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.