A Vast Landfill Site Has Caught Fire In Delhi, Spreading Toxic Fumes Into The Air

Parts of a fire that broke out on Monday at a gigantic landfill site on the outskirts of Delhi known as the "mountain of shame" were still smouldering 24 hours later, choking local residents who have complained of breathing in toxic fumes.

Dozens of firefighters struggled to douse the flames at the landfill site in Ghazipur, due to its height and a lack of access roads.

The precise cause of the fire has not been established but Monday was the hottest day in India's capital so far this year and experts said the heat could have increased the amount of methane generated by decomposing waste.

Once methane crosses a certain limit, a fire is ignited.

"My son was the first to start itching his eyes and coughing," said Shyam Biswas, who sells flowers in the local wholesale market.

"Then my father began and when we went out on the balcony we saw the sky filled with black smoke."

As the landfill comes into view from the highway that passes through Ghazipur, it looks like an eerie mountain range with vultures circling above.

Packed with the rubbish of Delhi's 20 million residents, the site has grown since it was set up in 1994 to cover 80 acres and reach a height of 65 metres.

It exceeded its capacity more than a decade ago but 2,500 tonnes of waste continue to be dumped on it every day.

Like other Indian cities, Delhi has no system of waste disposal and treatment other than dumping it in landfills.

A study in 2020 by the Centre for Science and Environment found more than 3,000 mountainous landfills across India containing 800m tonnes of rubbish.

The country's tallest mountain of rubbish in Mumbai is estimated to be 18 storeys high.

The Ghazipur landfill is a constant health hazard. Last year, fires broke out four times. In 2017, a large part of it loosened and broke away, crashing on to the road and killing two people.

For people living in the areas surrounding it, the air is always toxic.

The decomposing waste releases noxious gases, exacerbating the already heavily polluted air.

A World Air Quality report last week found that Delhi was the world’s most polluted capital city in 2021 for the fourth consecutive year.

"The problem is that it is mixed waste that has not been segregated so the fire will have released all manner of toxins, including sulphur dioxide, carbon soot, nitrogen, and particulate matter into the air, making the air far worse than usual," said Richa Singh, from the Centre for Science and Environment.

By noon on Tuesday, 24 hours later, the fire was still smouldering.

The local government in Delhi is working on flattening the landfill, a Sisyphean task given that rubbish continues to be dumped there every day.

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