Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Sewage Tsunami

Just when you thought life couldn't get worse, it does. In 2000 a literal mountain of garbage collapsed on scavengers at a dump site near the Philippine legislative building burying about 300 people. According to a BBC article "Rescuers in the Philippines say they fear more than 300 people could have died in Monday's rubbish dump collapse on the outskirts of Manila. So far more than 125 bodies have been pulled from the avalanche of rubbish and mud which swept away the flimsy wooden homes of scavengers who worked on the tip." So what could be worse than dying a garbage avalanche? Well, what about drowning in a sewage tsunami? Pajamas Media links to the story:

Sewage 'Tsunami' Kills Five in Gaza: An overloaded septic system in Northern Gaza burst, unleashing a “tsunami” which overwhelmed the Bedouin farming village of Umm al-Nasr. Outraged victims opened fire on the Palestinian Interior Minister when he came to inspect the damage. (news.com.au)

Horrible things like that happen all the time in the Third World as garbage dumps, sewage plants and even gas pipelines turn deadly. Late last year at around Christmas time, a terrible tragedy engulfed Lagos as fuel thieves punctured a gasoline pipeline, causing residents to scramble to grab buckets of gushing fuel. Inevitably some cigarette or metal-on-metal spark caused a disaster.

A gasoline pipeline ruptured by thieves exploded into a blazing inferno on Tuesday in a poor neighborhood, killing at least 260 people in the latest oil industry disaster to strike Nigeria, Africa’s biggest petroleum producer. ... The blast occurred after thieves opened the conduit during the night but left without fully sealing it, prompting hundreds of nearby residents to rush to collect spurting gasoline in cans, buckets and even plastic bags, witnesses said. It was unclear what ignited the fuel just after dawn.

The gasoline probably ate through those plastic bags in minutes and its a safe bet that the entire area was sodden with flammable liquid. The first spark turned the area into a gigantic napalm strike. These three incidents illustrate what environmentalists in the West often forget: that the Third World operates on an entirely different mental planet. Many years ago I actually lived for some months in and around a dump site far worse than the one which collapsed. It was known as Smokey Mountain; and the infernal fires which arose from it night and day were caused by the spontaneous combustion of organic material underfoot. If anything resembled a terrestrial version of hell, it was Smokey Mountain at night with garbage trucks snaking up the hill amidst pillars of fire and smoke, attended by what seemed innumerable legions of imps. The site was featured in many documentaries which purported to show the horror of life in the Third World, but I can tell you, from first hand experience, that the denizens of Smokey Mountain considered themselves to be comparatively lucky. They had a guaranteed income.

Each square meter of Smokey Mountain was divided into territories. Whatever was dumped into those territories could be ripped out and sold -- copper wire, glass bottles, waste paper, metal -- and carved into the sides of this garbage mountain were processing sites where the glass was smashed and binned into baskets, tin cans were flattened and formed into bales, and copper wire was extracted from the interiors of motors or cables. Paper, especially long-fiber white paper, was sold by the kilo. One sharp practice, favored by the scavengers, was to dampen the paper in water before having it weighed, a process called "bomba".

Those who were unlucky enough not to have a steady berth on Smokey could resort to leaping up on the garbage trucks as they churned up the hill and quickly snatching some choice item from the back of the moving truck. But they would have to get past the municipal garbage collectors themselves; these worthies would be would be hard at work rooting through the piles to get the wire, glass, metal and paper. A knock on the head and a kick in the seat awaited the jumpers who got caught. Unluckiest of all were those who had no access to the dump at all. They had to swarm through the city each night like nocturnal creatures to pick through the bins before government sanitation workers could get to them. By dawn each would have enough amassed enough in their carts to sell the scrap to the buyers known as the bodegeros and the proceeds would see them through the day. And armed with a relative pocketful of money and the confidence of youth, one could live it up, such as one could, until night fell again.

A tremendous amount of recycling was achieved in this way. What you have to understand is that the garbage which finally settled to the bottom of Smokey Mountain had been stripped of its last usable material. It was picked clean. Most of Manila's cardboard, a considerable percentage of its glass bottles and quite a bit of its scrap metal came from the labor of thousands of scavengers. From a certain point of view it was the epitome of "appropriate technology". It was almost fantastically "Green". And come to think of it, it was mostly honest labor.

