Environment and YOU
When electing representatives to local councils, do we ponder for a moment to ask ourselves whether we elect them for the right or wrong reasons – taking care of our local needs or because of the political party they belong to?
This was an interesting question raised last week during a discourse on the environment, garbage and civic responsibilities. Dr Sumith Pilapitiya, Senior Environmental Engineer, World Bank, asked whether residents elect their representatives to tackle crucial local issues like garbage, basic needs or road maintenance.

In the first place, he argues, local administrations are elected on national issues and not local ones. Garbage is never an issue at a local council election, “so why should councillors care about garbage?” he asked during a speech last week.

Dr Pilapitiya’s point and many other issues raised during this discourse with the business community was that civil society (we) are responsible for the plight of the environment and because of this negligence or indifference the government spends millions on repairing or cleaning dirty, polluted canals, drains and several more millions on health care.

The need for action from the corporate sector vis-à-vis a clean environment is precisely why The Sunday Times Business Club last year – in association with CIMA – launched its award for good waste management practices amongst corporates in its first Community Leader scheme. Several companies applied and Unilever won the gold medal for good practices.

With land use shrinking and more and more people moving to urban cities in search of jobs, a good life and facilities, local councils in Sri Lanka are stretched to provide good water, sanitation and other requirements.
In Colombo for example, the housing and property development sector has no social responsibility whatsoever.

Any land that is available – be it a marsh land or running over vital drains and stormwater passages-will be grabbed, the highest price paid and a condominium or apartment block comes up in next to no time.

A few weeks ago, some of the best maintained roads in Colombo like Dharmapala Mawatha and Horton Place were flooded – because stormwater passages and drains had been either blocked by unsustainable development or clogged with garbage and “siri bags” Commercial establishments, apartments blocks, condominiums and tutories are the bane of quiet residential areas in Colombo because of no proper planning as to where these buildings should be located. With the city population expanding, the strain is telling on the municipality’s ability to deliver.

For example a random survey of all the roads off Galle Road from Kollupitiya to Wellawatte would show that the number of residents down these roads have increased manyfold but have the services also increased in line with the needs? Are these roads wide enough? Are the sewers and stormwater drains adequate? Are the water pipes large enough to meet the increasing number of families?

Some years ago, when a five-storey tutory with some 5,000 students came up in a quiet suburb of Colombo, the residents protested to no avail. Subsequently, some residents had problems in the municipality water supply because of demand from the school and were forced to build underground tanks as a fallback option due to shortages. Apart from that garbage collection also became a problem. Parents of students and other motorists were dumping garbage on the roadside just because they didn’t want garbage in their own backyard!

Planning has always been a problem in Colombo with no proper zones for residential areas and commercial establishments. Nice residential areas with trees and wide spaces are being turned into crowded, commercial stretches with little or no green patches.

Amidst the garbage crisis in the city, residents in areas like Nugegoda or Dehiwela don’t know where to dump their garbage as the garbage trucks have ceased to come or hardly seen and the few garbage dumpers on roadsides are missing. Local councils like the Dehiwela-Mount Lavinia Municipality say they don’t have a landfill. So residents are scouring the town looking a place to dump their garbage or hide it in another’s backyard.

There is money and value in garbage which can be made productive – a well known fact -- if only politicians are committed and residents elect local councils on the strength of local issues.

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