Proposed elevated highway in Athurugiriya faces major environmental roadblock

by Ifham Nizam

Residents in and around Thalangama wetland area have sought legal assistance from the Centre for Environmental Justice against the proposed construction of an Elevated Highway over Thalangama Environmental Protected Area.

When contacted, CEJ Executive Director/ Environmental Scientist Hemantha Withanage told The Island they would file legal action against the proposed construction. Withanage said that they had already written to the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) Director General, P.B. Hemantha Jayasinghe in that regard.

Withanage said that they were not happy with the CEA, stressing that it should be focusing more on environmental aspects.

Speaking on World Wetlands Day, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa stressed the importance of conserving in the process of development and how inappropriate development activities led to environmental degradation and wetland destruction.

The CEA said that they had sought the Attorney General’s advice on whether it could grant approval for any Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). Withanage said he believed that the Attorney General’s Department should consider the fact that the said project would ruin a biodiversity hotspot.

The Road Development Authority’s proposed elevated highway across the protected Thalangama wetland and Averihena tank has been heavily criticised by the residents as well environmentalist groups claiming it as a nationally and internationally recognised biodiversity hotspot included in the Ramsar Convention.

 The 10.4km stretch of highway is the second phase of a 17.3km project from New Kelani Bridge in Orugodawatte to Athurugiriya. About 3.15km of road crosses the Averihena Tank and surrounding paddy fields, which are part of the Thalangama wetland, gazetted as an Environmental Protected Area (EPA), according to CEJ Legal Officer K Nimmi Sanjeewani.

“Even if an EIA is done, we will protest it as what is proposed is not an approved activity under the EPA gazette,” CEA Director General Hemantha Jayasinghe told the media.

According to Withanage, the protected area spans nearly 118 hectares and permitted uses of the Thalangama EPA as listed in Schedule II of the said Gazette, include cultivation of paddy, fishing, nature trails and construction of towers for the observation of birds, an environmental education information center and a sales outlet and the construction of a security post. The Schedule III list out the conditions subject to which the permitted uses can be carried out.

Withanage also said that recognising the uniqueness and the importance of the Thalangama Wetlands and owing to its ecological, hydrological and historical importance it was declared as an Environmental Protected Area (EPA) under the National Environmental Act (NEA) No.47 of 1980 (as amended) in 2007.

He said wetlands and EPA supported a rich ecosystem that hosted thousands of species of exotic flora, over a hundred different species of resident, endemic and migratory birds, several species of butterflies and dragonflies, a few species of damselflies, reptiles and amphibians, and some small mammals. It was also a paradise for birds.

Chandana Sesath Jayakody

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