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Proposed elevated highway across wetlands provokes uproar

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Environmentalists warn that if the second phase of the proposed Elevated Highway runs across Thalangama Environmental Protection Area, Ramsar Wetland city status of Colombo may be at stake. Residents lament that one of the most residential and peaceful areas of the city will be essentially made unlivable causing irreversible damage to the ecosystem.

by Randima Attygalle

The construction of five new flyovers and the four-lane Elevated Expressway connecting the New Kelani Bridge to Athurugiriya was launched by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa last month. The flyovers and the Elevated Expressway are planned to ease traffic congestion in Colombo, its suburbs and Kandy. The contract for the four-lane Elevated Expressway from the New Kelani Bridge to Athurugiriya entailing a budget of LKR 134.9 billion was awarded to the China Harbour Engineering Corporation (Ltd) to be completed in 36 months.

The 17.3 km long expressway is to be implemented in two phases- Phase 1 from New Kelani Bridge to Rajagiriya and Phase II from Rajagiriya to Athurugiriya. Phase II of the project has created controversy and uproar among environmentalists and the public as it’s to be built over the Ramsar listed Thalangama Environmental Protection Area (TEPA). Out the 10.4 km stretch of the second phase, 3.15 kms of road crosses the Averihena tank and paddy fields which are part of TEPA.

Despite Sri Lanka being a state party to the Ramsar Convention the proposed highway project is a gross violation of the provisions of the charter, charge residents from Thalangama and Averihena. Colombo District has already lost 40% of its wetlands resulting in massive floods and the proposed construction is a double whammy, they point out.

“Already water flows into our gardens when it rains heavily and erection of intrusions such as concrete pillars to accommodate an elevated highway will make things worse,” points out Prithiviraj Perera, a retired professional from the UN International Civil Service and Sri Lanka Public Services Institutions. Being exposed to noise and air pollution 24/7 would affect the quality of life of residents living on either sides of the wetland, whose homes are presently covered by trees and green habitats, Perera says.

Thalangama wetland is one of the few remaining green patches near Colombo. It is also a birds’ paradise and a haven for nature photographers. “It is a picturesque site of scenic beauty which is popular for filming of TV programmes, films and taking of wedding pictures. The area is also popular for jogging, star gazing, bird watching and environmental educational tours,” points out the senior professional who notes that destruction of an internationally recognized Ramsar Wetland will impact directly on the Green Development Principles which are championed by the government under the ‘Vistas of Prosperity’.

He says that the best alternative for the Expressway is to take the route from Makumbura, Kottawa through Ruwanpura and over the existing four lanes in Pannipitiya, right up to Battaramulla, which has already been mooted by several authorities. “This shall cause least damages to residents, housing and sensitive ecosystems with any extra costs of rerouting being financed through the issuance of ‘Green Bonds’ as done in many other countries.”

The second phase of the highway will plough through one of the most residential and peaceful areas of the city and will essentially make the area unlivable lament residents. The proposed route affects the residential property that has been in lawyer Rehan Almeida’s family for at least four generations. “According to the current route, the highway will go right across our property along Kaduwela Road in Battaramulla, completely destroying my home and partially destroying my father’s home. My brother’s house is narrowly missed by a matter of feet and will be rendered uninhabitable. The affect to our property is fatal. No amount of compensation can replace the damage caused. We will essentially lose everything, as we have been advised that the property will not be suitable for residential purposes any longer,” says Alemeida.

Several more houses and a sizeable number of small scale businesses will also be destroyed with absolutely no option to relocate, he says.

By plotting a route through the Thalangama wetlands, the country is also losing an asset which cannot ever be replaced, points out the lawyer who questions the logic of “cutting a peaceful community in half” and exposing residents to all kinds of pollution when an alternative route has been proposed by experts who have studied the impact and consequences of this project.

Almeida also charges that destruction of the environment by a project of this nature is a violation of the directive principles of state policy which are safeguarded under the Constitution. He further says that the solution is not to re-gazette the Thalangama wetlands to allow constructions but to find an alternative. “The task of the government is to safeguard our natural assets, not bulldoze them.”

Many farmers from the area who have been cultivating their ancestral paddy fields for generations lament the irreversible damage the proposed Expressway could cause to the eco system of the area. Most farmers in the area who cultivate traditional rice varieties also fear the threat of flooding if the proposed highway is realized.

