Stop Taking it For Granted!
By Risidra Mendis Ceylon Today Features
Every day we hear of disaster after disaster taking place around the world. Most often than not, these are environmental disasters that result in severe or irreversible repercussions. But no matter how hard we try to save what is left of the environment, its animals, especially birds are slowly losing their habitats. Barely a week ago, it was the World Environment Day which was marked around the world under this year’s theme ‘Eco System Restoration’.
Sadly, the restoration process in Sri Lanka when it comes to the environment is very slow. Executive Director Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) Hemantha Withanage says every year there is a different theme for World Environment Day and despite this year’s theme, they continue to be destroyed at an alarming rate due to the actions of humans. “Seventy per cent of wildlife was destroyed in the past years. This is a serious problem. People are using the environment only for their benefit.
We now have only a little forest cover left. The Government says the forest cover is 29.6 per cent but we have found it is only 17 per cent with pockets of forest patches in some areas. The water from the forests go to the river. Today, many rivers all over the world are polluted with garbage,” Withanage explained.
Garbage and plastic pollution
He says garbage and plastic are polluting the rivers and the sea. “We have to think about saving the environment for our children. We are selfish. We think only about ourselves. We don’t think of our village or our country. We have to first think about training our minds and change our mind sets if we are to save the environment for future generations. There are a very few people who think about protecting the environment and not polluting the environment.
We have to stop environment pollution now,” Withanage said. Commenting on the ship X-Press Pearl that sank recently in Sri Lankan waters, Withanage said, the lives of 25 people were saved and the government should be lauded for saving these peoples’ lives. “But this was done at a large cost to the environment. Other countries refused to let the ship into their waters. But we did. One third of the products in the ship was plastic. Now these products are in the water and have spread all over.
The CEJ has for many years been fighting to stop the pollution of plastic,” Withanage explained. He added that now there is so much plastic beads or micro beads in the water and we can collect around 1000 beads within a short period of time. “We know there was hazardous chemicals on that ship. When the ship burned, it caused air pollution and all types of chemicals on the ship could be in the air.
There was no acid rain as reported because it was blown away by the wind. But the harm caused to the fish, turtles and corals is irreplaceable. The water is polluted and fish when they feed on food, they swallow water and through their scales, the poisonous substances is absorbed into the body of the fish. I believe this ship had more than 500 containers of hazardous chemicals,” Withanage said.
He believes some could have got burnt, but some still remains at the bottom of the sea. “About four to five years later it is possible that fish could still have this poisonous substance in their systems. Fishermen can’t sell their fish and many died due to the pollution in the water. The CEJ has filed legal action against this issue,” Withanage said. Addressing the serious harm caused by the ship, Attorney-at-Law Ravindranath Dabare said prevention is better than the cure. “Everything is provided by the environment to us. The water we need, the air we breathe, our food all is provided by the environment.
But due to our actions the environment is destroyed. The Government doesn’t have a proper plan to protect the environment. The Government is only interested in solving the problems of the developers and businessmen at a heavy cost to the environment,” Dabare said.
He added that when a leaking cargo is sent into the country they have to get special permission to enter the country. “But now the damage is done and for the environment restoration the relevant officials have to spend a lot of money to clean up the damage,” Dabare explained.
Chairman/CEO - The Green Movement of Sri Lanka Inc., Suranjan Kodithuwakku says the X-Press Pearl,“was carrying chemicals used in the beauty industry, polyethylene tablets, and 25 metric tons of nitric acid in 1,486 containers as its cargo as well as 325 metric tons of fuel. Immense environmental damage has already been caused by the fire. The sum total of the damage caused by the harmful chemicals that entered the ocean as a result of the fire to marine ecosystems as well as sensitive coastal habitats including coral reefs, ocean grass beds and mangroves is so high that it is almost impossible to chart its impact and cost over time,” Kodithuwakku said.
He says this difficult task is already being carried out by the relevant state agencies and as a civil society organisation, our attention is on the coastal communities that are now suffering from the dual blow of this disaster coupled with that of the spread of COVID-19.
The three coastal districts of Colombo, Negombo and Puttalam covering a land area of 5,992 km2 and home to 19,370 fisher families have been directly affected by this calamity.
The key problems that these communities are currently facing are the complete halt to their primary livelihood of fisheries and serious short-term and long-term health threats from the toxins released by the burning vessel,” Kodithuwakku explained. He says we firmly believe that civil agencies working under state direction is critically important now for a deeper, wider and more impactful response to the problem.
“Here we see that recognising the affected communities, identifying the exact scope and depth of damage, providing first aid and relief, garbage collection and removal and repairing damaged infrastructure must be done as soon as possible. Additionally, it is essential that a community based development program focused on rehabilitating primary coastal livelihoods must be implemented across the entire affected area without delay,” Kodithuwakku said.
He added that with the transfer of ownership of the ship to a foreign company after the fire was brought under control by the Sri Lankan and Indian Navies might result in Sri Lanka not being able to obtain a proper assessment of the environment damage or compensation for it. “We hope that the Government will intervene as required, given its experiences, to obtain the required, equitable restitution and compensation that such massive environmental damage deserves,” Kodithuwakku said.
(Pix by Amitha Thennakoon)