For those who think that understanding a "carbon footprint" is all there is to knowing about environmentalism, a spell in the Third World would be an interesting experience, though I'm damned if I can say what lesson it conveys. As for myself, I can distinctly recall reading Ignazio Silone's Bread and Wine during that period, a novel about a revolutionary in Italy whose passwords were "never a rose without a thorn". Yes indeed. Never a rose without a thorn.


Blogger What is "Occupation" said...

Heavenly L-rd, thank you for showing your wrath on the evil palestinians today..

and who say g-d was not listening?

3/27/2007 07:08:00 PM  
Blogger 2164th said...

Thats what happens to shit holes, especially those of one's own making.

3/27/2007 07:13:00 PM  
Blogger The Tetrast said...

Wretchard should consider writing an autobio.

3/27/2007 07:23:00 PM  
Blogger fred said...

One can only hope that Allah's Offal finds its way into the tunnels the Palis have dug to smuggle weapons, bombs, and people.

3/27/2007 08:18:00 PM  
Blogger wretchard said...

A busload of children were taken hostage by men said to be armed with submachineguns and grenades demanding housing and daycare facilities for an unspecified group, according to the BBC.

Housing and daycare? Nobody makes those demands in Manila unless they are a political group or have totally lost their marbles.

3/27/2007 08:51:00 PM  
Blogger bobalharb said...

Well, of course, the first thing you do to make things better, is shoot the Interior minister.

3/27/2007 08:55:00 PM  
Blogger wretchard said...

I made a call and apparently the hostage taker is a crackpot from Negros, the owner of a daycare center, who has pulled this stunt before. Former Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim, who handled him back when he was mayor, is leading the negotiations. In this case, no violence is likely to ensue. BTW, this news is not available anywhere else but on this comment site.

3/27/2007 09:06:00 PM  
Blogger Mike H. said...

The hostage taker is running for some office according to Fox News. Hopefully it will be resolved before any mistakes are made.

3/27/2007 11:23:00 PM  
Blogger Starling David Hunter said...

W, another fascinating post. If you ever have the inclination to say, I'd for one love to know how you came to be a resident of Smokey Mountain.

For those interested, I left comments about the Gaza sewage tsunami in a post on my blog. Here's a link .


3/28/2007 12:06:00 AM  
Blogger doolz said...

Surreal, macabre, grotesque, absurd. Like something that only happens in a Chester Himes novel.

3/28/2007 01:02:00 AM  
Blogger wretchard said...


Once upon a time there was (and probably still is) a huge slum called the Tondo Foreshore and at the mouth of the Vitas Sewer was a huge dump called Smokey Mountain. As I recall the Sewer was crossed by the Lambingan bridge, and beneath it was the municipal abbatoir of Matadero. Beyond the bridge was Smokey Mountain itself. There was nothing sinister about it. All the crazy stuff happened in the warrens of Barrio Magsaysay, which along which canals wound, bearing fishermen and much else in and out of Manila Bay and along the coast up to Bataan. You could wait in the early morning along the quays and watch the fishermen come in with their catch.

For some reason I hung out with a very charismatic garbage trader under whose protection the local statue of the Nazarene was put. I would sleep a different place each night. And on occasion, I'd sleep on the pews in the chapel of the Nazarene. I guess the way to think of Tondo is to imagine the Gangs of New York moved to the twentieth century. That's actually how it was, though the principal street gangs were the Sigue-sigue and the Oxo, with yours truly being an honorary in the Sigue-sigue.

There's little detail I can recall from that period now, but many images still remain. Clothelines completely covered with flies so that they look like black hawsers. The trek of thousands to the breakwater each day to perform their sanitary ablutions, timing their discharge so that incoming waves would wash away the sewage. The one bucket bath. The sour smell of garbage. It ferments. I remember the street preachers, including one fellow who slept most of the day to conserve energy because he got only one meal a day. The drunks who bought a bottle of gin first thing in the morning. There were days spent building homes from wastewood and scavenged galvanized sheeting. There were wonderous days when you sat in in a rickety hut, with a whole family, while a typhoon lashed the flimsy roof above, and how you half-waded, half-swam through a shadowy warren that would put the world of Charles Dickens to shame.

