17th March 2002

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Land of sand and misery

The Hamilton canal or the Dutch canal that was once a bustle of activity looked dead, except for an occasional boat that moved cautiously, disturbing the mud-coloured still waters that were once clear and bubbling with life. 

A massive road development project commenced by the RDA two years ago to construct three highways connecting Colombo-Katunayake, Colombo-Kandy and Colombo-Matara, has left the simple lifestyle of thousands of fisherfolk from Modera to Uswetakeiyawa in shambles, depriving them of their income, ruining the bio-diversity of the canal, disrupting the seabed and even causing three deaths. 

"Nothing can be done now. The damage is permanent: even our wells are polluted," laments 51-year-old Simon Fernando who has been in the fish business for over 25 years. He has grown up with the canal; fishing in it in the evenings and taking an occasional swim with his friends on humid afternoons while his mother washed all her pots and pans in the canal. 

Bare-chested and dressed in a chocolate-coloured sarong raised up to his knees, he watches the canal in dismay. "People don't set foot on it any more because those who bathed in the canal recently got fever and skin rashes. The water turns yellow when the ships pump sand and tastes salty all the time," he said, referring to the highway construction project, which seems to cause much damage to the canal destroying the sense of joie de vivre that once pervaded every aspect of its life.

According to Fr. Jayantha Withanarachchi, who has been the parish priest of the area for five years, nothing can be done to stop the project. "The project continues despite protests from fishermen and a mass will be held on March 27, to mark the death of the three fishermen who fought for the promised compensation. The canal is ruined. And no compensation will cover the loss of income that will become a burning issue in the years to come," he said.

Villagers claimed the three men were killed when police opened fire on demonstrators protesting against non-payment of compensation in Novermber last year.

A million-dollar joint venture among Boskalis International Bv, RDA, SMEC International (Pty) Ltd and Daewoo Keangnam, the highway construction project draws the sand required for the project from the sea. "They have two ships operating on a shift basis and pump sand 24 hours a day, except on holidays. The initial agreement was to pump sand 10km away from the sea but they haven't gone beyond 4km," says Lal Nissanka, a representative of the local fisher organisation. 

According to Nissanka, the ships have dug deeper than the agreed 1m and surpassed 30m. "We know how hazardous these projects are. After all, we were not born yesterday. A similar project was conducted by the UNP government in 1993 and the people suffered for years due to lack of fish."

Knowing very well the after-effects of the project and the destruction caused to the ecosystem of the canal and the seabed, the fishermen have opposed the move to pump sand from the sea. "When we contacted the RDA, an official told us that the government is ready to pay us in millions because it will lose in billions if the project is cancelled. He admitted that the project will cause harm to the environment and said that it was too late to withdraw from the contract and that the government will proceed with the project at any cost."

The fishermen, who are out of business because the project has disturbed the seabed and killed most of the fish eggs, are paid compensation based on the size of the boats used for fishing. Accordingly, a small boat is paid Rs. 8,000 while bigger boats and fibreglass boats are paid Rs.15,000 and Rs.17,500 respectively. Of these sums, a certain portion goes to the owner while the rest is distributed among the crew. 

Most of the small-scale fishermen, however, complain that mudalalis who own a number of small boats make money out of the project by ordering their workers to pretend to be owners. 

Most of these complications arose because the RDA did not consult the people, says N. V. L. Peiris of Janodaya, who has worked on a number of development projects conducted under the Muthurajawela Development Scheme. "All these problems have arisen due to misconceptions and the RDA's failure to exercise due care in carrying out the project," he said.

Another problem faced by the people in the area is the damage caused by 10-wheeler vehicles that transport sand to and fro from Keravalapitiya. "It is illegal to use 10-wheelers on filled marsh lands because they affect the soil. A number of houses in the area have been damaged due to vibration and the residents have demanded Rs. 64 million by way of compensation through a petition," said Fr. Withanarachchi.

Known as a travel spot among locals who flock around the canal on holidays to sip a cup of fresh toddy and fish with fishing lines, the canal is no longer crowded on holidays like Tuesday last. Despite the humidity, no one stepped into the canal. It was left untouched by the fisherfolk, who had washed, bathed and fished in the canal for generations while their little ones twirled and dived in the clear, cold waters.

