Fearing that the Maithripala Sirisena administration will allow the controversial Colombo Port City project to move ahead, despite the massive ecological and economic losses, environmentalists and other civil society organizations are preparing to take legal action.
Organizations like the Environmental Conservation Trust (ECT) and All Ceylon Fisheries Union (ACFU), have opposed the project since its initiation and the public outrage at the project was picked up by the common opposition alliance during the recent Presidential Election. Several key figures, including the current Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe vowed to scrap the project which they alleged would greatly benefit China and cause a diplomatic rift with India.
However, almost two months after the Presidential Election the construction of the Port City continues amidst varying opinions expressed by government politicians. Thus, fearing that the Sirisena administration is going back on its word environmental organizations threatened protests and legal action against the Colombo Port City project unless the Maithripala Sirisena administration keeps its promises and scrap the project.
Holding a press conference People's Movement Against Port City, a collective of environmental and civil society organizations against the Port City, said that President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe promised to stop the project.
"We are trying to remind the government of their promises. This media briefing is the first step. We will also hold a massive demonstration on 3 March at 3:00 p.m. in Colombo. If that also fails we will take legal action," Sajeewa Chamikara, Director of the Environmental Conservation Trust (ECT) said.
They also said that they can't accept the committee appointed by Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe as one of the members – Samantha Hettiarachchi was also a part of the team who conducted a faulty Environment Impact Assessment (EIA).
"The EIA they prepared was the worst we have seen in a while. This is an EIA report which claims that there is no environmental impact from this project. And a person who was behind this is now in the committee appointed to investigate the project. How do these people get in?" said environmentalist, Thilak Kariyawasam
The concept of good governance is not only about punishing corrupt politicians, but also having a transparent process in implementing projects said Chinthaka Rajapashe of the Movement for Land and Agricultural Reform (MONLAR).
"The port city project does not only affect the coastal areas. It will also affect other areas as they need close to 16 million metric tons of granite. This means that they will have to exploit granite quarries to hitherto unseen extent and that will affect everything from agriculture to earth slips," he said.
The worst Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) in SL history
In recent years we have seen abysmal EIA reports presented to support the most environmentally damaging projects. Those who are concerned about environment have seen EIA reports to support Uma Oya Multi-Purpose project, Mattala Airport etc. and have expressed their horror at the gaps and inconsistencies of these reports. However, at least those who prepared the above mentioned reports at least attempted to present their reports as objective and scientific with a number of 'experts' covering all facets that needed to be covered.
However, those who prepared the EIA report on the Port City do not even try to pretend that this is an objective report.
"The Coast Conservation Department (CCD) requested the University of Moratuwa to conduct an Environmental Impact Assessment to commence the Port City Project in January 2011.
Although the National Environmental Act demands that the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) be involved to do the technical evaluation of an EIA, the CEA was completely kept out of the EIA process. This is strange because the project does not only affect the sea, but also affects sensitive areas inland due to the need of granite and sand," prominent environmentalist, Thilak Kariyawasam said.
Meanwhile, ECT Director, Sajeewa Chamikara, said environmentalists do not consider this document by the Moratuwa University a proper EIA due to several reasons. When considering that the EIA says that the Port City will be 300 acres when the website of the project says that it will be a 233 hectare project, which is 575.7 acres, it is not difficult to realize why no one takes the EIA report seriously.
"These 233 hectares are divided into two parts, one part of 170 hectares can be used for commercial purposes and the other 63 will be used for infrastructure like roads. Out of this commercial land of 108 hectares, 20 are forever and 88 for a lease of 99 years will be given to China. Thus Sri Lanka only has 62 hectares of commercial land, out of which a portion might be given to India. Thus Sri Lanka will end up bleeding out money to maintain the city, while China and India will benefit. This is one of the biggest economic assassinations of the previous government," he said.
Another problem with the EIA is that there is no analysis of alternative sites in the EIA. According to universally accepted standards researchers preparing an EIA choose three separate sites and decide on which is the better place for a project. Thus the policy makers know what place suits a project better and where the environmental damage will be less.
As mentioned above even the most abysmal EIA reports propping up the most unacceptable projects attempted to put a veneer of respectability and objectivity by having a team of experts that is necessary to analyze important elements. For example, if a project is being carried out in a coastal area a team conducting the EIA would have a marine biologist who would inspect the impact of the project on aquatic life.
The Port City project is being implemented in an area famous for its rich marine eco system, in addition the site is an important marine archaeology sites as Colombo has been a port for millennia.
"But there is very little attention given to the impact on marine archaeology as this area is an important historical place and there can be countless marine artefacts in the sea bed as this area has been used as a port for millennia. In addition there was no marine biologist in the EIA team, thus the report is almost blank on what the impact of the project on marine life would be," Chamikara said.
"In addition, to the numerous deficiencies in the EIA, it is extremely biased. We have gone through really bad and even false EIAs in the last 10 years and the EIA for the Port City is the worst EIA we have seen. The EIA begins by saying they are doing this because former President Mahinda Rajapaksa has asked them and in the recommendations and observations section they say that there is no environmental impact of this project. There are no projects without an environmental impact."
- Impact on fishing and Colombo Port
The fact that there is no proper EIA on the project also implies that we have no idea what the impact of fishing and changes to wave patterns and underwater currents would be. Already sand is being excavated from the seas off Negombo which has led to the destruction of aquatic eco systems. Although Fishermen's Organizations have seen the short term effects of the construction, the destruction of breeding sites for fish, Aruna Roshantha, the President of the All Island Fishermen's Trade Union, said that the continuous digging of the sea bed will increase coastal erosion, destabilizing the coastal areas.
"Even now we have incurred damages up to Rs 4 million due to the destruction of our fishing equipment. A large amount of sand is excavated from the sea bed which is destroying breeding grounds of fish and leading to coastal erosion. Our fishing techniques are primitive as the governments have not assisted us to develop.
What can we do if Chinese fishermen also start operations here? We will have to fight with Chinese fishermen and our Navy will beat us up," he said.
- Unplanned construction and coastal erosion
In the recent past, a number of unplanned constructions have led to the destruction of many coastal areas. A lot of media attention has been given to a tide breaker, constructed near the Unawatuna beach, 300 metres long and one metre high, that led to the complete erosion of a large stretch of the beach. A similar fate befell the coral reefs of Hikkaduwa when a small jetty was built.
"If small constructions cause that much damage, one can imagine the impact of such a large construction. The Port City will be raised to a high level so that the lower areas will be affected. The change in currents will definitely affect fish and their breeding. This has not been addressed at all in the EIA, because there was no marine biologist involved in it. With changing currents the transfer of sediment will change and this will in turn affect the breeding grounds of fish," Chamikara said.
He added, the Colombo Port will also be severely affected by the construction of the Port City as changing wave patterns and underwater currents would increase the flow of sand into the Colombo Port. The change in undersea currents and waves will change how sand enters the Colombo Port.
Thus, the government will have to spend a lot of money to remove the gathered sand from the port. In addition, the change in waves and undersea currents will also affect the navigation of ships," he said.
"For the construction of the foundation of the Port City 16 million cubes of granite are needed, but the quarries of Colombo, Gampaha and Kalutara can only provide two million cubes. So where are we going to find the remaining 14 million.
What do we do? Do we over-exploit and damage the entire ecology of the country. This will then affect the water. So the fishermen as well as the farmers will be affected. So we will do whatever is needed with all concerned parties to end this," Chamikara said.
By Rathindra Kuruwita