New Port City’s hidden truth spells danger for future generations

Marine biologist Carmel Corea begins her argument against the Port City by quoting Arahat Mahinda who is believed to have told King Devanampiyatissa “the birds and beasts have an equal right to move about in any part of the island as thou and that the island belongs to the people and that thou are only a guardian”.

At the media briefing.

Hands up, I admit that I didn’t delve into the Mahavamsa to confirm the words passed between the bearer of Buddhism to ancient Lanka and the great King at their first meeting simply because it rings of the truth – this Island belongs to all of us.

Starting on this premise, it is hard to find fault with Carmel’s address to a seminar in Colombo last week where speakers lined up to take a swing at the government and its pet project the Colombo Port City. The seminar was headlined as ‘The Hidden Truth’ behind the project.

The truth as Carmel and company believes will bring major repercussions with the completion of the Port City built on 269 hectares of reclaimed land. Among the consequences future generations will face are: The threat of buildings in Colombo City sinking with main roads cracking; Central hills forest cover being erased leading to reduced water supply and drought resulting in food shortage; sea erosion and coral reefs being destroyed affecting marine life including fish supplies being badly hit; raw sewage and solid waste disposal into the sea; and the tourism industry affected.

Before taking Carmel’s argument step-by-step, let’s look at the solution she has given, an alternate plan instead of the Port City – turn the isle of Mannar into an offshore banking hub.

“If you need an offshore island to create an international finance city then it can be built on the island of Mannar which has an area of 50 square miles. The distance from Colombo is 142 miles and you can connect it with a high-speed rail network. The flying time in only 15 minutes. So instead of going through such a devastating development we can use the isle of Mannar which is already there and you can do this without destroying our people,” Carmel counters.

But as it is, the Port City which is taking shape under the aegis of the China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC) is a sore eye to everyone at the seminar held at the Methodist College auditorium including the People’s Movement Against the Port City (PMAPC), Dr, Ranil Senanayake, a systems ecologist, Bishop Asiri Perera, the head of the Methodist Church, representatives of the fishing community, and Carmel herself.

According to the Bishop, the Port City was “not in line with the teachings of the Holy Scripture” as man was interfering with nature. Bishop Perera said: “We (the Methodist Church) are not against development but we stand for the rights of every human being. Nature, and a conducive environment is for all of us but we now hear of the detrimental effects (of building this Port City).

“I’m very, very sad it has become a political issue and that we are looking at the project from a monetary basis. The government has not considered the ill-effects on nature and I call on the government to listen to voice of the people,” the Bishop voiced.

One strident voice is Carmel who has come armed with a long list of environmental issues that have cropped up due to the Port City and the ill-effects that will crop up as a result.

On its effect on ground water levels, she says: “Dr. P.J. Karunaratne, an international land reclamation expert said two years ago that ground water levels are rising. The water (historically) drains out but when you have this large reclamation against Colombo City the water table rises”.

This apparently could lead to the capital city sinking. Already many old buildings in the Fort area have faced flooding issues. The developers of Cinnamon Life had their schedule put back by almost a year due to the water from the Beira affecting the foundation works, it was noted.

Carmel continues. On sand dredging, coastal erosion and coral destruction: “Dredging has resulted in sand particles smothering the reef which is the spawning and breeding ground for fish. It also protects the coast from erosion. Waters have become turbid due to dredging and this prevents sunlight from reaching the corals.”

“Reefs provide nature with a natural filter system for clear waters. It also controls the amount of carbon dioxide in the water by extracting the acidity and this has an effect on climate change. The tsunami was directly linked to the destruction of reefs. In areas where the reef had been destroyed, the tsunami waves were 30-feet high and surged inland for about a mile, while in areas where the reef was intact the wave was about nine feet and barely grazed the beach. Coral reefs buffer our island but the sand dredging is destroying it as well as increase coastal erosion along the West coast.”

