Kuwaiti citizens face the effects of fires at the world’s largest tire graveyard

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Shocking images of a fire in a landfill full of old tires circulated widely on social media in late July. The tire dump, located a dozen kilometers from the capital of Kuwait, is the largest in the world, with more than 50 million tires buried in the desert area. While this viral video was filmed in April, it shows a serious environmental problem that has been affecting the small Gulf country.

Satellite images captured a huge cloud of black smoke from a massive fire at the Salmi landfill, known as the “tire graveyard,” located in Kuwait’s Jahra district. This video, which is just over a minute long, garnered more than three million views on Twitter after it was posted without context on July 29. It shows discarded tires as far as the eye can see.

When and where was this video filmed?

Our team used the Invid WeVerify tool to view the video (click here to find out how). We found some older posts from the same event on Twitter, posted on April 29-30, 2021, as well as a Tweet with screenshots of the viral video posted by a member of the Kuwait City Council, Ahmad Al Hadian.

In this tweet from April 30, 2021, Ahmad Al Hadian denounces what he calls negligence on the part of Jahra city officials, who are supposed to oversee the Salmi landfill.

According to Kuwaiti media, on April 29 a fire broke out in the tire graveyard. Firefighters, who managed to put out the flames after seven hours, said there were no casualties but that the fire was an arson event. They did not provide information about the investigation on the possible perpetrator.

This video, which was posted by Kuwaiti firefighters on April 30, 2021, shows the extent of the fire that devastated the Salmi landfill on April 29.

Why does this little country have so many used tires?

It turns out that the viral video is from a few months ago. But fires often break out at this landfill, which spans 3 km² and is considered the world’s largest tire graveyard. There around 60 million tires used only in the landfill, according to environmental officials, tires that will eventually be buried in the large pits that can be seen in these satellite images.

Google Earth screenshot showing smoke from the fire at the Salmi landfill.  You can also see the holes used to hold the tires.  Fires are common on the site.
Google Earth screenshot showing smoke from the fire at the Salmi landfill. You can also see the holes used to hold the tires. Fires are common on the site. © Google Earth

In the 1980s and 1990s, Kuwait did a business of importing used tires from other countries, importing 259 million tires used per year from the United States and Europe, until the practice was banned in 2001.

This aerial image shows the pits where used tires are buried once they are taken to the landfill.

The April 29 fire is not the first to occur at the Salmi landfill. In 2021 alone, authorities reported three different fires in Salmi: one in February 13th, one second in March 30th and the third on April 29. Preliminary investigations concluded that all three fires were criminal in nature after traces of combustible liquids were found at the site. In 2012, a fire burned for three days at a tire dump in neighboring Arhayyah, located 8 km from Jahra. After the incident, the contents of the landfills were moved to Salmi, and the site definitively closed in 2016.

These tire graveyards contain thousands of tons of rubber, which is exposed to the blazing sun, thus releasing carcinogenic gases that are harmful to humans and the environment. Dioxins They are released into the atmosphere when synthetic rubber burns, even at low temperatures.

Fatma Al Zalzalah is a 24-year-old engineer from Kuwait who launched an environmental initiative called “Eco star”In 2019, to help promote better waste recycling.

‘This fire releases carbon black, which is an invisible killer’

Loose burning tires carbon black [Editor’s note: a type of carbon essentially produced by the petrochemicals industry, which is a serious pollutant]. It’s hard to get that out of the atmosphere. All the fires that occurred at the Salmi landfill were intentionally set. Investigations have yielded no clues, but, to me, that shows the negligence of the people running these landfills. The entire region is suffering the effects of this gas. He is an invisible killer.

Kuwait only recycles a small amount of its used tires [Editor’s note: 35% of the graveyard is made up of material that can’t be recycled, according to authorities]. So, the national policy is more oriented to export these tires.

Recycling in Kuwait is not done properly, according to international standards. There are systems to recycle some goods, such as paper and plastic, and companies that collect garbage but do not recycle anything. An estimate 90% of the country’s waste is buried in relatively isolated areas. However, videos and photos taken at these sites, secretly because filming is prohibited, show that waste management violates industry standards.

But despite these procedures, there are landfills located in residential areas, even in neighboring districts of Al Quarin, Al Addan and Al Qosour [located 27 km south of Kuwait City], What are they home of many people. These areas spent years landfill repair for damage caused by the gas used to incinerate the waste.

For example, the district of Ali sabah salem [located 56 km south of Kuwait City] it’s right next to tire factories and graveyards [Editor’s note: this residential area is located just 2 km from the landfill site in Abdallah port] and the community suffers all the environmental damage caused by pollution. Residents complained about this contamination, but there has been no change on this front.

That is why there are a lot of landfills in Kuwait. We have 18 landfills, which is high considering the size of the country [Editor’s note: 17, 818 km², or just 2.7% the size of France]. And yet the officials are planning to open even more sites, it is not a very responsible decision with the environment.

In January 2021, a concerned citizen contacted environmental authorities in Kuwait about the dilapidated state of the Salmi waste management site and problems with the way tires were being handled there.

We need a long-term strategy, we can’t just rely on landfills as a quick fix

When I started this recycling initiative two years ago, I realized that the Kuwaiti population seemed willing to change their habits and start acting in a more environmentally friendly way. But there are very few government projects aimed at protecting the environment. The government really needs to review its priorities.

They could, for example, build a center that would classify and treat waste according to international standards before recycling parts of it.

We need a long-term strategy, we can’t just rely on landfills as a quick fix. Some government projects are created in line with this philosophy but never materialize. We need to apply these strategies, and quickly.

In March, Kuwait City officials revealed that the capital’s landfills It receives 7,000 tons of waste per day. The city has plans to export 5 million tires before the end of the year, but he assures that “efforts have been made to transport the tires, but the city has limited resources due to the large amount of tires and waste.”


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