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Opinion

Mawella revisited

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Debri from the fire-stricken X-Press Pearl ship

The Sri Lankan coastline has seen many disasters in the recent past. Its high vulnerability to climate change impacts like sea-level rise, flooding, storm surges, cyclones together with unexpected manmade disasters like the fire on the New Diamond oil tanker and the X-Press Pearl chemical spill makes us realise the immense value of Sri Lanka’s beautiful coastline and how precariously its survival is balanced at the moment. The sole tourist magnet for many years in the past has been our beautiful beaches. But the destruction of our beaches goes on, making one wonder if will be left with any decent beaches at all for our children to brag about in the future.

The Negombo beach is not contiguous; it exists in patches. The Mount Lavinia beach needed to be filled in, just to keep its name going and tourists coming to this destination . The same goes for Unawatuna. A small breakwater caused the world-famous Unawatuna beach to disappear almost overnight. The other prime example is the coastline from Wattala all the way to Chilaw. It has all but disappeared. Miles and miles of black boulders piled high on the once soft sand-filled beaches. Sea walls, groins, breakwaters and anchorages stick out like skeletal ribs of a dead shore bearing silent witness to the damage engineering has done to the coastline. It is due to lack of foresight and knowledge of planners and builders, mainly of the Coast Conservation and Fisheries Departments. If one looks up the coastline on Google satellite, it is all but gone, all the way from Colombo to Chilaw. And downwards from Colombo to Kalutara. Anchorages up to Marawila and beyond stand-alone like graves of a lost shoreline and is an eyesore even on Google maps! The sand is carved out around them leaving only the boulder structure, dysfunctional with nothing to protect.

Engineered coastlines the world over have not only failed to protect the beaches but have actively contributed to its disappearance. The largest structural changes in hydrodynamic conditions of the sea and sediment supply are generally due to human interventions. Beach sand comes mostly (90 percent) from inland waterways. When these are blocked with dams, the sediments that collect inside the dams never reach the sea. Moreover, river sand is harvested and sold. A beach is a dynamic space. So is its sand. It keeps shifting with ocean currents and seasons. Humans intervene in this natural force of the sea, with disastrous consequences. All these human activities, mostly at government level, have contributed to the degradation of Sri Lanka’s beaches. Though the blame and shame are piled high on business interests like hotels and tourism-related activities, on analysis, they are not the only culprits. We can see that the biggest destroyer has been the government. With its lacklustre employees churning out outdated and harmful solutions. They construct structures that actually damage this valuable natural heritage.

This is happening currently in Mawella. It has been in the news that the planned government ‘coast protection’ methods will be applied there again, to a pristine and beautiful beach. This is for the benefit of a few fishermen. In this beautiful bay, it comes in the form of a breakwater with a fisheries harbour and two anchorages to hold the sand ‘in’ during the off-season monsoonal rains Vaarakan. These structures are spread out over the whole bay. Being a government project, interdepartmental approvals were easily obtained, including a conditional no objection letter from the Sri Lanka Tourism Authority. The wrecking has already been launched. The contractor, a local politician-cum-quarry businessman, who is a long-standing friend of the current ruling party, has won the contract bid and has started the carnage already. Because it was under threat of being stopped during a court case launched by concerned parties, he is working 24/7 to take it beyond the point of turning back.

Trying to stop this ravaging of beauty in the name of coast conservation and fisheries development, concerned environmentalists, tourism investors, especially eco-tourism enthusiasts of the bay, and fishermen who are against this project have challenged this hare-brained project in the highest courts. As a result, the court has issued a ruling banning all multi-day boats from ever entering Mawella Bay, let alone the harbour therein. Moreover, awakening belatedly to the huge tourism potential of the bay as well as heeding its ongoing tourism projects and the massive tourism investments already made as well as in the pipeline for Mawella, the Sri Lanka Tourism Authority has withdrawn approvals granted to this project. Either due to the contractor’s hurry, racketeering, or some sea god’s intervention, part of the breakwater, already built, has collapsed (See Pic 3). The shore sand shift is visible already. The fishermen, in whose name this massacre of a beach is carried out, are already complaining of their new predicament. And the multi-day boat fishers who were the major beneficiaries, stand cast out from this fisheries harbour.