I never gave much thought to the time in Smokey. It was actually upscale in comparison to some places by the Riverside, where a rising tide forced the sewer up through the floorboards. But otherwise it was a time of magic. It was wonderful to rise in the early evening and go out with the pushcarts and come back to get a breakfast of bread, margarine which you bought by the pat and glass of sweet coffee served in a recycled jar. And as Dylan Thomas put it:

And honoured among foxes
and pheasants by the gay house
Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long,
In the sun born over and over,
I ran my heedless ways
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

3/28/2007 01:13:00 AM  
Blogger wretchard said...


But to answer your question directly, I made it my business to try and organize the garbage scavengers. And there is, I believe, still a corporate registration in the Philippine Securities and Exchange Commission for the Scavengers Association of the Philippines where I am listed as among the founding members.

3/28/2007 01:22:00 AM  
Blogger Db2m said...


Your jolly adventures at Smokey Mountain and Riverside remind me of John Steinbeck's depression era Tortilla Flat, the story of Danny and Danny's friends and Danny's house.

Add to your diary that you dimly recollect reading a Steinbeck novel in one of the hovels during a monsoon, and it would all be too perfect...

3/28/2007 01:43:00 AM  
Blogger Vince P said...

You know what's outrageous?

The entire Gaza Strip is ONE HALF THE SIZE of the City limits of Chicago.

Dwell on this fact when you hear of any story coming from Gaza.... it's half the size of chicago.

3/28/2007 04:36:00 AM  
Blogger wretchard said...

How did the sewage get loose? The Toronto Sun has the details:

The Gaza City mayor blamed the collapse on local people digging dirt from the structure and selling it to building contractors.

A local Palestinian official blamed the disaster on shoddy infrastructure, and UN officials said they had been warning of a catastrophe since a 2004 UN report warned that the sewage facility was at maximum capacity and flooding was inevitable unless a new waste treatment plant was constructed.

3/28/2007 04:43:00 AM  
Blogger What is "Occupation" said...

The Gaza City mayor blamed the collapse on local people digging dirt from the structure and selling it to building contractors.

no say it aint so..

the palio's actually brought a wave of shit on themselves..

hmmm and i thought the jooos did it..

i do feel bad for innocent "palestinians" however it's hard to have compassion for a people that shot 7 rockets today at israel..

dont have the ability to pool their shit and piss properly but can manufactor and shoot rockets at jews while complaining about how poor they are..

ya know what?

allah has shown us his wrath...

3/28/2007 05:46:00 AM  
Blogger Randy said...

Not to take away from your post, it's great. However, horrible things do happen in the modern world - Olympic Pipe Line accident in Bellingham kills three youths on June 10, 1999.
[...] The resulting pressure surge led to a catastrophic rupture in the line traversing Whatcom Falls Park, sending 277,200 gallons of highly volatile gasoline into Hanna Creek and Whatcom Creek, which flows through downtown Bellingham into Bellingham Bay.
At 4:55 p.m., the gasoline vapors exploded, creating a river of fire from the rupture site near the Whatcom Falls Water Treatment Station, one and a half miles down the creek, to Interstate-5. The massive fireball sent a plume of smoke 30,000 feet into the air, visible from Anacortes to Vancouver B. C. Dense black smoke caused the closure of Interstate-5 for more than an hour. Fearing the fire would continue flowing down the creek into downtown Bellingham, police officers began evacuating businesses. Gasoline migrated into the city’s sewer system, and the vapors were at explosive levels for an hour. The U. S. Coast Guard, concerned the fuel could ignite dock pilings and vessels, closed Bellingham Bay for a one-mile radius from the mouth of Whatcom Creek.

Only three victims. Had it been a 3rd world city without the first responder resources of B'ham it probably would have been hundreds.

3/28/2007 06:14:00 AM  
Blogger Jerry said...

Ah, Truth. There IS a Just God.

3/28/2007 06:17:00 AM  
Blogger Randy said...

"never a rose without a thorn"

Developing World = a dirty, low productivity, poverty stricken society where little goes to waste.

Developed World = an environmentally friendly, highly productive, effiecient throw away society with a high standard of living.

