By Jithendri Gomes
Pictures of the Mount Lavinia beach stretch being filled up took social media by storm last week. Many were confused and unaware that such a thing was being done. We can safely say that it is the most popular beach in Colombo, attracting thousands of people on a daily basis, therefore the filling up of the beach resulted in inquiries pouring in. We embarked on the journey to find out what caused the action of restoring the beach, as well as the environmental implications if such a project was not done correctly, without adequate scientific studying.
Rainforest Protectors of Sri Lanka Convener Jayantha Wijesingha, a passionate environmental conservationist, was able to walk us through this project that took all of us by surprise.
“There are few concerns with those living around the area posting pictures of the Mount Lavinia beach being filled up. The main problem is that no one really seems to know what is going on including the people, hoteliers, and the fishermen community close by. The transparency is questionable,” he said.
The focus behind the restoration
Projects, as he explained, are supposed to be carried out with certain objectives in mind; to solve an existing problem, while being focused on development work. This particular one is supposedly focused on beach nourishment from Angulana to Mount Lavinia. The initial rationale was to restore the degraded Calido Beach, and this restoration is also a part of that. The entire project itself was approved by the previous Government under a massive price tag. What has brought so much suspicion and focus to this project is how they are pumping out sand in order to do the restoration. Although it is supposed to be done at deep sea, the ships that are pumping out the sand do not seem to be too far away from the shore, according to the pictures, Wijesingha further explained.
The reason behind the restoration of Calido Beach
As this project is a result of restoring Calido Beach, it is important to understand why that project was deemed necessary. Calido Beach is a natural formation, sand barrier, and reef. It had a flourishing ecosystem with a wide growth of kadolana (mangroves) which acted as a sand barrier and protected the beach connected to the estuary. It assisted the fishing community and the ecotourism of the area greatly. It assisted in both scenarios; where the water from the Kalu River hit the sea at a fast speed and the sea waves hit the land with a force, reducing the velocity and the speed.
Historically, as explained by Wijesingha, like any other river, Kalu River also brought sand from inland to the sea which then gets deposited. It is a natural process that happens over a long period of time. In this case, it gets deposited at Calido Beach and travels towards the northern part of the country through Panadura, Ratmalana, Mount Lavinia, Colombo, Uswetakeiyawa, and towards Negombo. This is the natural sand current and movement in the sea. This sand that travels is vital in sustaining the Calido Beach. The Kalu River makes almost a 90-degree turn before reaching the estuary, helping this collection of sand at the beach itself.
The deadly 2017 floods
During the 2017 floods, during which we also lost lives, the Kalutara District was greatly affected. There were many reasons that contributed to these severe floods. However, the Department of Irrigation and other entities thought that this 90-degree turn was the contributor to the severity of these floods. The solution therefore was to get rid of the bend and make a path for the river to end up via a straight path to the sea, preventing the backward pressure of the water. And it backfired, according to Wijesingha.
“The bends and the natural formation of this river were there to ensure that the water flows slowly to the ocean without causing much harm, erosion, and riverbank degradation. These factors need to be considered as well. By just focusing on the floods, they overlooked all the other consequences it could cause thereafter. The fact that the authorities also narrowed down the cause of the floods to this reason only, is a huge failure. The natural formation of the Kalu River is something that has been there for thousands of years and human intervention was not required for it to be fixed,” he noted.
In fact, what they should have been looking at, according to Wijesingha, is why the water was not being absorbed by the river, like it used to be. He further explained that this could be attributed to various factors such as improper development projects, excessive mining, filling of the river, river buffers not being maintained, monocultures like tea and palm not having the ability to absorb water, lack of canopy covers and underbrush, etc. These reasons contributed to mud deposits in the river and a lack of sand cover to absorb the water, which also in turn affected the underground water grid.
“All of these factors also contribute to increase the depth of the river, thus increasing the salinity of the water. By controlling the mining activities, this problem could have been avoided to a great extent,” Wijesingha stated.
“The District Development Committee, under the patronage of the President at the time, had advised against this project being conducted without a proper environmental evaluation being done. Nevertheless, the project was launched without a proper evaluation,” he added.
Calido Beach was cut through
This resulted in a number of issues according to Wijesingha, who listed them as the following:
- The sea waves are hitting the shores directly and it is contributing towards the degradation of the rest of the beach because of the force of the water, resulting in sand erosion
- With beach water now travelling upstream, there is an increase in the salinity of the water. The implications of this are faced especially during the drought periods, when people depend on the river for fresh water
- The river water now falls straight into the sea. The elimination of this curve has increased the flowing speed of the water
- As a result of this project, other coastal areas faced erosion as well
“As a result of these factors, the Government has decided to restore Calido Beach altogether; the project that initially cost Rs. 890 million in taxpayers’ money. The short-sighted decision taken proved to be extremely costly leaving aside all the environmental implications,” Wijesingha stressed.
