Yeshey Lhadon

Thimphu’s lone waste incinerator, installed earlier this month, remains idle for want of an operator.

The incinerator at Memelakha landfill can burn 100 kilograms of waste per cycle but waste from the quarantine centres is still burned in an open-pit near the incinerator.

Those in the business criticise the management for failing to recruit the operator on time.

“They should have hired an operator when they started building the shed for the incinerator two months ago,” a waste dealer said.

Health ministry’s project manager, Sonam Tenzin said that they floated a vacancy for an operator. But no one turned up.

He said: “It took 4 to 6 hours to incinerate 100Kg waste. It is as good as open-pit burning which takes about 12 hours to burn 300Kg.”

The waste from Covid-19 positive patients does not go to Memelakha. It’s autoclaved and destroyed at the national referral hospital.

Sonam Tenzin said that the quarantine facilities initially generated 500Kg waste, but the waste has decreased to less than 50Kg a day now. “We have no choice; we will have to continue with open-pit burning if we can’t incinerate,” he said.

The ministry has to continue burning in the open pit and wait longer. The two medical waste incinerators ( 30Kg capacity) the Rotary Club of Thimphu agreed to donate have been entangled in an environment clearance issue.

A supplier in Thimphu has the incinerators, and the Rotary Club is ready to release the funds for the purchase. But they don’t have environment clearance from the National Environment Commission (NEC).

Sonam Tenzin said: “The NEC has advised MoH to refrain from purchasing and installing the incinerators.”

He said that as a beneficiary agent, the ministry would take the 30Kg incinerators and use them for infectious waste. “We didn’t reject it. But the supplier should obtain EC.”

The incinerator at Memelakha and the two 30Kg incinerators do not have the environmental pollution control equipment known as gas cleaning plant (GCP), according to NEC.

NEC’s secretary, Sonam P Wangdi said: “Because of the emergency situation NEC issued the clearance to incinerate Covid-19 waste but with the condition that they will install the GCP.”

NEC officials also said that the 30kg ones are too small to handle Covid-19 waste. “All of them don’t meet the standard.”

Sonam P Wangdi said that there was another drawback of the Memelakha’s incinerator. He said: “The current one can burn only 4 or 5 bags of hospital waste. Then, we have to wait. We can only burn 200Kg a day. I was told that Memelakha’s incinerator cannot handle Covid-19 waste.”

NEC received USD 374,000 from the United Nation Development Programme (UNDP) to purchase three incinerators that can burn 300Kg waste per cycle and conduct training for their operators. Those incinerators will be placed at Mongar, Gelephu and Phuentsholing hospitals.

Some related procurement firms claimed that NEC is either procuring their own incinerators or the contract is awarded to some unidentified party without floating competitive tendering, breaching procurement law.

They said that NEC being the monitoring or regulating authority is acting as an implementing body by involving in the procurement of the incinerators.

“There will be a conflict of interest if NEC is procuring their own incinerator. It’s like the police running a gambling den if the police want to implement it instead of regulating,” a supplier said.

Another said: “Why is NEC involved in purchasing the equipment and implementing the project? If something goes wrong, are they going to shoot their own feet later?”

Sonam P Wangdi said: “We have secured funds from UNDP and we are going to buy incinerators of our choice in terms of the capacity and pollution control equipment.”

Sonam P Wangdi said that NEC is not procuring those three incinerators and NEC is separate from the national flagship program although NEC’s waste management division is involved in the flagship programme.

He said: “It’s a waste management flagship program that is procuring the incinerators as a part of Covid-19 procurement regime based on an enhanced and accelerated procurement system. NEC doesn’t run the flagship programme.  The procurement of incinerators was approved by the Ministry of Finance.”

“There’s no conflict of interest in terms of procurement, anybody can procure as long as the procurement rules are followed,” he added.

He said that the parties have competed for the procurement of incinerators.

The secretary said that the incinerator at Memelakha cost Nu 3.7 million (M) while those two 30Kg costs Nu 2.4M each.  But after installing the GCP, the 100Kg one will cost Nu 4.9M and the 30Kg ones will cost Nu 3.2M. The GCP for 100Kg is Nu 1.2M and for 30Kg is Nu 0.8M. Whereas the 300Kg one with preinstalled GCP only costs Nu 4.4M.

Sonam P Wangdi said: “Firstly, it was overpriced, secondly it was substandard, and thirdly the capacity doesn’t meet our requirements, specifically the 30Kg one.”

“How is it fair to buy a 100Kg for Nu 4.9M than buying a three times bigger capacity for Nu 4.4M. Some have quoted double the amount. They were quoting Nu 8 or 9M for a 300Kg one,” he said.

He also said that some parties with vested interest were unhappy. 

NEC formulated regulatory rules for the incinerators in June, while the incinerators were imported before that.

Recently, Bhutan Trust Fund for Environmental Conservation (BTFEC) granted Nu 85M for waste management activities. Thimphu Rotary Club’s secretary, Yeshey Dorji in his blog suggested the grant recipients to elaborate on how the grants will be used for the projects.