Endangered: Illegal activities threaten fishing cat habitat in Diyawanna | Sunday Observer

Endangered: Illegal activities threaten fishing cat habitat in Diyawanna

23 September, 2018

As Colombo Metropolitan Region’s application to be declared a Ramsar Wetland City is tabled at the 13th Ramsar Conference of Parties (COP) in October, unplanned development and encroaching threaten to eliminate parts of the wetland eco-system in Sri Jayawardenepura destroying the habitat of a small wild cat, already included in the IUCN Red List.

A fishing cat habitat on the west bank marshes of Diyawanna Lake is under threat from illegal landfills, garbage dumping and other acts of vandalism of people involved in illegal liquor brewing and so on. The saddest part is that all these happen under the very nose of those who have vested ‘powers’ to rule the country, a stone’s throw from the Parliament of Sri Lanka; in an area declared a wildlife sanctuary over three decades ago, and in the high security zone.

Duwa Road in Baddegana, Kotte, was the original road which led to Duwa, where the Parliament now stands, says resident Aruna Kulatunga. The original plans for the Parliament included a ring road around the Lake, and an embankment road had been constructed for this purpose. The Parliament lake end of Duwa Road had been identified as a state reservation for public recreation. At the same time, the importance of the marshy land surrounding the Diyawanna was identified and an extent of 449 hectares around the lake was declared a wildlife sanctuary on January 9, 1985. Further, this area being the closest piece of land to the Parliament was designated a ‘high security zone’ and was well maintained by the relevant authorities until the end of the civil war in 2009. According to residents, while the embankment road had security lighting the undergrowth was cleared from time to time. Constant human presence and use deterred people from manipulating and misusing the marshes for reprehensible purposes.

Neglected area

However, since the end of the war in 2009 all parties have neglected this area, complains a group of residents including Kulatunga. Though they have been footing the bills in keeping the area tidy for some time, rising costs had made it impossible. Constructions had come up including a luxury house built with the patronage of the ruling family of the past regime and a 6000 square foot structure, planned to be used as a hotel or a guest-house backed by a local politician, right at the water front. Further, Duwa Road and surrounding marshes have become a dumping ground of all kinds of waste including construction rubble, filling the marshes.

The environment laws in Sri Lanka prohibit anyone from destroying critical watershed areas and polluting inland water bodies (National Environment Protection (Amendment) Act No. 56 of 1988). Hundred metres from the highest flood mark is the reservation of the water bodies. All public lake beds are a state property according to the State Lands Ordinance and the law which governs building construction bans approval of new constructions and even improvements to existing constructions if in conflict with the existing laws and regulations of the country (Section 7 of the Housing and Town Improvement Ordinance). Therefore, the question is how these buildings got approval from the local authorities and how tractor-loads of construction rubble arrive at the site.

Residents’ complaints to the rightful owner and manager of the marshy land surrounding Diyawanna Lake, the Parliament of Sri Lanka had lead to quick action by a team led by Minister Harsha De Silva and a letter dated June 7, 2018 listing 11 mitigatory actions had been sent to the UDA, with copies to all relevant authorities. This had resulted in the demolishing of the said structure by its present owner; “he used the rubble to fill up the marsh and extend his land,” said Kulatunga.

However, when the Sunday Observer visited the area last week mounds of rubble could be seen at the very place where boards are erected declaring the area a ‘High Security Zone’. Adjacent marshland was being filled up with construction rubble by some parties and banana was being cultivated. “That is the first thing they do after filling up marshy land. They start a banana cultivation simply to show that the land was in use,” a resident commented. Remnants of fires lit on the side of the road and inside the marshes were also seen. Garbage was dumped haphazardly all around the area. A large number of empty beer cans and bottles of hard liquor were strewn about in the marshes. Residents were disappointed in the inactivity of the relevant authorities during the past three months.

The marsh is a fishing cat habitat, say residents. There are other small mammals such as rodents and porcupines. It also houses a variety of birds including purple coot, water hen and marsh hen. Their argument is that controlled development leading to increased human use of the area while leaving no room for illegal activities within the marshland would also protect it as a habitat for small animals.

However, veteran Environment Lawyer, Jagath Gunawardene cautions residents to be wary of development initiatives around the lake. The environmental degrading of the area could not be taken as an isolated incident, unplanned development, specifically that which happened around 2013 -14, without due ecological consideration destroyed the best bird watching opportunities in an area declared a bird sanctuary in 1985, he said. The 449 hectares of land declared as the sanctuary harbour fishing cats, otters, mouse deer and other small mammals, reptiles, amphibians and many resident and migrant birds. Therefore, whatever the changes that are brought in, need to be done very cautiously, with due consideration of the fauna and flora, he noted.

Diyawanna wetland system which was “the only remaining habitat for Golden Plover lost its avifauna value as a breeding ground, due to arbitrary development activities,” said Gunawardene. Diyawanna marshes had been a popular destination for sighting Golden Plover, the Lesser Sand Plover, and had been the only known roost of the Indian Nightjar, all which had been lost due to activities carried out around the lake in 2013-14. Though it was completed in 2014, still the ecological system is not restored. The mudflats were lost forever, he said.

Diyawanna marshes - a popular destination

Meanwhile, renowned economist and environmentalist Prof. Lakdas Fernando commented on the importance of protecting the marshes around Diyawanna Lake, which is of great ecological value. Home to endemic and critically endangered purple faced leaf monkey, the marsh is also a nesting ground for birds of prey such as Brahmini kites and for many migrant birds, he said.

Marshland in the Colombo Metropolitan Region has drastically reduced in the past few decades. The marshes are unique and need to be maintained for many reasons. Colombo’s application to be recognised as a Ramsar Wetland City is one reason. “It would be a huge tourist attraction which draws people to the marshes,” he noted. The marshes not only help flood control but provide fresh air and have great aesthetic value, providing a calm and quiet environment for people to enjoy. With the greenery protected and undisturbed property values would go higher in the future.

Commenting about the problem faced by residents, he explained that wherever marshy lands exist, illicit liquor brewing using the marsh as a hideaway happens. It needs to be controlled by law enforcement authorities and not by tampering with the marshy lands; a unique eco system in the country. Making arrangements for regular police patrolling of the area; getting organised to stop dumping of waste are some actions that could be taken by residents. Existing community social networks such as temples and other places of religious worship could also be used to educate and create awareness among community members about the value of the marshlands and the importance of protecting the area.

Meanwhile, Director General, Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), Chandana Sooriyabandara told the Sunday Observer on Thursday, though this particular area lies within the boundaries of a wildlife sanctuary the DWC has no jurisdiction as it is not the authority owning the land. “If any actions against the animals are reported, then we will take action,” he said. He disputed the recent newspaper reports regarding the re-location of fishing cats in Diyawanna wetlands to another, saying that the DWC is not aware of or has given anyone permission to take such action.

Meanwhile, Dr. Sumedha Ratnayake, Director General, Urban Development Authority (UDA), on whom the brunt of responsibility of taking care of the area in question rests, confirmed that the authority had demolished an illegal construction after resident complaints. Though he had recently received several letters regarding Duwa Road, he had not received any regarding unauthorised filling of land/marsh he said. He directed staff to look into the matter, scheduled a personal visit in the area, and said the authority will take necessary corrective measures.