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Mannar Island: Birds and residents await news on fate of their environment

Mannar Island: Birds and residents await news on fate of their environment

18 Jun 2023 | By Pamodi Waravita

Disturbing the waters on Sri Lanka’s northwestern seas and nestled into one of its windy corners is the island of Mannar.

Often forgotten about, other than for when it comes alive once a year as thousands of migratory birds flock to its shores to take their rest as they travel across the Central Asian Flyway (CAF), locals are now grappling with the prospect of a large-scale sand mining project being initiated on the island. 

With little information reaching them about planned development projects, residents remain in fear of their environment, and ultimately, their livelihoods being disrupted due to mining on the island. 


Initial explorations 

When you enter the island, the first thing you notice is the wind – a welcome respite for travellers from the more humid parts of the country. However, travellers to the island are few as it still struggles to recover from the three-decade civil war that primarily affected the north and the east of Sri Lanka.

Spanning nearly 2,000 square kilometres, the Mannar District is divided into the mainland and the island. 

According to Titanium Sands Ltd., an Australia-based company, it holds five exploration licences for heavy mineral sands on Mannar Island and its adjacent mainland coast. 

Before Titanium Sands entered the picture, hand auger drilling in 2010 and in 2014 showed that there was a significant concentration of heavy minerals on the island. Based on this information, the company presented a resource statement to the Australian Securities Exchange in 2015. 

In 2015, Sri Lanka’s authority on mining, the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau (GSMB), issued nine exploration licences to five Sri Lankan companies and one individual to conduct explorations in Mannar. The local firms were sold off to two Mauritian companies, which were ultimately acquired by Titanium Sands. However, the Mines and Minerals Act No.33 of 1992 does not allow for companies not registered in Sri Lanka to hold permits or licences. 

Following protests, the GSMB cancelled the exploration licences for Mannar in April 2021. However, allegations levelled at Titanium Sands show that the company recommenced explorations on the island in 2022. 

We travelled to the island on Labour Day – a national holiday. The underdevelopment was striking, especially as locals spoke of the new consequences that poverty was now having on the community; for example, increased levels of alcohol addiction amongst school-going youth. 

Regina Ramalingam, an activist who has lived and worked on the island since her youth, said that it was jarring to see the Government intent on bringing in development projects that would only benefit big corporations and not the residents. “Mannar is cursed with riches,” she said.  

Ramalingam currently serves on the Environmental Board of the Mannar Citizens’ Collective (MCC), a group of concerned residents who had come together to raise awareness about how development projects impacted their environment and livelihood. 

“It was too late when we heard about this sand mining project. The Government agencies also said that they did not know about it. Maybe it was a hidden agenda by the company. The people were not given the right idea of what was happening. Mannar Island is very small – we have nothing to share with anyone. Our livelihood is farming and fishing and that is in great danger. Around 3,500 holes have already been dug and two containers of samples have been sent abroad for analysis by the company. What is going to happen to the loose sand now?” questioned Ramalingam. 

She questioned if an area and a people could be extinguished, just for the good of a select group of people. 


Recent developments 

In this backdrop, Titanium Sands Head of Operations of Sri Lanka Saliya Galagoda said that the company had finished the exploration and made a presentation to the GSMB in September 2022. According to him, they are currently awaiting a letter from the GSMB to proceed with the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) prior to commencing mining for commercial purposes. 

“In September 2022, we finished the exploration and gave the presentation to the GSMB. There is a procedure – we have to do the EIA and work through the system. At the time they were happy, but months later we are still waiting for them to give the letter to start the EIA. We hope that the EIA will be completed by December,” said Galagoda. 

Despite this, when The Sunday Morning spoke to GSMB Chairman R. Sanjeepan, he said that the entire project was now awaiting an official report as they had received a complaint about it. Explaining that although an EIA was mandatory for all projects categorised as ‘large-scale’ or ‘export,’ he stressed that the report addressing the complaint would have to first be completed. 

“The company is claiming it can address concerns in the EIA, but we have to study the matter and prepare the report for these complaints before that. There is an issue with regard to this project. There was a written complaint in Parliament which was submitted to the President and it was forwarded to us. 

“There are some issues: one is the public concern about the company’s proposal to mine 40 feet deep. Is that possible on such an island? The second is, when somebody excavates 40 feet, seawater could come in. Another issue is, if we mine in the coastal areas, the seawater will replace the sand, but will it work the same way in the middle of the island? Due to all of these concerns, we received a complaint. 

“We sent a letter saying that although the exploration part was cleared, there were serious environmental concerns, so clear discussions were required with the relevant officials before permitting further activity. We are in the process of preparing a detailed report addressing the complaint, finding out the series of events, and what has happened. Before the EIA is done, we have to address these concerns,” said Sanjeepan. 

Sanjeepan went on to say that the Environment Ministry had also organised some meetings with the Australian High Commission regarding these issues. 


Threatening winds  

Consisting of relatively younger geological features, Mannar Island is home to rich ecological resources, ranging from wetland to coastal habitats. Studies show that on the island, coastal sand is important for the storage of groundwater. 

Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) Executive Director Hemantha Withanage said that since the island was sandy, it was a very delicate environment. 

“For example, when wind power plants were set up on the island, there was a good EIA done, but as they had built a road to the plants which flattened the sand, there were water draining issues. This led to floods during the rainy season. When the soil is compact, there are more problems. The island’s water table could be affected by seawater seeping into fresh water,” said Withanage. 

He added that sea level rise due to mining was also a risk. 

Furthermore, Withanage questioned whether the company planned to engage in offshore mining as well. “Pesalai is dependent on fishing, so how offshore mining would affect the seabed and fish resources is a concern.”

The island is a crucial resting point for birds taking the Central Asian Flyway as their migratory route. Worldwide, there are eight ‘flyways’ or broad corridors taken by migratory birds. From these, migratory waders in the Asia Pacific region use three: the Central Pacific, the East Asian-Australasian, and the Central Asian Flyways. The CAF is used by over 150 migratory waterbird species for breeding, migrating, and wintering purposes. 

Mannar is significant as it is the last landmass for the birds travelling on the CAF. Although many unique bird species rely on the island for freshwater, there is little freshwater there. Korakulum Lake – the only freshwater lake on the island and a crucial source of freshwater for the birds – is already facing threats on multiple fronts, due to encroachment and development projects. 

The Sunday Morning spoke to Conservationist Uditha Hettige, who outlined a few key problems that could affect the birds on the CAF, if the sand mining project was to be implemented.  

“There are two points where birds enter Sri Lanka when they fly through the Central Asian Flyway. One is the northern entry point in Jaffna and the other is through Adam’s Bridge in Mannar. The most unique thing is that most of those migratory birds fly continuously for thousands of kilometres. They spend a few days drinking water in Mannar as they are quite tired after long flights. Mannar serves as a rest stop for them. 

“If there is sand mining on the island, the first destruction is that the water table will be affected. Since there is mostly brackish or saltish water in that area, there are only a few fresh water sources. The biggest one is Korakulum. Many birds, including seabirds, come to Korakulum to drink water. That water table is at a very shallow level. If sand is mined, the gap will be replaced by seawater,” said Hettige. 

Hettige also warned that the use of heavy machinery for sand mining, causing dust, could affect the migratory birds. “The area is identified as a special bird zone due to the unique species that are found there and they could be threatened due to sand mining.” 

As you travel the island, you come to its northwestern point at the Talaimannar Pier. Here, one end of the unique Adam’s Bridge can be seen; a chain of limestone shoals which stretch all the way to the Pamban Island in India. In the ‘Sri Lankan section’ of Adam’s Bridge, the Adam’s Bridge Marine National Park is situated. 

“The second, third, and fourth islands of the park are used by pelagic birds for breeding or nesting. This will also be affected if sand mining begins on the island. Apart from all these reasons, the topography of that area faces a lot of sand sifting – especially in the sea. The shapes of the islands change with time. If there is large-scale mining, there may be an unprecedented disaster which usually happens when we disturb something,” said Hettige. 


Untransparent processes, concerned locals 

A resident on the island, Prem, shared that when the explorations initially started, they had been informed that the explorations were being done merely to check the quality of the groundwater. Speaking to The Sunday Morning from a local community centre, he said: “It was only later that we saw the website of Titanium Sands, which outlined plans to mine our island. These developments are done without informing anybody,” he alleged. 

MCC President Father A. Gnanapragasam echoed the same concerns. As an active member of the local community, Fr. Gnanapragasam had seen Mannar evolve from a forgotten corner of Sri Lanka to a place brimming with investment opportunities for larger corporations.  

“It is not development, it is destruction. Nobody is responding to the questions we have about the project – this shows that they do not respect the people here,” he said, sitting at his church bordering the beach, where a Labour Day event was being held by the fishing community. 

Prem explained that when they had reported the mining to the relevant Government authorities in Mannar, they had said that they did not know about it. “As this was illegal, we protested against it.” 

“Mannar is a low-lying area and the elevation is not very much higher than the main sea level. Our island is associated with many cultural values and our ancestors have been here for more than 300 years. We have history, we have tradition, we have religion. That is valuable to me, this way of life. If they do this, I strongly believe that they are going to destroy this island. The entire community feels that way,” he said. 

He emphasised that development should consider the people who were living in that area. “It should not kill the people. What happens if you chop off one’s legs and give them a job?”

Fr. Gnanapragasam warned that if the authorities did not respond to their concerns, they may be forced to take legal action. 

As The Sunday Morning spoke to the fishermen in the surrounding areas, they explained that there were threats to their livelihood on multiple fronts, from encroachment of their seas by foreign fishermen to changing weather patterns to development projects such as the sand mining project which could permanently displace them from their traditional lands. 

“We need them to put us first and listen to our needs. They cannot develop the island without at least speaking to us first,” said one fisherman. 

As residents of Mannar wait to see how their fate would be shaped due to such development projects, they are trying to mobilise and raise these concerns on larger platforms. However, whether their voices will be heard remains a question.


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