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.
Daring siege of the Cultural Ministry
The University of Colombo, Sri Lanka was established in 1979 in accordance with the provisions of the Universities Act No. 18 of 1978. The university was given all the land from the road joining Bauddhaloka Mawatha and Reid Avenue (later named Prof. Stanley Wijesundera Mawatha) right up to the Thummulla junction.
There were the court premises set up to try the insurgents of 1971, the Curriculum Development Centre (CDC), the Queen’s Club, an unauthorized temple which had everything else like car wash, canteen, night life, etc, except what should be found in a temple.
Of these the university was able to get rid of the bogus temple. The request to get the CDC premises did not materialize as the then Secretary of Education turned it down. Later these buildings were taken over to house the Ministry of Cultural Affairs.
One day in the early 1990s just prior to closing time the Senior Assistant Registrar in charge of Student Affairs came into my office and told me that the Students Union is planning to take over the Buildings of the Ministry of Cultural Affairs. Their plan was to wait till dusk and get in surreptitiously two by two. I told the Senior Assistant Registrar not to divulge this to anybody else and to wait till the following morning to see the outcome.
When we reported for work the following morning, I asked the Senior Assistant Registrar as to what had happened. He said the mission had been successfully accomplished and now the students were occupying the buildings. It seemed that what the university had been trying to get for a long time, the students had successfully achieved in one night!
On the second day the students who were occupying the buildings were a little agitated, telephoned me and asked whether the Special Task Force (STF) was planning to surround the building with a view to oust them as the STF personnel were occupying vantage points on buildings in the vicinity . I telephoned and inquired from the OIC of Cinnamon Gardens Police station, and he told me that there was no such plan and that they were only watching the situation. I conveyed this to the students and allayed their fears.
A meeting was convened at the Ministry of Higher Education to see how the problem could be sorted out. At the meeting a student showed a copy of a Cabinet decision where agreement had been reached to hand over the CDC buildings to the University of Colombo. The Minister of Cultural Affairs at that time, Mr. Lakshman Jayakody, was surprised and asked the student as to how he got the copy of the decision as even he had not seen it. The student stated that he did not want to divulge the source.
The Minister stated that his immediate need was to get the pay sheet and cheque book as the employees had to be paid their salaries. The students were adamant not to surrender, and they stated that this was done as they needed hostels. Hence the decision to lay siege to the buildings. Mr. Jayakody agreed to vacate the buildings so that the university could make use of them.
That ended the saga of the famous siege of a Ministry building by a few daring undergraduates. The buildings were used to house the newly established Faculty of Management and Finance. The undergraduates were accommodated in other buildings in Muttiah Road and Thelawala, which were handed over to the university to be used as hostels.
HM NISSANKA WARAKAULLE
Professor Dayantha Wijeyesekera
Professor Dayantha Wijeyesekera who passed away a few days ago was a dynamic personality who headed not one but two national universities in Sri Lanka. It was as the Vice-Chancellor of the Open University of Sri Lanka (OUSL) that I first encountered him, an encounter that highlighted Professor Wijeyesekera’s powers of perseverance and persuasion. During the late 1980s, I was happily ensconced at the University of Colombo when I started receiving messages from Professor Wijeyesekera to ask me to consider moving over to the OUSL. The proposition did not seem very viable to me at the time and I ignored his calls But for almost two years, he persisted until I finally gave in and shifted my academic career to Nawala- a move never regretted.
OUSL at that time was in the throes of changes and innovation, most of which were spearheaded by Professor Wijeyesekera who had taken over the leadership of OUSL in 1985 at a most controversial time. Perceptions of the OUSL were negative and the authorities were even considering closing it down. With his characteristic vigour, Dayantha Wijeyesekera set about putting things right bringing in changes, some of which were most controversial and even considered detrimental to OUSL.
