ECONOMYNEXT – Work on the second phase of the New Kelani Bridge (NKB) to Athurugiriya Elevated Highway Project will be put on hold until a firm plan that will ensure the Thalangama Wetlands and its surrounding habitat is not disturbed, is put in place the Chairman of the Central Environmental Authority, Siripala Amarasinghe said.
Amarasinghe told EconomyNexgt the decision follows a meeting the CEA and other stakeholders had with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa recently, to update him on the environmental damage the construction of the highway would cause.
A committee headed by Secretary to the Ministry of Environment, Dr Anil Jasinghe has been appointed to come up with an acceptable proposal to preserve the rich biodiversity of the area. Amarasinghe explained that the President has said that any work on the highway could commence only after implementing a plan that would not disturb or damage the environment. To this end, he said, the committee will explore internationally accepted technology that could be applied to build the highway with minimum use of access roads, land-fill and reclamation of paddy lands. Basically, the proposal must ensure that the area through which the highway would run is protected from sound and that the fauna and flora is not disturbed, he added.
He also said that the President has advised that prior to commencing any work on the highway, the 118 hectares of paddy fields and lake covered by a 2007 Gazette which declares it as the “Thalangama Protection Area” under the National Environment Act must be developed so area residents could enjoy its natural beauty. The CEA lists its importance as, ‘an area with high biodiversity, flood control, home to a large number of reptiles, birds, mammals, fish and insects, agriculture, fisheries and recreational activities’. It is also listed as an area for educational purposes and research.
Project Director of the Road Development Authority, K Selvanathan, who also confirmed the appointment of the committee, stated that one possibility being looked into to minimise damage is installing columns with smaller width size to support the roadway.
The committee is made up of the Secretary to the Ministry of Highways and other representatives drawn from the Urban Development Authority, CEA and Road Development Authority etc.
Two alternate routes have been proposed for the 10.4 km stretch that will run from Rajagiriya to Athurugiriya, where it will connect to the Outer Circular Expressway. One through the highly residential area of Pothuarawa and some paddy fields, the other which will cut through a swathe of paddy fields and the Averihena Lake, which is part of the Thalangama Wetland.
While Pothuarawa residents have indicated their displeasure over their homes being impacted and even possible relocation, in the case of the other route, not only residents and those who farm the lands, but environmentalists and the CEA too have raised concerns about disturbing the rich eco-system.
While acknowledging the need for development, they point that damage to the environment if the second route is taken will be felt for generations to come and far outweighs the compensation that would have to be paid to home and land-owners.
The Thalangama Protected area is important for many reasons. The Talanagama Lake itself, believed to have been built around the 15th century, had been the bathing place for elephants of the Royal Palace of the Kotte Kingdom. The Lake is part of a network of wetlands in and around the city of Colombo, that play a key role in the prevention of floods, filtering of polluted water, and provides a livelihood and respite to residents and wildlife alike, from the rapid urbanisation that is a hallmark of present-day Colombo and its suburbs.
It is believed that nearly a hundred endemic, migratory and resident bird species could be spotted at the wetlands. As well, the Thalangama Wetland Watch reports that the Purple-faced leaf-monkey which makes it home in the environs of the Lake is one of the “25 most endangered primates in the world.’
It was only in 2018 that Colombo was declared an International Wetland city under the Ramsar Convention. Yet, urbanisation has, directly and indirectly, impacted Colombo’s wetlands, where records indicate about a 40percent loss over the last three decades.
Moreover, as Suwanadaratne who owns nearly five acres of paddy land that has been in his family for generations’ points out, any interference with these fields could result in flooding. He says that the 2016 flooding of the Malabe town was owing to landfill that took place in the Pore area in Athurugiriya when the Outer Circular Expressway was being built. “We grow heirloom varieties of rice such as Heeneti, Suwandel, Maa-wee etc. and participate in the New Rice Festival (Aluth Sahal Mangalaya) each year where we offer the first portion of our harvest. We also offer our rice to the Paththini Dewale feast in Nawagamuwa.’ According to Suwandaratne, there are close to 175 farming families in the area, with seventy-five of them depending solely on paddy cultivation for a living.
In fact, the Muttetuwe paddy field, from which rice was provided to the Palace is said to be cultivated even today.
A former Agriculture Officer Salinda Waduge explains that there has never been an issue of crop failure for these farmers, owing to the salubrious conditions, and the only snag is the shortage of labour. It will be a shame, he says, if the fields are destroyed to construct highways when all that is required is wider and well-maintained roads, which could be easily achieved by expanding roadways, 20 feet on either side. Yet another resident, Percy Perera, a veritable walking encyclopedia on matters connected to Thalangama, says that if the highway must go through, indigenous trees such as Kumbuk and Mee must be planted on either side to compensate for damage to the environment.
Amarasinghe assures that if the proposal the committee comes up with does not meet expectations, an alternative solution to the highway will be found. “We went to the President because we cannot allow the destruction of the environment, and whatever is proposed, it must first be environmentally friendly.”
(Colombo, February 11, 2021)
Reported by Kshama Ranawana