Residents perturbed over new highway FR petition contemplated | Sunday Observer

Residents perturbed over new highway FR petition contemplated

The wetlands as they now appear
The wetlands as they now appear

The Averihena Kudawewa wetland in Thalangama was declared an environmentally sentsitive area by the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) in March 2007. However, a recent proposal by the Road Development Authority (RDA) to construct an elevated highway through the wetland, has perturbed residents and environmentalists alike. According to environmentalists this could become a possible threat to the ecosystem, biodiversity and tranquility of the environment.

The construction proposal by the RDA, together with the Urban Development Authority (UDA), proposes the construction of a four lane elevated highway of 17.3 km which will connect the New Kelani Bridge and Athurugiriya. A section of the elevated highway is slated to be constructed above the protected wetland. According to the residents, it would cause extensive environmental damage.

Speaking to the Sunday Observer, the Divisional Secretary of Kaduwela, A.D.Y.Anandani said the framework for the construction is yet to be discussed among the officials. However she assured that despite the unwarranted concern of the public prominence will be given to preserve the environment. “Therefore, we have not decided on a date of commencement,” she said.

In October 2018 Colombo was declared as South Asia’s sole wetland city under the Ramsar Convention during the 13th conference of the parties to the Ramsar Convention on wetlands considering the eight wetlands within the Colombo Megapolis region.

The Ramsar Wetland Accreditation scheme was initiated in 2012. Taking into account the mangroves, wet grasslands, swamps and paddies the whole plexus of wetlands in Colombo encompassing Beddagana, Kolonnawa, Diyawannawa, Thalawathugoda and Thalangama areas are highlighted as urban biodiversity hotspots which provide urban green spaces with the potential of reducing floods and filtering waste.

According to a resident the construction of the elevated highway will be destructive to paddy fields and the local vegetation. “The concrete columns which will support the highway will be detrimental to the farmlands in the area” he pointed out.

“Elevated highways in cities are no longer a solution for the increasing vehicular traffic and it’s an invitation to large-scale natural disasters,” said a resident. He added that while having an approved transit railway line -which will supposedly reduce the emissions and vehicular traffic in the city- it is meaningless to construct an elevated highway.

For Suwandaratne, a farmer and a resident in the area it was handing over his land to the State for the project that has been the most painful. “I inherited this land from my ancestors,” he said adding that since the time of former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaranatunga rice from his paddy fields was sent for the Aluth Sahal Mangalya at the Sri Maha Bodhi, in Anuradhapura every year. “This environment has rare medical herbs, it is a feeding ground for cattle with natural water sources,” he said.

According to him, the significance of the Thalangama tank in the wetlands, lies in that its history dates back to the Kingdom of Kotte. “In ancient times tuskers were bathed in the tank” he said adding that the land which is to be reclaimed by the government is the sole livelihood for farmers such as him, in the area.

A letter from the Ministry of Environment and Renewable Energy points out that the ‘Thalangama wetland is declared and gazetted as a protected areas under the National Environment Act No. 47 of 1980 and is called ‘Thalangama Environmental Protection Area (EPA) (Ref. Gazette notification 1, 487/10 of March 2007)’ The letter also says that considering the ecological value of this area, the Central Environmental Authority is looking for possible measures to declare this Environmental Protection Area as a Ramsar site. They have said that a village wetland management committee (VWMC) has also been established to get the public involved, to conserve this irreplaceable wetland.

The Central Environmental Authority letter to the Ministry of Environment and Renewable energy says “We have taken several management measures to conserve the EPA such as conducting awareness programs among stakeholders and schools, cleaning campaigns and planting trees”. In addition, their requests are to not construct a new pathway or bund dredging and deepening the canals of the Averihena Wewa, to avoid public thoroughfare in the area which may disrupt the composure of the atmosphere, and further the letter reads, “the Thalangama Wewa is full of empty bottles, rigifoam, plastic bags, food containers and Salvinia. The Pradeshiya Sabha, in consultation with the communities concerned should draw up a management conservation plan before any further degradation affects to the environment”.

Amidst these suggestions and declarations, Jomo Uduman, the Director of ‘Mel Madura’ and also a resident of the area said “I’ve not cut a single tree to build my house here because we are very much concerned about the environment” According to Uduman the most important assets of these surroundings are the paddy fields and the bird life where there are diverse bird species. Suggesting an alternative for the elevated highway, Jomo said developing the railway system that would help people to ditch their cars and use transport efficiently which will also mitigate the traffic issue.

However, amidst the opposition of residents, Divisional Secretary of Kaduwela Anandani, said they will likely go ahead with the proposed project anyway, ‘but with minimal impact on the environment’.

But the inhabitants think otherwise- having enjoyed the unpolluted environment, they want the Thalangama Wetland to be protected. Presenting their collective appeal they said the tax monies of the people should not be used to destroy the natural environment. Therefore the inhabitants have now decided to file a Fundamental Rights petition in the Supreme Court if the authorities decided to override environmental concerns, and commence the project.

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