In spite of opposition, he stuck to his vision and it is testimony to his persistence that a number of changes have lasted to this day – Faculties headed by Deans instead of Boards of Study headed by Directors, Departments of Study and not Units, a two-tier administrative system akin to the conventional university system of Council and Senate. To help support students who needed to come to Nawala for workshops and laboratory classes, he established student hostels-another move deemed by his critics as undermining the concept of Distance Education. The hostels still stand and have even been expanded.
Other changes were welcomed such as his indefatigable pursuit of state –of the art technology for OUSL. The OUSL’s centre for Educational Technology was a gift from Japan due to Professor Wijeyesekera’s efforts. And it was in his period of stewardship at OUSL that the first ever language laboratory to be established in a Sri Lankan university was set up in the Department of Language Studies – a gift from KOICA, the South Korean aid agency.
During Professor Wijeyesekera’s tenure as Vice Chancellor, the OUSL experienced growth and expansion in academic sectors too. During the 1980s, the university had only a handful of centres but under Dayantha Wijeyesekera the number rapidly grew- there were Regional Centres in major cities such as Colombo, Kandy and Jaffna. Study centres were set up in towns throughout the island and he was more than supportive when requested permission to establish teaching centres for English in smaller urban conglomerations such as Akkaraipattu .
Academic programmes blossomed. The Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences for example had just one Bachelor’s degree, the LLB, during the 1980s. In Professor Wijeyesekera’s time this grew to include a Bachelor of Management Studies, a Bachelor’s degree in Social Sciences and the first ever Bachelor’s degree in English and English Language Teaching. The first degree programme for nurses in Sri Lanka, the BSc. In Nursing, was established at the Faculty of Science with support from Athabasca University in Canada. In addition there also sprang up a whole cohort of Certificate and Diploma programmes catering to the diverse needs of professionals all over the island.
The growth of the university was reflected in the expansion of facilities. New buildings sprang up on reclaimed land bordering the Narahenpita-Nawala Road – a new Senate House which offered space to all the administrative sections and had a spacious facility for Council and Senate meetings. A three-storey building was provided for the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences and a new Library building took shape near the Media Centre.
In addition Professor Wijeyesekera reached out to international centres of Distance Education and Open Universities across the world. In the early 1990s, he hosted with aplomb the Conference of the Association of Asian Open Universities (AAOU) and OUSL became a respected member of the AAOU as well as of the Commonwealth of Learning.
Dayantha Wijeyesekera began his career at OUSL in 1985 when the fate of the OUSL hung in the balance. Under his stewardship, the university burgeoned into a national university, a leader in Distance Education which others sought to emulate.. When he joined the OU, the student enrolment stood at 8,000. When he left, nine years later, there 20,000 students registered at the university. It was his hard work, his dedication, his commitment to academic progress that helped transform the OUSL.
May his soul rest in peace.
Open University of Sri Lanka
X-Press Pearl disaster
It will be a crying shame if we fail to get the much wanted and much spoken about compensation due to us for the monumental maritime disaster caused in around our shores when the X-Press went down.
Our government and all those departments and ministries responsible had ample time to make a water tight claim to make the compensation 1claim to the right place. The best available brains and talent to deal with this complex problem involving a host of subjects including the ecology, marine biology, shipwrecks, the law of the sea, maritime laws and whatever else should have been organized to fight our case.
The moment the disaster occurred, all concerned should have acted with single minded dedication to make a strong claim for compensation. Much video and other evidence of the damage done is available. All of us are aware of the shoals of fish, turtles and other sea creatures that died and were washed ashore and the plastic and oil pollution of our beaches. Some of those creatures that died live for over 100 years.
What we saw on our shore post-disaster was a heartbreaking sight. I don’t think it’s possible to assess the ecological damage done in monetary terms. The plastic nurdles the ship has been washed as far as Matara and it is said the acid pollution caused will be with us for a century. Fishermen have suffered great hardship by the loss of catch.
The case filed is being heard in Singapore. I hope the verdict will temper justice with mercy. The damage and misery suffered through no fault of ours is untold.
Padmini Nanayakkara, Colombo-3.
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