By Inoke Rabonu

A five-to-seven-minute drive outside of Lautoka’s central business district, one would find the Vunato Rubbish Dump – a grim testament to the challenges of waste management in Fiji.

What was once a small landfill in the midst of the country’s second city has now ballooned into a ‘50-acre’ of extensive expanse of trash.

The journey to Vunato Dump is a distressing one, marked by an overpowering odour that assaults the senses long before the site comes into view.

As one approaches, the magnitude of the problem becomes painfully apparent: mountains of refuse stretch as far as the eye can see.

But beyond the nauseating stench and unsightly heaps lies a deeper, more insidious threat.

The toxic reach of the dump situated by the ocean, extends far beyond its physical boundaries, seeping into the soil and waterways, contaminating the very lifeblood of the surrounding ecosystem.

Part of the dumpsite sits on the mangrove swamp of the harbour.

Once a year the dumpsite catches fire, that is the trend according to local residents.

When this happens, the toxic smoke covers Lautoka city, transmitting into residential areas, schools and even the main Lautoka hospital.

For the residents of the Vunato settlement, an informal settlement where close to 500 residents reside, the stench of the Vunato Dump is a norm.

Children play in its shadow, unaware of the dangers lurking beneath their feet, while families struggle to live in its polluted vicinity.

For the business communities and nearby households, the dump is a daily reminder of the hazardous balance between progress and environmental stewardship.

For the Lautoka Ratepayers Association, the dump needs to be relocated.


Lautoka Ratepayers Association president Narayan Reddy highlighted the critical need to relocate the dump out of Lautoka’s CBD.

Reddy said despite cries seemingly falling into deaf ears for over a decade, their campaign to relocate the dump was far from over.

He said efforts to address the crisis had always been hampered by governmental inactivity and a lack of resources, leaving residents feeling abandoned and powerless in the face of an ever-growing problem.

“Calls for government intervention have fallen on deaf ears in the past, as officials prioritise short-term solutions over the long-term health and well-being of their constituents,” Reddy said.

“It will not be easy but we need to start somewhere,” he said.

“The dump needs to be taken away from Lautoka’s CBD.”

He said the Vunato dump was established in the 1960’s Lautoka’s population was very little compared to what it is today.

“The population has increased dramatically.

“The rubbish that comes in are from the whole of Lautoka, all of Nadi and the outer islands in the western division.

“If you see the vunato dump, it is very close to the sea. Part of the dump itself is in the mangrove area. The waste water in the dump is seeping into the sea.

“It is not only affecting the marine life but also the communities that depend on the sea around that area for food and sustenance.”

He added that from the dump area itself, there was no doubt rubbish and toxic liquid were already seeping into the sea.

“People are failing to understand the impacts of that on the water source itself.

“Every year, it has been a trend that between November and January the dump will catch fire. When it burns, the whole of Lautoka CBD is filled with smoke.

“You can imagine a dumpster is burnt and the smoke and stench is all over the city, homes, it really is always bad when the dump catches fire.

“It is not only the fire and toxic smoke that affects the people, it is the smell too that comes out of the dump during rainy weathers. It is really bad.”

He said the business community situated near the dump were the ones badly affected.

“For certain areas near Vunato, the smell is unbearable.

“Our port of entry is very close to the Vunato Dump too, where there is a fire and a tourist ship calls in, there is a very big problem. The last time last year the media covered the smoke all over the town and how bad it was.

“For some reason, once a fire starts it will go on for weeks and months and it cannot be put out.”

Visitors to the Vunato Rubbish Dump also make their contribution by separating rubbish. Photo: Fiji Sun


Asenate Lewabeka, a resident of the Vunato informal settlement said the biggest challenge they would face on a time to time basis was the foul smell from the dump during changing weather patterns.
Lewabeka, 67, lives in a small corrugated iron home with her children and grandchildren which is a five-minute walk to the dumpsite.

“At times it would really get bad, we have been staying here for nearly three decades and sometimes the stench would be normal to us,” Lewabeka said.

“Sometimes people come here and complain of the smell but we really don’t see any difference, maybe because we have been living here for decades,” she said.

