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Mount Beach saga: Officials defend nourishment project, but questions remain

ECONOMYNEXT – Amid widespread condemnation on social and mainstream media, Sri Lanka’s Coast Conservation Department (CCD) today defended a controversial Rs 890-million beach nourishment project carried out in parts of the island’s western shoreline.

Controversy erupted over the weekend as images of a seemingly ruined stretch of beach in the otherwise picturesque Mount Lavinia surfaced online, with reports that a sizable portion of the sand used to purportedly nourish the beach had been washed away to sea.

Criticism was swift, with allegations from various quarters that state funds were wasted on an ill-conceived project that was rushed through during the COVID-19 lockdown without consulting fishing and other communities that might be affected or without an adequate environmental impact assessment (EIA).

CCD officials who came before the media this afternoon played down the alleged damages to the environment and the cost to the state coffers, arguing that the project was, in fact, successful in meeting its objectives.

CCD Director General Prabath Chandrakeerthi told reporters that the purpose of the exercise was to artificially nourish the stretch of eroding beach extending from Mount Lavinia up to Dehiwala by letting ocean currents carry the excess Mount Beach sand northward and deposit it along the shoreline. The freshly dredged sand being washed away to sea, as seen in the viral images, was part of the plan, he claimed.

Explaining Sri Lanka’s beach nourishment process, CCD Senior Engineer (Coastal Design & Research) Sujeewa Ranawaka said the coast has what is known as a dynamic equilibrium, which essentially means that beach geometry fluctuates over time. The sand that naturally flows downriver from the country’s interior is used to maintain this equilibrium, but excessive sand-mining in the Kalu and Kelani rivers has led to an insufficient supply of sand, resulting in sea erosion on the west coast.

“When the natural supply of sand ceases, the sea erodes the shore to obtain the sand needed to maintain the equilibrium,” he said, adding that sea water and ocean currents in Sri Lanka’s west coast carry some 350,000 tonnes of sand northward along the shore every year – sand that must come from the country’s rivers.

There are two ways to minimise coastal erosion: hard solutions in the form of rocks, concrete blocks and sea walls, and soft solutions like beach nourishment using sand dredged from the ocean floor. The former being less expensive, it is the preferred method in developing countries, though Sri Lanka has used a combination of both over the decades. The country’s experiments with the soft solution, according to the CCD, goes back to the 1980s.

The department maintains that the Mount Beach phase of the project is part of a larger endeavour to protect and conserve the west coast’s beaches for future generations. Apart from Mount Lavinia, the Cabinet-approved project was to cover the Angulana beach in Ratmalana and the Calido beach in Kalutara (which sustained heavy damages in the 2017 floods) at a total cost of Rs 890 million.

Since the first such project carried out in Negombo in 1986, the contracts for dredging seasand has been awarded to international corporations as Sri Lanka lacks the expensive dredging equipment. In January this year, the government hired Rohde Nielsen A/S of Denmark for this latest project, awarding the company the 4.4 million euro contract, based on a cabinet proposal by the Minister of Environment and Wildlife Resources.

In January 2018, the same Danish company won a USD 20 million deal to dredge sea sand in Sri Lanka based on a proposal by then Megapolis and Western Province Development Minister Patali Champika Ranwaka. This was to replenish stocks maintained by Sri Lanka’s state-run Land Reclamation and Development Company Ltd in Muturajawela that was sold for construction. It was also to be used to reclaim some land in Kerawalapitiya.

There has been some speculation that the controversial beach nourishment project was carried out based on a proposal by Ranawaka’s then ministry. In a statement issued this morning, the former cabinet minister denied any involvement, adding that if there has been some irregularity, someone should be held accountable.

“This project was planned and implemented by the CCD, which was under then Environment Minister President Maithripala Sirisena. The cabinet decision to go ahead with this project was taken on January 22 this year by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government and it was carried out in March through Rohde Nielsen. It was rushed through during the curfew because there would’ve been opposition from the local fishing community,” he said.

