As is the case elsewhere, the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a considerable increase in medical waste in Bhutan as well, aggravating the already complex technical, regulatory, and administrative challenges related to safe management of biomedical and hazardous wastes.
There are 54 flu clinics and 302 quarantine facilities in the country, of which 57 are in Thimphu. On an average, the flu clinics and quarantine facilities in Thimphu generate 350 kilograms of waste every day.
To manage the bio-medical and hazardous waste generated in Thimphu, an incinerator was installed at the Memelakha landfill. The 300-kg capacity incinerator at the Memelakha will help ensure safe and efficient management of biohazard wastes from medical facilities, flu clinics and quarantine centers in the capital.
The incinerator was inaugurated by the Foreign Minister Dr Tandi Dorji, who is the Chairperson of the National Environment Commission (NEC) and UNDP Resident Representative Azusa Kubota. The inaugural ceremony was attended by Health Secretary Dr Pandup Tshering and representatives from the NEC and, Thimphu Thromde, among others. Emission testing kits were also contributed to monitor and regulate emissions.
While biomedical wastes from the healthcare facilities are either autoclaved or buried in deep pits in the capital, in many districts it is dumped along with municipal wastes without any pre-treatment. These pose significant threats to human health and the environment. To ensure proper handling, storage, treatment, and disposal of wastes categorized as biomedical and hazardous wastes, the Waste Management and Stray Dog Population Control Flagship Program has identified autoclaves, incinerators, microwave sterilization and sanitary landfills as the preferred disposal options.
The government has selected the most reliable and commonly used incineration-based treatment process for healthcare waste known as the pyrolytic incineration, also called controlled air incineration or double-chamber incineration.
The incinerator was procured by the National Environment Commission (NEC) with support from UNDP and funded by the Government of Japan as part of COVID-19 Response and Recovery Project, Towards a smarter, greener and more resilient recovery through innovation in Bhutan.
Two other incinerators, procured through the same project, will be installed in Gelephu and Phuentsholing. Preparatory works for installation are ongoing.
"I would like to thank the Government of Japan and the UNDP for assisting Bhutan with installation of a critical plant, which would ensure biohazard waste from the hospital, flu clinics and quarantine facilities are disposed off properly," said Lyonpo Dr. Tandi Dorji.
"It is critical that all of us work together, especially Ministry of Health and NEC, to ensure the incinerator’s management and operation is taken care of efficiently and effectively. Waste management is a priority for the government, despite the challenges posed by COVID-19 and reduced budget, we have kept substantial fund for it. Waste management must be a collective action and coordination among stakeholders is important," Lyonpo added.
"Noting the limitations of technology, human capacity and related infrastructures and concerns on environment and health, as decided by the government, UNDP through funding from the Government of Japan, quickly put together a project to set up incinerators in Thimphu, Phuntsholing and Gelephu, identified as covid treatment centers to tackle immediate infectious and biomedical waste problems as a direct result of the pandemic,” UNDP Resident Representative Azusa Kubota said.
The NEC together with the Ministry of Health will lead the management and operation of the incinerators. UNDP will work closely with NEC and MoH to develop the Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) for incinerator management and provide trainings on safe handling of incinerators for operators, technicians, and caretakers.