It is also learnt that the Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) had filed a Writ petition in the Court of Appeal seeking an order preventing the construction of the Elevated Expressway over TEPA. It is also gazetted as an Environmental Protection Area by the Central Environmental Authority (CEA). Despite this, recently the Cabinet approval was given to re-gazette the area enabling the construction of the expressway whilst ‘preserving the environment.’

Director General, CEA, Hemantha Jayasinghe told the Sunday Island that the gazette is now pending observations of the Legal Draftsman’s Department. “Once the Legal Draftsman’s Department reverts with their comments, a careful EIA will be done by the CEA before relevant authorities decide if construction would continue or not along the TEPA,” Jayasinghe said.

To recognize the importance of cities and urban wetlands, Ramsar Convention introduced the Wetland City accreditation scheme in October 2018. It provides an opportunity for cities that value their natural or man-made wetlands to gain international recognition and positive publicity for their conservation efforts. Under this scheme, 18 cities including Colombo have been listed as the first Ramsar Wetland Cities. Colombo is the only Ramsar wetland City in South Asia and the only capital city to be accredited.

“Thus it is important for Sri Lanka to continue to protect the wetlands in Colombo in order to maintain this status. If the second phase of the Elevated Highway is to be built, it will cause significant impact to TEPA, one of the two protected wetlands in the Colombo Ramsar City site. (the other is the Jayawardenepura-Kotte Sanctuary),” points out Prof. Devaka Weerakoon from the Department of Zoology, University of Colombo. Prof. Weerakoon, an authority on wetlands, warns that such a move may result in withdrawal of the Ramsar Wetland city status of Colombo.

“This will be most unfortunate as many agencies worked very hard to achieve this status. Therefore, de-gazetting the EPA and building the road that is currently one of the options being considered, should not be taken as a major achievement but another example of a short-sighted decision taken under the label of development.”

TEPA provides many ecosystem services, especially functioning as a water source for paddy fields that are cultivated under the tank, source of food (freshwater fish), flowers, recreation and associated livelihoods and flood retention especially for highly populated metropolitan Colombo urban area. The proposed route across TEPA will not only spoil the aesthetic beauty and tranquility of the environment but also affect the air quality along the flyway corridor, points out Prof. Weerakoon. “The proposed flyway will have a significant negative impact on the quality of life of the inhabitants who are currently settled along the flyway corridor.”

The need for Phase I of the proposed Elevated Highway is very clear affirms Prof. Weerakoon. “It is quite beneficial to those who enter Colombo through the new Kelani bridge via the Katunayake Expressway en route to Borella, Rajagiriya or Battaramulla where most of the state agencies are located. Commuters have to spend a considerable time on the road due to traffic congestion in Dematagoda, Borella, Rajagiriya and Battaramulla resulting in unnecessary fuel usage and increased emissions. The expressway will provide fast access to these areas and suburban centres such as Pelawatte, Thalawathugoda and Maharagama. Further this will enable a large pool of motorists fast access to the Katunayake Expressway. Therefore the need for Phase 1 is very clear.”

However the controversial Phase 2 cutting across TEPA which will entail a heavy environmental cost needs to be reassessed including a detailed analysis of viable alternatives, maintains Prof. Weerakoon.

Pix credit: C. Kirinde



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THE VULNERABLE SRI LANKAN LEOPARD: One of only two island sub-species

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Sri Lanka Leopard Day today

by Rukshan Jayewardene

Today, leopards live in 26 range countries scattered across the African and Asian continents and are subdivided into nine sub-species based on their genetic divergence and distinction. Of these, the Sri Lankan leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya) is one of only two sub-species restricted to islands. The other sub-species (Panthera pardus melas) live on the Indonesian Island of Java. The Javan leopard clings precariously to existence in several protected areas and high-altitude forests. Their total number is estimated to be down to 250 adult individuals and it is considered to be critically endangered by IUCN. Java’s forest cover is also below 10% of the total land area of the island. The predicament faced by the Javan leopard should be a wake-up call for all those who wish to ensure the conservation of the Sri Lankan leopard.

Population pressure, land conversion to agriculture (loss of habitat), prey depletion and untimely death at the hands of humans are common problems faced by these two island leopards. If one were to make a geophysical comparison of these two tropical islands, Java has a land area of 128,297 sq km and 145 million people (2015) while the island of Sri Lanka has an area of 65,610 sq km and 22 million people. Therefore, Java has approximately twice the land area of Sri Lanka and six and a half times its population. When compared in this way, it is plain to see that Java’s pressure on the land for agriculture and settlements is immense. Although Sri Lanka’s equation is far better, we are still a densely populated agricultural land, with our population unevenly distributed across the island. This so called maldistribution allows for living space for wildlife away from humans, especially in the comparatively sparsely populated dry zone districts.

