The bright blue boat we are ushered into has large canopies protecting us from the sun. As the light glints on the waves lapping gently against the swaying boat, Navy personnel show us how to put on life jackets and demonstrate the various devices secured on them. As soon as everyone settles into their seats, the boat starts off down the canal from Nawala to Wellawatte.
The network of canals in Greater Colombo were built in the Dutch period and were initially intended to transport people and goods. However, over the years with rapid urbanization, the waterways became highly polluted and a haven for mosquitoes, posing a health hazard to residents in the vicinity. Their use as a channel for transport dwindled.
The canal boat service was launched by the Sri Lanka Navy this week to provide an alternate mode of transport operates along the Wellawatte-Kirulapona canal between the Open University in Nawala and St. Peter’s College, Wellawatte.
“This is one of the concepts of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, to provide a hassle-free, environment-friendly mode of transport and to help ease the road congestion and traffic. The Sri Lanka Navy was given the task of handling and initiating this project,” says Navy spokesman, Captain Athula Senarath.
Four boats have been organised to transport passengers between 7.45 a.m. and 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. daily. Life saving equipment and a first aid boat have also been arranged in case of any emergency. These boats can take passengers from Nawala to Wellawatte in under 12 minutes whereas a bus, depending on the traffic congestion, would take at least 45 minutes.
The boat service is currently being used to transport the students and staff of the Open University, free of charge.
“It’s very useful to the staff and students of the university,” enthuses N. Kuruppuarachchi, Senior Assistant Registrar of the Open University of Sri Lanka, adding that the extension of the service to other areas would be constructive. The Secretary of the Student Union Association of the Open University, Buddhika Fernando also believes the boat service is a success.
“The students are enthusiastic. I think the service has proved to be quite successful. There are over a thousand students who travel through the Wellawatte area every day. Most of them use it to get to Galle Road and also to Pettah. They get off the boat and take either a 138 or 100 bus to Pettah,” he says.
Fernando adds that the students would like to help out with the cleaning process and suggests that additional stops at Pamankada and the Nawala Road be constructed for the benefit of the students taking the bus.
Understandably, years of collected garbage cannot be obliterated through a few months of cleaning and the occasional milk packet floating in the water, as the boat swiftly glides through the water, is unavoidable. However, the cleaning efforts by the Navy are certainly laudable compared to the prior state of the canal.
The cleaning up of the Kirulapona-Wellawatte Canal undertaken by the Navy in November last year in preparation of the boat service, was a collaboration of efforts on the part of the Central Environment Authority (CEA), the respective Municipal Councils and the Land Reclamation and Development Corporation.
Central Environment Authority (CEA) Chairman Prof. W. Abeywickreme reminds us that cleaning up the canals is no easy task and regular physical removal of water plants such as salvinia is necessary to keep the water clean and clear.
“The problem is with the water plants; 100% clearing of water plants is not an easy task. There will be small plants everywhere and they might come up from time to time. At the same time biological control methods are also being tried with the help of the Peradeniya University. However, physical removal of plants should be done continuously, in addition to attempts at biological control,” he says.
Prof. Abeywickreme says the Authority is working side by side with the Navy, educating the public, especially residents living on either side of the canals not to dump garbage into the canals.
“We have printed some leaflets and we also have a public address system. While the Navy does the cleaning we educate the people in the vicinity.
Measures to open the canal service to the general public will be taken shortly. “We have so many canals in the Greater Colombo area and we are hoping to expand this to the other canals as well,” added Captain Senarath.