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Dismay as highway set to run over RAMSAR Wetland!

16 December 2020 01:45 am - 8     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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Aerial view of Averihena Lake and adjacent paddy fields over which the proposed highway will be constructed
Pix by Waruna Wanniarachchi 
 

  • Thalangama wetland is home to many Flora and Fauna 
  • The highway will be constructed over paddy fields passed down generations 
  • Farmers caution threat of flooding and irreversible damage to the ecosystem
  • Highway to run across EPA and is also listed under the RAMSAR Convention
  • RDA states area residents will be consulted during EIA
  • Three options including de-gazetting part of EPA proposed by CEA 
 
 
Home to a plexus of sensitive ecosystems and a birds’ paradise, Thalangama comprises the few remaining green patches in Colombo’s wetlands. With the historic Thalangama Lake on one end, the Averihena Lake on the other, marshlands and an endless stretch of paddy fields, the area is one of the most undisturbed spots in the busy capital. But the greeneries may not last for long. A proposed elevated highway project, that has been in the pipeline since 2015, will soon commence operations with the main objective of easing traffic congestion, much to the dismay of the area folk. Being a biodiversity hotspot and a highly residential area, the area that falls under the gazetted ‘Thalangama Environmental Protection Area’ (EPA) has so far been protected as per the National Environmental Act. Although there were several options to the proposed project, which connects the Kelani Bridge to Athurugiriya, the authorities haven’t given the nod for alternatives. Therefore, the authorities are likely to go ahead with the existing proposal where the highway will run across the EPA which also borders a residential area.
While area residents believe that development is necessary, they also believe that relevant authorities should go ahead with development with minimum disturbance to the environment as well as their wellbeing. 
 
 
Thalangama Environmental Protection Area 
 
In March 2007 the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) declared the Thalangama Environmental Protection Area including Averihena Lake under the National Environment Act (NEA) No. 47 of 1980 by Gazette Notification No. 1487/10. This was done since wetlands are an important aspect in an ecosystem. 
These wetlands contribute to biodiversity and species conservation, waste purification and is an important area for agriculture, fishing and recreational activities such as walking, cycling, bird watching, star gazing for research. The area around Averihena Lake is popular for aforementioned activities.
 
According to the Act, the protected area spans approximately 118 hectares and permitted uses include cultivation of paddy, fishing, nature trails and construction of towers for the observation of birds, an environmental education information Centre and a sales outlet and the construction of a security post. However permitted uses also come with a set of conditions as means of limiting the damage to the environment. For example, traditional fishing is allowed within the EPA, but fishing with motors isn’t allowed. It further states that prior approval should be obtained from CEA for any development of infrastructure facilities. 
 
Thereafter in 2018 Colombo was declared as South Asia’s sole wetland city under the RAMSAR Convention considering the eight wetlands within the Colombo Megapolis area. As such Colombo’s wetlands including Diyawanna, Diyasaru, Beddagana, Kolonnawa, Heen Ela, Thalawathugoda, Madinnagoda, Mulleriyawa and Thalangama areas are highlighted as urban biodiversity hotspots that help in flood control as well as in the filtering of waste. This further strengthened protection given to the Thalangama wetland network. 
 
 
 
 
Farmers, residents ‘feel the heat’
 
But area residents aren’t pleased with the proposed elevated highway project which will disrupt the serene environs in the area. It will not only affect farmers, but residents as well. R. M Suwandarathna is one of the senior farmers who feels that this project would do more harm than good. He owns paddy fields that have been passed down generations and grows traditional heirloom rice including Suwandal, Kahawanu, Masuran, Kurulu Thuda, Yakadamaran, Pachcha Perumal, Ma Wee, Thith Wee etc., which are recommended for curing various non-communicable diseases. 
 
"This is the remaining stretch of paddy along with the lake in the historic capital of Colombo. Once it was gazetted in 2007 nobody can even put up concrete posts on ‘ovita’ areas. So how can they put up concrete pillars and construct an elevated highway? 
- Senior Farmer Suwandarathna"
 
“This is a stretch of paddy that has existed since the time of King Parakramabahu VI. The Thalangama Lake is believed to be built by him and spans across 250 acres. However, the area has reduced because a part of it was separated for the Parliament Complex. We work both seasons and grow heirloom rice. Paddy that is reaped first is sent to various temples and religious places apart from conducting the Aluth Sahal Mangalyaya at Sri Maha Bodhi premises. Therefore filling this area for a mega development project is not appropriate according to my understanding.” said Suwandarathna. 
 
Around 200 families still thrive on farming as their main source of income. “This is the remaining stretch of paddy along with the lake in the historic capital of Colombo. Once it was gazetted in 2007 nobody can even put up concrete posts on ‘ovita’ areas. So how can they put up concrete pillars and construct an elevated highway?” Suwandarathna questioned.
 
