By Jithendri Gomes
Who would have believed that just weeks of inactivity could bring about so much change in the environment? Stories of wild animals roaming freely and the air quality increasing are being celebrated and shared on social media.
In particular, the Kelani River – a victim to many pollution activities – is also said to have seen a significant improvement in these weeks of lockdown. Could this really be nature’s way of reviving itself and taking the time to recover its resources?
Central Environmental Authority (CEA) Chairman Siripala Amarasinghe spoke exclusively to The Sunday Morning Brunch and confirmed that there is significant improvement in the water quality. “The samples we evaluated were taken on 1 April, which proves that the improvement happened within the two to three-week lockdown. These samples were taken from many areas through which the river flows, thus proving significant improvement in the water quality in multiple areas,” he explained.
Amarasinghe confirmed that this improvement is mainly a result of the lack of industrial activities due to the Government-imposed curfew and lockdown.
Kelani’s importance to the nation
We also spoke to Rainforest Protectors of Sri Lanka (RFSL) Chief Co-ordinator and Spokesperson Jayantha Wijesingha, who is also a fervent environmental activist, on the improvement experienced within a matter of a few weeks of inactivity.
Wijesingha spoke of the importance of the nine river basins and 103 rivers found in Sri Lanka. Out of the nine basins, he identified three rivers as critical – namely, Kelani, Kalu, and Mahaweli – based on the number of people dependent on its river water for consumption. Out of these, the Kelani River is the most important, as all the people residing in the Western Province, excluding those living close to Kalutara, depend on it as a source of water for consumption. His rough estimate is that close to two million people are directly depending on the river, and this has been the case for a long period of time.
Apart from satisfying the consumption needs, Kelani River also plays a major role in energy-generating activities in the country with relation to hydro energy. Many reservoirs and dams are built along the river, the most recent one being the Kitulgala Broadland Power Station. “The river’s contribution to energy generation is so vast and significant,” added Wijesingha.
He shared an interesting anecdote stating that even during the times before colonisation, the Kelani River played an important role when establishing kingdoms. For example, he said: “The Sitawaka and Kotte Kingdoms were based around it. During that time, environmentally related regulation activities were based on the Kelani River, including flood regulation. To date, it provides water to the wetlands in Colombo.”
The many dangers Kelani faces
Wijesingha then went on to explain the many dangers faced by the river. Some of the many hydro energy plants built under the Mahaweli Scheme have had a negative impact on the river together with mini private reservoirs built by private parties. These have blocked the tributaries of the river. The most recent Kituagala construction also contributed towards it with a major negative impact on the tourism industry as well with regard to its white water rafting site.
Various unhealthy, unsustainable, and unmanaged crop cultivation activities have also had a negative impact on the river. He mentioned oil palm cultivation that was and is still banned by the present and previous Governments. Some tea cultivations belonging to private companies are also said to be contributing to this with improper estate, crop, and soil management that result in sediments getting collected in the river. The river buffers are not maintained either, which results in the river banks failing as well. Furthermore, agrochemicals like pesticides or fertilisers that are used ultimately end up in the water after rain.
“The hotel sector also contributes significantly to the deterioration of the river, especially when these are built on either side of the river, particularly in the Kitulgala area,” said Wijesingha. He went on to state that some of the constructions go beyond the river banks into the river itself. The buffer area has not been maintained by most of these hotel constructions, and this poses the question as to why they are not being regulated or how they have managed to obtain permits.
The lack of planning is extremely evident. The pradeshiya sabha, when approving the plan, and the relevant divisional secretariat, when approving the construction, need to ensure the CEA has given environmental clearance. The Irrigation Department also has to give approvals as since the time of British rule, these areas have been identified to be high-risk areas for landslides. Despite all of these limitations, hoteliers have managed to build structures.
“This area has been vandalised and devastated by these hotels. Apart from not maintaining the buffer to the river, these hotels have breached many laws. In addition, their sewage tanks, waste disposal tanks, and kitchen waste disposal systems are also connected to the river or are located close to the river, which results in it being released into the river,” said Wijesingha.
Small and medium-scale industries:
Wijesingha also explained the contribution of industries in deteriorating the river due to the Seethawaka and Biyagama industrial zones being situated very close to it. The sewage, chemicals, dye, and fabric washing waste are released into the river. “More than 500 large and medium-scale industries are supposed to be releasing their waste into the river every single day. Unfortunately, this is a well-established fact,” he added.
He spoke of one significant incident in 2015, where Colombo experienced a 24-hour water cut because of an oil leak from a Coca Cola factory, which made the river water unsuitable for consumption. “This is just one example. And they were able to identify it because there was a visible change in the appearance of the water. What happens when chemicals that cannot be seen are released? All of these are large-scale contributions. The health of the river also determines the health of the people.”
Illegal sand mining:
Illegal sand mining also affects the water quality and the existence of the river itself. The sand found in a river is supposed to feed water into the groundwater table and clean the water by absorbing the pollutants, stabilising the river banks.
When the river banks collapse due to the increasing depth , mud gets added into the water, which results in the quality of the water decreasing. This also affects the biodiversity around the bank as the trees on the banks collapse with it. As fish also lay their eggs close to the bank, this process is also affected.
Individuals polluting the river:
“Individuals pollute the river in a number of ways. For example, people dump animal carcasses into the river, fish and meat waste, domestic kitchen waste, domestic sewage, and toilet waste. There are also thousands of people who bathe in the river daily, while many consume the water directly before it comes through water treatment plants and purification.”
He stressed that these activities also need to be regulated. “From Hanwella to Kaka Dupatha (Crow Island), there are a lot of shanties by the river without proper toilet waste disposal facilities. That part of the river has become a garbage disposal site rather than a water consumption resource. It is the water that feeds people – including those who pollute it! As a result of all of these activities, the river is very polluted,” he pointed out.
How did the water quality increase?
With the current lockdown Sri Lanka is facing nationwide, apart from domestic pollution activities, all the other activities have come to halt. The CEA carried out a study that revealed that the water quality has increased significantly.
“The study has revealed that these are the very reasons the Kelani River has been polluted all these years. We must make sure we do not go back to how it was. The Earth has given us an opportunity to relook at our modus operandi. We must uphold the nationally determined conditions that we had agreed to after attending many conferences, summits, discussions, etc. if we are to meet the goals set for 2030.
“In any activity we do, if the three components of air, water, and soil are not affected negatively, we can determine that we have made a turn towards a more sustainable way of living. Without air we cannot breathe, without water we cannot live, and without soil we cannot grow food,” the CEA said.
Some recommendations are to demarcate a 200-foot buffer zone for all the rivers on either side, irrespective of whether it is private or state-owned land, up to Kaka Dupatha and not only in the rural areas. It must be legally enforced in all future projects at least.
The authorities can also remove the existing constructions with adequate compensation and any illegal constructions without compensation.
The CEA has already identified the industries, hotels, and crop cultivators that pollute the river the most, and therefore severe action should be taken against them.
Sand mining must be highly regulated and stopped at least for a year in order for the Kelani River to make a recovery.
The banks of the river have to be stabilised by planting trees that are necessary to strengthen it.
Photos: CEA and Wikipedia