Protecting Sri Lanka’s lifeblood
BY Thameenah Razeek
The Ministry of Environment and the Central Environment Authority (CEA) came out with a draft notification recently to demarcate River Conservation Zones or ‘Iwuru Rakina Pawuru’, which will prohibit and regulate developmental activities on riverfronts and river basins. The draft notification is currently in action.
There are 103 rivers in the river system in Sri Lanka and the majority of these river systems originate in the central highlands. But so far, no river conservation zones have been designated to protect the river system in our country.
Activities in this regard have been videotaped and the CEA has observed more than 10,700 areas at-risk in rivers alone.
It has also been confirmed that since no river has been designated as a River Conservation Zone so far, various individuals have been occupying lands close to the river for housing, businesses and illegal cultivations. It was revealed that the chances of river banks breaking and damaging lives and property are statistically high.
The size of river basins in our country are between 10 to 10,000 Km2. In addition to these river systems, our country also has a large spring system. 1,544 water sources have been identified in the Nuwara Eliya District, 204 in the Kandy District, 19 in the Kurunegala District, 210 in the Moneragala District and two in the Matale District. The Minister of Environment said that these protected areas also need to be designated to safeguard water sources.
"The Surakimu Ganga National Committee is chaired by Dr. Anil Jasinghe, Secretary to the Ministry of Environment and Hemantha Jayasinghe, Director General of the Central Environmental Authority, is the committee Secretary. The whole process takes place under Environment Minister Mahinda Amaraweera and as one of SurakimuGanga’s project milestones, the ‘Iwuru Rakina Pawuru’ subproject was launched recently."
What are River Conservation Zones?
Under the Environment Ministry Directive, stakeholders including businessmen are obliged to take action to keep surface and groundwater within their properties in good condition; also known as achieving ‘good status’. This is assessed against a number of targets, including chemical status and ecological status.
The Environment Minister established River Conservation Zones under the ‘Surakimu Ganga’ project and laid out the restrictions that apply in a specific area. Accordingly the District, Divisional Secretariat and Grama Sevaka are responsible for regulating the conservation zones.
The CEA has been collecting information on all river basins in the country, including on various individuals who are engaged in illegal activities that are destroying conservation lands.
Highlighting that the proposed buffer zone extends some metres from the river bank, Amaraweera said that these areas are commonly used for various illegal constructions and other human activities which cause adverse impacts. However, He said that any large-scale businesses will have permission to remain in the conservation zones under strict rules if they find it hard to relocate.
“If not, the entire river system, which is the basic drainage system of our country, is in danger of being destroyed in a few years due to the misuse of river water,” the Minister said.
But internal sources noted that they will censor ecologically sensitive and fragile watersheds, areas with outstanding beauty, areas that are genetically diverse and important for rare and endangered species, national parks and wildlife sanctuaries; where the whole area will be included under this zone irrespective of the above criteria. “But the District, Divisional Secretariat and Grama Sevaka are responsible in taking good care of the river and creating an eco-friendly environment,” he noted.
Minister Amaraweera also noted that steps will be taken to remove people encroaching on lands along river banks and relocate them but he said it may take some time, since alternatives are yet to be found.
The river banks are fast turning into agricultural lands where paddy, maize and other crops are leading to erosion and encroachment has become rampant in recent years.
Meanwhile, explaining the CEA’s part in controlling and sustaining the projects like ‘Surakimu Ganga’ and the subproject designating River Conservation Zones, CEA Director-General Hemantha Jayasinghe noted about three per cent of the Earth’s water is freshwater, of which only 0.05 per cent can be used by humans adding that the Global Network Usage is growing by one per cent each year.
Jayasinghe pointed out that 2.2 billion people worldwide do not have access to safe drinking water and water insecurity has caused conflicts in 45 countries around the world in 2017. According to the UN, water supply needs to be increased by 14 per cent to increase food production by 70 per cent for every 10 billion people by 2050, which will lead to a challenging network crisis in the global community.
He noted that according to the National Environmental Act No. 47 of 1980, the CEA is responsible for maintaining quality of inland waters and reservoirs and added that ‘Surakimu Ganga’ National Environmental Conservation Program has special jurisdictions to overcome various problems and obstacles that may arise in the exercise of the legally vested power to maintain water quality of local watershed/inland reservoirs.
“In order to make this program a success, a strong mechanism has been set up involving all relevant institutions from the Ministerial to the Grama Niladhari level as well as environmental organisations. The Inter-Ministry Steering Committee, District Steering Committee, Regional Steering Committee on Public and Private Rivers related to the river conservation process. As a bottom-up activation capability,” he noted.
The 'Surakimu Ganga' Steering Committee, along with the President, Prime Minister and Presidential Task Force, conduct a quarterly review.
The former administration was reluctant to be implement new technologies, but CEA has started to take conservation into the digital platform. The integration of GPS has expanded to a great number of ecological and conservation applications.
“Progress and process will be controlled and managed through a CEA in-house designed system. We will be appointing 25 District committees and 331 Provincial Committees under a National to manage and operate the project,” he noted and emphasised that work is already underway in Kataragama where more than 2 Km of the Manik Ganga has been demarcated with specially constructed concrete blocks.
In conclusion, water is the basis of human civilisation and life. Without water, there can be no existence. Water perfects man physically and mentally. Water resources are the driving force behind of the natural world as well as the socio-economic and cultural existence. Water is also a critical factor in achieving sustainable development goals. Realising that value in the proper sense, this theme strongly emphasises the urgent need for active global community intervention to conserve water and water resources.