|Sunday, 13 February 2005|
From a town planning perspective
by Prof Ashley L S Perera
The post-tsunami relief and rehabilitation work in the devastated coastal region appears to be well under way with the active participation of many individuals, institutions, agencies both local and foreign.
However, the government's efforts to put on track the reconstruction phase in the tsunami ravaged coastal areas, seem to have met with some obstacles, primarily due to the absence of an integrated planning approach. The government's planning agencies appear to have failed to respond in a meaningful way thus leading to this vacuum. The rather vague perception of the spatial dimension by the State bureaucracy has further contributed to this confusion.
Most national level institutions in Sri Lanka generally focus on the sectoral composition of the economy and the spatial dimension is often considered a constant factor in their analyses. Consequently despite the efforts of the media to focus on the devastation location wise. State officials only speak in terms of the sectoral impact.
For instance a spokesman for the Central Bank indicated that the setback to economic growth would be only around 1 - 1.5 percent of the GDP and the sectoral impact would therefore be marginal. He concluded that the growth of the construction industry in post-tsunami reconstruction would boost the rate of growth of the GDP.
It would be seen that spatial implications are not reflected in the system of national accounting by the Central Bank. The colossal loss in tems of house and property, transport, power and telecommunication systems, road and rail network do not come into the reckoning of the Central Bank records.
From a town planning perspective it is initially important to examine the status quo ante in terms of the socio-economic, physical and environmental aspects of the coastal region prior to the tsunami devastation. Sri Lanka has a coastline of 1,585 kilometres.
Following the foreign occupation of the country, development generally has been associated with the growth of maritime activities. It is significant to note that the coastal zone accounts for as much as one third of the total population of the country and represents almost one fourth of the land area.
It accounts for a considerable number of industrial units the bulk of which is located in and around Colombo. The country's sea beaches with its sun, sand and serf are major attractions to foreign as well as local tourists and generate a multitude of activities and a variety of recreational opportunities.
Marine fishery supplied ninety-seven per cent of the total fish production of the country and natural resources in the coastal belt provide numerous employment opportunities. Well above fifty per cent of the urban population live in the coastal region and given the volume of activities it could be reasonably assumed that millions of economic transactions take place daily providing formal and informal employment opportunities for well over 800,000 persons, in terms of ILO estimates.
The steady growth of population and activities in the coastal region received a further impetus in the 1960s with the development of tourist related activities which were to eventually cause some environmental concerns which required corrective action.
Some of these concerns comprised (a) destruction of coastal vegetation, (b) adverse impacts on the coastal eco - systems, (c) loss of retention areas and (d) increased river bank erosion which adversely affected the sustainability of the coastal habitat.
Consequently the Coast Conservation Act was introduced in the early 1980s with a view to ensure some environmental safeguards.
For operational purposes the Act defined the coastal region as 'the area lying within a limit of 300 metres landward of the mean high water line and a limit of two kilometres seaward of the mean low water line, and in the case of rivers, streams, lagoons or any other body of water connected to the sea, either permanently or periodically, the land ward boundary shall extend to a limit of two kilometres measured perpendicularly to the straight base line drawn between natural entrance points (defined by the mean low water line) thereof and shall include water of such rivers, streams, and lagoons or any other body of water connected to the sea.
With the coastal region so defined, the Coast Conservation Department followed the practical approach of determining the (a) restricted area, (b) reservation and the setback from the shoreline on an areawise basis, taking cognizance of the obvious physical and other location wise characteristics.
The Coast Conservation Act was further strengthened by an Amendment in 1982 to the UDA Law which declared an area of one kilometre of the coastal belt as a contiguous Urban Development Area thereby bringing all development activities under the UDA Law. There are several other environmental laws which supplement the two principal statutes. On the whole, there are sufficient statutory safeguards to overcome the identified environmental hazards in the coastal region. The snag has always been in the area of enforcement.
Despite being armed with appropriate legislation which only needed proper enforcement, the relevant agencies seem to not only panic by announcing different interpretations of the restricted zone for building construction but are apparently causing embarrassment to the government by ill - conceived advice.
It was reported on the January 3,that the government has banned building construction 100 metres from the coast. The UDA chairman has reportedly said that houses and tourist hotels within 100 metres of the coast will have to be removed as they are likely to be in danger in the future.
It was subsequently reported that the Cabinet has decided not to permit new houses or buildings within 300 metres from the beach. This was followed by a statement from the Secretary Ministry of Urban Development according to which all structures excluding essential buildings like ports and harbours will be moved out of the 300 metre coastal buffer zone.
The latest in the process of government decision making is to declare a coastal buffer zone of 100 metres with restrictions on construction within the next 200 metres in the South and a coastal buffer zone of 200 metres in the North and East.
It is not unusual to have different sizes of buffer zones depending on the different physical characteristics of the areas. However blanket covering of the whole of the South or North or East is not tenable.
