Biodiversity hotspot threatened! Ruthless development too hot for sensitive Muthurajawela

Kamanthi Wickramsinghe – dailymirror.lk

As such, the Muthurajawela Wetland is exposed to the risk of rapid urbanization which would pose short-term and long-term impacts on Colombo and the suburbs
Residents fear that this environmentally sensitive area would be given away for developmental projects
The environmentally sensitive area in Muthurajawela, which has been protected as a sanctuary, has become a haven for illegal activities
The purpose of the new gazette is to conserve environmentally sensitive areas in Muthurajawela and develop it as a Ramsar Wetland

Spanning over 3068 hectares, the Muthurajawela Wetland is considered a biodiversity hotspot. Even though the area has been gazetted as a sanctuary, its legal protection hasn’t been an obstacle to those with political affiliations who carry out illegal activities within the area. As such, the Muthurajawela Wetland is exposed to the risk of rapid urbanization which would pose short-term and long-term impacts on Colombo and the suburbs. The area which currently comes under the purview of the Central Environmental Authority and the Ministries of Environment and Wildlife Conservation was recently gazetted under the Urban Development Authority, as a means of conservation. But this move has raised doubts among environmentalists and area residents fear that this environmentally sensitive area would be given away for developmental projects. Following the gazette notification Colombo Archbishop Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith filed a writ petition at the Supreme Court requesting the President to revoke the gazette and allow relevant subject ministries and authorities to conserve the area. Even in this backdrop, concerns have been raised as to whether Muthurajawela could still be rescued from the grip of those carrying out illegal activities.

Waste dumping sites in Muthurajawela

“The Muthurajawela Sanctuary, which was previously a barren land, lies at a lower elevation when compared to the surrounding areas. Therefore it has the ability to collect water and retain it. This is why it is important to control floods that occur in Colombo – Dinusha Nanayakkara, an area resident”

Gazettes favouring cronies and goons?

Even though the environmentally sensitive area in Muthurajawela has been protected as a sanctuary it has become a haven for illegal activities. From illegal moonshine distilleries to rapidly growing factories, commercial projects and illegal settlements, the entire area is now under threat. On one end several provincial councils in the adjoining areas use it as a landfill site and various businessmen have earmarked certain areas by growing commercial crops such as coconut in order to claim these areas as their own. The area surrounding the sanctuary has been subject to rapid urbanization.

“The Muthurajawela Wetland is where the Kelani River, Dandugam Oya and Ja-Ela meet, converting the area into a flood plain before reaching the lagoon,” opined Dinusha Nanayakkara, an area resident who has been fighting to protect the Wetland. “The old Dutch canal runs on one side of the new Kelani highway and the Hamilton canal has several anicuts that allow the water to enter the sea. The Muthurajawela Sanctuary, which was previously a barren land, lies at a lower elevation when compared to the surrounding areas. Therefore it has the ability to collect water and retain it. This is why it is important to control floods that occur in Colombo as it plays the role of a sponge.
“As per the economic valuation the cost of flood attenuation has been estimated at Rs. 1.9 billion. The sanctuary has been demarcated omitting the villages that surround it. But the new gazette includes these areas as well. Therefore the residents will have to be evacuated. This is not how conservation works. People need to benefit as well. Muthurajawela includes private and state lands and if someone has money and contacts, perhaps in the underworld, these goons will get your work done; be it a land filling or sand mining etc. This is how various private projects have mushroomed within the area. Since 2015 there have been commercial projects springing up in the area, but who gave them the approval remains a question. All these projects are taking place sans Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) and that is a fundamental step in filling an environmentally sensitive area.” said Nanayakkara.