Two worlds, is either 'green'?

3/28/2007 07:21:00 AM  
Blogger Starling David Hunter said...

Concerning the causes of the sewage tsunami... On Al-Jazeera International I just saw the Palestinian Authority Minister responsible for this problem. I didn't catch his name, however.

In short he blamed the Israelis and the AJI commentator barely, timidly called him on it. It was an utterly undignified and pathetic spectacle to witness.

3/28/2007 07:32:00 AM  
Blogger Cedarford said...

Part of one visit into Manila was Mt Smoky. It was memorable.

I wouldn't put too much on Zionists and other's claims of infrastructure or industrial accidents somehow showing inferiority of the culture or people. A rubbish mountain collapses or a sewage tank bursts? People at fault? Mexico City or Bam Iran buildings collapse when they shouldn't in Earthquake?

Well, welcome to America, We have had similar man-exacerbated or initiated disasters. For brevity, no list. I'll just mention a favorite, the Boston Molasses Tank disaster of 1919.

This was no small tank of molasses. The tank stood over 50 feet tall. Estimates of its capacity range from 2.2 to 2.5 million gallons.

The tank exploded and all the molasses smashed down the city streets, through houses and businesses

The actual wall of molasses was estimated to be from 15 - 30 feet high and moved at 25-35 miles per hour in the area around the tank. The depth was several feet in the surrounding area. You could not outrun this thing.

There was no chance of saving anyone in its destructive path. Anyone that attempted to go near the sticky goo got stuck in it themselves.

The flood killed twenty-one people and injured an additional 150. Some were suffocated, some cooked (tank contents thought to have been 130 DEg), and others were swept by the wave into the harbor.

The wave also destroyed millions of dollars worth of property. Homes and warehouses were swept off their foundations and destroyed. Even part of the city's elevated train line was destroyed.

Once the flood stopped, cleanup began. They could not remove the trapped horses from the sticky mess, so they had to shoot them to death. Freshwater from the fire hydrants would not wash away the molasses, so salt water from the harbor had to be sprayed on the land.

It took over six months to remove the molasses from the cobblestone streets, theaters, businesses, automobiles, and homes. The Boston Harbor was also stained brown for six months (must have made for a beautiful photo opportunity).

Believe it or not, there were reports that the molasses would actually continue to creep out of the ground and cracks in the sidewalks for 30 years! Others claim that up to the 1960s, you could still smell traces of it on a very hot day in the city.

Bottom line though, it is a tragedy when people are killed in these sort of accidents and it is inevitable that such accidents will happen with a certain frequency globally.

As overpopulation forces people to mass alongside such hazards in 3rd World 20-30 million people megacities, maybe even more frequent.

An example. Nigeria is infamous for pipeline disasters where a rupture occurs deliberately or by accident in packed slums. Hundreds of desperately poor surplus people flock to get oil or distillates. For personal use or to sell. Something sets it off, hundreds of excess Nigerians die in the conflagration. Or troops machinegunning them off the spill...no one cares...overpopulation has reached such levels in regions of Western Africa the unwanted, un needed, unemployable excess is considered all but vermin.

The Wretchard tales are awesome.

3/28/2007 08:23:00 AM  
Blogger slimslowslider said...

"In short he blamed the Israelis and the AJI commentator barely, timidly called him on it. It was an utterly undignified and pathetic spectacle to witness."

Of course, they have to most convenient scapegoats in the history of the world.

3/28/2007 08:23:00 AM  
Blogger dla said...

Yeuck! Sliding down a 50ft razor blade, drowning in a pool of snot....does not compare to drowing in a poo-poo Tsunami.

And of course the Muslims blame it on the Jews. Note that the Jews don't have these sorts of problems.

3/28/2007 09:41:00 AM  
Blogger Utopia Parkway said...

I guess the irony of Pals being killed by a tsunami of sewage is lost on no one. Blaming the catastrophe on someone else is par for the course.

Regarding scavenging of valuables from garbage: it was reported that several hundred tons of scrap steel from the World Trade Center were stolen by organized crime. So the garbage pickers in the first world are to be found if the garbage is worth enough.

3/28/2007 10:24:00 AM  
Blogger NahnCee said...

