Digging our own grave: Inadequate and short-sighted coast conservation

Did Mount Beach need restoration?

Similar large-scale projects failed in past

Ad hoc and unorganized processes will not sustain beaches

 

By B. Mohan

 

“This is a time nature has asked us to stop doing what we do; destruction, excessiveness, greed. Nature is telling us to stop and slow down and to change our ways. And we are not listening,” stressed Otara Gunawardene.

The media has been abuzz with concerns raised on beach nourishment projects being conducted along the coast of Sri Lanka, namely that of Calido Beach in Kalutara, the stretch between Ratmalana and Angulana, and Mount Lavinia Beach. While environmentalists, and also the public, have expressed their concerns on these activities, the Coast Conservation Department (CCD), which is the project proponent, continues to justify its work.

Undoing a past wrong at Calido

The sand filling activity at Calido Beach is being done to rectify the effects of a hasty decision that was taken in 2017 to control the floods in Kalutara, shared Rainforest Protectors of Sri Lanka Convenor Jayantha Wijesingha, speaking to Colombo Gazette.

Before 2017, Calido Beach, in its natural form, had served two purposes. The flow of freshwater from the Kalu River into the sea was slowed while sand was deposited in the estuary, and sand dunes controlled the speed of the waves, thereby reducing degradation or erosion.

However, in 2017, in an effort to prevent the reoccurrence of the floods which gravely affected many areas including Kalutara, where almost 50 deaths were reported and many went missing, Calido Beach was cut. “They cut it to regulate flooding that was taking place in 2017,” shared Wijesingha.

“Little did they realize that after doing so, the forces of the waves would eventually make the river freshwater saline and undrinkable, which was experienced by the people of Kalutara over the past one and a half years. This got worse during the drought period.”

He also shared that another key factor that led to this was excessive sand mining along a stretch of almost 10 km from Kalutara to the Kalutara water pumping station. “There were about 40 sand mining spots. The extent to which this was done should have been restricted, because sand mining increases the depth of the water and so saltwater gets mixed much easier.

“The Government later realized that cutting the beach had resulted in severe degradation along the coastline and so they now decided to restore it,” he shared, stating that a short-sighted decision has resulted in the State having to spend Rs. 890 million to rectify their mistake.

Not permanent

“This sand nourishment project was approved by the Cabinet of Ministries and also the concept (was approved by) H.E. the President; he has already visited the site and he has given the advice to do this project,” shared CCD Director General (DG) General Prabath Chandrakeerithi.

He explained that an artificial beach stretching 2 km will be made in Kalutara’s Claido Beach, 1 ½ km along the Ratmalana-Angulana stretch, and 500 m in Mount Lavinia.

800,000 m3 of sand is being dredged for this project; 300,000 m3 for Calido Beach, 350,000 m3 for the Ratmalana-Angulana stretch, and 150,000 m3 for Mount Lavinia.

Chandrakeerthi explained this project was necessary to control erosion. “This is the soft method we can introduce (for) our beaches rather than putting rock boulders to the beach. For this sand nourishment project, we are going to take the permanent solution for the coastal erosion,” he said.

Upon questioning Wijesingha on Chandrakeerithi’s claim that this was a permanent solution, he shared: “This is a soft solution. In beach nourishment, there are soft solutions and hard solutions. The hard solutions – permanent solutions – would be to have beach nourishment going along with other permanent solutions such as having submerged breakwaters and groynes around the development area and also having a coastal mangrove strip or a block if possible. But even then, some of these permanent solutions are not permanent if you don’t address the root cause of it.”

Environmentalist and Attorney-at-Law Jagath Gunawardena shared his sentiments on this with Colombo Gazette. “I don’t think there is any permanent solution to any of these problems. What they can do is to propose and implement a technical solution; whether it is permanent or not will be justified only with time. I think this is an overconfident statement,” he said, referring to Chandrakeerthi’s claim.

