Elevated highway project: No final decision: RDA and CEA

People from many communities came together earlier this month to raise awareness against the destruction of the wetland

Residents living in and around the Thalangama Wetland are up in arms over the proposed four-lane elevated highway project, stretching from the New Kelani Bridge to Athurugiriya, that is to be constructed over the remaining few green patches of Colombo’s wetland in Thalangama and Averihena.

Having no faith over the promises made by the political leadership, the residents, with support of the Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ), are now planning to take legal action against the proposed development project which could possibly cause severe damage to the biodiversity of the wetland area as well as its surrounding.

“We can’t trust the words of politicians. What we need is a proper solution. We don’t want to see this area getting polluted by mega projects. If they want a road, they can have it using a different route,” 67-year-old K. Amarasinghe, a resident of Averihena, told The Sunday Morning.

“Earlier, this area had many paddy fields and marshlands, but during the past 10-15 years, the infrastructure was changed with rapid development taking place in Battaramulla, after the relocation of a number of state institutions,” he stressed.

“New houses were built by refilling most of the wetland areas. No action was taken by the authorities against those constructions. We don’t know whether those constructions are legal or not. But now, we have a very small green patch left for us to at least breathe, relax, and walk in. Therefore, we don’t want to lose that now,” Amarasinghe said.

While many residents like Amarasinghe are enraged at the Government’s plans to build a road across their wetland, the CEJ is planning to file a writ petition with the Court of Appeal, seeking to quash the ongoing plans to build a road across the wetland.

Speaking to The Sunday Morning, CEJ Executive Director Hemantha Withanage noted that the residents have requested the organisation to involve itself with the matter and take legal action against the Government’s plans.

“We need a legal solution now. Even some leaders say they won’t damage the environment; once the development activity starts, we can’t guarantee that they won’t damage the environment. Therefore, the residents don’t want any such development activity to take place. The political leadership can now come to court and say whether they intend to do so or not,” he said.

Withanage stressed that the wetland is a protected area and therefore, the authorities should not give permission for any type of construction within that area.

He said the Thalangama Wetland is a flood-retention area and the economic damage that would be caused if the environment is disturbed by new development projects would be massive.

“This area is one of the last remaining wetlands in the Colombo District. The area has a rich biodiversity despite it being located in the middle of urbanised cities. This is the only remaining green patch the residents have in this area. Disturbing the environment could pose a serious economic damage as well when compared to the losses incurred by any other institution as a result of bypassing the area,” Withanage explained.

He stressed that there were only around 2,000 hectares of wetland cover remaining at present in Colombo.

Diminishing green cover

Proving what Amarasinghe said, it was learnt that over 75% of the land in Colombo was covered with wetlands many years ago, and with the development activities that took place, the wetland cover had gradually decreased. From Muthurajawela via Kotte up to Bolgoda, the land had been covered with wetlands several decades ago.

According to the final report of the Colombo Wetland Management Strategy of the Metro Colombo Urban Development Project, it is estimated that wetlands currently cover approximately 19 km2 (or 15.4%) of 121.5 km2, comprising densely urban, peri‐urban, and rural environments. However, their former extent was much greater.

Freshwater wetlands dominate, accounting for almost 85% of all the wetlands. Almost two-fifths of the wetlands are dominated by herb species, including the extensive active and abandoned paddy lands. Complexes of wetland mosaics comprising woodlands, tall and short herbs, and open-water habitats cover approximately a third of all the wetland areas. Open-water wetlands, such as tanks, lakes, and canals, cover just over 20% of all the wetlands.

The report also stated that since the days of the Kingdom of Kotte, wetlands within the Colombo Metropolitan Region (CMR) have been progressively degraded, infilled, and lost. Much of this damage is considered irreversible. The rates and extent of wetland loss across the CMR vary. Some estimates suggest that wetlands comprising the Kolonnawa Marsh have been reduced in area by as much as 65% since the 1980s.

Similarly, as much as 60% of paddy lands across the wetlands of CMR may have been converted to non‐wetland use over a similar time period. Other estimates place the figure at closer to 22% across the city; yet this still represents a significant loss. What is clear is that wetlands, irrespective of their type, continue to be lost and degraded across the CMR.

The development of the four-lane elevated highway, which is 17.3 km in length, stretching from the New Kelani Bridge (Orugodawatta) to Athurugiriya, was proposed in 2015 to improve the road network in order to deal with the heavy influx of vehicles into Colombo city limits. Phase I of the project, which is 6.9 km in length, has been planned from Orugodawatta to Rajagiriya, while Phase II, which is 10.4 km in length, will be from Rajagiriya to Athurugiriya.

According to the Road Development Authority (RDA), 45% of the land acquisition for the first phase of the project has been completed. The environmental impact assessment (EIA) has already been completed. Furthermore, the feasibility study of Phase II has also been completed.

The Thalangama Environmental Protection Area, including the Averihena Lake, was declared so under the National Environment Act (NEA) No. 47 of 1980, as amended by the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) in 2017, through the Gazette Notification Number 1487/10.

Top-level discussions ongoing

As learnt by The Sunday Morning last week, top-level discussions are still going on to decide whether the approval for the proposal should be given or not.

It is also learnt that the Attorney General (AG), in his opinion, directed the RDA to avoid the wetland when planning the elevated highway. Furthermore, the CEA has also met President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to discuss the matter recently.

Speaking to The Sunday Morning, RDA Chairman Chaminda Athuluwage said there was no decision taken regarding the proposed highway construction.

“At a meeting held recently, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa advised the RDA, Urban Development Authority (UDA), Sri Lanka Land Development Corporation (SLLDC), CEA, and all other relevant parties to discuss the matter and give suitable advice to the RDA,” he said, adding that those organisations had recently had a discussion but did not yet inform the decisions to the RDA.

Athuluwage, on a previous occasion, said the questionable trace is one of the suitable traces identified by the authorities for the construction of the elevated highway.

“If the trace is changed, the length would also be extended and in parallel, the cost would also be increased,” he added.

Meanwhile, when contacted by The Sunday Morning, CEA Chairman Hemantha Jayasinghe continued to note that discussions were still going on and no final decision was made regarding the elevated highway issue.

“We have not yet taken a final decision on whether or not to give the RDA the permission to construct an elevated highway across the protected area. The discussions are still at the initial stages,” he added.