By Liz Cooper Fuselier
Trash. Trash. And more trash. Candy and potato chip wrappers are everywhere you look, found in places that don’t seem possible, including in streams, rivers, and drainage ditches. This trash story plays out on the Kurseong roadsides, in the Darjeeling tea plantations, and in the rice paddies of Kalimpong town. During our hikes and visits to rural villages, we saw trash clogging drainage Jhoras and piling up in cultivated fields. Everywhere we went the story was the same: household trash collection is difficult, recycling nearly impossible, and the river becomes the town dump.
Waste disposal in the Darjeeling District of West Bengal, India is not only an environmental challenge, but also a huge battle in landslide risk mitigation. Immense piles of trash dumped on steep hillsides can create soil pressures that trigger landslides. In Kalimpong, our home base for two weeks, more than 3.5 to 4 metric tons of trash is generated each day. Basic household waste is collected by the municipality and brought to the local dump. The original dump (utilized for decades) was located directly adjacent to Bhalukhop, a village neighborhood. Without any management plan, dumping practices led to numerous landslides and resulted in pollution (both solid and liquid) leaching into the streams, springs and drainage Jhoras.
The health impacts on communities from unconstrained landfill management (an “open dump” approach) such as what is seen in our study area, are numerous and chilling. Seen as a default strategy for municipal solid waste management, open dumps involve indiscriminate disposal of waste and inadequate procedures to control activities in and around the dumping area. Links between open dumping and increases in risk of low birth weight, birth defects and certain types of cancer have been discussed in various studies and epidemiologic literature.
Of course, not all of the town and village waste ends up at the dump. When possible, organic waste is used as fodder for livestock or composted directly in the fields. Non-compostable trash is often burned in small fires along the roadway or in the villages. However, much of the solid waste that doesn’t end up in the dump can be found instead in the mountainside drainage Jhoras. During heavy rains, these trash-clogged Jhoras can overflow, causing widespread flooding and damage in the villages they are meant to protect. Bridges (both concrete and wooden) are washed away, fields are polluted, and soil is loosened, heightening the landslide risk.
Waste collection and proper management is complicated in the Darjeeling District. Despite challenges, though, some progress has been made. Plastic bags have been banned, for example, and recycling is a burgeoning private enterprise. With a developing grassroots interest in solving the trash question, now could be the time for positive change.