Vigilance, timely actions and coordination by a group of officials of the Wildlife Conservation Department and the Forest Department and environment activists recently managed to halt a sand mining racket in Gangewadiya area which falls under the one mile buffer zone of Wilpattu National Park where no development activity is allowed. The alleged sand mining has been carried out in the guise of developing and rehabilitating Kala Oya river mouth by the Department of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources.
The Fisheries Department has sought permission from various government authorities including the Coast Conservation and Coastal Resources Management Department based on an alleged request made by the Fisheries Harbour Corporation.
Based on the recommendations of various related government institutions, the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau have issued an Industrial Mining Licence to the Fisheries Harbour Corporation for a period of one month that ends on 1 February 2018.
However, Forest Department officials who raided the sand excavation site were told that the plant belonged to a private contractor yet, the group has presented a letter issued by the Coast Conservation and Coastal Resource Management permitting them to engage in sand mining in the area.
Sand beds at Kala Oya estuary has been in the eyes of sand miners for a long time and several attempts were made over the years to get permission from the Department of Wildlife Conservation in this regard. However, the department and the Wilpattu National Park authorities have refused to give into these demands right through out.
In a letter dated 25 October 2017, M.J.M. Nihal Palitha, Director (Industrial) of the Department of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources has written to the Director General of Coast Conservation stating that:
“This refers to a letter sent to Director General of Fisheries by the Deputy Marketing Manager of Fisheries Harbour Corporation with regard to sand beds blocking Kala Oya river mouth from three places. The fisher community in the area are facing great difficulties in engaging in their day-to-day employment due to these and it has been suggested that Gangewadiya fishing harbour needed to be rehabilitated. The residents are of the opinion that this needs to be conducted by dredging about 5,000 cubes of sand from the area. Based on Bathymetric Survey conducted by National Aquatic Recourses Research and Development Agency (NARA) we urge you to take further measures by recommending it is suitable to dredge sand at Gangewadiya.”
Interestingly this also coincided with an oral question posed by UNP MP Buddhika Pathirana on behalf of MP Ashoka Priyantha in Parliament (10 November 2017 Hansard).
In this particular question he sought answers from the Minister of Fisheries whether he is aware that there is a village named, “Gangewadiya” in the Puttalam District; (ii) if so, the number of families living in that village; (iii) whether he is aware that the fishing community living in that village are faced with grave inconveniences due to dwindling fish harvest; and (iv) if so, the steps the Ministry intends to take to provide some relief to the people living in that village?
The tabled answer while affirming the questions also reiterated what was stated in the letter sent by Director Nihal Palitha.
Threat to fauna and flora
Highlighting the importance of fresh water flow of Kala Oya and the presence of static sand beds in the estuary, Warden of the Wilpattu National Park Chamath Perera said dredging of sand on such big scale will pose a grave threat to wildlife.
“This is in the acute dry zone and Kala Oya is the southern boundary of Wilpattu National Park. Since it is the only fresh water source for animals in the park, removal of these sand beds will pose a direct threat for drinking water facilities to animals as well as the mangroves with sea water coming in,” he noted.
Meanwhile, Divisional Forest Conservator D.M.B.M. Bandara noted that the plant established by the sand miners have laid pipes through the buffer zone and the Wilpattu Forest Reserve without taking permission from the Forest Department.
“They presented us with permits issued by the Coast Conservation Department (CCD). Unfortunately the plant – at least major part of it – is on the area that falls under our department and we have not permitted such activity,” he said.
Senior environment lawyer Jagath Gunawardena said the process in which the CCD has allowed dredging of these sand beds is questionable.
“CCD can give permit either under section 14 of the Coast Conservation Act which states that: ‘Notwithstanding the provisions of any other law, person shall engage in any development activity other than a prescribed development activity within the Coastal Zone except under the authority of a permit issued in that behalf by the Director’ or Under Section 16 after conducting an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA). This permit has been issued deviating from both these accepted legal process,” he pointed.
He also noted that in the event the CCD ordered an EIA the public and interested parties could have raised their concerns.
“This project has been granted permits against National Environment Act, Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance and the Forest Conservation Act,” Gunawardena pointed out.
With both the Forest Department and Wildlife Departments now up in arms against the sand mining project, informed sources claimed there are attempts to get permits from relevant authorities and project this as a legal move by sending backdated letters to such institutions.
Socio-economic and biological impact
Dr. Sevvandi Jayakody, Senior Lecturer, Department of Aquaculture & Fisheries at the Wayamba University and Director of Environment Foundation Limited (EFL) said Gangewadiya is an important place not just environmentally but also socio-economically.
There is a traditional community of fishermen living in the area. In addition to their daily fishing which is in the shallow coastal area and the Kala Oya estuary, they also collect oysters. One of the best oyster beds found in the country is in Kala Oya estuary. This particular oyster named Mangrove oyster/Indian backwater oyster (crassostrea madrasensis) is found in abundance in this estuary, she said.
This community live very close to the river mouth. Because of that, getting fresh water is a big problem to them. Every day, they get into their boats and ride up the river more or less into Wilpattu National Park because Kala Oya flows through Wilpattu National Park, and they keep on travelling until they find locations where sea water is no more coming in and where they can get fresh water.
It is there that they bathe, wash their clothes and collect fresh water for consumption, every day. That is a very important thing to remember because this river is their fresh water source. Just adjacent to Kala Oya river mouth, we have Bar Reef marine Sanctuary. It is home to some very important coral reefs of the country. At the mouth of the river there are some very temporary sand beds that are forming. These sand beds are the very first landing points for migratory birds coming into the country. They come here, they land, take the very first rest, feed in the area as it has small fish and plankton in abundance and then they start going in land.
Same way when they go back somewhere in February and March, they again come to these sand mounds, congregate there and then tack off to return to their native countries. These sand beds are therefore so important to these migratory birds.
Kala Oya estuary is divided in to several tributaries. Each of these tributaries we have some very healthy mangrove eco systems. Kala Oya mangrove eco systems are well-known among the conservationists as well as eco lovers as one of the best mangrove eco systems in the country. There are some very rare types of mangrove such as the black mangrove. In Sri Lanka we have a limited extent of mangroves, Dr. Jayakody opined.
“Because of these unique environmental features, it is a very sensitive habitat. If someone thinks they can go ahead and dredge sand without doing a proper environmental assessment, I think that is a very dangerous decision. The moment you start dredging sand without proper equipment you run the risk of salt water intrusion into the estuary. What will happen is the community will have to sail further up the river to find fresh water.”
All these mangroves are adapted to certain salinity. The moment you start dredging you are changing the typical nature of the environment. We are talking about very fragile river banks here. All the islands here, just like in many deltas, are constantly changing.
“To understand how this dredging will affect all that could only be understood through a proper scientific research. If the people have felt that there is not enough fish, it has to be looked at by proper authorities. It can happen due to many reasons. Just because people think that sand has accumulated on banks and it is stopping fish from entering the estuary you cannot run with just that. It is people who have indicated that around 5,000 cubes of sand got to be removed. I’m wondering how certain institutions can go forward and act accordingly without first verifying what the real case is.”
Development and conservation should go hand in hand. You have to do proper assessments minimize the risks and then take actions. More than anything, this is in one mile buffer of a no development restricted zone of a National Park. Then there is a set of certain rules applied according to flora and fauna protection ordinance. It is so important that line agencies should consult each other before they go ahead and give permits haphazardly.