An irreplaceable role

Wise land use policies and practice, and the strict enforcement of the laws that govern the extensive protected area network, is a key to conservation of all but the elephant (who require separate attention). Recent reversals regarding the legal safeguards put in place to conserve forest land, as well as haphazard, non-consultative land use policies especially concerning agriculture has accelerated deforestation, wildlife habitat loss and population pressure on wilderness lands.

The leopard is an important animal in the wild, a keystone species that plays an important regulatory role in the eco-systems in which they naturally occur. Here, in Sri Lanka, it is an apex predator (at the apex of all food webs on land), plays an irreplaceable role, and its extirpation would create a void that cannot be filled by any other animal. The leopard can be characterized by three qualities; intelligence, adaptability and resilience. Its intelligence and agility makes the leopard a behaviorally interesting animal, and its beauty makes it one of the most sought after wild animals in the world.

A counter-productive ‘numbers’ game

The leopard’s tourism potential is not fully utilized and generally mismanaged by both the government and private sectors. It is a special animal that needs focused conservation attention as well as knowledgeable field guides, trackers and naturalists. Up to this point in time, the bulk of wildlife tourism is sustained by the mass market and package tours that this country courts. These tours are unwieldy for the most part and consist of “beach holiday” visitors who are only cursorily interested in this valuable and fragile resource of ours. Therefore, tourism’s stamp on the protected areas of Sri Lanka is heavy, ecologically insensitive and for the most part ignorantly so.

Leopard-centric tourism, as practiced by this country, exerts damaging pressure on a few national parks that are victims of their own popularity. If this valuable animal and its habitat are to be protected, and at the same time maximum revenue is to be earned, it is never going to be done through a tourist arrival head count. Wildlife/nature/eco-tourism as practiced in this country is a ‘numbers game’ which is counter-productive to the long-term conservation of species and habitats.

Starving a Natural Heritage

Importantly the Department of Wildlife Conservation has to be empowered with manpower, legal knowledge and capacity, as well as state-of-the-art training and other material resources to deal with the ever more sophisticated threat posed by poachers and encroachers within and outside protected areas. As long as wildlife and wilderness remain a State monopoly in the custodianship of the government, legislators must see fit to give the relevant departments adequate funds and resources as stated above to enable effective conservation.

By starving these ministries and departments of resources, a case cannot be made for privatization of the natural heritage common to all present and future Sri Lankan citizens. In Sri Lanka natural assets in private hands have always been governed by an overriding profit motive and exclusivity which is not conducive to managing natural assets for the benefit of its citizenry Alternatively Public-Private partnerships are an option that can be explored. However, regulatory mechanisms and oversight must remain in government hands at all times or else these too will not serve the nation in any meaningful fashion.

On this Sri Lankan “Leopard Day” while celebrating this unique animal, it is apposite to give thought to the management of wild leopards as much as the concerns regarding their conservation.

Pix by Rukshan Jayewardene

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Are women’s and men’s protein needs different?

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As women lose a lot of blood in their menstrual cycles, women need more iron than men in order to fight fatigue or anaemia.

Protein intake is a widely-discussed issue among those trying to achieve their fitness goals like building muscle mass or muscle loss after intensive fitness training. Since women tend to have lower quantities of lean mass and more fat mass compared to men, boosting protein can sustain the lean mass.

It has also been observed that most men are interested in hypertrophy, or a visible increase in the size of muscle cells. For women, who may not want to bulk up but rather lose visible fat and build lean muscle, nutritional requirements like protein needs can look different.

Rightly called the ‘building blocks of your body’, protein is a macronutrient which serves various anatomical functions like adequate flow of blood and oxygen through the body, digestion and regulation of hormone levels. Protein helps our muscles to repair and regrow after exercise and injury. It should also be noted that every gram of protein contains four calories, whereas that number for one gram of fat is nine calories.

Rich protein sources for both men and women include animal and plant-based sources like milk products, eggs, meat, soy, tofu, pulses, beans, black gram, and legumes, and a healthy person should consume all of these in combination to get high-quality proteins. ICMR-NIN says that protein requirements vary with age, physiological status and stress. More proteins are required by growing infants and children, pregnant women and individuals during infections and illness or stress. For people doing fitness training, protein requirements differ as well.