So, my question is what is the purpose of this development now, which is costing taxpayers Rs.399 million. They are building a harbour, which is banned for boats! The businessman is continuing to build the breakwater regardless, because it fills his pockets. He couldn’t care less if it is used or not. The government Fisheries and Coast Conservation Departments say they can’t stop the project even if it’s now rendered useless with the Court verdict, as it will cost more to stop it and compensate the contractor. So he wins either way. But at least the cost to the environment can be prevented. The crashing of thriving and eco-friendly tourism can be stopped. The disaster of ruining one of the most beautiful beaches of Sri Lanka can be stopped. Aren’t they a precious enough commodity these days?

What can be done instead in Mawella? Surrounded by cliffs and filled with nooks and crannies, it can easily be turned into a fish-breeding ground. Coastal fishermen of Mawella have seen a decline in their yield steadily over the years. With the lagoon as a prop, the shallow waters of the bay will make an ideal breeding ground for replenishing Sri Lankan fisheries resources if it can be turned into a fish breeding project. If this happens, tourism too, will flourish. Fisheries tourism is a niche market and remains unexplored in Sri Lanka. With the existing vibrant fishing community, this can be tried in Mawella, especially the unique local know-how and existing eco-friendly fishing methods they use. Creating an underwater bio-reef may protect the bay better than the planned engineered structures like the breakwaters, jetties and anchorages. These structures are banned in some states in America as well as the damaging effect on sand migration well studied and documented in other countries that have built these already. They have suffered the consequences. Let us learn from others’ mistakes.

In the power and energy sector, the government has realised the damage caused by fossil fuel and taken timely course corrections to change power generation plans to renewables. Hats off to them, especially the president for doing this. In the same way, coast conservation and fisheries also need to be looked at with environmental impact as a top priority. They need to learn from other countries who have suffered the consequences of old and bygone methods of coast conservation. Groins, seawalls and breakwaters may have their place and use in sea-ravaged and eroded coastlines, but not in the pristinely preserved Mawella Bay. As far as I know, these engineered structures are supposed to be built perpendicular to the shoreline which is impossible in a curved shape like a bay, without impacting its wave patterns and completely ruining it. These spoil not only the beauty of the bay but its currents, wave patterns, sand movement, plants and fish. This affects not only humans but every living thing that depends on these for their survival, from plants, fish to humans. There have been recorded sightings of pink dolphins in this bay, a rare breed of dolphins. What good is it to fishermen if there are no fish to catch? Which is amply proven by the fish yields of Mawella. Isn’t it better to re-evaluate and use the money for something more beneficial to the fishermen of the area? Doing so is the surest way of protecting our coastal ecosystems as well as Sri Lanka’s beaches for future generations.

Concerned Citizen



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Opinion

Red Alert: Need to quarantine imported organic fertilisers

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By CHANDRE DHARMAWARDANA

Canada

When the government suddenly banned the import of fertilisers and pesticides in April 2021 and went ‘100 percent organic’, many scientists warned of dire danger ahead.

The hubris of becoming the world’s first to be free of alleged agricultural toxins made the government stand firm. Its rag-tag of ideologically motivated advisors pointed to roadside mounds of leaves, or Salvinia on rivers, and claimed that enough organic fertiliser can be produced, locally, to meet all needs. It was claimed falsely that Lanka’s ancients had even made it the ‘granary of the East’.

A decades-old ‘good food for health’ movement, among elite circles and fashionable eco-activists, gained a foothold among Sri Lankan nationalists as well. They falsely claimed that even the Chronic Kidney disease of Rajarata is caused by agrochemicals and that Lankans die of cancer due to the use of agrochemicals. According to one politicised doctor, the ancients ate toxin-free food and lived to 140 years, while modern Lankans have eaten poisoned food since 1970 (see https://dh-web.org/green/cdw-Padeniya18May2021.pdf, or Pethiyagoda: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qnmRk3BRtQc).

