Every day at six a.m., in the coastal district of Ampara in Sri Lanka's Eastern Province, teams of waste collectors climb on brightly coloured tractors to start their daily garbage collection rounds. They sort regular waste from recyclables and larger items, and load the remaining waste, mostly biodegradable material, into compost bins. Two to three months later, the compost is ready to be sold at local agricultural markets, to finance the continued operation of waste management activities.
Their work is part of a European Union (EU)-funded Environmental Remediation Programme (ERP), implemented by UNOPS in collaboration with 12 local authorities. With a total budget of €12.6 million over a seven-year period, this initiative helps improve solid-waste management, environmental restoration and urban surface-water drainage in the coastal communities of Ampara. This district, impoverished by over 20 years of conflict, was devastated by the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, which highlighted the lack of systems, facilities and resources for proper waste management.
Sustainable waste management
As a result of this project, UNOPS has successfully built seven landfills, five recycling centers, five compost facilities and one waste transfer station to help local authorities move towards a more sustainable solution for solid-waste management. UNOPS approach in tackling the solid waste problem in Ampara went beyond simply looking at the infrastructure needs of the area. The project focused on developing capacity, training local authorities on how to establish an efficient and cost-effective integrated waste management system to collect, transport and treat solid waste in an environmentally-sound and sustainable manner. A successful fee-based waste collection system has been established in the Eastern Province, which is now being adopted by local authorities in other parts of the country.
The project has also reduced flooding and the health risks associated with improper garbage disposal, and it was highlighted as an example of best practice in waste management and community education by the country's Central Environment Authority.
To achieve the most positive, long-term impact, UNOPS worked closely with local authorities and communities to ensure that the project addressed the social, economic and environmental dimensions of sustainability. Community awareness programmes and school recycling projects were launched to encourage locals to 'reduce, reuse and recycle', and specific training was provided to women to help ensure their households properly disposed of garbage. Recognizing that empowering women is essential to the success of community-driven environmental projects, this training offered female community members a chance to play a major role in improving their community.
With support from the EU, measures were also taken to ensure the long-term financial viability of the project, including the introduction of a user fee for waste collection and the establishment of marketing channels to sell compost produced from collected waste. Selling compost at local markets has helped create self-sustaining activities, ensuring continuity after the project ends. Over 1,700 bags of composts are now produced each month, generating over US$ 28,000 in revenue per year.
An interesting outcome of the project was the social cohesion and mutual understanding it spurred between the District's three main ethnicities. The solid waste problem in the area had reached a critical juncture, to the point of creating social animosity. Through community outreach and engagement, the EU-funded UNOPS intervention helped promote reconciliation and tackle issues which had previously halted progress in finding a solution to the area's solid waste problem.
The benefits of this project are perhaps best seen by those who work the six a.m. waste collection shift. W.A. Shrill, a waste collector in Ampara town, explains:"it used to be very difficult to get out to the surrounding villages before this programme started, now we have six tractors and a team of collectors who can go to all the areas every day, I can already see such an improvement to the area."
Building on the success and lessons learnt in Ampara, UNOPS is now implementing a new project to support local authorities in the neighbouring district of Batticaloa, with financial support from the EU.