Against all odds, Kuwait turning dump into desert oasis

With its steaming mountain of dump waste, Qurain used to be the smelliest neighborhood in all of Kuwait.

This Persian Gulf nation is known more for its oil wealth and expensive cars than its environmental bent. In this tiny country, where you could count the number of environmentalists on two hands, a group of environmentalists is celebrating an unlikely success - and no one is more jubilant than the residents of al-Qurain. The community's distinguishing centerpiece was a 1-mile-square landfill that ran 75 feet deep. Theirs the smelliest neighborhood in Kuwait.

Three decades ago, when no one suspected al-Qurain would ever be developed, officials began hauling the nation's refuse to an abandoned quarry here, about nine miles south of Kuwait City, the capital. Years of dumping household garbage, construction waste, and chemicals turned the heap into a toxic stew, emitting a constant cloud of methane, carbon monoxide, nitrogen, and the hydrogen-sulfide.

Fifteen years later, the government began building subsidized housing here. Soon thereafter it closed the dump, but use continued. In the past 15 years a community of 60,000 has grown up around this malodorous landmark. So the people here have long endured insults on top of the daily assault on their olfactory senses. Notwithstanding the foul clouds that some say even made them sick, people here have long been the butt of smelly garbage jokes throughout Kuwait.

One day a spark ignited uncontrollable fires that sent noxious smoke wafting in and out of homes on the periphery of the dump. When a fiesty but sparsely funded state agency volunteered to take on al-Qurain dumpsite as a challenge, people doubted it would succeed. Paying for cleanup would be hard because the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) depended mostly on private donations. And the work would be smelly.

But last weekend, neighbors, government officials, and foreign ambassadors came here to mark Earth Day amid some of the freshest air in Kuwait. Officials unveiled the completion of the first phase of the EPA project that turned the dump into a clean - and free - source of natural energy for the neighborhood.

Led by director general Mohammed al-Sarawi, and a paltry $650,000 in mostly donations, the EPA has worked what many here call a miracle. First they scraped off some 28,000 truckloads worth of garbage off the top of the heap, leveling the area. Then they brought in about 400,000 cubic meters of "gatch" - Arabic for a pebbly semiporous sandstone from the desert - and spread it over the top of the leveled garbage. Fires died. Smells grew fainter.

Then they degassed the site by drilling 300 bore holes into the gatch-covered landfill. They inserted pipes and later connected them together in an underground gridwork. And engineers discovered a fortuitous byproduct of the off-gassing - methane.

"We found it produced an impressive 3,000 cubic meters of methane gas per hour," said the project's engineer, Farhat Mahroos, as he lit a colorless, odorless flare adding to some 30 others EPA has kept burning for the past year. "This gas is capable of producing 3.8 megawatts of continuous electricity," - enough to power the surrounding 300 homes for the next 30 years.

Now, EPA air-quality monitors measure some of the cleanest and freshest air in Kuwait. EPA still has a way to go. It plans to link the underground gas grid to a gas motor and generator that could eventually feed residents electricity. Mr. al-Sawari thinks it should be free. "They deserve it - look at it as compensation for years of bad smells," he said noting that if EPA gets its way, some 300 homes surrounding the once horrid dump could benefit with 30 years of free energy.

The free electricity would also pump water which will be used to help transform the area into a green park, complete with swimming pools, gardens, a Roman theater, an astronomical observatory, soccer and other playing fields, and more. This story will probably have a happy ending. Some speculate that property prices in al-Qurain may become some of the highest in Kuwait as this trash dump turns into a little oasis - the first of its kind in the Middle East.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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