Did We Need a Pandemic to Curb Pollution?
By Buddhika Samaraweera
The world is set up in a truly wonderful way, such that, everything that happens in it brings about both positive and negative consequences. An example of this is how, over the past few months, the outbreak of COVID-19 tragically has so far claimed more than 28,330,000 human lives, and yet brought about a benefit to the planet itself, as many of the human activities that have been destroying the environment for decades have come to a standstill due to the pandemic.
Such activity was happening at the Bolgoda Environmental Protection Area, where various unauthorised establishments and the irregular disposal of garbage were severely affecting the largest wetland in the Western Province. Villagers in areas such as Ratmalana, Kesbewa, Moratuwa, Kalutara, Panadura, Piliyandala and Bandaragama regularly complained of the serious environmental issues that arose in the recent past as a result of this.
Unfortunately, the state of the Bolgoda Reservoir and its surrounding environment is very sad today. Its water has been heavily polluted, threatening its aquatic plants and creatures with extinction. Unauthorised filling and construction of the reservoir have invaded its natural boundaries, to the extent that even the fishing community that was dependent on the lake gradually moved away from these activities.
Most of this damage stems from the tourist hotels and houses built along the Bolgoda River. Those involved in fishing in the area constantly complain that water pollution has greatly increased due to wastewater and other garbage disposed from hotels and the surrounding houses into the Bolgoda River. Despite constantly asking authorities to pay attention to protecting this national treasure, they have seen no reasonable solution.
However, there may still be hope. A group of fishermen from the Piliyandala area told Ceylon Today, that with the outbreak of COVID-19 virus, fish harvests are larger than normal these days. Nowadays, the whole world is under a recession due to the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19. This has caused severe difficulties in developing nations like Sri Lanka, with the people facing an extreme degree of economic hardship. In such a situation, the increase in fishing yields is a great relief to those dependent on the fishing industry.
A noticeable drop in pollution
Sugath, a fisherman using the Bolgoda River, said that due to various reasons, he was finding it difficult to continue his livelihood, but was earning a substantial income during these few months since most of the hotels and other factories located in the area were not functioning due to COVID-19.
He noted that the closure of many hotels resulted in a dramatic reduction in water pollution, adding that as a result, many people in the fishing industry were making a considerable income these days. This also makes it clear that the improperly-constructed hotels and houses directly caused the decline in the fish harvests in the past, he further said.
He recalled how the waters would sometimes completely change colour, owing to the dumping of old paint by the paint manufacturing plants along the Bolgoda River, while its surface would be dotted with the waste disposed from the bridges over the river in Panadura and Moratuwa.
Making matters worse, he claimed, was the unauthorised land reclamation taking place along the river, with no institution trying to stop this. “If we cut a branch off a tree, we would be arrested. However, there is no institution to look into such matters,” he complained.
“Due to the prevailing curfew over the past few days, traffic has been reduced, which also helping to reduce water pollution. All of this means, we must act in a way that is not harmful to the environment. We hope that everybody will pay attention to this and act with a sense of respect towards nature,” he added.
Another person involved in the fishing industry in the area said, that many hotels located in this area were disposing garbage into the river, posing a serious threat not only to their livelihoods, but also to the environment. He noted, that many of these hotels offered boat-riding facilities to the guests, but due to the high speeds of these boats, fish eggs and fishing nets were being destroyed.
Though their livelihoods, in which they have been engaged for generations, are put at risk, they remain helpless to stop it, he said, as the Bolgoda Environmental Protection Area comes under various agencies, making it difficult to lodge a complaint.
“When we go to one institution to lodge a complaint, they say they are unable to look into the matter, and direct us to another agency. They, in turn, direct us to yet another institution. In the end, we get fed up of being sent back and forth and give up on our complaint. It would be ideal if the area could be brought under one agency, and hotels are operated in way that does not harm the environment,” he said.
He went on to say, “Most hotels and other factories located in the area are not operating these days. As a result, the Bolgoda River has been cleaned up considerably, making the cause of pollution in this reservoir very clear. Bolgoda River benefits not only the fishermen, but also other people in many ways. We have been complaining about these issues for a long time, but there has been no satisfactory solution.”
“We are not saying ‘don’t build hotels’. However, we have to be very cautious when constructing such buildings in a place like this. Especially when they provide boat-riding facilities, it should be planned in a way that does not harm the environment and hinder our livelihoods. Because saving this river and its fishing industry for the next generation is worth thousands of times more than the profits made by these hotels.”
Dealing with the economic impact as he said, there are several factories and hotels by the river, but many of them are currently inactive due to the COVID-19 virus. A large number of people have lost their jobs, and various reports show that further job losses are expected.
As you probably know, there has been a lot of talk about home gardening and strengthening local industries over the past few months. Together, the Government and all other relevant authorities have come up with a number of programmes to address the problems faced by those involved in local industries.
The fishing industry is one of Sri Lanka’s oldest local industries, and has become the primary source of income for many. There is also the possibility of earning a large amount of foreign exchange through the export of this industry’s products.
This makes it important to retain people within the industry. However, the problems faced by the fishing industry and the lack of fair solutions to these issues have led to people turning to other forms of employment.
Also, many have forgotten the value of the Bolgoda Reservoir and its ecological importance. Bolgoda is a wetland system consisting of a series of interconnected reservoirs of water from ancient times with the combination of the Bolgoda River, Veras Ganga and Kalu Ganga basins. This aquatic environment is rich in natural resources and home to rare species of fish, aquatic plants, birds and medicinal plants of Sri Lanka. This environment is of course a gift of nature in comparison to the artificial environment of the Colombo District, which has been heavily urbanised and overcrowded at present. Not only the Bolgoda Reservoir, but many other water sources in the country have also seen contamination due to human activity. Such conditions highlight the need for a systematic and practical programme in place to protect all such water sources, which would also protect the livelihoods of many.
There is no need to make sky-high reports or appoint committees that cost billions to address local industry problems – this would result in further waste of public money. The traditional methods of solving these problems would provide a sufficient answer to the issues raised by our fisher-folk.
It is vital that all sectors that strengthen the economy and provide employment survive the pandemic. Granted, the contribution of the tourism sector, which is likely the hardest-hit, can never be underestimated. But now is the time to consider if the revenue it generates is truly worth it if it comes at the cost of our environment.
In working to strengthen the economy, if we do it in a manner that is respectful of nature, we can ensure the benefits of prosperity are enjoyed by future generations, as well as our current natural companions on this island.