He further explained how these private entities are slowly encroaching into the sanctuary. It is in this backdrop that the Urban Development Authority (UDA) issued a recent gazette, allegedly favouring these private entities to function with state’s blessings. Politicians set up illegal colonies as means of acquiring lands. Thereafter they put roadways in order to make way for these settlements. In another instance when the Meethotamulla waste dump collapsed the then government had no option but to dump waste at Muthurajawela with the help of a businessman; this activity has continued since April 17, 2017. “When area residents protested the STF and Police were deployed to control the crowd,” Nanayakkara recalled. “By April 20 during the same year, the then government managed to issue a gazette declaring all services related to waste disposal as essential services while denying citizens of challenging local authorities that were handling solid waste management in an inappropriate manner. Once they dump waste they would refill the area with soil and the process continues. Unfortunately the waste from the landfill sites reach the lagoon, affecting around 5000 families that depend on the fisheries industry.” said Nanayakkara.

The Muthurajawela sanctuary also comprises permitted lands, given away during Sirimavo’s Bandaranaike’s regime. “What businessmen do is acquire a private land, a government land and a permitted land as well,” Nanayakkara added. “Thanks to bribes they put up a fence on both sides and keep on encroaching as they wish. With regard to the new gazette the UDA has demarcated the new boundary omitting one such commercial project which falls within the sanctuary. This way, successive governments have assisted political affiliates and those with power and money to continue with their illegal activities,” said Nanayakkara.

“There’s a request to take these areas out. As per the directions given by President Rajapaksa we will amend the gazette accordingly. We will not be evacuating any people – UDA Director General Prasad Ranaweera”

Plan for ‘development’

The purpose of the new gazette is to conserve environmentally sensitive areas in Muthurajawela and develop it as a Ramsar Wetland thereby preventing unauthorised fillings and encroachments. The UDA has therefore requested for approval to fulfill the following objectives :

Develop a Muthurajawela Wetland Conservation Master Plan
Enforce laws to protect the Wetland zone by appointing a team of Army Personnel and by setting up an office premises within the sanctuary
Establish a committee comprising the Ministers for Urban Development, Environment and Housing Development
Establish another committee with representatives from UDA, Wildlife Department, Environment Ministry, Survey Department, relevant District secretaries and Biodiversity Secretariat
Vest authority on UDA to implement
recommendations by the above committee
Develop lowlands with proper irrigation and drainage systems
Declare the ESA as a national reserve under the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance and develop it as a Ramsar Wetland

Responding to a query on the impacts of this gazette on the people in the surrounding areas UDA Director General Prasad Ranaweera said that settlement in Nilsirigama, Pubudugama and Ambalammulla falls within the new boundary. “This includes the Negombo lagoon as well. There’s a request to take these areas out. As per the directions given by President Rajapaksa we will amend the gazette accordingly. We will not be evacuating any people.” said Ranaweera.

He further said that no illegal projects are allowed within the sanctuary. Responding to a claim regarding giving the go-ahead for a commercial project within the sanctuary, Ranaweera said, “No such permission has been given to commercial projects and that hereafter, any project needs to be approved by the aforementioned committees. Project proposals for theme parks and helipads have been rejected at present, but people engaged in fisheries and farming can continue with their activities”.

“They say it’s for conservation purposes, but if they give away lands for commercial purposes then there is an issue. On the other hand two or three people aren’t sufficient to protect protected areas. The Central Environment Authority (CEA), Wildlife and Environment ministries need more people and technology to patrol these areas – Senior Environmental lawyer Dr. Jagath Gunawardena”

Upgrading to a National Park

Hence, residents and environmentalists in the area have proposed to the authorities to upgrade the Muthurajawela sanctuary to a National Park. “This way the ability to retain flood water and its other uses could be preserved. On the other hand it will create more job opportunities for people in the surrounds. This area is protected under the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance. So how can the UDA look into conservation and developing it into a Ramsar Wetland,” Nanayakkara
further questioned.

When contacted, Senior Environmental lawyer Dr. Jagath Gunawardena said that any private land within the sanctuary could be acquired under the Land Acquisition Act. “Thereafter the previous order could be revoked and the area could be converted into a National Park,” said
Dr. Gunawardena.

