Colombo is surrounded by wetlands which not only add some colour to its pale concrete landscape, but serves multiple purposes in terms of protecting its citizens from natural disasters. One of the wetlands in the country and situated 19 kms off North of Colombo is Muthurajawela which is identified as the most important wetland with its contribution to controlling floods. However, over the past few years Muthurajawela has been filled and used to the point that its 6300 hectare expanse of land has now been reduced to 3068 hectares. On top of that, it also turns out that the Government is eyeing its only buffer zone, imposing greater threats to the overall ecosystem on the long-run. In its run-up to install as many power plants as possible, the next bait seems to be Muthurajawela for all the ‘valid’ reasons which from an environmental perspective seem invalid. Hence the Daily Mirror sheds light on the current status of Muthurajawela, the proposed LNG power plant and the importance of protecting this wetland.
Change in landcover between 1992 and 2002. Image courtesy: Researchgate
Environmentalists concerned over 110 acres of protected area being de-gazetted and the proposal to setup a LNG power plant
The Deputy Minister of Environment and Mahaweli Development held two meetings and in both it was suggested that this particular area will be taken for the project ‘in the national interest
Therefore the purpose of the buffer zone was to insulate the protected area up to a certain degree. But in the filledup area everything from heavy industries was allowed while in the buffer zone several low intensity activities were allowed
Now this area is outside the buffer zone, so it doesn’t have any impact. There are groups who are trying to stop us from moving forward with these projects. So far we have had to stop 11 such projects due to various interferences
As one of the most important ecosystems in the country, Muthurajawela boasts of a rich biodiversity spanning across 6300 hectares of land. According to a study done by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Muthurajawela consists of 209 species of animals along with 194 species of trees, 40 species of fish, 31 species of reptiles, 102 species of birds and 48 species of butterflies. In addition to that 18 out of 22 mangrove species could also be found at the Muthurajawela wetland. However the Daily Mirror learns that with adverse developmental projects the entire area has now been reduced to 3068 hectares of land. Out of this area, 1777 hectares of land has been demarcated as a wildlife sanctuary. Environmental enthusiasts opine that measures should be taken to protect it. But despite such attempts, the Ministry of Power and Energy recently took steps to de-gazette a 110 acre area of land for a proposed LNG power plant. This would in turn affect the fisheries and the tourism industries which have sought potential within the area. While the President himself has taken up the responsibility to be the subject minister, it is quite appalling to find out that he himself has given the green light for this project.
The main urban wetland in Sri Lanka
Speaking to the Daily Mirror, Convener of Rainforest Protectors Sri Lanka (RFPSL) Jayantha Wijesinghe said that the Ministry of Power and Energy had declared an extent of 110 acres for this proposed LNG power plant project. “Filling the Muthurajawela protected area is already illegal and it’s not a justification to set up a power plant. Any wetland, whether filled illegally or whether it’s a private land that they have claimed ownership over, cannot have an industrial operation running. Even Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) which are being done don’t have reliable information. LNG is better than coal, but we are pushing the Government to implement several renewable power generation projects which are pending. Muthurajawela is the main urban wetland in Sri Lanka. Recently there were claims that Colombo has been nominated as a Ramsar Focal Point when its wetlands are getting filled up almost every day. It is appalling to find that the so-called experts and academics do not see the bigger picture. We will have to restrict the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agenda. At the Paris Agreement we setup compliance strategies. But setting up an LNG power plant is against the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) discussed at the Paris Agreement. The Ministry of Power and Energy should focus on solar and wind energy.
UTHURAJAWELAHAS NOW BEEN REDUCED TO 3068 HECTARES
Wijesinghe further said that wetlands such as Bellanwila/Attidiya, Kotte/Beddagana, Bolgoda/Karadiyana and Diyawannawa/Thalangama need to be protected. “Applying for RAMSAR doesn’t look at the history of the wetland. I see that the Government is greenwashing the problems at hand by blindly going for such nominations. Urban wetlands are an absolute necessity in terms of flood regulation. They control the ground water table. Muthurajawela is the main place that charges the ground water table. Only 1777 acres are being protected by the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance, but there are no demarcations done as yet. Therefore there’s no monitoring nor regulation being done,” said Wijesinghe.