The project has not only affected the bio-diversity of the canal but also the fishing industry en masse. According to K. Anthony, who has been fishing in his theppama for the past 30 years, fishing has become increasingly difficult today. "I went to sea around 4 a.m. but hardly caught any fish," he said while struggling to push his multi-coloured theppama ashore with fatigued hands.

The sea was calm and a number of ships were visible on the horizon. "Those are the ships that pump sand," he said pointing towards the sea while simultaneously wiping sweat off his forehead. Relaxing under a cadjan hut he took out the few fish he had caught after a full day's work.

At 47, he has seen the good and bad times of the profession and was quick to estimate the damage caused by the project. "I used to earn about Rs. 600-700 a day but now I earn only Rs. 80-90 because there are no fish in the areas that can be reached by a small boat." According to Anthony, the entire seabed in the area used for sand pumping has been severely damaged. "The ships keep on travelling around the area and disrupt the seabed. They also tear our fishing nets."

All fishing villages between Modara and Kepungoda are affected by the project and Anthony finds it difficult to make ends meet with the Rs. 4,000 monthly compensation paid to him by the government. 

"We at least get some money now. But what will happen when the project comes to an end in a few months' time? Who will feed our families when the seabed is affected and there is no fish to sell?" he queries apprehensively.
Development: At what cost?

While the Hamilton canal area was threatened by pollution and unemployment, Keravalapitiya looked very much the local version of the Sahara with mountains of sand heading skyward. Four hundred acres of marsh land, covered with mountains of sand pumped directly from the sea dominated the picture, except for some fifty tractors engaged in transporting sand to the project sites. 

Entering the compound through a road that leads towards the Shell Terminal and Siyanka Tea Factory, one could only see a wall of sand, 80ft tall. Cranes and bulldozers dug into the sand looking ant-like next to the giant sand wall, disturbing the sands and making the air bleak with dust. 

On the other side of the giant sand mountain was a tiny village with 25 families and one entered this village through a narrow footpath. A rusty old water bowser blocked the path this morning and women dressed in shabby clothes stood impatiently for their turn with pots and buckets. 

"We don't have water after the sand banks collapsed on some houses," said 28-year-old Seli Marie, a mother of four. She lives in a tiny polythene covered room, which she calls home. Hair uncombed and unwashed for days, she scratched her head calling for her nine-year-old daughter to fetch a pot full of water. 

"We used to take the water from a tap down the footpath but it's blocked now and there is no water," she said looking with hatred at a middle-aged man who stood-by . "He raped my daughter and I get so angry when I see him," she said distracted for a moment, eyes burning with anger.

Passing Marie's 'home' we reached an open area surrounded by sand on the one side and the marsh on the other. A newly constructed line of wood-planked houses caught the curious eye, looking out of place in the desert atmosphere. "These houses were built recently," said Renuka Perera, whose house had been destroyed by a landslide created by the water collected in the middle of the sand mountain.

A petite woman with frizzy black hair, Renuka looked at the debris around her. Only a broken plastic bucket could be seen among the ruins. "I was at the tap with my son and heard people screaming. The entire mountain came rolling down and I ran with my child. When I came back for my son's clinic card I was covered with water up to my chest," she said.

Her husband, S. Perera, had come home in the evening to be greeted by a disturbed Renuka who feared for their lives and the lives of their children. "They promised to build our houses and gave us container houses," said Renuka who now lives in a new home, having lived in a container for 23 days. "We were given only two packets of milk in addition to the meals they provided. And we had to pay part of the mason's fee and get our houses built soon. The company asked us to move in before they were entirely done and promised to cement the floor. But nothing was done after we moved in."

Things are no better for the three families who have parts of their houses damaged. They have not been provided any relief. Despite some of the families being helped to build their houses, the villagers feel vulnerable with the debris scattered around. "There could be a repetition of what happened. We were lucky that it happened in the morning. All of us could have got killed had it come down in the night," said Perera.

With the highway construction project going ahead, these families live in constant fear that the sand mountain will collapse on their houses again. On the other side of the marsh the Hamilton canal, which has been the very strength of thousands of fisher families in the area is being killed due to pollution.

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