The rapid expansion of construction in several economic sectors now impact millions of people in terms of employment and income. Its corresponding relevance to the country’s economy is the contribution to gross domestic product (GDP), directly and indirectly. Consequently, the Chamber of Construction Industry (CCI) Sri Lanka regularly hosts its concerns on the key issues which can sustain growth by avoiding the pitfalls in policy and in its intrinsic shortfalls. These were consolidated in a speech made by CCI President Architect/Planner Dr. Surath Wickramasinghe at the inauguration of Build SL 2017, held at the BMICH, recently.
Solutions to flooding and water shortage: Both are very important and urgent matters and action should be taken immediately to prevent a future crisis. Year in, year out, flooding happens and people’s lives, private property and damage to infrastructure occur. In 2016, according to the National Disaster Relief Services Centre (NDRSC), mentioned that 24 out of the 25 districts countrywide were affected by flooding and landslides. Approximately 493,319 people were affected (124-398 families). Ninety three people died, 33 were injured and 117 were missing. In 2017, in the recent flood, 23,000 houses were damaged, 70,000 acres of land destroyed, 213 dead and 77 are missing.
However, this situation is not considered a priority by the successive governments. In fact, it is pathetic the apathy of the political decision makers. Our chamber recently conducted a seminar with both local and international learned speakers, including the state sector, and the general consensus was that the Kelani River should be dammed and the water should be diverted to reservoirs both upstream and downstream from Kithulgala and Avissawella.
In addition, as the water reaches the Colombo District, a similar concept should be adopted by pumping the water to a reservoir at a higher elevation or to the existing lakes or other suitable select locations. Similarly, solutions must be adapted to Kalu Ganga flooding.
In Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur, they have a massive tunnel, carrying the flood water and links on to several lakes and conserves the water. During the dry months, the tunnel is used as an underground road to ease the traffic. In Japan, huge volumes of water are stored underground. The other countries have similar concepts and Sri Lanka should follow such examples.
However, the irony is while the South of Sri Lanka has flooding and excess water, resulting in at least 75 percent of the water being pumped or directed to the sea, during the same period, in the North there is a severe drought. Therefore, the ideal scenario is to have a mechanism of directing the excess water from the south to the north and vice versa. It can be done, but as in the case of Japan, it is an expensive solution, but in the long term, it is viable as water will be available for both drinking and agricultural purposes. Consequently, the health of the people and prosperity will prevail.
The Water Supply and Drainage Board has predicted that between 2025 and 2030 there will be a water shortage in the Megapolis area, i.e., Gampaha, Colombo and Kalutara Districts. Therefore, in order to meet this challenge, it is vital that the solutions mentioned above are speedily implemented. In this connection, it is also important to note that the population of the Megapolis area is expected to increase from around 5.8 million persons to nine million persons by 2030.
Recent collapse of two buildings
There are two types of developers: the formal sector comprising the traditional developers, such as John Keells Holdings (JKH), Prime Land, Fairmount, Blue Mountain, Havelock City and a few others and the informal sector consisting of ad hoc developers. The traditional developers follow the accepted norms of obtaining approvals, appointing appropriate consultants for different specialities, including for fire and safety and selecting suitable contractors, with experience and knowledge regarding the implications of high-rise construction, etc. and also register with the Construction Industry Development Authority (CIDA). The CCI has no issue with them.
The category of informal developers is the problem. In order to obtain the building permit approval, it is probable that they get the signatures of an architect and an engineer to obtain the clearance from the local authority. However, when the construction proceeds, the owner leads the implementation with a contractor of his choice or by himself as the contractor. There are also developers who do their own buildings without any approval. These are the problems. Megapolis and Western Development Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka claims that there are around 1800 unauthorized structures between Bambalapitiya and Dehiwala.
Some projects obtain the approval for a lesser number of floors but construct several more floors above the limit. They also build on land reservations. The CCI believes the minister is correct. The danger is that some of these structures are nonetheless currently being constructed. There is no regulatory body to check on the ongoing projects (particularly about the informal developers) to ensure that the construction is taking place in accordance with the approved plans, quality of materials used, method of construction and whether it is within the accepted norms and standards. Therefore, before more disasters happen, the relevant state authorities should take appropriate action.
