Give up their homes or their livelihood
is the no-win choice of the fisherfolk on the coast
By Chandani Kirinde
The sea is their best friend and their worst enemy.
They go to sea and bring back its bounties, selling them to make ends meet.
But when the sea unleashes its fury on these coastal dwellers, there is
At least 52 kilometres of Sri Lanka's coastline from Nattandiya in the
northwest to Hikkaduwa in the south faces a high rate of erosion. Over
the years, thousands of fishing families living along the beach have been
affected. Several have had their homes washed away while many other dwellings are
in imminent danger of being lost to the sea.
Janitha and her husband, Lowe, of Ulhitiya, Lansigama in the Wennapuwa
area saw their home being washed away less than a month ago. They had spent
all their savings to build the house which took them more than six months
to complete. The modest two -bedroom structure built of brick with a tiled
roof was a dream come true for the couple who had lived in a house made
of wooden planks since they married more than 19 years ago. But their happiness
was shortlived. The unrelenting surf took its toll on their home and one
afternoon, the structure collapsed.
"We knew it would happen someday but never expected it so soon. We lived
in this house only a few years and now we are again in a house made of
wooden planks with a mud floor," Janitha said.
Many of the residents of this coastal stretch in Ulhitiya have been
living here for the past 10-15 years and earn their living by fishing.
"Our livelihood comes from the area and we need to be close to it," says
W. Preeman. The waves reach the front door of his house during stormy weather
and he knows it will only be a matter of time before his house is destroyed
"I know in six months our home will be lost. I have to think of finding
a safer place for my family," he said.
to a cadjan-thatched home is Janitha's plight
They feel that their repeated requests to politicians in the area to
address their problem and take measures to prevent erosion have fallen
on deaf years. "A few years ago, the sea was more than one kilometre away
from our homes and we had many trees in the front garden. Today they have
all vanished," said Preeman.
Some of the fishermen have been offered land inland but they say that
moving away from the coast would mean no livelihood. "We will starve to
death being away from the sea," said Lowe who takes his boat to sea each
evening and comes home only in the morning with the catch that he sells
in the market. The economic problems that are affecting the rest of the
country are an added burden on the fishing community, and with nature too
not being on their side, they face greater hardship.
In the worst-affected area around Nattandiya and Wennapuwa, it is not
solely the natural process of erosion that is taking place but heavy sand
mining in the Maha Oya that has also aggravated the situation.
The Department of Coast Conservation (CCD) meanwhile is hoping the new
coastal resources management project that will get underway shortly will
be the long term solution to preventing erosion.
CCD Director Nissanka Perera said Sri Lanka's coastline faced an erosion
rate amounting to four to five metres loss per year. In the Wennapuwa area
alone, the Department had spent upto Rs. 6 million a year doing emergency
work on about four kilometres of coast. However, it has been found that
their methods such as the use of boulders and quarry material had few benefits
in the long term and provided only short and medium term protection.
There have also been complaints regarding the use of these methods especially
from those in the tourist industry who felt that the natural beauty of
the beaches was being affected by the use of heavy building materials.
The fishing community also complained that access to the beach was being
impeded by these measures.
The new project funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the Netherlands
government involves a grant of US $ 40 million. This money will also relieve
the government of its annual expenditure of around Rs. 100 million on temporary
erosion control measures, Mr. Perera said.
Under the ADB funded project, sand would be dug from below 15 metres
from identified areas off shore and pumped along pipes onto the beaches,
thus shoring up the coast. At least two million cubic metres of sand would
be used to build up a 10 kilometre stretch in the worst affected area in
Lansigama. This would take at least four years to complete, Mr. Perera
said, with work expected to get underway shortly.
Though the new conservation plan will come a little too late for people
like Janitha, it is a glimmer of hope for the other coastal dwellers living
dangerously close to the most beautiful setting that nature can offer.