Highway to Destruction
By Treshan Fernando
The Thalangama wetlands have recently come under threat from a proposed highway and environmentalists and local residents are worried. On 13 February, a ragtag group of around 200, ranging from environmentalists to farmers to students and residents protested the move. They have written a letter to the President and launched an online petition with almost 9,000 signatures, hoping desperately that the attention garnered would keep the wetlands safe.
Environmentalists are concerned that the Government, prioritising short-term development, will render more of the country’s invaluable natural resources forever irredeemable.
History of the wetlands
The Thalangama wetlands have been a part of Colombo’s history for centuries. Speaking to Ceylon Today, Prithiviraj Perera, a resident of the area and a leading voice of the protest noted that the surrounding waters had been used by King Parakramabahu VI to wash his elephants in the 1400s.
Today, he says, the land is home to a diverse array of flora and fauna. Endangered mammals such as the western purple-faced langur, endangered fish such as the Day’s Killifish and Yellow catfish, up to 100 species of birds and many more live in and enjoy the wetlands.
The land was Gazetted in 2007 and the area was deemed an “Environmentally Protected Area” under the National Environment Act which strictly limited human construction in the area.
Colombo is considered by RAMSAR, an international convention, to be a wetland city, the only capital city with the honour. However, Colombo’s wetlands are shrinking, mostly due to urbanisation. Prithiviraj Perera says that 40 per cent of Colombo’s wetlands have already been lost.
Now, the new highway is poised to continue this trend.
Rajagiriya to Athurugiriya
The proposed road is a 10.4 Km highway connecting Rajagiriya to Athurugiriya under the second phase of the New Kelani Bridge. Perera expressed his concerns regarding the elevated highway, noting that, “the damage to the ecosystem would be massive and it cannot be replaced.” To build the proposed four-lane highway, concrete pillars would need to be erected into the wetlands. The construction process itself would be disastrous.
Moreover, the highway could lead to soil erosion. There would also be vibrations and sounds of vehicular movement constantly leading to an unbearable disturbance for the native wildlife. Finally, the highway would be an ugly eyesore hanging over the wetlands ruining its picturesque views forever.
Perera added that many people rely on these wetlands for many different reasons. “People come here to walk, to bird watch and to stargaze. Academics use it for research and students come here on field trips to learn.” A highway would “irrecoverably and irreparably” remove this indispensable natural resource from the public.
Why care about wetlands?
Needless to say, wetlands, especially Colombo’s wetlands, are unquestionably important and losing it would be devastating.
In one aspect, Colombo’s air pollution will likely get notably worse. Colombo’s air quality is currently graded as ‘moderate’, by IQAir. However, wetlands are a crucial factor in keeping air pollution under control. The significant concentration of vegetation absorbs CO2 emissions and cleans the atmosphere. If these wetlands begin to deteriorate, so will Colombo’s air quality.
Another notable issue is flooding. Colombo’s wetlands act as its very own natural irrigation system. A study by Nature, a leading science journal, found that wetlands greatly reduce the risk of flooding. They found that New York underwent greater destruction because of its urbanising of nearby wetlands.
This is because wetlands function as a large sponge absorbing excess rainfall. When wetlands are erased and replaced with concrete structures, the water cannot get absorbed into the earth, with catastrophic consequences.
Perera also said around 170 full-time and part-time farmers rely on these lands and pollution would make life for them much worse.
Best of both worlds?
Recently, the proposed highway was put on hold and a Government committee was launched to determine the most optimal way forward, balancing the environment and the needs of an urbanising city. Secretary to the Ministry of Highways, R.W.R. Pemasiri, speaking to Ceylon Today, said should the highway go ahead, it would be constructed “without harming the environment.”
He added the committee was discussing with environmental authorities on the best course of action to take, but that “it’s too early” to make any public announcements.
Perera, however, remained sceptical about the solutions the committee could propose. He commented that whatever policies that the committee decided on, it would only mitigate the environmental harms, not prevent it. Even if there is minimal damage, that is a natural resource that we would never get back, he adds.
Letter to the president
In December 2020, 160 local area residents signed a letter to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, imploring him to abandon the highway. In the letter, they listed several alternatives that would leave the wetlands unharmed but also solve the growing traffic issue.
The policies ranged from implementing a Park and Ride system, which the government since launched in Kottawa last January, to building better public transport networks, such as metro rails.
None of these solutions would be faultless. Convincing commuters to switch to public transport is far from easy. Most of the listed solutions were long term and do not provide an immediate solution to the congestion problem.
The letter acknowledges that abandoning the project means that traffic festers, but argues it is justified. An excerpt reads, “[halting the highway] may seemingly be more costly, but yet, [due to the] unquantifiable permanent loss to the irreplaceable and limited environmental assets that will be lost forever to the future generations, it will seem to be less costly in the longer term.”
Damage to these wetlands not just hurts the environment but threatens dangerous consequences to residents, such an increased susceptibility to flooding and pollution.
The Government has a duty to look after the long term interests. Failure to do so would not just rob future Sri Lankans of a natural resource; it would doom them to disaster.