10.05.2011

Urban waste management and Climate Change adaptation

Speaking for waste management, the adaptation challenge is currently underestimated compared to the great importance that has been given to climate change mitigation issues. Taking into account that waste management is still out of the mainstream agenda of the climate change policy – makers and decision - makers, although there is evidence that sound waste management practices can deliver substantial carbon emission savings, the result is that very few measures and policies have been arrived dedicated to adaptation and waste management.

Worldwide, global cities recognize the importance of adaptation because as Barbel Dieckmann, the mayor of Bonn in 2007 put it “…cities are already experiencing flooding, water shortages, heat waves, coastal erosion and ozone-related deaths”. The lesson we learnt from the Katrina hurricane was that multiple failures of an aging and inadequate infrastructure, plus indifferent planning, sharply increased the death toll of a catastrophe that had long been predicted. And while cities are moving relatively fast to create adaptation strategies, as a kind of “reaction” to the aftermaths of Katrina hurricane, waste management is usually out of the adaptation agenda.

The importance of adapting the current waste management is high and it deserves more attention by urban planners and decision makers as well as international organizations, for many reasons.

First of all, current urban waste management systems are proven vulnerable day by day. Search a little bit at the Web and you will find lots of landfill floods and collapses due to hurricanes or extensive rainfall, collection systems collapsed or blocked for a certain period due to extreme weather events. Although for the time -being we do not have reliable data to consider, it seems that extreme weather events will become a rule (and not an exception, as it is now) for designing waste management systems in certain areas of the world.

Second, it seems that the most vulnerable waste management systems are the ones that happened to be in growing and transition megacities, where informal sector plays a certain role in waste management and infrastructure either is not in place or it is not adequate. In those urban areas, the environmental and health risks from a potential disaster related to waste management are really high and under certain conditions they might be proven more than local ones. Take into account that dumpsites, which are the dominant practice in those cases, are usually located at low levels and excavated with no plan and hydraulic protection and you will understand that this is a serious problem.

Third, even in developed and mature megacities, where infrastructure is in place, the collection systems remain vulnerable, facilities must be examined for their resilience under the new weather patterns and we still have the problem of new and old landfills. Old landfills, even if they are closed possess a serious risk, especially if they are located into floodplains. New and active landfills are by far the most vulnerable part of the waste management chain and their potential for environmental damage is really high, especially in the case of erosion or oversaturation.

Already, there are events even in developed countries that outline the serious impacts of the current underestimation of the importance of waste management adaptation strategies. As an example, 30% of 1064 Austrian landfills are in areas where flooding is a major risk. A 25.000 m3 old landfill was completely eroded during a 2005 flood of Alfenz River in Austria, resulted in water pollution events. And the famous Elbe River flood on 2002 created landfill and dumpsites erosion which contributed in heavy metal and arsenic contamination.

So it is time to change our attitude regarding the adaptation of waste management. There is one more reason about it. Mitigation efforts must be global and their global results will be long-term ones. But adaptation is something urgent that must be delivered locally and the results will be more or less immediate. In that view adapting waste management systems is within the spatial and temporal scale of human brain and of our societies’ understanding, which means is more achievable. And for awareness purposes, focusing resources and attention to adaptation strategies is the crucial link to demonstrate the importance of mitigation measures.

How to cope with this problem? It is neither easy nor simple, but there are some starting points.

First, we need to face urban waste management as a system and assess the region – city - site-specific vulnerability of it. Of course landfills, dumpsites and collection systems have to be studied in details since they are obviously the most vulnerable parts. But even before those physical elements of the waste management chain, we have to study the institutional framework in each area and the social – demographic factors related to waste management. Because actually the vulnerability map of any system will be the combination of geographical vulnerability with social – demographic factors.

Second, climate change and extreme weather events create a new diversification of regions and territories, according their vulnerability. This means that a. site selection criteria have to be updated and reflect this diversification and b. they have to be applied much stricter than they are applied now.

Third, we need to find a way to include the Low Probability – High Impacts events in the designing principles and procedures, according the expected climate change impacts in each area. This is also a challenge for studying the vulnerability of the current infrastructure in place. Appropriate risk assessment procedures should be developed for that purpose.

We need a road map to assess the adaptive capacity of urban waste management systems and to frame them within the overall city adaptation strategy. Emergency planning and medium term adaptation measures are definitely parts of the adaptation strategies and usually there have not been even discussed for urban waste management. Informal sector integration in waste management procedures might be required too.

Last but not least, it is obvious that diverting waste from landfills, using several parallel collection systems, improving recycling - recovery performance and introducing waste prevention initiatives will definitely relief the impacts from any extreme weather phenomena, especially the health and environmental impacts related to landfills and dumpsites. In that term, those measures are proven as the link between adaptation and mitigation strategies and they have to be even more upgraded than they already are for waste management policies and strategies.

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