Responding to a query on how the UDA could develop the area into a Ramsar Wetland Dr. Gunawardena said that since the UDA doesn’t have a history on conservation there remains certain doubts. “They say it’s for conservation purposes, but if they give away lands for commercial purposes then there is an issue. On the other hand two or three people aren’t sufficient to protect protected areas. The Central Environment Authority (CEA), Wildlife and Environment ministries need more people and technology to patrol these areas and ensure that they are protected,” said Dr. Gunawardena.

“The word ‘develop’ is the problem here,” opined Hemantha Withanage, Executive Director at Centre for Environmental Justice. “The UDA can do anything. Apart from that certain GPS points go all the way up to the tip of the Negombo lagoon. Some areas with settlements and churches have also come under the new boundary. This way they will have to evacuate these people,” said Withanage.

However Withanage said that from a legal perspective the UDA has the capacity to protect the area unless the Department of Wildlife and Conservation (DWC) purchase the land and declare it as a National Park. “But this cannot be done as a single project. The best way to protect this area is for the people and the UDA to reach an agreement to ensure that nothing illegal takes place in this area.” said Withanage.

“Therefore, wetlands are important for the survival of these species. Wetlands are also highly dynamic systems that can undergo rapid change and therefore maintaining the ecological balance in wetlands is important to maintain them in an optimal state – Devaka Weerakoon, Professor in Zoology, Department of Zoology, University of Colombo”

Why the Muthurajawela Wetland needs to be preserved

“Any area that is permanently or temporarily covered with water can be defined as a wetland,” explained Devaka Weerakoon, Professor in Zoology, Department of Zoology, University of Colombo. “Therefore, wetlands include a wide range of ecosystems varying from flowing systems (streams and rivers) to standing systems (lakes, marshes. Ponds etc.,). They can be natural or manmade (Paddy lands, manmade reservoirs etc.,) ecosystems. Wetlands can also be classified based on the salinity of the water into freshwater (0-5 parts per thousand), brackish water (5-30 ppt), Salt water (30-50 ppt) and brine water (50+ ppt). Wetlands are amongst the most productive ecosystems in the world and therefore support complex food chains providing habitats to a wide range of organisms that live permanently in water (fish, shrimps) or spend part of their life cycle in water (frogs and many insects) live in close association with water (crocodiles, mammals such as fishing cats, otters, large number of bird species that use wetlands for feeding, breeding and resting). Therefore, wetlands play a critical role in maintaining global biodiversity.”

“Sri Lanka being an island has all four types of wetlands – freshwater (rivers, streams, marshes, reservoirs, paddy fields), brackish water (lagoons, estuaries, mangroves, salt marshes), Salt water (Coral reefs, sea grass beds) and brine water (salterns). These wetlands support a wide range of species varying from aquatic insects, freshwater fish, reptiles, birds, mammals and wetland plants). This assemblage includes large number of species that are found only in Sri Lanka (endemic to Sri Lanka) and many species that are threatened with extinction. Therefore, wetlands are important for the survival of these species. Wetlands are also highly dynamic systems that can undergo rapid change and therefore maintaining the ecological balance in wetlands is important to maintain them in an optimal state,” he continued.

When asked about the economic benefits that could be reaped from preserving Muthurajawela Wetland Prof. Weerakoon explained that wetlands provide a range of services to man such as food, flowers, medicine, timber, protection from both land-borne hazards (floods) or sea-borne hazards (Hurricanes, storm surges, tsunamis), recreational opportunities, spiritual upliftment, purification of water, purification of air, removal of pollutants in water etc., “Therefore, many human livelihoods and human well-being depends on wetlands. The ability of a wetland to provide these services depends on wetland health (i.e. maintaining the wetland at optimum state). This is the reason why wetlands should be preserved, managed, restored or conserved because human beings as well as many other organisms depend on them for their existence. Yet we have treated our wetlands poorly and have directly or indirectly contributed to their degradation (through release of wastewater containing pollutants, dumping solid waste, introduction of invasive species), loss (reclamation of wetlands) and fragmentation (unplanned development), resulting in the loss of these valuable services. Muthurajawela, being a coastal wetland, provides one of the most important services in the form of retaining flood water; especially during heavy rain. The climate change driven alteration of weather patterns has paved the way for large volumes of rain to occur over a short period leading to floods, storm surges, hurricanes etc. This has made coastal wetlands such as Muthurajawela even more important as they are our first line of defence against such hazards.