Coastal constructions vs. conservation

With a cost of Rs. 890 million, the least we would expect is for this project to have a lasting effect in controlling erosion. However, it would seem, as per Wijesingha’s estimation, that this would last only 4-5 years.

Projects of this nature have been carried out in many other areas over the past years; some of the larger projects were in Kirinda, Uswetakeiyawa, Unawatuna (cost Rs. 850 million), Marawila (Rs. 350 million), and Negombo. “Most of these didn’t work well,” shared Wijesingha, “They didn’t understand the ground situation and didn’t do it right.”

While these projects cost billions in taxpayers’ rupees, the major developments along the coast are to blame for most of the erosion and degradation, mainly those executed without the necessary assessments being conducted to evaluate impacts on the environment and the people in the area.

Citing an example, Wijesingha shared: “The Oluvil Harbor project in 2013 was done on political will and had no scientific basis. To date, it has not been operational and is not utilized.”

Loss of coastal barriers, fish, vegetation cover, coastal biodiversity, economic activity, and sand barriers, and increased coastal pollution were some effects of this project.

The total cost of the project was Rs. 7 billion. And we have nothing to show for it apart from more problems.

The effects of the Colombo Port City Project, which involved excessive sand dredging and filling, will also be felt in the near future, if not already. Wijesingha warned that we should be mindful of newer projects in the pipeline that may aggravate the situation, such as the Marine City Project which would be along the coastline from Galle Face to Mount Lavinia covering 100 hectares. According to Wijesingha and information he gathered via foreign sources, the project cost is $ 300 million.

EIA inadequate

Whilst the restoration of Calido Beach seems somewhat justified, albeit being to cover up a past wrong, concerns continue to increase over the sand filling at Mount Lavinia Beach.

People of the area were troubled to see sand being filled at the iconic Mount Beach during a time the entire county was in lockdown, and the Western Province was still under curfew. The area was also heavily guarded by the armed forces.

Explaining this situation to Colombo Gazette, CCD DG Chandrakeerthi said: “While the project was going on, many people gathered around the project area as this was new project for the area people. The general public needed to be kept from the project area because of the coronavirus situation, as we have to practise social distancing. People were gathering and collecting sea shells as well; we needed to stop that, which is why we put a police point there.”

“We have done an EIA for the sand borrowing pit,” from which the 800,000 m3 of sand was sourced, shared Chandrakeerthi.

“I don’t think they have done an EIA for that, because if it is beyond 2 km of the low-water level of the coastline, they should have gotten it approved from the CEA (Central Environmental Authority),” shared Jagath Gunawardena.

“I doubt his statement because if there was an EIA, there should have been two EIAs – one for the filling and another for the dredging, under two enactments, and they should have got approval from two different authorities,” he stated. He also shared that the relevant EIAs should be available on the CEA website if it has been completed, but they were not online.

Just this week, the Central for Environmental Justice (CEJ), in a letter to the CCD, had raised concerns over the dredging being done too close to the shore. It stated that this would result in the sand sliding, thereby affecting the reefs. In addition, it also raised concerns that fishing habitats could be destroyed, and compared it to the effects of the Colombo Port City Project.

Wijesingha, meanwhile, was of the opinion that while an EIA may have been done for the dredging of sand, it was the minimum possible in terms of an environmental assessment that could have been conducted, and grossly inadequate. “I think this should have gone through a strategic environmental assessment, and not just for the dredging, because that is only part of the project. The whole project has various components comprising all the areas they are filling as well, and as far as I know, no complete EIA study of this nature was done,” he shared with Colombo Gazette.

Environmentalist Jagath Gunawardena further shared that it was a gross violation of the law if the CCD, the project proponent, had approved its own project, stating: “Since the CCD is the project proponent, they can’t approve their own project. This would be a gross violation of the common law principle that you can’t be the judge of your own case.”