Nature will always take its course
“When the formation of a country is changed, nature will take its course to restore or destroy. This can be proven scientifically or with native knowledge. Sand from higher elevations was drawn to replace what was lost. For example, if you dig sand from a two-metre depth at sea, to fill the hole, the sea will draw in sand from the shoreline and not the deeper levels of the sea. If one metric tonne of sand for the Port City project was dug up from the Uswetakeiyawa Beach, it would get refilled from the coastal shore line; with the Calido Beach, that is exactly what we are witnessing currently, with sand erosion along the coastal line,” he further explained.
How we ended up at Mount Lavinia Beach
Wijesingha continued: “With Mount Lavinia Beach, we haven’t experienced so much erosion because of the natural reefs that block the waves to a great extent, and as mentioned before, the sand being dug up to restore the shore is happening very close to the shore as well. With Kalu River not bringing in much sand to the sea due to sand mining happening inland in the Ritigala, Ratnapura, and Kalutara areas, coastal erosion is the only solution. This is being experienced now along the coastline. Thus, the authorities have launched a phase of the project which is to restore the Angulana-Mount Lavinia stretch.”
The lack of an EIA
As a conservationist, Wijesingha’s appeal was for an environmental impact assessment (EIA) to be done before implementing such a large-scale project. This assessment, once completed, is supposed to be made accessible to the public. He stated that to his knowledge, an EIA was not done in this case, which would have revealed most of the issues currently being faced. “We are not faulting any and all projects undertaken by the Government. We are only asking them to follow the law and the protocol of the EIA which will answer a lot of our questions,” he said.
We approached Central Environmental Authority (CEA) Chairman Siripala Amarasinghe regarding an EIA being done for this project. “Earlier, the CEA, the MEPA (Marine Environment Protection Authority), and the CCD (Coast Conservation Department) functioned as independent entities. But under the current Government, we were combined and we act as one body, especially when issuing permits and taking collective decisions,” Amarasinghe noted.
“An EIA was not conducted in terms of filling sand for the restoration of the three beaches (Calido, Angulana, and Mount Lavinia). And I do highly recommend that one must be done, as it will have some sort of effect on the environment,” he said.
However, he confirmed that when it comes to the sea and the coastline, the authority does not lie with them. “Currently, we are only in control of the water bodies located internally in the country,” he noted.
We also approached MEPA General Manager Dr. P.B. Terney Pradeep Kumara, who is also the former Department Head of Oceanography and Marine Geology at the University of Ruhuna. He also emphasised the importance of conducting an EIA before the project was launched and questioned as to why such a project was being done at the Mount Lavinia Beach, which is very much protected by the reefs like the majority of the Colombo coastline.
“MEPA’s focus lies mostly with protecting the ecosystems of the sea and reducing the pollution that takes place, especially with ship movement along the coast. However, extracting sand and not maintaining the required buffer zone can have a negative impact on the coastline and the sea. If the sand does get deposited and is retained in the coral reefs, it can have some short-term effects that may or may not cause a long-term issue. I am unaware if these requirements are being met.” He also confirmed that the MEPA is not involved in this particular project as their focus area is different to coastal restoration.
We also spoke with CCD Director General Prabath Chandrakeerthi, who confirmed that this project is under their purview. “The project was passed by the Government and Cabinet on 14 January 2020, commissioning Rs. 890 million for its implementation and completion based on an expert report submitted by the CCD.
“It is of three parts focusing on the Calido, Angualana, and Mount Lavinia beaches and as of today, we have completed work at the Calido and Angulana beaches. We have started work at Mount Lavinia Beach and the whole project is to be completed by 30 April 2020,” Chandrakeerthi noted.
He also added that this project was initiated as a result of the floods experienced in the Kalutara District in 2017 and the difficulties faced by the fishing community, the tourism and hotel industry, and also those living around these three areas.
He further stated that the sand borrowing for this project is done at the Ratmalana Beach, 2-6 km away from the coastline, and that it has been declared the default site for all similar projects, starting from when they started to restore the Unawatuna Beach a few years back. He said: “Back in 2015, the CEA did conduct an EIA for this sand borrowing site. However, an EIA is not required for where we are currently filling and restoring the coastlines.
“Sand erosion is a problem faced and accepted by the world. In the past, we have placed rock boulders as a temporary solution for it. But it is proven that sand filling is the best solution for it.” The project is to source 300,000 cubic metres of sand for Kalutara, 350,000 for Angulana, and 150,000 for Mount Lavinia, he added.
“There are also many accusations regarding the project being continued during the curfew. However, we have been granted special permission from the President and the Government, as pausing the project will cost us immensely at a rate of Rs. 200,000 per hour,” he noted.
All this leaves us with many doubts, but one stands out among the rest. Will our beloved Mount Lavinia Beach look very different when we visit it once the lockdown is lifted? More importantly, will the restoration reinforce it or further degrade it? We will only be able to find out down the line.