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India's worst heat wave for a century sets landfill on fire engulfing New Delhi in smoke

ACRID smoke hung over New Delhi for a second day today after a massive landfill caught fire during a scorching heat wave, forcing informal waste workers to endure hazardous conditions.

The landfill in northern Delhi’s Bhalswa is taller than a 17-storey building and covers an area larger than 50 football pitches.

Waste workers who live in nearby homes had emptied onto the streets on Tuesday evening. But by this morning, the thousands of people who live and work at the landfill had begun the dangerous process of trying to salvage garbage 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, an informal waste worker who lives next to the landfill. He said that his children studied there and he couldn’t afford to leave.

The Indian capital, like the rest of South Asia, is in the midst of a record-shattering heat wave 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 a decade ago, but more than 2,300 tons of the city’s garbage are 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 to douse the fire. At night, the landfill resembled a burning mountain and it smouldered until early morning.

March was the hottest month in India in over a century and April has been similarly scorching. Temperatures crossed 43° Celsius in several cities Tuesday and are forecasted to continue rising.

“India’s current heatwave has been made hotter by climate change,” said Dr Friederike Otto, senior lecturer in climate science at the Grantham Institute in Imperial College London.

She said that unless the world stopped adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, such heat waves will become even more common.

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