By Yasara Kannangara and  Ananda Mallawatantri Water is one of nature’s greatest gifts to humankind. However, wide scale pollution has made it apparent that this precious gift is often overlooked and neglected, as is the case of the Kelani River and its basin. The Kelani River Basin Multi-Stakeholder Partnership is a project developed by the [...]

Sunday Times 2

Kelani River Conservation: The key to a bright future


By Yasara Kannangara and  Ananda Mallawatantri

Water is one of nature’s greatest gifts to humankind. However, wide scale pollution has made it apparent that this precious gift is often overlooked and neglected, as is the case of the Kelani River and its basin.

Nature lover's' paradise: White water rafting at Kithulgala. Pic Nalin Perera/IUCN

The Kelani River Basin Multi-Stakeholder Partnership is a project developed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) using the local inputs of more than 60 agencies and international literature, under the supervision of the Central Environment Authority (CEA) with UNICEF funding to alleviate the disturbing levels of pollution in the Kelani River Basin. The plan spanning from 2016 to 2020 aims for the sustainable development of the basin through a range of catchment protection and strategic shifting from industrial base to nature base income sources capitalising on the thriving eco-tourism industry.
Being true to the famous saying of French writer, historian and philosopher Voltaire “Is there anyone so wise as to learn by the experiences of others?” the multi-stakeholder also hopes to study and incorporate global experiences on river restoration to the project. Nevertheless in integrating these experiences the stakeholders also consider the social, economic, political and cultural relevance to the country.

Maintaining water quality is essential to achieve sustainability within the basin as it helps identify pollution types and potential sources. For example, high amount of sediments in water is an indication of agriculture or urban erosion issues whereas, the presence of high E.coli bacteria denotes poor sanitation facilities. This includes presence of sewage in the river.
The Thames-Sydenham Water Source Protection Programme is a project based in Ontario, Canada. It was established to counter similar issues and was aimed at decontaminating drinking water which was polluted due to improper sewage disposal. Through the project, definitive steps were taken to improve septic systems and other facilities. Similarly, it is imperative to build better facilities and sewage disposal methods in the Kelani River Basin as contamination of water with human waste is a pressing issue in the basin.

However, industrial pollution is the main cause that has led to the wide scale pollution in the area. Despite this, industries can be deemed as a necessary evil in today’s world. However, this does not mean that industries cannot exist side by side with nature. On the contrary, the Chesapeake Bay Programme in the United States has proved that industries and a pollution free environment can exist alongside one another. Despite the large number of industries in the area the bay remains to be one of the cleanest water bodies in the country. It is also home to a large scale seafood industry, especially in regard to crabs.
A venture such as this is at present impossible in the Kelani River as the water is contaminated with heavy metals which has had a

detrimental impact on the aquatic life forms in the river and will also adversely affect humans who consume them. However, the Chesapeake Bay lends the Kelani River hope that such a project to recreate a new image for the river is indeed possible. However, to achieve such a spectacle it is a must to ensure that all industries within the Kelani River adhere to the environment protection standards that are imposed by the CEA and the National Water Supply and Drainage Board (NWSDB).

The present water quality standards based on the American Public Health Association (APHA) have contributed much towards the reduction of pollution in the river but they are not without drawbacks. As such, the industry-centric nature of the standards can be regarded as the main weakness. Hence, to truly eradicate the contamination of the river an expansion in coverage is necessary. For this the multi-stakeholder partnership has adopted United States Environment Protection Agency (USEPA) derived water quality guidelines and management approaches as much as possible.

River bank erosion due to illegal sand mining is also a major threat to the water quality of the river. To prevent this, the stakeholders have proposed to establish a sand mining monitoring police unit. The Ganga Action Plan (GAP) for Ganga River Basin in India is an instance where such actions have been successful. Under this project, a National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA) was set up to plan, finance, monitor and co-ordinate the effective abatement of pollution and the conservation of the river.

Additionally, the limited amount of sampling sites for water quality is also a drawback in safeguarding the resilience of the basin. While there are 13 existing sampling locations they only cover part of the basin. This is not adequate to ensure water quality in the entire river. Therefore, new sampling sites should also be established. Automation is an option that is being considered to achieve these objectives with ease.

Although, the initial cost of water quality monitoring may seem excessive at a glance it can be regarded as a worthwhile investment. This is because monitoring the quality of water ensures water safety. Sri Lanka already spends an exorbitant amount of money on health issues such as kidney diseases linked with water pollution. If the situation remains unchanged the cost of health will only rise higher and higher. Hence, the amount to be spent can hardly be predicted or calculated. In such a circumstance, implementing measures to examine water quality can be seen as a long-term solution.

Implementing water quality standards is a challenging task. For this constant monitoring of water is indispensable. The KRMP approach intends to seek expand the present water monitoring by CEA, National Water Supply and Drainage Board (NWSDB) and Irrigation Department with the help of the Sri Lanka Standards Institution (SLSI) and other institutions including universities.
Moreover, the Kelani River Basin can be described as a nature lover’s paradise even with the massive pollution as it lays claim to a myriad of scenic locations that are abundant in natural splendour. However, this reputation enjoyed by the basin is fast diminishing. Despite being a place of natural beauty the potential of the Kelani River Basin remains largely untapped. Indeed, the basin encompasses many attractions with the Kithulgala/Kelani Forest Reserve, Muturajawela wetlands, Negombo and Sithawaka Botanical Gardens being only few of the locations.

The river also contains international level rapids that are suitable for white water rafting. Yet, it is a far cry from being an ecotourism hotspot. The KRMP approach was partly influenced by the “Healthy Parks Healthy People” initiative in Australia and Bhutan’s concept of “Gross National Happiness”. They highlight that nature and happiness are entwined hopes to create an environment which is conducive to both physical and mental wellbeing through nature. By doing so the project envisions a future free of pollution and related diseases while ensuring the income base in the basin improved.

(Yasara Kannangara is a student  in languages and Ananda Mallawatantri is the Country Representative  of IUCN Sri Lanka)

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