The Coast Conservation Department has in fact worked out different set backs for different areas based on appropriate studies. This along with the strict implementation of the Coastal Management plan, can address many of the problems that have surfaced to date.
A larger buffer zone could be a luxury that Sri Lanka could ill-afford, given the limited land resources. Sri Lanka has only 6.5 million hectares of land. The land - man ratio of .35ha per person is the lowest in the region. The density of population on the other hand is one of the highest in Asia. For instance Malaysia which has the same population as Sri Lanka, is ten times larger in size.
Besides, land values in the coastal region are relatively higher than elsewhere in the country. Indiscriminate restrictions on land use can lead to disuse of very valuable coastal land. What is therefore required is to optimise the use of land with appropriate mitigatory measures against possible disasters. For instance houses on stilts for the fisher folk, and over passes at strategic points, land ward perpendicular to the sea, can save lives.
Given the uncertainities in the occurrence or prediction of natural disasters, it is naive to surrender to chance factors such as a tsunami which may or may not occur now or in centuries to come. It is more sensible to face up to the challenges and devise methods to mitigate the adverse effects of such a catastrophe.
Japan and other countries have redeveloped their cities struck by such natural disasters. Shifting our human settlements and townships from the coastal belt in anticipation of a tsunami to locations indiscriminately chosen, is a self defeating or a futile exercise.
It is essential to strike a balance between the socio-economic, physical and environmental factors in arriving at appropriate locations for human settlements and townships. If a tsunami is inevitable some day in the future, let us be prepared to tackle the situation by devising adequate mitigatory measures.
An advance warning system with the collaboration and assistance of other nations can be one such measure. Simultaneously it is essential to conform to appropriate environmental standards to ensure sustainability of the coastal habitat.
Such an integrated approach will ensure the optimum use of limited land resources from an economic point of view. It would provide some flexibility in siting human settlements in different areas thereby satisfying the social needs of the people.
Adherence to prevailing environmental laws will guarantee the sustainability of the coastal habitat and ensure physical stability of the area. It may also be mentioned that shifting of townships should be done with ulmost care to ensure their success in the new location. Indiscriminate shifting of towns from their existing locations can create more problems than they seek to solve.
The Ratnapura town development is in fact a classic case of disintegration of land uses which can be considered a lesson of experience.
(The writer is the former Head/Dept of Town and Country Planning, University of Moratuwa. Director of Post-Graduate Studies and Senior Professor of Town Planning)
Redeveloping the coastal belt
by Elmo J. De Silva
Having experienced the tragedy caused by the tsunami we should all use it as a silver lining to beautify our coastline and improve the basic infrastructure of the people who choose to live and work along the coast.
The Coast Conservation Department with the aid of foreign consultants has identified the distance from the coast to be kept, to prevent sea erosion. However we should reconsider and give a lot of thought before any restrictions are contemplated, with regard to new hotel development.
If the proposed distance of 100 metres from the seashore is mandatory, then from Bambalapitiya to down South no development would take place and the same would happen from Negombo upto Puttalam along the East coast.
During our monsoons some of our rivers overflow and breach the banks on either side. Do we in these instances evacuate or relocate the villagers living on either side of these rivers?.
The way to go about this is either as an individual country, or join other countries in the region to set up a tsunami warning system.
I agree with the Government's thinking that we should take the opportunity to rectify our mistakes in the field of Town and Country Planning, together with zoning of the houses in the affected areas, which have mushroomed over the years. We should also provide decent housing and infrastructure for the fisher folk who have lived in substandard housing for decades.
We should relocate all the temporary structures, which have become permanent and unauthorised structures along the 100m zone, settle these behind the buffer zone with proper housing and infrastructure, including schools, community centres, dispensaries, post offices and places of worship.
Let the coast be landscaped so that Sri Lankans and visitors could enjoy the beauty of our country and just as the President recently stated "Colombo should be turned into a garden city" while opening the Beira Lake development, so could the coast be developed as a linear green belt.
I feel that the existing and future hotels should be allowed to remain where they are adhering to the coast conservation limit so that we shall not destroy our tourist industry. There may not be another tsunami during our lifetime.
Tourists who visit Sri Lanka in the future require a good holiday and they should have a feel of the sea and the seashore. This is a primary and principal requirement of a holiday resort. There are lots of people who depend on our tourist industry and we should make every endeavour to promote the industry, rather than control it.
No developer would want to build any type of hotel beyond the required distance as stipulated by the Coast Conservation Department, before this tragedy occurred, leave alone a 100 metre buffer zone as being contemplated now. If this law is implemented it will be a total catastrophe to the future development of the hotel industry.
Bali is considered one of the most sought after tourist resorts in the world, the reason being that the hotels are in close proximity to the seashore. The authorities there wisely restricted the height of the buildings to 10 metres, which is less than the height of the coconut palms. This scale of hotel development is in harmony with the coast.
I think the Urban Development Authority should monitor the future hotel projects along the coast and enforce a 30 feet height rule and a mandatory landscape concept plan and encourage developers to allocate 15 per cent of the cost of the project for landscaping, and the development to harmonise with the surroundings.