CCD Director General Chandrakeerthi said the project was greenlit on May 8, 2018, and that the current cabinet approved awarding the contract to the Danish company in January this year.

Some 800,000 cubic metres of sand was dredged for all three beaches from a CCD-run deposit off Ratmalana, out of which 150,000 was pumped to Mount Beach, covering a stretch of 600 metres from Mount Lavinia Hotel northward, at depth of two metres.

According to CCD Engineer Lilani Ruhunage, Mount Beach and Angulana beach have eroded two to three metres over the past 10 years. The department had opted for the sand engine method explained above for Mount Beach, which relies on sea waves, wind and ocean currents to move sand along the coast.

Sand erosion has taken place from Mount Lavinia to Dehiwala, and the sand added to Mount was expected to be moved to those areas gradually as is generally the case in that part of the coast. However, according to Senior Engineer Ranawaka, there were unforeseen developments.

“The Mount phase ended just as we were entering the southwestern monsoon, along with which came an unexpected storm. Due to both of these factors and maybe also due to the effects of the full moon some of the sand washed away sooner than we had anticipated. This is what actually happened,” he said.

The department insists that no wastage has occurred.

“There is no truth to the assertion that Rs 890 million worth of sand was washed away. The Mount Beach phase cost about Rs 110 million. Of course that is still the people’s money, but it has not all gone to waste. The sand has been carried to the beaches north of Mount Lavinia,” said Director General Chandrakeerthi.

However, questions remain. Though soft solutions in the form of beach nourishment are seen globally as economically more viable with a higher return on investment than its harder counterpart, beaches thus nourished with dredged seasand are in need of regular refills. According to the American Geophysical Union, a danger inherent to this method is a feedback loop where buildings located behind a nourished beach tend to be significantly larger than in non-nourished ones and are therefore at a risk of suffering greater economic costs in the event of future erosions. The Union’s research also shows that beach nourishment may significantly “mask or reduce the apparent risk of future coastal hazards without changing the natural processes that drive them”.

Getting back to Sri Lanka’s own expensive experiment, though a feasibility study was purportedly conducted leading up to it, there has yet to be any post-project assessment carried out to determine its success or lack thereof. On the question of an EIA or an initial environmental examination (IEE) prior to the project, the CCD remains vague at best, though legally there doesn’t appear to be any complication.

Officials said an EIA was initially conducted for the CCD’s sand deposit that has been used for its beach nourishment drive starting with the Unawatuna project in 2014. In 2018, the Central Environment Authority (CEA) issued a dredging license to the CCD that’s valid for three years which, according to Chandrakeerthi, had incorporated the findings of this initial EIA.

Chandrakeerthi also maintains that his department has sole authority over the coastal zone that extends 300 metres inland and 2 kilometres out to sea.

“The CCD does not need the approval of other bodies when providing solutions to sea erosion,” he said, stressing that it is mandated to minimisie erosion.

Any project carried outside the coastal zone comes under the purview of the CEA, but for anything that takes place within, the CCD’s director general may decide whether or not it needs an EIA, as per Section 14 (1) of the Coast Conservation and Coastal Resources Management Act No 57 of 1981.

Asked why the Mount beach phase was seemingly rushed through during the COVID-19 curfew, the official said the dredging company had been given three months to complete the project. In the event of a unilateral cancellation on the part of the government, he said,Sri Lanka would’ve had to pay the company a penalty of Rs 200,000 per hour.

“We had planned on informing the locals after February 29, but the prevailing situation in the country prevented that,” he added.

In response to the allegations of disregarding environmental impact, Chandrakeerthi asked what would happen to the homes under threat from coastal erosion if an EIA had to be conducted every time there was a danger of them being swept out to sea.

“There was environmental damage in these areas already. We were providing it a sustainable solution. There is no need for an EIA when providing a solution to sea erosion,” he said. (Colombo/Jun1/2020)

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