“Further, the upstream areas of Muthurajawela from Peliyagoda to Ja-ela are undergoing rapid urbanization which makes this area more vulnerable to floods (floods are a phenomenon defined based on impact on social-economic activities of human and therefore, urbanization places more people at risk unless it is planned properly). Thus in the phase of these two factors (rapid urbanization and climate change driven alteration of rainfall), it is vital to preserve and restore coastal wetlands to make our cities more resilient to natural hazards. In addition to this Muthurajawela wetlands provide other economic benefits such as recreation, food that can be derived from the wetlands (e.g. fish and shell fish) as shown by many studies over the years,” said Prof. Weerakoon.
Speaking further he said that the short-term impacts of filling wetlands include loss of species and loss of services that are being described above. “Long-term impacts include rapid reduction of resilience of urban population that lives adjacent to the wetlands as well as opportunity losses in terms of inability to accrue the potential economic benefits that wetlands offer.

“Filling of wetlands is a poor strategy that reflects on the inability of making plans by thinking creatively. Planners that do not have the sense to understand the long-term implications of wetland filling views wetland reclamation is the easy way out, but fail to realise that this type of development is unsustainable in the long run. There are many other options for meeting the development needs of a country. But this requires wise planners who have a vision and are aware of the global challenges that we are facing and try to find sustainable solutions that will benefit both nature and mankind. Unfortunately, Sri Lankan leaders and planners so far have not demonstrated this types of wisdom except in their elaborate election manifestos of plans which are destined for the proverbial shelf where they gather nothing but dust,” added Prof. Weerakoon.

“The gazette will be amended according to the capacity of the UDA. Therefore the UDA will study the problematic areas from Monday (November 15) and submit the amendments within a week – Mahinda Amaraweera Environment Minister”

Minister says ‘No’ to illegal projects

Following a discussion last week the UDA is now in the process of amending the gazette issued in October. “The gazette will be amended according to the capacity of the UDA,” opined Environment Minister Mahinda Amaraweera. “Therefore the UDA will study the problematic areas from Monday (November 15) and submit the amendments within a week,” the Minister said.

Amaraweera further said that none of the residents in surrounding areas will be evacuated. When asked why the Environment Ministry cannot handle the task of developing the Muthurajawela sanctuary as a Ramsar Wetland the Minister said that the UDA Act has more power and finances to carry out this task. “If it comes under the Wildlife Department or Ministry it would be difficult to make any changes,” the Minister said.
When asked about illegal projects taking place in the area the Minister said that no illegal project would be allowed within the sanctuary.

In a recent statement, State Minister for Urban Development, Coast Conservation and Waste Dr. Nalaka Godahewa reiterated the fact that no approval will be given to fill the Muthurajawela Wetland.

Plight of the Thalangama Wetland

Residents living near the historic Thalangama Wetland have raised concerns over the new Kelani-Athurugiriya highway expansion proposed to be built over the Thalangama Wetland Protection Area. In order to ensure a smoother process, the Wetland Protection Area was regazetted to accommodate the construction of a highway.
But, when contacted, Ministry of Highways Secretary R. Premasiri said that even though the area has been earmarked the project hasn’t commenced yet.

Responding to a query on threats to the Ramsar status in the area, Central Environmental Authority Chairman Siripala Amarasinghe said that there has been no progress with regards to the project and that an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) hasn’t been done as yet.

On the contrary, Environment Minister Amaraweera said that approval will be given to the project after going through the EIA and that an EIA is currently being done. “The final approval will be given only after the checking the EIA. There won’t be an issue with regards to the Ramsar status because we will consider the EIA first.” the
Minister said.

Source

Chandana Sesath Jayakody

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