- “The Cabinet of Ministers granted approval to construct an elevated highway above the Thalangama Wetlands in May 2021”
- “The Thalangama Elevated Expressway project is the first Build, Operate, Transfer (BOT) project which is being done with a foreign investment”
- “Environmentalists claim that the UDA doesn’t have a history of environmental conservation”
The ecologically-rich Thalangama Wetland has already fallen prey to the proposed New Kelani Bridge-Athurugiriya Elevated Expressway project despite many a plea from area residents, environmentalists, members of the general public for its stoppage. Government authorities seem to be muscling their way through to construct the highway despite several Writ applications that have been filed, against the project, which are pending in courts. Thalangama is deemed to be one of the few green areas left near Colombo and the project is likely to be continued over this sensitive ecosystem when several other alternative routes with minimum impact on the environment have already been proposed.
Lawmakers above the law?
The Cabinet of Ministers granted approval to construct an elevated highway above the Thalangama Wetlands in May 2021, whilst the Thalangama Environmental Protection Area (EPA) was still Gazetted as a protected area. Approval was given when a writ application had been filed and was pending in courts against such use back in February 2021.
Furthermore, in response to a request from the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) in January 2021, the Attorney General strongly advised against such a move and warned that it could result in much public litigation. Yet, despite the aforementioned advise, on July 2021 the Minister for Environment, amended the existing gazette to permit the use of the Thalangama Wetlands for an elevated highway.
“We do a baseline survey and check for air pollution, sound pollution and comply with international guidelines. However the duration depends on the project
– Sardha Weerakoon RDA Director General “
The Gazetting of this sensitive ecosystem as an EPA was done by the Ministry of Environment in 2007, after carrying out much research and studies. But, the re-gazette in July 2021 permitting the use of these wetlands for an elevated highway spouting green house emissions and noise pollution 24/7 in a hitherto calm area of scenic beauty, was done sans an EIA. Environmentalists claim that so far they haven’t been presented with any proof to ascertain that permitting an elevated highway shall provide better protection to this highly sensitive ecosystem, which is a Ramsar listed Biodiversity hotspot. As of date, there are two more Writ applications filed against this action and two more such writs are also in the pipeline.
The Thalangama Elevated Expressway project is the first Build, Operate, Transfer (BOT) project which is being done with a foreign investment. As such the Chinese Government grants assistance while funding assistance will be sought from the Asian Development Bank to minimise financial risks and improve the technical capacity of the Road Development Authority (RDA).
A cabinet memorandum signed by Highways Minister Johnston Fernando on May 21, 2021 states that the project is expected to be completed before end of November 2023 and that the ‘environment of the surrounding areas of the elevated expressway will be improved by a properly structured environmental improvement project’ which will be undertaken by the Urban Development Authority, Central Environmental Authority and RDA.
Already the UDA is under heavy scrutiny for proposing to ‘develop’ the Muthurajawela Wetland as environmentalists claim that the UDA doesn’t have a history of environmental conservation.
“The process is underway, but we will not approve the project until the EIA is done – Siripala Amarasinghe CEA Chairman“
The Memorandum further states that the RDA invited bids comprising of technical and financial proposals from respective investors to construct the proposed Elevated Expressway once the Cabinet Paper No. 20/0753/221/023 was approved by the Cabinet of Ministers back in May 2020. “The project committee studied the financial proposals together with requests in respect of concession agreement submitted by the only responsive bidder, M/S China Harbour Engineering Corporation,”the document read.
As per its conclusions, the Cabinet Appointed Negotiation Committee (CANC) has agreed with the Bidder for a concession period of 18 years which comprises three years for the construction and 15 years for the operation and maintenance instead of a 33-year concession period. The CANC has also agreed for a semi-annual availability payment model as the preferred payment model to the investor. The parties estimate that an average income of USD 17 million could be collected semi-annually as the toll fee, thereby minimizing the financial burden of the government. Apart from that the Committee has agreed to pay a semi-annuity payment of USD 54 million over the 15 year period.
Environmental and historical significance
Newspaper archives mention that the Thalangama Wetland zone lies adjacent to the Akuregoda Tank (which later became known as the Thalangama Tank), believed to have been built by King Parakramabahu VI when he was ruling the Kingdom of Kotte. It is said that this tank has been built in such a way that it is fed by rainwater. As such there’s no other water way that feeds this tank although it passes its water to the Averihena Lake which is situated in its vicinity. The Thalangama Wetland Zone spans across 11 hectares of fertile land.
According to the National Wetland Directory of Sri Lanka, 41 plant species have been recorded in the area. 90 bird species of which 13 are migrants, 12 species of reptiles, 10 species of mammals and 15 freshwater fish species have also been recorded from the tank and its environs, while over 200 acres of paddy is cultivated here.
Identifying its environmental significance, the Thalangama Environment Protection Area (EPA) was gazetted in March 2007. As such it’s permitted uses included farming, traditional fishing, nature trails, construction of security posts and towers for birdwatching. In July 2021, this gazette was amended to include the construction of a 3km highway across the Averihena lake and surrounding paddy fields which are part of the Thalangama EPA.
This is why an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is paramount to assess the environmental risks. However, responding to a query on the EIA, CEA Chairman Siripala Amarasinghe said that the EIA from Rajagiriya to Athurugiriya is still being constructed. “The process is underway, but we will not approve the project until the EIA is done,” said Amarasinghe.
Certain changes accommodated
When asked about the EIA for the project, RDA Director General Sardha Weerakoon said that any project is subject to an EIA. “We do a baseline survey and check for air pollution, sound pollution and comply with international guidelines. However the duration depends on the project. Some EIAs would take as long as six months to complete.” said Weerakoon.
Weerakoon added that proposals are being considered to put up bird fences and sound barriers and that certain changes have been made to the initial plan as proposed by the CEA.
In January this year, the Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) sought the Attorney-General’s advice on whether it could grant approval for an EIA on the proposed project. The Attorney-General thereafter instructed the CEA to direct the RDA to avoid the wetland when planning the elevated highway.
Subsequently a Writ Application (CA Writ 97/2021) was filed in February 2021 where the petitioners sought to issue a Writ of Prohibition refraining respondents including the RDA, CEA, Urban Development Authority, Ministry of Environment Secretary and the Attorney-General.
Thereafter a series of online petitions were initiated by environmentalists and area residents to halt proceedings of the project where so far over 12,000 signatories have protested against the move.
Speaking to the Daily Mirror Attorney-at-Law Ravindranath Dabare said that the hearing for the Writ applications was held earlier this month at Colombo High Court where all parties of the Project have tendered written submissions. “The matter is fixed for Order of Court on January 19th.” said Dabare.
However it isn’t clear as to why the Government is continuing with the project via a rare, irreplaceable and limited resource of an internationally recognised biodiversity hotspot environment when alternative routes are available.
It is also not clear as to how and why the Cabinet of Ministers approved the project to be constructed over the Thalangama Wetlands whilst the Gazette protecting the area was still valid and remained in the Gazette in Parliament and whilst Writ Applications in Courts against the use of the wetlands were in process.
Environmentalists are also awaiting an assurance from the Ministry of Environment and the CEA – whose responsibilities are to protect the environment – to ensure that constructing an elevated highway over the Wetlands would be able to give better protection to this sensitive biodiversity hotspot ecosystem, than what was provided by way of the provisions Gazetted before, following several research studies.