According to the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), while the recommended daily allowance for a 55-kg woman (whether doing sedentary or heavy work) is 55 grams of protein, for pregnant women and breastfeeding women, this goes up significantly. When it comes to health supplements like protein shakes, women often have to make do with products made for men, since the market is saturated with those.

Doctor’s Choice, a 2018-established health supplement brand, is launching a new range of women-centric protein supplements that also aid fat loss. DC’s Lean Pro, a high- protein meal replacement for a lean and fit body, balances weight, having zero trans-fat, sugar-free, no preservatives and is gluten free which is safe to use. Suggested by Nupur Vats, Co-Founder, Doctor’s Choice, here are things female fitness enthusiasts should keep in mind about their protein intake:

1. Try to build and maintain a high-protein diet that significantly aids weight loss and helps with fitness performance. Just increasing protein intake won’t magically give results and needs to be complemented with healthy food choices and regular workouts.

2. If you are taking protein supplements, avoid fake products that saturate the market and do more harm than good. Go for makers who swear by quality and international standards. Put health before money.

3. Most protein powders are formulated focusing on male body requirements. Women simply need smaller doses of protein to reach their macronutrient needs. While some proteins do have male-specific ingredients, like testosterone boosters. These products should not be taken by women. It’s suggested to women to consume soy-based protein more since it has agents which boost estrogen levels in women and hence it’s advised for male to consume it less.

According to the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), while the recommended daily allowance for a 55-kg woman (whether doing sedentary or heavy work) is 55 grams of protein, for pregnant women and breastfeeding women, this goes up significantly. When it comes to health supplements like protein shakes, women often have to make do with products made for men, since the market is saturated with those.

Doctor’s Choice, a 2018-established health supplement brand, is launching a new range of women-centric protein supplements that also aid fat loss. DC’s Lean Pro, a high- protein meal replacement for a lean and fit body, balances weight, having zero trans-fat, sugar-free, no preservatives and is gluten free which is safe to use. Suggested by Nupur Vats, Co-Founder, Doctor’s Choice, here are things female fitness enthusiasts should keep in mind about their protein intake:

1. Try to build and maintain a high-protein diet that significantly aids weight loss and helps with fitness performance. Just increasing protein intake won’t magically give results and needs to be complemented with healthy food choices and regular workouts.

2. If you are taking protein supplements, avoid fake products that saturate the market and do more harm than good. Go for makers who swear by quality and international standards. Put health before money.

3. Most protein powders are formulated focusing on male body requirements. Women simply need smaller doses of protein to reach their macronutrient needs. While some proteins do have male-specific ingredients, like testosterone boosters. These products should not be taken by women. It’s suggested to women to consume soy-based protein more since it has agents which boost estrogen levels in women and hence it’s advised for male to consume it less.

4. Beyond just the protein content, women’s protein powders have additional ingredients that a body needs. There are brands in the market that aim at different kinds of whey protein made just for women. Folic Acid is essential for pregnant women or are trying to be. It helps women fight the risk of strokes, heart disease, and several kinds of cancer. Vitamin B6 which helps women maintain a healthy immune system and reduce heart disease. Iron assists red blood cells in the transferring of oxygen throughout the body. As women lose a lot of blood in their menstrual cycles, women need more iron than men in order to fight fatigue or anaemia.

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Ashwagandha – “The chill-out herb”

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by Emme Haddon

The latest buzzword to hit the health food and supplement market is ‘adaptogen’. Health and beauty blogs are raving about them and the health conscious and fitness enthusiasts are taking them as supplements, in tinctures, herbal infusions and adding them to meals and smoothies.

But what exactly are they? The term “adaptogen” stems from the Latin ‘adaptare’, meaning to adjust, and was first coined in the late 1940s by the Russian toxicologist, Nickolai Lazarev, while studying the body’s resistance to stress. Workplace stress alone has risen by nearly 20% over the last 30 years. With the COVID-19 pandemic in its second year, the economic difficulties and curbs on social interaction have had a marked effect on people’s mental health.

Stress boosts cortisol production – the chronic overproduction of which is detrimental to the immune, digestive, cardiovascular, sleep, and reproductive systems. To be considered adaptogenic, herbs have to meet specific criteria: be non-toxic to the body; reduce and regulate stress by helping the body adapt to it and they must benefit overall well-being.

By restoring balance in the stress response, adaptogens aid overall adrenal health. Adrenal glands produce hormones that help regulate the metabolism, immune system, blood pressure, response to stress and other essential functions. The concept of adaptogenic herbs dates back 5,000 years to ancient Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda healing traditions – many of the “rasayana” (rejuvenating) medicinal plants referred to in ancient ayurvedic manuscripts are adaptogenic.