110 acres of protected area de-gazetted
Airing his views regarding this issue, Director General of the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) Hemantha Jayasinghe said that Cabinet approval was submitted through the Ministry of Power and Energy to release 110 acres of land from Muthurajawela. “This was from the environmentally protected area. The Deputy Minister of Environment and Mahaweli Development held two meetings and in both it was suggested that this particular area will be taken for the project ‘in the national interest.’ The justification came about with the fact that the energy load was identified in and around Colombo and the LNG power plant should be in the vicinity of Colombo. Therefore if taken further away the transmission lines would have to be upgraded and there could be a loss. Hence, Muthurajawela was the best option for them. According to them, in order to fulfill the future energy requirement, the country needed more power plants. Therefore as the CEA we had to consider and then the President himself intervened with his powers and the area was de-gazetted. But we had an issue in moving forward without an EIA. So far they haven’t decided who the contractor would be, but the site selection has been made. We are concerned about the EIA and if it fails we would not allow them to go ahead with the project. But in the long-run we are identifying the areas that need to be protected and will be demarcating a wildlife zone. This will be done in compliance with the FFPO,” said Jayasinghe.
Identification as a LNG park
When contacted Secretary to the Ministry of Power and Energy, Dr. B.M.S Batagoda said that the said area had already been identified as an LNG park. “It has the West Coast Power Plant on one side, the Litro Gas – gas filling terminal on the other and a sand-filling point owned by the SLLRDC. The buffer zone has already been filled and the entire site is used for developmental purposes. Now this area is outside the buffer zone, so it doesn’t have any impact. There are groups who are trying to stop us from moving forward with these projects. So far we have had to stop 11 such projects due to various interferences.” said Batagoda.
MUTHURAJAWELA CONSISTS OF 209 SPECIES OF ANIMALS ALONG WITH 194 SPECIES OF TREES
Airing his concerns, senior environmental lawyer Jagath Gunawardena said that the story starts with the Muthurajawela Master Plan where they decided that a certain area would be reclaimed and developed while another area would be declared as a wildlife sanctuary to help the lagoon to thrive as a fisheries area. “It was also done for the sake of wildlife protection and flood prevention. In between the filled-up area and the sanctuary a buffer zone was declared, so that it would reduce the human impacts on the protected area. Therefore the purpose of the buffer zone was to insulate the protected area up to a certain degree. But in the filled-up area everything from heavy industries was allowed while in the buffer zone several low intensity activities were allowed. At that time the buffer zone could have been declared only under one law which is the National Environment Act under the provision of Section 22c to declare it as an environmental protection area. This was very positive when compared to other laws that conditions could be decided depending on the situation. The conditions are given under Section 24 d which provides for modifications according to the needs and sensitivities of the particular system. Here certain activities were permitted while others were prohibited.” said Gunawardena.
“So many years after the declaration we find that this area is well-preserved because it is somewhat looked after by the CEA,” he continued. “The developed area is filled with factories and other industries. In the context of the present day, in comparison to the period when it was first designated, the necessity of the buffer zone has become an absolute necessity in view of all the development and other activities that have taken place. Here suddenly we find out that one portion of this buffer zone will be declared as outside the buffer zone and they are going to setup an LNG power plant. The LNG plant may or may not have an effect on the surrounding areas. But firstly they need to conduct an EIA and find out whether this area is suitable for this project and what mitigation measures need to be taken. But before they wanted this area to be taken out, the Ministry of Power and Energy should have tentatively earmarked this area and done an EIA report before getting it from the other end. What they are doing now is that they have identified the land, de-gazetted it, gotten the President to lay the foundation stone and then they conduct the EIA. They should have checked for other possible land before arriving here. Then they could have negotiated with the environmental authority and presented a compromised solution. As a compromise they should have done an EIA – an EIA is done to identify the localities where less environmental harm could occur, and if there was no solution they should have selected the land in the national interest,” Gunawardena added.
ENVIRONMENTAL ENTHUSIASTS OPINE THAT MEASURES SHOULD BE TAKEN TO PROTECT IT
He further said that in the present context, the Ministry of Environment, the CEA, the Wildlife Conservation Department and the President himself as the Environment Minister are in a rather embarrassing position because of the short-sightedness of certain bureaucrats and officials.
“This act is creating a bad precedent because most of the time when an area is declared as a buffer zone and protected as the environmental protection area, in most instances the authority has maintained the position that no one can go beyond the permitted uses. But because of this incident, if there are people who are big enough to throw their weight about they can even cut off parts of the protected area totally disregarding the needs of this area to maintain the ecological balance and other situations. The officials haven’t checked the status of the land ; firstly the Master Plan and they haven’t made inquiries from the relevant ministries. If the relevant ministries haven’t provided the relevant information then they too should be held accountable. I’m quite unhappy about the fact that the Ministry of Mahaweli Developement and Environment didn’t come forward stating that this is a protected area because in that case the President would never have given the green light for such projects. On the other hand they should have sought other areas rather than look at their convenience – in other words they are going against a sustainable concept. Hence the above concerns need further probing.” said Gunawardena.
Aerial photo taken in April 2018 - Credit - Dinusha Nanayakkara