We questioned Jagath Gunawardena on the effects this project would have on the biodiversity of the area, the environment, and coastline, he responded: “That is what the EIA is supposed to do in the first instance. The EIA should look at less environmentally harmful/unfriendly options and why such options were rejected and this particular option selected instead. So that justification should be part of the EIA.

“That’s where we all take up the issue that they should have done it through an EIA process where all these issues could have been addressed before the project was embarked upon – which is of course the spirit of the law.”

Why the hurry?

“And I don’t understand the urgency of doing this during this time,” shared Jagath Gunawardena.

Speaking to Colombo Gazette, Otara Gunawardene questioned: “This was being done while we were all under curfew. We are all meant to be indoors and staying home, so why put all these people out there to do this?”

Many are also outraged that the Mount Lavinia beach is being filled, as it is a landmark and has been in the same state for decades. Jagath Gunawardena stated: “Even photographs that have been taken more than a century ago show that it is in the same state. So there is no justification for this.

“The Mount Lavinia Bay was not intended to be filled because that was a world-famous landmark that was in existence for many years. There was no justification to fill up the Mount Lavinia Bay which was a prime bathing spot for many people, and it was a very picturesque spot as well,” Jagath Gunawardena shared with Colombo Gazette.

“It doesn’t require sand filling.”

He also stated that when he had attended the initial meetings where the Ratmalana-Angulana project had been mooted and discussed in December 2018, which was long after the Kalutara Calido Beach project was approved, there was no talk of filling Mount Beach. “When it was first discussed in December 2018, that was pertaining to the Mount Lavinia headlands towards Angulana. Mount Lavinia Beach was not mentioned,” he shared.

Rainforest Protectors of Sri Lanka Convenor Wijesingha raised concerns on the incompleteness off the project. “The current work doesn’t seem to be complete to me, and there are a lot of other lapses in terms of the approval process. There are irregularities by the MEPA (Marine Environmental Protection Authority) and the CCD,” he told Colombo Gazette.

Ideally, submerged breakwaters and groynes should have been installed to ensure the sand remains at the shore. “The project and how it is being carried out so far doesn’t seem sustainable as they have now followed due processes. It is being done in an ad hoc and unorganised manner.

“We do not see any breakwaters or groynes; they are only pumping and dumping. If the erosion is as bad as they are claiming, then the sand will get washed off and negatively impact the reef and ecosystems in the area,” shared Wijesingha.

In its letter to the CCD, the CEJ had also raised concerns that the beach nourishment project in Mount Lavinia was being done without concerning its implications to the environment.

Make every cent count

According to a study by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), “coastal erosion and accretion are natural processes; however, they have become anomalous and widespread in the coastal zone of Asia and other countries in the Indian Ocean owing to combinations of various natural forces, population growth, and unmanaged economic development along the coast, within river catchments and offshore”. It also mentioned Sri Lanka as one of the countries affected.

The study also states coastal erosion in Sri Lanka dates back to the 1920s (Swan 1974; 1984) and has progressively continued over the years due to the eradication of mangroves as a result of encroachment, the sourcing of firewood, and clearing of coastal areas for construction, amongst other things.

By 2006, approximately $ 30 million had been spent on breakwaters and other construction to combat coastal erosion on the southern and western coasts of Sri Lanka, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

While coastal erosion isn’t new to Sri Lanka and will be something we have to endure in the long term, it warrants an equally stubborn solution.

Evaluating best practices from around the world and seeking expert opinions for our projects, while accurately and holistically analysing the impacts of these projects on the environment and our people are the need of the hour. Especially since our hard-earned taxpayer rupees are being spent on these activities to restore our coastlines, shouldn’t we be responsible in making every cent count?

“Since these projects are costing people and the environment, we, as the public, have to question, engage, know, stand up for your communities, people, and economies,” concluded Wijesingha.

Pictures by Indika Sri Aravinda

 

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