Ashwagandha (Latin: Withania somnifera), also known as Indian winter cherry and amukkara in Sinhala, is a highly prized adaptogenic rasayana that has been cultivated and used in Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years. It is a small, evergreen plant with velvety leaves, and bell flowers that contain orangey-red fruits, native to India, the Middle East and North Africa.

It grows well in dry stony soil with sun to partial shade and is able to tolerate drought conditions. The Latin species name “somnifera” means “sleep-inducing” whilst the name “ashwagandha” is a combination of the Sanskrit words ‘ashva’, meaning horse, and ‘gandha’, meaning smell, reflecting the strong horse-like odour of its roots.

In Ayurveda ashwagandha is used in various formulations as a tonic to strengthen, rejuvenate and bring balance to all the body systems. The root is also used in Ayurveda to balance vata doshas and is considered a grounding and nourishing herb. Ashwagandha is a powerful reproductive tonic having aphrodisiac qualities that is used to treat erectile dysfunction, boost vitality, balance hormones and improve sperm count and semen quality.

In the Kama Sutra it is described as a natural sexual stimulant that men can use to increase their sex drive. It is also an acclaimed tonic for the brain and nervous systems, traditionally used to treat hysteria, anxiety, stress, memory loss, epilepsy, insomnia and other nervous disorders.

Ashwagandha, is one of the most studied of all adaptogenic plants. Ayurvedic tradition is enough proof for some, but there is a growing body of research lending the herb credibility among those who value science above all else. Scientific studies describe the benefits in a language of the times. Known as “the chill-out herb” it is likened to a stress vaccine that tweaks hormone production and helps our bodies manage, adapt and build resilience to external stressors.

Many of ashwagandha’s health benefits are attributed to the high concentration in its roots of withanoloids which have immunology, anti-inflammatory, neuron and brain regenerative properties and show promise in oncology. Studies have demonstrated its benefits in:

stress management and sleep support – reducing cortisol production and boosting testosterone has a positive effect on mood, libido, erectile dysfunction, energy, body fat, sleep, muscle and bone mass and overall well-being;

improving heart health by reducing cholesterol and triglyceride levels;

lowering blood sugar levels;

lowering blood pressure;

increasing the activity of natural killer cells that fight infection;

decreasing markers of inflammation, such as C-reactive protein, linked to an increased risk of heart disease;

easing the pain and joint swelling in conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis;

treating skin conditions such as ulcers, skin sores, leukoderma and scabies,

promoting the formation of reactive oxygen species which disrupts the function of cancer cells and inducing apoptosis, the programmed death of cancer cells;

slowing, halting or reversing the progression of neurodegenerative disorders including, dementia, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s diseases and

improving cardiovascular endurance exercise in healthy athletes, with significant improvement in muscle mass and strength, testosterone levels, recovery time and tolerability and reduction in exercise-induced muscle damage and decrease in body fat.

In Sri Lanka, despite having a long ayurvedic tradition and growing body of research, the health benefits of ashwagandha are relatively unknown. Here it is referred to as “Nature’s Viagra” with little awareness of its other remarkable health benefits. Globally, however, sales of ashwagandha are enjoying huge success as it responds to key consumer needs: sleep, brain-health, anxiety and stress.

In the U.S. by the end of 2020, with the outbreak of Covid-19, ashwagandha sales saw a massive 3,995% increase as new consumers sought natural remedies to help them deal with poor sleep quality and stress. Studies that focus on improved athletic performance, overall cardiovascular health, immunity, neurodegenerative benefits and pet-care have opened up new avenues for ashwagandha root and its supplements.

With consumers interested in more novel delivery forms, ashwagandha is now available in the form of beverages, chocolate, coffee, powders, gummies, and candies. It is also formulated with complementary ingredients to promote specific health benefits

The popularity of ashwagandha has served as the gateway herb to the overall adaptogen category of herbs. Ashwagandha is poised to lead adaptogens into the mainstream in 2021. Once again, this poses the question will Sri Lanka wake up to the wonders of ashwagandha and the many other adaptogenic Ayurvedic herbs native to this biodiverse island?

(Emme Haddon has lived in the West Indies, France, Malaysia, Hong Kong and the UK. She has run various businesses and has set up a successful on-line clothing operation. For the past seven years she has lived in Sri Lanka where she has been able to pursue her passion for natural medicines. She has a great interest in Sri Lanka’s plants and herbal medicines.)

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