According to news reports, Sri Lanka is to import organic fertilisers costing Rs 3.8 billion, to cultivate 1.1 million hectares. This is alarming news. Organic fertilisers should not cross borders, as microbes, viruses and other components in them, benign in the local biosphere, may become harmful in a different biosphere.

More alarmingly, the organic fertilizer is from China! China is the country using the MOST amount of the harshest types of agrochemicals and industrial toxins. Its ‘organic fertiliser’ is made of urban waste, raw ‘night soil’, seaweeds or whatever, and processed for local use according to standards satisfactory for those ecosystems; but certainly ‘not’ for Sri Lankan ecosystems. Sri Lanka uses very low amounts per hectare of agrochemicals, even in the tea estates, as compared to most countries (see: The Island, 2021/05/6 ‘Political rhetoric, or sounding death knell for Sri Lanka’s agriculture?’ https://island.lk/political-rhetoric-or-sounding-death-knell-for-sri-lankas-agriculture/).

So, importing Chinese ‘organic fertilizer’ is like exporting bags of ‘processed’ Meethotamulla garbage to some country foolish enough to pay 3.8 billion rupees for it! While such humus is useful to the soil, the universally valid chemistry of proteins shows that such ‘organic fertiliser’ cannot contain significant amounts of nitrogen or phosphorus needed for plant growth. Claims of organic fertiliser, with unusually high nitrogen, content are pure propaganda.

Precautionary principle

Viruses, bacteria and other organisms in any imported product mutate and infect the host country rapidly. This danger is well understood and reflected in Sri Lanka’s import control standards.

Dr. Chris Panabokke, Director General of Agriculture some decades ago, strongly opposed suggestions to even ‘test’ the use of imported nitrogen-fixing bacteria, to enhance Sri Lanka’s relatively poor soils. A ‘good’ bacterium of a foreign ecosystem may become dangerous in a new ecosystem. Even an accidental release is a catastrophe. So the so-called ‘precautionary principle’ becomes relevant.

If a traveller had even visited a farm in a foreign country, or brought a mere twig of a plant, strict rules are applied at immigration, even though invasive pathogens and pests hitching a ride on imports is inevitable. Such invasions, including the invasion of the COVID-19 virus, are processes that countries have learnt to control as much as possible.

Importation of fertilisers and other agrochemicals, be they inorganic or organic, requires that the product be sterile, which means free of living organisms, and free of soils. Impurities like heavy metals and chemical residues should only occur at levels below the maximum allowed limits (MALs).

No country willingly imports potentially dangerous materials that can irreversibly implode a country’s food system and the health of its citizens. The organic fertiliser needed to cultivate 1.1 million hectares may be anywhere from 50-500 million metric tonnes, depending on the planted crops and soil conditions. No exporter of organic fertiliser, anywhere in the world, is set up to sterilise such large quantities of organic fertiliser or remove any residual soils from such fertilizer. So it is safe to distrust any large export.

Facing danger when much is at stake

No country can properly sample a huge amount, 30 to 500 million metric tonnes of a non-uniform material like organic fertiliser. Elementary statistical theory shows that for such non-uniform materials a fraction 1/e of the total, where “e=2.718” (the base of the Napierian logarithm) must be sampled. Even all the analytical chemistry labs of the whole world working for the President of Sri Lanka, cannot do the job!

However, a non-uniform material contaminated with pathogens has billions of pathogens. So even a few samples may show SOME pathogens, though not all types of pathogens, and that is the red alert.

News reports say that two advanced samples were found to be contaminated with Erwinia and Bacillus bacteria dangerous to crops, and also other pathogens harmful to humans. This is extremely alarming news. The food security of the country, the health of its residents, and prospects for generations are at stake. When so much is at stake, the precautionary principle must be applied.

