money through the collection of reusable materials.

The reclaimed material i.e. bricks, timber, rubble (ballast) metal is then used by the NGO in its own rehabilitation and rebuilding work.

Top Logistical Nightmare

The Coastal transportation infrastructure leaves a lot to be desired, 10 minute journeys can take an hour and what used to take an hour can take a day.

However, the major ongoing logistical issue is the patchy pot-holey coastal road which comes into its own when discussing the world’s top logistical nightmares. Many wrecked bridges have been replaced with Bailey bridges (a pre-engineered system of ready-to-assemble components).

But as they have a maximum tonnage of between 10-20 tonnes, getting heavy equipment down the coastal route is nigh on impossible. Therefore, clearing the debris left by the tsunami will be a long, drawn out process.

Finally on logistics, and something that should be noted for future reference, is the donation of a hotchpotch of heavy plant equipment.

Typically, the equipment comprises old used vehicles from a variety of manufacturers. This causes a whole new set of problems, since spare parts are not freely available, nor the skills necessary to repair equipment from such a diverse range of vendors.

It would be far more efficient to have supplied relatively new equipment from one manufacturer, allowing easy availability of spare parts and training in one mechanical design.

Under Resourced and Lack of Expertise

There has never been such an amazing financial response, which means that 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 necessary to make rapid progress.

And a very real concern is that the under-resourced NGOs will have their attention diverted by another disaster in the not too distant future, leaving Banda Aceh even more under-resourced than it is today.

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

Having recognised waste as a major issue, with the capacity to impact public health through the increased risk of disease, rampant vermin and its impediment to reconstruction, the NGOs are now looking to recruit waste managers.

Easier said than done, since the average salary paid by an NGO is at least 50% of what a senior engineer expects to earn.

Therefore, these massive multi million dollar waste management projects, expected to run over 3-5 years will, in all likelihood, be overseen by an engineer with limited experience.

RedR (redr.org.uk), a register of technically skilled members who have been assessed for their technical capability and personal suitability, is 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 necessary waste management expertise and contacted Golder Associates, leading 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 was available to assess the waste, draw up recommendations and requirements, develop a preliminary proposal template and suggest budgets.

Without access to RedR and its supporting companies and individuals, NGOs would be facing a growing waste crisis, let alone challenge. Waste is present in most natural disasters, and the lack of available expertise has brought about the need for a waste focused NGO.

Consequently, one is expected to be announced in late 2005.

Wonderful Initiatives and Farcical Exploits

Within a week, following a disaster, everyone in a position to help will have arrived. The focus at this time is upon humanitarian needs, food, water, sanitation, health, shelter, and so on. It takes a while for waste to come onto the radar.

Golder went out in May, four months after the tsunami and at the request of Oxfam. In this capacity, 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. While three others were all looking at the implementation of the same sewage treatment plant!

Clearly, there is a lack of coordination in some areas and waste is no exception. There are some wonderful initiatives, but without proper coordination 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 onto trucks where it was driven off and dumped somewhere in the mountains!

Consider this for one moment and then multiply it by say 100 and you’ll be able to see the scale of duplicated effort going on in Banda Aceh as a whole.

Fortunately, an environment group was set up in May to handle waste management co-ordination throughout the region.

This will go a long way to streamlining the process to stop the potential to double handle waste.

Unidentified Hazards

Basically, the tsunami worked like a giant super-duper food-processor. It took all of the soil and thoroughly mixed it up with as much rubble, timber, domestic waste and hazardous material that it found in its path.

This left a huge pile and a huge problem. Undoubtedly, it needs to be sorted to remove all recoverable materials for recycling.

These materials are very necessary for the rebuilding and rehabilitation effort. However, questions remain over how to sort it and how to safely extract the hazardous waste.

We’ve already seen people smashing asbestos material into pieces. So there is also a job to be done in terms of educating people about health and safety and the composition of the waste.

A decision needs to be made as to whether the waste should be mechanically or manually sorted.

The manual route, while providing much needed paying jobs, is fraught with risk to the individual 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 to protect people. Therefore, a compromise solution needs to be found, one that is low risk but allows for employment opportunities.

So what’s the answer? The best low risk option is to use a mechanical sorter at the first stage, one that removes the hazardous materials to leave a pile which can be manually sorted allowing people to enter the process at the recycling stage.

This would meet many of the needs allowing for rehabilitation in an holistic and sustainable way. Furthermore, 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 scale business opportunities in the short term.


So there we have it, waste management needs to be considered as a priority in the first instance.

A new NGO will be formed to plug a very large gap. After all, if left unchecked waste increases and becomes a public health issue – a killer. In Banda Aceh we have witnessed the results of poor waste management decisions, which have led to waste being dumped in public areas, on paddy fields and on the roadside.

There is still much to be done, but the real solution, the one that will make the biggest improvement in the long term, 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.

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

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