Maintenance of these greenbelts should be the responsibility of the local authority concerned, and hotel owners could pay a monthly maintenance fee.
If the Coast Conservation Department feels that the hotels close to the sea shore in areas are liable to erosion, then preventative measures should be designed and taken by the hotel developers in consultation with the Coast Conservation Department, so that all Sri Lankans and visitors driving along or walking along the side of the coast would get views and glimpses of the sea including good hotel architecture and the landscaped areas.
The well being of the fisherman is as important as the coastal hotel development. While the families of the fishermen could be housed in the new housing complexes, they should be provided footpaths to the beach in appropriate positions to access the beach.
The mooring of boats in clusters and locked for safety should be an important factor in the planning process. Sanitary and storage facilities near the beach, together with vehicular access from the main road to the beach should be provided at regular intervals along the coastal belt.
The vehicular access will provide the means for the fishermen to sell their catch to the fish mudalalis who come in their lorries to buy the fish. A professional approach by architects and planners should combine a harmonious blend of the day to day living of the fisherman and the leisure activities of the hotels and their guests.
The relocation of houses and other buildings beyond the buffer zone should be approached professionally, taking into account the plot size, width of roads etc and the planning module or grid to lend itself to easy accessibility of infrastructure distribution from the main source to the housing units.
The housing complexes can take different forms; generic type plans can be formulated depending on the topography and the locations on the coast. The sub-structure or the foundations could be done by one agency and the super-structure can be done by another agency, so that we short-circuit the development and construction process. When the implementing agency quantifies the material required for the housing units there should be one central body that distributes building materials. This would help the accountability and transparency of these items and controls could be more efficient and streamlined.
The government should also consider land tenure like in other countries. When ownership is given the attitudes of the occupants are different and thereby a special interest is generated through the process of ownership of the property.
Finally we should all unite to approach this disaster in a pro-active manner so that in the future our coastal belt could be planned and redeveloped and would be a sought after holiday resort to the rest of the world. The benefits of the hotel industry could filter to the general population and the fishermen could carry out their calling profitably with their families living in better conditions than before the disaster.
We should prevent adhoc construction and subsequent regularisation by interested parties of these structures on the coastal belt.
It is a rare opportunity for the government and all citizens to give the people living and working in the affected areas a better standard of living in the way of good housing and good infrastructure, together with the community needs and requirements, so that their quality of life would be far better than before.
Who is salvaging :
Water damaged books and documents
by Dr. K D. G. Wimalaratne (Former Director, National Archives)
The deadly tsunami of December 26, 2004 hit the coastline off Sri Lanka and devastated life and property in an unprecedented manner.
The call for aid to restore property and other aspects of human life received instant response from Sri Lankans and foreign governments and organisations all over the world.
The disaster planners went into action and raked their heads over many aspects of disaster management.
However, they completely ignored the importance of salvaging water damaged books, records, paintings, photographs and the like or even preventing such valuables from being destroyed or damaged in future catastrophes.
We saw on television, the severe damage to public records in public institutions, such as court records, voters lists, school books, library books, private collections in those areas, affected by the tidal waters.
This article is to emphasis the importance of preserving information and how to face water damaged library and archival materials, viz, paper based, such as photographs, paintings, drawings and the like.
Various experts came on television to explain to the public the mechanisms of tsunami and the none-existence of a tsunami warning system.
But none of these experts were able to emphasise the management and preservation of information to face a national crisis of this magnitude and the failure of the information deposit and retrieval system, in order to face a similar crisis in the future.
In addition, where were the disaster management planners, who looked into the aspects of salvaging and restoration of important, vital and unique library and archival material so affected? IT planners of the government sector have not devised a technique to save the information in vital public records using the computer scanning technique where information can be retrieved in an hour of crisis, such as water, fire, bomb, hazards ect.
It is clear now that we were not prepared for a tsunami. Nor can we face and overcome the salvaging of vital information media, which were lost for ever.
The 1966 floods in Florence, Italy, which flooded the Bessarian's library, awakened the minds of the preservators and connservators all over the world, how to plan and face the disaster of water damaged documents and books.
To salvage and restore water damaged materials, such as paper, photographs and paintings, the new technique of freeze drying or sublimation is practised in the developed world.
There is no space to describe this technique in detail in a newspaper, which is rather costly, but very efficient in treating water damaged materials on a large-scale. There are certain basic and heavy equipment to be used in this new operation.
Freeze drying refers to a process, whereby wet items are frozen in a chamber and then exposed to a vacuum, which causes the ice to evaporate.
In short water in a book changes directly from ice to the vapour state without melting.
I hope the disaster planners would look into this aspect which could preserve about 2000-3000 books and similar materials in one operation. They could purchase the necessary equipment with the aid of Unesco at this hour, when every organisation has come forward to help in cash and material.
Produced by Lake House