Steps to take in facing the ‘Red Alert’

These so-called organic fertilizers are likely to arrive in Sri Lanka anytime soon. Drastic steps are needed to avert an irreversible tragedy. Humpty Dumpty cannot be put back on the wall, and his splinters should not spew havoc all over the island. Hence, here are the steps to take:

1.

Leading agricultural and health scientists should file a fundamental rights petition, based on the intrinsic impossibility of fulfilling the plant and biohazard quarantine rules at the scale of the planned imports.

2.

Require that the imported material on arrival be quarantined in an off-shore facility (an army-controlled island, for example) and sterilised to free it of pathogens.

3.

Once sterilised, the heavy metals content must be reduced below the Maximum Allowed Limits, as discussed below.

4.

The only technically viable option for the mass sterilisation of millions of tonnes of a metrical is via gamma-ray irradiation. An off-shore facility must be built where the foreign organic material is slowly and repeatedly rolled over a battery of gamma-ray sources (see, for example, N. Halis, Med Device Technol. 1992 Aug-Sep; 3(6):37-45.)

5. The sterilized organic fertiliser must then be freed of heavy metals such as Arsenic, Cadmium, Lead, Mercury that are extremely harmful to human and animal health.

Considering Cadmium (Cd) as an example, and the European average of 50 mg of Cd per kilogram of inorganic fertiliser as the MAL, the safe amount in organic fertiliser (applied in tonnes and not kilos) should be hundreds of times less. In fact, almost all the heavy metals have to be removed. Chemically removing all the heavy metals from millions of tonnes of fertiliser is impossible, and creates the bigger problem of disposing of the impurity. The only option is to render the heavy metals inert and ineffective using a cheap, non-poisonous but powerful chemical chelating agent that is also available in commercial quantities.

The only substance that fits the bill is glyphosate. It is known to promote the growth of earthworms and increase useful microorganisms when applied to contaminated soils (see: Environmental Toxicology, 2014 https://doi.org/10.1002/etc.2683). The imported sterilised organic fertiliser must be mixed with the appropriate amount of glyphosate, in mixing vessels similar to cement mixers at each farming site.

6.

Alternatively, the import should be returned to China and Lanka suffers its loss, but avoids steps 1 to 5.

7.

The recent ambiguous gazette notification on limiting the import of agrochemicals should be challenged by importing a few kilos of urea and TPS as legal tests.

Once the first batch of organic fertilizer is handled according to the steps indicated above, no more organic fertiliser should be imported to avert irreversible tragedy.

Only locally made organic fertiliser must be used to provide ‘organic food’ for those who want it. Local composting must be technically controlled, to sequester dangerous greenhouse gases like methane and CO2 that should not be released into the atmosphere (see: R. Lal, https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/abs/10.1098/rstb.2007.2185). The major part of the market can be supplied via conventional agriculture, which is much safer from an environmental and human-health point of view than organic agriculture.

(The author was a professor of chemistry and a Vice-Chancellor of the Sri Jayewardenepura University in the 1970s, then known as the Vidyodaya University. Currently, he is affiliated with the National Research Council of Canada and the University of Montreal)

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Opinion

Disciplined society: Bridge too far?

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By Dr. Upul Wijayawardhana

Discipline, by definition, is the practice of training people to obey rules and orders and punishing them if they do not. But there is more to it. The government of the day can lay down the rules as well as the mechanisms for punishment if they are broken, but society has even a greater part to play, as disciplined behaviour is mutually beneficial. The behaviour of the majority of the public, rather the misbehaviour, contributing to the difficulty of controlling the present COVID-19 pandemic, is a case in point.

