Liberia: Suffering Silently in Whein Town

A distance view Whein Town landfill

... Liberians living near the country’s primary landfill say... “The air odors here are unbearable and so are the flies and cockroaches or bugs. The flies are so bad that you cannot cook or sit outside without being inundated by them."

It is a quiet day and Isaac Korto sits in front of his three-bedroom house in Whein Town. But as he sits, he suffers in silence. 

Korto's agony comes from the fetid odor of the Whein Town landfill in Paynesville City. As he sits, he has little choice, but to bear the smell of tons of rotting debris from all over Montserrado County that has piled up for nearly two decades at the dumpsite, which is adjacent to his home. 

The landfill's unbearable odor is what Korto and hundreds of others inhabiting the Whein Town community have been afflicted with day and night.   It is, in the words of a resident, “hell on earth,” as they struggle to breathe in air that is not stench — making the smell of their home no different than that of the dump. 

“The air odors here are unbearable and so are the flies and cockroaches or bugs. The flies are so bad that you cannot cook or sit outside without being inundated by them, “ Whein Town community resident told the Daily Observer.Here, we are covered in all sorts of insects. The uncomfortable smell of the landfill dirt also creates problems with breathing quality air.”

Created in 2005 following the closure of the previous solid waste disposal site in Fiamah that year, the Whein Town landfill, which saw its lifespan expire at the end of 2016, remains the country's primary dumping ground.  Every day, it receives more than a hundred metric tons of waste, both biodegradable and non-biodegradable products, from Montserrado County including the nation’s capital, Monrovia, despite outliving its usefulness.  

To produce methane gas

According to the World Bank in June 2019, Monrovia alone produces an estimated 800 tons of domestic solid waste each day, and all ends up at the Whein Town landfill.  Some of the non-biodegradable products include hazardous medical and electronic waste. 

But non-biodegradable products should not in the first place be disposed of in landfills, according to  Dr. Eugene Shannon, former Minister of Lands, Mines, and Energy during the administration of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. The landfill, Shannon said, should have first been occupied by biodegradable waste — particularly organic waste. The goal, the former minister said, was to produce methane gas as a means of alternative source of energy for the Whein Town community. 

“The landfill was only open for organic waste to collect methane gas to produce alternative energy for the residents,” said Shannon, who spearheaded the project while Minister. “The idea was to dig pitch holes where we will dump organic wastes, not inorganic wastes because the organic waste will decay and after five years we will pump methane gas that would convert to electrical energy and feed the homes around there with lights, but it seems like the project failed.”

But the landfill continues to receive tons of garbage of all kinds every day, including all hazardous waste from Monrovia and its satellite cities.   And from 2017 to 2021, the landfill received  580,289 tons of waste of all kinds, according to Jerome D. Dangbuah, Director for Solid Waste, Monrovia City Corporation (MCC).

Dangbuah however disagrees with Shannon.  He noted that the landfill is not open for only organic waste since they do regular compacting and covering of the waste to prevent bad smells.  He admitted that the estimated useful life of the landfill has expired but, due to the unavailability of other sites, they are still using it. 

Environmental and health risks

However, for Korto and others, Dangbuah’s justification and the government’s continued use of the landfill, whose lifespan has expired, is not just about space anymore. There is the Chessemanburg landfill, which “they have failed to complete and allow for the relocation of the existing landfill,” Korto says. 

Instead, Korto adds, it shows how the government treats its poor citizens as they know that the presence of the dumpsite poses environmental and health risks — something that they have complained about for years.

“The government told us that the landfill will only last for five years, and we will get free current. But only sickness we are getting. They failed us. It is more than five years now we cannot see the current,” Korto said as he referenced the project's original goal, which was to produce methane gas extracted from organic waste for the community.

He added that landfill has outlived its usefulness and is now having a terrible impact on the environment because of the unrestricted dumping of domestic, industrial, hospital, and agricultural waste at the city’s main dumping site. There is also the economic stigma since nobody wants to invest in the Whein Town community, home to thousands of inhabitants. 

And for Mulbah Kerkula, the Whein Town landfill is a daily hazard as their air and underground water are polluted. He added that the landfill pollution of their air violates their human rights as Liberians.  

Every justification

“Clean air is a human right, and it is a necessary precondition for addressing climate change as well as achieving many Sustainable Development Goals. Air pollution here does not only damage our human health, but it also hampers the economy in many ways,” he says. “We, therefore, have every justification to believe that this landfill, which is currently over-aged and ill-managed, is responsible for most of our socio-economic predicaments as a whole.” 

Kerkula noted that the painful part is that they live among rats, roaches, and flies and that they can hardly sleep at night due to the swarms of mosquitoes.  The health impact, Kerkula says, is frequent sickness. And afflictions common to dump life worldwide: diarrhea, headaches, chest and stomach pain, and typhoid which, Kerkula noted, is a daily problem among residents, since they live in a community that hosts the county’s primary landfill that is filled beyond its capacity.

“The dumpsite has attracted more flies and mosquitoes and polluted all underground water sources. The government guides and protects us, but if we speak to the protector, and they fail to listen to us, what can we do? We are hopeless. We have our properties here, we can't abandon them and go elsewhere. Also, life here is all about illness, and poverty. We just do not lack opportunity because of the landfill stigma, and we severely suffer from malaria, fever, and other airborne illnesses,” says Kerkula.

He then accused the government of failing to fulfill its promise of turning waste into alternative energy and that failure is now negatively impacting their lives.
Meanwhile, Shannon, the former minister who oversaw the landfill establishment, recommends that the Whein Town residents engage their legislators to plead their plights in finding a solution to the landfill, which is now a problem for their socio-economic well-being.

“I don’t know why it failed, but it was a good project for alternative energy. If you dump the garbage and don’t cover it, you will definitely invite flies, mosquitoes, and rodents.”

Cheesemanburg Urban Landfill

The former minister is also worried about the long-term health and economic impact on the residents that would see them suffering from lots of communicable diseases if not much is done urgently. The 25-acre landfill is being managed by the Monrovia City Corporation and in collaboration with the Paynesville City Corporation (PCC), with funding from the World Bank, through the Cheesemanburg Urban Landfill and Sewerage (CLUS) project.

The CLUS project is providing improved access to solid waste management (SWM) services in Monrovia. It   consists of three components, the construction of the Cheesemanburg landfill, and the partial and total closure of the existing landfill.

However, the Whein Town landfill, which Dangbuah did not provide a specific time concerning its closure, is being used due to the unavailability of other sites including Cheesemanburg despite, admitting that the estimated year of the landfill has expired. He noted that landfill is still being used due to the availability of cell — areas where the waste is deposited.

“So we realize that there are some of the cells that are still vacant and we decided to take advantage to ensure that all of the cells are completely closed.”

He says cells A, B, and C have been filled, pushed, and covered, so there are only two cells left to be filled before the Cheesemanburg landfill can be completed in 2023.

“Before the landfill was constructed, there were documents that the city corporation signed, which called for pushing and compacting the trash,” Dangbuah explains. “And we were to hire a company that will do groundwater testing. Since the landfill came here, there has been constant water testing from major wells. We test them every three months and the results can be presented in the various blocks.” 

But Boakai Myers, Whein Town chairman, refuted Dougbuah’s claims, accusing the City Corporation of failing to perform its duty. 

“They do water testing and don’t give us reports. That’s because they know that the waters are polluted.”
Meanwhile, Korto and hundreds of Whein Town residents will continue to inhale the foul stench of the landfill, which is being piled up every day until 2023, if only if the Cheesemanburg project is completed on schedule since the project has, in times past, experienced hiccups.