When the Parliament flooded in 1987, the Hokandara Kuda Wewa also known as Averihena Lake was constructed. That water flows towards Kelani River. “But if this project happens the Lake will get blocked and there will be heavy flooding.  So far nobody can do any illegal land filling or other constructions within the EPA,” he added.
Suwandarathna further said that native herbs could also be found in the area and that they could be tried and tested for various ointments. Suwandarathna and area residents feel that constructing a highway will also pave the way for noise pollution and emissions which would have a detrimental effect on people’s health, thereby violating their fundamental rights. Given low Colombo’s Air Quality Index, residents believe that so far, they breathe clean air thanks to the surrounding greeneries, which would be cleared if the project is implemented. 
 
Several alternatives proposed 
 
While recalling the address made by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on World Wetland Day, which highlighted the importance of conserving biodiversity in the process of development, the residents therefore proposed some less costly measures to mitigate traffic issues. These include : 
  • Enhancement of Park and Ride multimodal transport centres for those entering Colombo city
  • Improvements to public and rail transport systems (eg : metro rail)
  • Imposition of heavy tariffs for private vehicular traffic entering Colombo 
  • Developing Colombo as well as the upcoming Port City into a Green City
  • Converting Colombo’s wetlands into a ‘Gardens by a Bay’ concept, thereby attracting tourists 
Alternative option to the highway is to avoid the wetland area which will be more costly, but that would be comparatively less when looking at the irreparable damage on surrounding ecosystems
 
Information transparency questioned
 
Adding his thoughts about the proposed elevated highway, Dr. Pay Drechsel, an environmental scientist who is also an area resident, said that it has been planned for some time. “There have been alternatives proposed, but we don’t know if they are still possible. We need development and there are good reasons for highways. But this is a protected environmental area, a Ramsar site and is a great biodiversity hotspot, of which we do not have many which urban dwellers can easily reach.” said Dr.Drechsel.
 
"We need development and there are good reasons for highways. But this is a protected environmental area, a Ramsar site and is a great biodiversity hotspot, of which we do not have many which urban dwellers can easily reach.  
-Environmental scientist Dr.Drechsel"
 
“Currently, every Sunday morning there are around 50 birders here, especially as this is now the migration season. They counted over 90 bird species some time back. There are monkeys here that are endangered and unique to Sri Lanka. Here lives the endangered fishing cats, huge water monitors, and other fantastic species. The elevated highway shouldn’t have been planned to pass this area because it is protected by law and now also under the international Ramsar Convention. But if there is really no alternative than to go across the paddies and Averihena lake, then all stakeholders have to be kept informed. We see the survey department speaking to farmers, but nobody knows what has now been approved. And such a project would not only affect farmers, but all local residents, and nature as we know it. We have to expect heavy trucks using the narrow road that goes by the Thalangama Lake which was not constructed for the movement of heavy vehicles. There will be much construction waste, waste by the workers, water pollution, day and night traffic, emissions and significant noise pollution. The property value will drop: Who wants to live with a view on a highway or be affected by the related noise? So if they want to do a construction of this magnitude there should be information transparency that the community members can express their concerns and do not depend on hearsay,” he said. 
The Daily Mirror also spotted white flags across the paddy fields that local folk say are already markings for the new highway. 
 
People fishing at Averihena Lake
 
Option yet to be finalised
 
“The 10.4km highway will commence from the HSBC Head Office at Rajagiriya and extend towards Sethsiripaya, Udumulla, Koswatta towards Athurugiriya interchange,” opined D. M Dayaratne, Director General, Road Development Authority (RDA). 
 
"But at least a part of the EPA will be included in the project. But until we obtain the recommendations from CEA we can’t finalize it from our end. We are trying to carry out the project with minimum damage to the environment  
-Director General RDA D. M Dayaratne"
 
He said that the project is still in its planning stage and the feasibility study is underway. “We haven’t finalised which option we would take. One option is to pass through the EPA and the other is via a residential area. Sometimes it may be a combination of both. But at least a part of the EPA will be included in the project. But until we obtain the recommendations from CEA we can’t finalize it from our end. We are trying to carry out the project with minimum damage to the environment,” he added.
 
When asked about the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) he said that it will be done accordingly and prior to commencing the project all stakeholders including area residents would be consulted. 
Speculation was rife whether the contract for the highway would be handed over to a Chinese company, but Dayaratne said that they haven’t come to a discussion about the contractors. He also said that the project will commence next year. 
 