Quarrying for millions of cubic-metres of granite also exacerbates drought conditions by destabilising the environment in water catchment areas in the Central Hills, Carmel pointed out. It will also destabilise the geology of the country leading to increased risks of landslides and other natural disasters. Her zealous presentation also touched on the disposal of raw sewage into the waters off Modera–kilometre-long pipes taking the waste from Colombo and its suburbs, including the National Hospital, and pumping it into the sea.

“It is up to us to stand up and do our duty to the nation. This is our country and we have to fight for this. We are all guardians,” she concluded. Just like Arahat Mahinda reminded the King.

Is it then too late to stop the project? Not so according to Carmel who proposes the reclaimed land can be turned into a salubrious park making it a vital green lung for Colombo. As for the International Financial City, well Mannar is always available, although the island’s donkey population might be disgruntled. Perhaps they can come to some sort of an amicable settlement with our two-legged variety – those who make these decisions.

Response from CHEC Port City Colombo (Pvt) Ltd to comments made by speakers at the Methodist Church event in Colombo on February 28:
It is clear that certain NGOs continue to spread disinformation about Port City. This time they have regrouped under a new banner to bring out the same rhetoric whereas all relevant points of contention have been explained in various press responses and the 2 EIA studies. We believe there is a hidden agenda to the spread of this misinformation.For example, that Colombo city buildings will sink and the main roads will crack, was a result of a hypothesis presented by one particular private company at the Institute of Engineers Sri Lanka (IESL) a couple of months ago. This got blown out of proportion in the media. Ms. Carmel Corea is basing her arguments taking this report as truth when there is no scientific basis to back the hypothesis. This is irresponsible behaviour and fear mongering.

As for the central hill forest cover being erased leading to reduced water supply, we have no idea as to why Port City is being accused of deforestation. If this has anything to do with granite mining, we have to clearly state that the Port City project does not get its rock material from the central hills. Granite for the project is obtained from 11 quarries (which have their own EIA approval) in the Colombo and Gampaha districts amounting to only 7 per cent of the quarry reserves of these districts. We have to categorically state that no coral reefs have been destroyed due to the Port City project and this was addressed in the SEIA. Also, the Coast Conservation Department has confirmed that there is no coastal erosion due to the project.

Reduction in fish catch is debatable as there is fluctuation in the catch around the island, and this has been attributed to many reasons i.e. from global warming to unsustainable fishing methods used by fishermen etc. This aspect too has been extensively covered in the SEIA.

As for sewage disposal, Sri Lanka, probably for the first time, will experience very sophisticated methods for disposing waste when the Port City becomes operational.

Not merely because it would be the right thing to do, but because it would be mandatory for a city of the future to have sustainable practices to make it marketable to an international audience. Whilst Sri Lanka’s tourism plans are always centered around resorts, beaches and out of Colombo attractions, Port City will be a catalyst to attract tourists who want to experience the city; therefore it will only add to the country’s tourism attractions mix.

In analysing a project such as Port City, one has to take a logical and scientific approach, and the way to do that is to look to the various experts who have been hired by the Government to see that development happens in an orderly and sustainable manner. We need to point out that 26 Government agencies monitor the reclamation and development of Port City and the project is a partnership between CHEC Port City Colombo and the Government of Sri Lanka who is represented by the UDA and the Ministry of Megapolis and Western Development.

We are sensitive to the social issues prevailing within the fishing community and therefore Port City has provided Rs. 500 million to the Fishermen’s Livelihood Support Society Limited, which is entirely administered and funds disbursed under the supervision of the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Development and the Ministry of Megapolis and Western Development. The programme has within the past year or so, become an acceptable and sustainable mechanism for hundreds of fisher families. Projects implemented under this programme cover a wide range of activities such as building community halls, revamping pre-schools and common facilities, providing necessary equipment to schools, installing beacon lights for fishery anchorages, conducting health camps for fisher families and funding cataract operations and replacement of lenses, conducting training camps on self-employment for women, conducting beach cleanups and Negombo lagoon cleanup, funding vocation training courses for youth, disbursing Rs. 2 million each as a grant to 56 registered village-based fishery associations and funding the insurance premium of ‘Divi Sayura’ insurance scheme for more than 5000 registered fishermen from Uswetakeiyawa to Palangaturai.

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