“Sometimes because of the amount of time the waste has been sitting in places before it is delivered here we really can smell it from home when it is being thrown here.”

She said the situation would really go from bad to worse during the changing weather patterns as the rubbish dried up and the smell would be really bad.

“We heard that they are trying to relocate the dump and I think that is a really good idea that will benefit everyone in Lautoka.

“When the dump burns we really suffer here, the children get sick and we try and move out of our homes because the some gets into it.

“So we are happy that there are talks to relocate this dump.”

When the Fiji Sun visited the scene, residents of the area were seen searching through the dump for recyclable materials to be sold.

Not all were in safety protective gears and some did not don face masks.

Another resident who did not wish to be named said residents of the informal settlement would be the first in the dump to pick up whatever they found were dumped by confectionary companies as waste.

“Some residents would again go and make money out of the things they found could be sold to be consumed,” the resident said.

“Companies would bring out second hand clothing to be dumped and next thing we know we have people selling clothes in the area.

“It is really worrying at times.”

An aerial view of Lautoka City shows smoke hovering over it last year. Photo: Fiji Sun


Lautoka City Council CEO Mohammed Khan said maintaining the dump because of its landscape was a challenge.

He added that the fire that has become a reoccurrence was always a concern from the council.

He said fire would normally break out during dry months of the year and would be a result of alleged arson mostly.

“The dump is situated near to the Mangroves, there is currently no barricades to control the public from entering so the council has placed securities around the area,” Khan said.

“However the area is located in the total of 50 acres and the council has installed CCTV Cameras around the Dump and this will assist us in further strengthening the monitoring,” he said.

“Council is equally concerned of the Public health and has always done its very best to control any fires at the earliest and we would normally request assistance from other stakeholders in combating this upheaval together.

“We would advise the residents in an event of a fire to take necessary precautions, especially those that are sick and have respiratory issues to keep their homes well ventilated. Change in wind direction may push the smoke towards residential areas.”

He said it was rather unfortunate that inconsiderate behaviour of some individuals were causing discomfort and health hazard to the residents.

“It also causes undue frustration to the Council and its workers, who have to leave their usual jobs to fight the fire and clear the smoke, working overnight and in weekends as well.

“Council incurs unprecedented costs in extinguishing the fire with limited human resources, plants and machineries.
“Whilst some takes weeks to fully doze off, if arson continues the time taken is 4-5 weeks to control.”

He said the cost of trying to put out a fire which includes plants, machinery, human resources, fuel, and water pumps was around $10,000 to $12, 000(US$5,000 – US$6,000) a week in cost.

“The water pumps and the hoses are damaged easily due to its long hour usage and durability. Council sustains fire through its operational budget.


Responding to queries to this newspaper, the Ministry of Health stated that it has to be noted that the Vunato dump was not a fully engineered designed land fill to meet the required standard.

Recommendations by the ministry to improve this service are;

1.Lautoka City Council to work in partnership with Government and other agencies to find a suitable landfill site similar to what was done in shifting Lami rubbish dump to Nabaro Landfill. The current site to be closed down and relocate to another suitable site

2.Engage relevant stakeholders to identify new sites and carry out relevant Health, Social and Environment Impact assessment and recommendation.

3.Engage consultant to prepare appropriate landfill design ad following best practices (eg. Fukuoka Landfill method, Japan)

4.Prepare and operate a properly designed landfill

5.Strengthening the Councils 3R (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) programme

6.Continuous Environmental monitoring to gauge the success of the new landfill operation.

As the battle for environmental justice rages on, the fate of the Vunato Dump hangs in the balance. Would it continue to be a blight on the landscape, a symbol of society’s disregard for the planet? Or would it be transformed into a beacon of resilience and redemption, a testament to the power of community action in the fight against environmental degradation?

The answer lies not just in the hands of policymakers and politicians, but in the hearts and minds of every individual who refuses to turn a blind eye to the looming crisis at their doorstep.

This feature is part one of a three-part series highlighting the health and environment threat posed by the Vunato Rubbish Dump. Next week we talk to the Ministry of Health for an in-depth on health risks, Department of Environment and the National Fire Authority. This feature is supported by Earth Journalism Network through the Pacific Islands News Association (PINA).