Threat of being de-listed 
 
“The problem about the existing proposal is its environmental impact,” said CEA Chairman Siripala Amarasinghe. Therefore the CEA has requested the Highways Ministry and Environment Ministry to put in a joint cabinet paper with the following options ;
 
  • Removing the protected area status of the area over which the existing proposal is planned by way of an extraordinary gazette
  • Constructing concrete pillars with minimum damage to the environment 
  • Looking for an alternative option 
 
He said that the Cabinet will thereafter decide on the best option. “Besides, there are certain permitted uses mentioned in the NEA and it doesn’t include the construction of an elevated highway. Therefore it is a must to amend the Act prior to commencing the project. The feasibility study is in its final stages and thereafter they will commence the EIA,” said Amarasinghe.
 
"Besides, there are certain permitted uses mentioned in the NEA and it doesn’t include the construction of an elevated highway. Therefore it is a must to amend the Act prior to commencing the project. The feasibility study is in its final stages and thereafter they will commence the EIA  
-CEA Chairman Amarasinghe"
 
He also said they will have to seek permission from Ramsar Secretariat since it is a Ramsar site and the construction may sometimes lead to de-listing the ecosystem as a Ramsar Wetland. “We are ready to provide the technical expertise and direct the authorities on how these development projects should take place, but we will not give approval to any project that will be done illegally,” he added.
 
White flags placed on paddy fields, possibly indicating markings for the highway project
 
 
Specific guidelines to be laid out 
 
Minister of Environment and Mahaweli Development, Mahinda Amaraweera said that specific guidelines will be laid out since the highway will pass through an environmentally sensitive area. He also assured that a plan will be in place to limit emissions once the highway is in use.
 
 
 
 
 
 
Project still in preliminary stage 
 
Commenting on the project, Ministry of Roads and Highways Secretary R. W. R Pemasiri said that according to the existing proposal the highway will pass over the Thalangama EPA. “But we will conduct an EIA and follow due process prior to implementing the project.”
When asked if the contract has been handed over to a Chinese company he said that its too early to comment on it while adding that although the feasibility study is complete, the project is in its preliminary stage. 
 

  Comments - 8

  • Umar Perera Wednesday, 16 December 2020 05:49 AM

    Whose pockets will be filled with this project - that's the real reason for giing ahead with this illegal project. Ultimately, flora and fauna specimens in a museum will be all we have left of what was once true Sri Lanka

    Shehani Ratnaweera Wednesday, 16 December 2020 01:02 PM

    This is preposterous! Whatever happened to President Gotabhaya's 'Saubhagya Dakma' concerning the preservation of the country's limited and sacred resources of the government? These wetlands are home to many species; the biodiversity must be conserved. There are going to be grave environmental consequences including flooding because of this.

    K.L Pathirana Wednesday, 16 December 2020 02:37 PM

    These are not development projects, they're destructive projects. These highways will not ease out traffic congestion anywhere, in fact many traffic congestion is due to city traffic (frequent stops) with bad driving habits. This government has no knowledge of how a country should be developed, they're knowledge is limited to embezzling public funds and criminal activities in the name of development.

    ChanakaJ Thursday, 17 December 2020 04:22 AM

    There is always an alternative..... We just have to find it.

    Lumbini Thursday, 17 December 2020 06:40 AM

    The sad reality of shameful politics.

    R.A. Dharmarathne Thursday, 17 December 2020 09:13 AM

    The solution to the traffic problem is not this highway. We need to enforce charges on private vehicles entering city limits to minimize traffic congestion. This way more people will use public transport or carpool. So, the government should take measures to improve public transport. Companies who can get their work done without having their employees at office everyday should allow them to work from home. The pandemic has taught us that this is absolutely possible. De-gazzetting and de-listing the wetland from the Ramsar convention are convenient moves for those adamant to get this highway project rolling. We all know why this is so important to a handful of people. Please don't do this. We need to find environmentally sustainable solutions. If we destroy the environment, nature will find a way to wipe us out too.

    Rosa Parakrama Thursday, 17 December 2020 09:42 AM

    "Minister of Environment and Mahaweli Development, Mahinda Amaraweera said that specific guidelines will be laid out since the highway will pass through an environmentally sensitive area." Sir, it will no longer be an environmentally sensitive area when a highway runs through it. It's a declared conservation. Next, people will start hearing about highways running through Yala and Wilpattu despite their National Park status because specific guidelines will be laid out!

    Prasad Attygalle Friday, 18 December 2020 03:44 PM

    This area had several projects funded by donors to conserve the pristine environment. The WB Colombo Metro project and the UNDP-GEF Projects are two in the recent past. So much invested and how simple to say de-gazetting is an option. If development is to be sustainable it has to address social and environmental safeguards.


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