True, the Pohottuwa government has distinguished itself by scoring many own goals, but it has to be appreciated that the President and the government have done much to control the pandemic, under very difficult circumstances. For an under-resourced country, facing a severe foreign exchange crisis, due to the pandemic, to have vaccinated more than half of the adult population, in a relatively short period, is a remarkable achievement, as it surpasses some developed countries. True, mistakes were made but no country got things correct as this was an unprecedented situation. Had there been more cooperation from the public, including the Opposition, things could have been even better. Having seen how Britain, which was hit very much harder, controlled the pandemic, I wrote an article ‘Learning to live with Covid-19’ (The Island, 26 August) wherein I stated:

“Limitations in force in Sri Lanka, before the imposition of the curfew, were similar to the strictest lockdown measures in countries like the UK. Why is that Sri Lanka needs to go a step further and introduce a curfew? The simple answer is discipline; whereas in the UK the majority show disciplined behaviour, unfortunately, the opposite is true in Sri Lanka.”

Though many appreciated my article written in good faith, to offer scientific facts to convince the public that they have a greater part to play than the government, to overcome the epidemic and learn to live with it, most unexpectedly, the only rebuff I got was from a former colleague of mine. He lambasted:

“I was quite amazed and disappointed about your comments about the vaccination programme here. Every medical professional here, except the ever-diminishing number of those slavishly loyal to the Rajapksas, are extremely critical of the way it is done. This vaccination programme has totally ruined the reputation we had as a country with an exemplary immunisation programme for a long time. When the Army, politicians and other businessmen make decisions, overriding medical opinion, the outcome is obvious.

The vaccination queues are the latest super-spreaders. Many have got the infection few days after attending a mass vaccination site. The latter have become carnivals with the army band providing music and the President making a supervisory visit every now and then.

“You have suddenly found Sri Lankans to be very undisciplined. With such a set of power-wielding uneducated, undisciplined set of leaders, what did you expect the people to be? Living thousands of miles away, your extreme ignorance about the ground situation here, coloured by your unwavering loyalty to some politicians, is not surprising.”

I was shocked that a member of my profession sought to politicise a serious public health issue. Whilst pointing out that routine vaccination programmes are not comparable to a programme conducted during an extreme emergency and that many, including Dr. N.S. Jayasinghe, a much-respected physician, has written to newspapers praising the programme, I addressed the issue of indiscipline with the following response:

“I know from personal experience how undisciplined Sri Lankans are and it is not a new discovery! I left the GMOA because I was against strikes, a sign of lack of discipline among the members of the so-called noble profession. If you think Sri Lankans are disciplined, you are living in cloud-cuckoo land! Your statement that the vaccination programme acted as a spreader proves my point. If it did occur, it is because people do not know how to queue. They think if you push, things would be done quicker! If the Army had stood outside ordering people to queue properly, the Opposition would have claimed Gota was using the Army to tame the public!”

The last thing I wish to do is to criticize my brethren unfairly, from a distant land, but I am not left with much choice. It is pretty obvious that indiscipline has grown, as much as each successive government in Sri Lanka, since independence, becoming more corrupt than the previous.

We are supposed to be a Buddhist country and we expect the disciples of the Buddha to be the most disciplined. A Buddhist priest trying to assault a vaccinator, because the stock of vaccines runs out, may be interpreted as an isolated incident, but it is not. Utterances by some Buddhist priests in public are cringeworthy. A Buddhist priest leads a nurse’s trade union; much against the code of conduct laid down by the Buddha and adds insult to injury by getting them to take trade union action during a grave medical emergency, endangering lives. Buddhist priests are seen joining the teacher’s strike, too.

What about the noble profession of mine and my friend’s? Even before the pandemic, their trade union did not care two hoots about patients’ lives; going on strike being their first response to any problem! Unashamedly, they risked innocent patients’ lives during a pandemic to get their demands.

Not that there are no disciplined professionals. Much was made, in the media, of Dr. Ananda Wijewickrema’s resignation and a few others from the expert committee. One of their colleagues has written to this newspaper that they owe it to the public to declare why they resigned. The resignation itself says it all and that is the way decent professionals protest.

Now teachers have joined the strike bandwagon to settle a dispute that had been lingering on for over two decades. They do not care a tuppence about the future of our youth and in the process have lost all the esteem the public held them in. My friend, very conveniently, has failed to notice that the virus spread due to demonstrations held by teachers breaching COVID-19 regulations, despite it resulting in the unfortunate deaths of some teachers.

