Acrid smoke is hanging over New Delhi for a second day after a massive landfill caught fire during a scorching heatwave, forcing informal waste workers to endure hazardous conditions.
The landfill in Bhalswa in the city’s north is taller than a 17-storey building and covers an area bigger than 50 football fields.
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Waste workers who live in nearby homes had emptied onto the streets on Tuesday evening.
But by Wednesday morning, the thousands of people who live and work at the landfill had begun the dangerous process of trying to salvage rubbish from the fire.
“There’s a fire every year. It is not new. There is risk to life and livelihood, but what do we do?” asked Bhairo Raj, 31, an informal waste worker who lives next to the landfill. He said his children studied there and he could not afford to leave.
The Indian capital, like the rest of South Asia, is in the midst of a record-shattering heatwave that experts said was a catalyst for the landfill fire. Three other landfills around the Indian capital have also caught fire in recent weeks.
The landfill in the latest fire was planned for closure more than 10 years ago, but about 2,300 tonnes of the city’s rubbish is still dumped there every day. The organic waste in the landfill decays, resulting in a build-up of highly combustible methane gas.
“With high temperatures, this spontaneous combustion will take place,” said Ravi Agarwal, the director of Toxics Link, a New Delhi-based advocacy group that focuses on waste management.
Several fire engines rushed to the landfill on Tuesday to try and douse the fire. At night, the landfill resembled a burning mountain and it smouldered until early morning.
The last month was the hottest March in India in more than a century and the current month has been one of the hottest Aprils in years. Temperatures crossed 43 degrees Celsius (109.4F) in several cities on Tuesday and are forecast to continue rising.
“India’s current heatwave has been made hotter by climate change,” said Friederike Otto, senior lecturer in climate science at the Grantham Institute in Imperial College London.
She said unless the world stops adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, such heatwaves will become even more common.