There can be few more beautiful sights than watching the sun rise at Batticaloa or Trincomalee in the east, or the scenes at sunset on the western coasts of our island nation. Unfortunately, beauty as the saying goes is only skin deep and these beautiful scenes cover a more deadly reality. Sri Lanka is one of the world’s top polluters of the ocean.
Ocean pollution, also known as marine pollution, is the spreading of harmful substances such as oil, plastic, industrial and agricultural waste and chemical particles into the ocean. Since oceans are home to wide varieties of marine animals and plants, it is the responsibility of every citizen to play his or her part in making these oceans clean so that marine species can thrive. The ‘International Business Times’ in 2010, ranked Sri Lanka as the 5th largest plastic polluter of to the ocean with 1.59 million metric tons of plastic/polythene dumped into the sea every year.
The other countries are Vietnam -1.83 metric tons, Philippines -1.88 metric tons, Indonesia -3.22 metric tons a year and China - 8.82 metric tons a year. The big difference between us and the other top polluters is that they have populations of more than 80 million people –China 1.357 billion, Vietnam 89.71 million, Indonesia 249.9 million and the Philippines 98.39 million. Roughly 8 million tons of plastic is dumped into the world’s oceans every year. So how does little Sri Lanka, with only 20 million population, have such an effect on a global scale?
According to reports, the average Sri Lankan generates 5.1 kg of waste per day and mismanages 0.29 kg of plastic waste per day! Being an island, we are surrounded by the sea. We lack waste disposal knowledge. Not surprisingly this leads to polluting our environment which in turn ends up in the sea. Waste Disposal Management is almost unknown nor taught island-wide. Slum settlements are found around canals, waterways and the sea. Here land is limited and waste is discarded the easiest way – the closest body of water.
Sri Lanka coastal waters are home to 180 species of fish, five species of marine turtles which nest on beaches along the coast, 30 species of marine mammals including endangered species like the dugono as well as sea snakes and other marine invertebrates. The denuding of forests in the upstream catchment areas causes erosion and unusually large amounts of soil to enter the rivers and eventually exit through the river mouths into the sea. Corals being living organisms, are suffocated by the sediment that settles on them and die. Coral destruction causes the loss of habitat for fish and also sources of food.
Yet most of us are unaware of the extent to which we are polluting the seas and waterways around us and damaging the eco-system on which we depend. Fisheries contribute to around 2.7% to the GDP of the country and provide 70% of the animal protein we consume. Yet the pollutants we release into the sea destroy these basics which we take for granted. While plastic is the biggest contaminant, sewage released into the sea’s surrounding our isle adds to the pollution. Colombo’s sewage system is probably over a hundred-years-old and the capacity for which it was installed is presently inadequate to counter water pollution.
To counter the pollution caused by polythene/plastic, a supermarket chains introduced environmentally responsible activities to curb the use of polythene, which is also responsible for clogging drains, rivers and waterways which have become breeding grounds for mosquitoes and are responsible for frequent flooding. The chain began offering discounts for the use of reusable bags which they provide at a small cost. Unfortunately little awareness was created among the public as to why this supermarket was implementing the measure. Sometimes even staff at the outlets are unaware of the reasons behind the offer.
Just a day ago, a customer at the market informed the sales person that she had in fact purchased two such reusable bags but had left them in her vehicle which was parked some distance away and asked that the discount be credited to the bill. The purchases were packed in polythene bags as the reusable bag was unavailable. The sales person, unaware of the motive behind the offer, said the discount was given only if the bags were shown. After a while the reusable bags surfaced and the discount given… the purpose was lost. Whilst the effort of the supermarket owners is creditable, greater awareness needs to be raised among staff and customers or it will serve no purpose.
Recycling practices, using biodegradable materials and other sustainable initiatives all have to be nurtured from early stages to result in a more eco-friendly future. And everyone needs to be involved in the battle to protect the environment. In the end, this world is the only home we