Expressways to Kandy, North and East
Commuters by road between Colombo and Kandy are no doubt experiencing the agony of travelling for at least four hours between these two locations. This has been once again an issue of successive governments for almost half a century. Therefore, in order to ‘fast track’ a solution to implement the expressway, the latest design techniques should be used. What is most popular internationally is elevated expressways as the construction could take place on any terrain, ideally on government land or even in close proximity to the existing railway lines for planning considerations. In different parts of the world, the elevated expressways go through the cities as in Bangkok, Chennai and several other major cities. If the land acquisition is not included, the additional cost of an elevated expressway could be between 25 – 40 percent.
However, this concept is more advantageous and beneficial than bulldozing earth from hillsides, filling sand or using boulders to fill the normal expressway trace, as done in constructing the expressways one and two. These are bad examples and harmful to the people and environment.
The CCI is aware that the delay in commencing the above projects is due to a suitable and feasible trace not being decided. One solution to be considered by the authorities will be an elevated expressway concept, combined with ground level areas as mentioned above. This will expedite the construction and thereby save valuable costs in time and energy.
Meanwhile, the government should find an alternative solution to finance and implement the expressway connections. The CCI is confident that the leading Sri Lankan expressway contractors will be in a position to obtain the necessary finance to undertake more sections of the expressway programme.
Skills shortage and solution
The anticipated expenditure on the construction projects announced by the government and private sector is Rs.6500 billion during 2016 to 2020 and the estimated workforce is one million. The shortfall at present is 400,000. The training institutions are unable to attract youth to fill the gap. Therefore, the government should conduct a massive publicity campaign to attract the young school leavers and others within the working age group to join the construction industry workforce, as it is much more remunerative than any other sector. In the interim, the government has approved recruitment of 2500 workers from Nepal and Myanmar.
The main reason for this shortfall is due to the prevailing unprecedented boom in the construction industry. In addition, the industry has also transformed itself from the traditional forms of construction to innovative areas of specialities using new technology. For example, piling and diaphragm walling, fabricating, welding, earth retaining structures, post tensioning, related to construction and finishing materials, air conditioning, aluminium and UPVC door and window fabrication, solar, communication and security systems, etc. all require separate specialized teams of labour. Consequently, the numbers have increased.
Therefore, as the continuity of employment can be assured for at least the next 20 – 30 years, in the interim to bridge the skills gap it will be necessary to import labour to meet the demands for the next five to 10 years. The government should therefore, have a short/medium-term strategy and authorize the developer/contractor to import their necessary labour requirements.
Sand supply critical for construction industry
Due to the ban of river sand harvesting, the cost of sand has increased from Rs.15,000 per cube to Rs.18,000 per cube and will be more in the future. This will affect particularly the domestic house builders. The CCI is in a position to immediately commence sea sand sourcing, washing and sieving the sand and ready for marketing.
The CCI will partner with the leading contractors with a view to making the use of sea sand safe and available in large quantities to meet the current demand at a reduced cost. Unfortunately, due to the monopoly by the state agencies, no tangible solutions are forthcoming.
The Sri Lanka Land Reclamation and Development Corporation (SLLRDC), which commenced supply of sea sand a few years back, is still not mechanically washing and sieving the sea sand. As a result, many consultants and contractors are hesitant recommend this sand due to uncertainty of the quality.
The CCI is therefore requesting the government’s intervention to allocate a 50-100-acre site from Muthurajawela, as given to the SLLRDC, or alternatively a suitable land for sand harvesting between Colombo and Puttlam.
FTA with China, Singapore, India
Regarding the free trade agreements (FTA) with China, Singapore and India, the CCI is pleased with these agreements, as the benefit to the CCI and to Sri Lanka would be enormous. According to FTAs Negotiation Team Head Dr. Saman Kalegama, there will be no agreement signed with either of the countries until the regulations are in place to protect the interests of all chambers and the construction industry in particular.
The CCI welcomes the finalization of the anti-dumping law, which the industrialists have agitated for a long period. However, the CCI is concerned about the delay in gazetting the rules and regulations necessary to implement the provisions in the Construction Industry Development Act No. 33 of 2014 and also important amendments needed to regulate the construction industry. It will be a disaster to liberalize the construction sector without the rules and regulations.
The government and public at large will need to recognise the key issues highlighted in this article. Their futures may depend on a sustainable construction sector.