If they're still shitting, they're not starving.

3/28/2007 10:34:00 AM  
Blogger PossumTater said...

Allahs Will

3/28/2007 11:55:00 AM  
Blogger What is "Occupation" said...

c4 implies that "shit happens" to all peoples

and to a certain degree he is correct...

however, the Palio's have developed the ability to be the nation of "pig-pen"-like people who can always be counted on to destroy, maime or ruin everything they touch, breathe on, or look at.

Comic relief that a shit-tsunami hits the palio's? Dam straight, and on a DAY that they shoot off 7 rockets into israel and are still holding a kidnapped Israeli..

Shit happens to all kinds of people, but when a shit wave strikes at the core of the shit people, well it brings a grin to my face...

no matter the true pain to the innocents.

call me crude, call me heartless, but MY PEOPLE don't dig dirt from IN FRONT of a cesspools and then BLAME others for the shit hitting the fan...

3/28/2007 12:36:00 PM  
Blogger Teresita said...

Randy: Developed World = an environmentally friendly, highly productive, effiecient throw away society with a high standard of living.

Not for long. It came as a shock the other day when it was revealed that the second largest oil field in the world has peaked in production, and Saudi Arabia is next.

On the other side of world peak oil, America may choose to preserve her economic hegemony by directly administrating the oil fields throughout the Gulf, adding Iranian fields to the Iraqi, Kuwaiti, and Qatari fields currently under her thumb, and intimidating the Saudis into yielding control of Aramco back to Chevron. This will require an abandonment of the current President's "Democracy in the Middle East" project and the brute projection of power, coupled with a willingness to ignore the objections of Old Europe and an eagerness to go toe-to-toe against China on the high seas. The alternative is an economic depression that will make the 1930s look like a pothole.

3/28/2007 02:41:00 PM  
Blogger Peter Grynch said...

Peak Oil Theory is a myth that has been disproven time-and-again, but keeps coming back. Jimmy Carter famously predicted that the world would run out of natural gas by the year 2000. Today there are more proven natural gas reserves in the ground then were believed possible in Carter's time.

When crude runs out we will symply make sythetic fuel from coal. And guess what, the United States is the Saudi Arabia of coal!

Don't let apocaliptic malthusian disaster predictions bother you. They're great for grabbing headlines, but never come true. Even the NY Times is having second thoughts about Al Gore's Global Warming rant.

3/28/2007 03:03:00 PM  
Blogger unaha-closp said...

I believe the correct description would be sewage lahar.

3/28/2007 06:34:00 PM  
Blogger luagha said...

And once we build good enough batteries/ultracapcitors, we can switch to nuclear power generation and use all that coal and oil for chemical feedstocks in the making of all our advanced plastics and ceramics.

More. Faster. Now. A good breeder reactor and we're only limited to the amount of plutonium on the planet.

3/29/2007 09:02:00 AM  
Blogger Peter Grynch said...

Opinionjournal has the best comment on the sewage tsunami:
The Jerusalem Post reported earlier this month that metal provided by Israel had been used in the construction of those terrorist rockets. And why was Israel selling the Palestinians metal? "For the construction of a sewage system in Gaza."

Palestinian babies drown in sewage because of the bloodlust of Palestinian grown-ups. What a fetid political culture.

Allah be praised!

3/29/2007 01:59:00 PM  
Blogger Fabio said...

During the days I spent in Jakarta I saw some of the situations Wretchard describes. Yes, I was largely the rich western tourist living in a luxury hotel - but my local companion took me to some backroad.

3/29/2007 03:09:00 PM  
Blogger Db2m said...

"Not for long. It came as a shock the other day when it was revealed that the second largest oil field in the world has peaked in production, and Saudi Arabia is next."


I keep tellin' you folk that we need to be more profligate in our use of oil, waste it, drive up demand and prices, remove restrictions on E&P, and build up reserves. But y'all don't listen to me. Poor me.

And do nukes, and coal gasification to boot.

I remember back in the 70's when some Oklahoma Utility made waves and drew wrath for buckin' Jimmuh by saying in their advertising that there was plenty of natural gas, use all you want. (I believe they were fined.)

3/29/2007 08:13:00 PM  

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