Leaving politicians aside, most of whom are undisciplined, irrespective of their complexions, when respected segments of the society, like the clergy, medical professionals and teachers, display gross indiscipline during an unprecedented period like this, can there be any hope? I wonder! I do hope the next generation ‘rebels’ against these, as generations do, so that a disciplined society may not be a bridge too far; I can only hope!

Coming back to the political accusations my colleague made, my reply was:

“I am not ashamed to admit that, any day, I would prefer Mahinda, Gota and Basil to Ranil or Sajith.”

Just a few days after my comment, Sajith made his declaration that there should be a snap-election. My assessment was confirmed by the leader of the JVP who responded by saying that Sajith should have his head examined!

Perhaps, there is more to it than that. Considering the number of protests and trade union actions that have taken place in spite of the continuing national emergency, one cannot be blamed for suspecting that there is a hidden hand behind all this. Maybe, Sajith let the cat out of the bag by his unguarded comment.

On top of the inherent tendency, it looks as if there is planned indiscipline too!

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Opinion

When Susanthika did Lanka proud

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As in certain offices, in banks too there are restricted areas for outsiders and staff members who are not attached to the relevant divisions. The Treasury Department of any bank consists of three different sections; the front office, middle office and back office. The front office is commonly known as the Dealing (Trading) Room, with strict limitations to those present. It can also be used as a television viewing place, with the availability of all channels, both local and foreign.

The day, September 28, 2000, was an exceptional day as a few breathtaking moments were witnessed within our dealing room at HNB, as history was made by a courageous and determined, petite Lankan damsel in a faraway country. That was the day our Athletic Heroin, Susanthika Jayasinghe, competed in the Sydney Olympics in the 200 meters finals. Knowing the enthusiasm and fervour, that other staff members too share, to witness the event live, with the consent of my boss, Senior DGM Treasury, Gamini Karunaratne, I kept the doors of the Dealing Room wide open for others too to watch the event. As the ‘auspicious’ time approached the dealing room started getting packed. Finally, it was not only ‘house full’ but ‘overflowing’.

Maintaining the tradition, the ‘visitors’ were silent except for a slight murmur. Gradually, the murmuring diminished as the time approached. The track was quite visible to all of us. For the women’s 200 meters sprint event, there were eight competitors with Marion Jones of the USA as the hot favourite, and Cathy Freeman of Australia, the two athletes many of us knew.

As the much-anticipated event commenced, there was dead silence for about 20+ seconds and then the uproar of ecstasy erupted, along with tears of joy in all gathered, as our Golden Girl became the bronze medal winner, just a mere 0.01 seconds behind the second-placed Pauline Davis of Bahamas.

That was a monumental day for all sports loving Sri Lankans, after Duncan White’s 400 meters silver medal in the 1948 London Olympics, M. J. M. Lafir becoming the World Amateur Billiards Champion in 1973, and Arjuna’s golden boys bringing home the Cricket World Cup in 1996, beating the much-fancied Aussies.

As treasury dealers, while at work, we have witnessed all-important local and world events as and when they happened, thanks to the advanced media paraphernalia in dealing rooms of the banks.

Coming back to Olympics, for seven years everything was rosy for Marian Jones (MJ), but when she pleaded guilty to using steroids, she received international opprobrium and was stripped of all five Olympic medals she won in Sydney, Australia. After the belated disqualification of MJ, our heroine Susanthika was adjudged the Olympic silver medallist of the 200 meters event in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, with Pauline Davis as the gold medallist.

So it is after 52 years that Sri Lanka was lucky enough to have won another Olympic medal. Thanks to the sheer determination of our golden girl Susanthika and her numerous supporters, she was able to achieve this spectacular honour, amidst many obstacles. She was the first Asian to have won an Olympic or a world championship medal in a sprint event. The 21st anniversary of her tremendous feat falls on September 28.

Thank you, Madam Susie, for bringing honour to the country, and being an inspiration to the younger generations of budding athletes.

LALITH FERNANDO

Panadura

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