ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday October 7, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 19

Quarrel over corals

~ A resort project in Weligama has once again triggered a conflict between environmentalists and developers.

By Kumudini Hettiarachchi, Pic by M.A. Pushpa Kumara

It is right off a picture postcard -- the bay, the sea and the fishing boats bobbing on the waters at Weligama. As one surveys the curve of the bay in Kapparatota, the eye suddenly falls upon a red gash on a headland sans most of its vegetation except a few coconut trees.

A massive resort development project estimated to cost around US $ 15 million has kicked up dust, with conservationists protesting and the developers standing their ground and assuring that the environmental concerns raised by them were there long before the project was initiated. The exclusive resort will comprise 41 luxury villas with their own swimming pools and 16 apartments while providing very large conferencing facilities, a severe lack now, in the south, it is understood.

Soil erosion, even for the slightest shower of rain, makes the headland which has been stripped of its vegetation, spew down a muddy flood into the sea, points out a conservationist who declined to be identified, adding that the ramifications are much more than the adverse effects of erosion.

For, all that brown soil gushing down is settling as silt on the coral reef just below the headland, he charges, destroying the corals. (See box for effects of sedimentation).

Adds K.H. Thaminda Kumara, 32: “When it rains the soil gushes down. Corals matha ron mada thenpath venawa.” Thaminda and about 100 other families collect ornamental fish from among the corals and sell them, to make a living. “We are dependent on the ornamental fish industry and if the coral reef dies our families will face starvation.”
Pointing out that there is no such reef in the whole of Sri Lanka and dubbing it the “best” with the exception of the reef at Rumassala, Thaminda wades into the shallow waters of the bay and picks up a handful of aqua flora.

The water was clear before the headland was stripped of its vegetation which included coconut and kottamba trees, all acting as protective barriers against soil erosion, he says adding that aqua flora is flourishing because of the soil being washed into the sea. “Now the water is muddy and looks churned up.”

An artist’s impression of the resort

The developers say otherwise. As they have pointed out to the Coast Conservation Department (CCD) from whom they have got the green light to proceed with the project while keeping to certain conditions, the site had originally been a coconut plantation, “but had been stripped of most of its trees and natural vegetation prior to our purchase and this can be evidenced from aerial photos”.

While conservationists also claim they have photos showing thick vegetation, a spokesman for the developers said when they bought the property, except for a few coconut trees there was only a very prickly, thorny scrub, displaying to The Sunday Times an artist’s impression of what the site would look like once the project is completed.

Conceding that the “incompleteness of our earthworks, that in itself due to the rains” during the “unseasonably high rainfall” on two occasions in May 2007 at the peak of the monsoon may have added to the runoff problems in the surrounding area, the developers in detail explain the problems affecting the area.

These problems caused by the natural contours of the land and an inadequate drainage network, the spokesperson said, were not of their making. They had been there long before the project began.“In fact, to adequately redirect the runoff and help ease the existing flooding problem within the low-lying areas, we constructed a 100-metre concrete drain,” he said.

Edgar Karl Rupprecht and wife Chandra who have been running a diving school in the area for 14 years echo the concerns of Thaminda. “Since the headland was cleared about eight to 10 months ago, there has been massive flooding not once but twice,” says Edgar showing The Sunday Times team water marks on the walls.

However, his allegations are refuted by the developers. There has been regular flooding in the area in the past years, before the project was begun. “On May 2, the area received record amounts of high rainfall and the Urban Council’s drainage system got silted up and failed. During this storm, a temporary pit, to stop the flow of water, on the northern boundary of our property also failed and some water found its natural way down into the adjoining property. This pit was rebuilt soon after and larger pits were also installed,” the spokesman says.

Steps had been taken even before to divert water from its natural course onto the road and surrounding properties and contain it within our site until the earthworks, drainage and landscaping are complete, he added.

The immediate landscaping envisioned within the 25 metre buffer zone – a CCD requirement – is planting of native vines, 3 metres from the cliff edge, with a coconut fibre mound to preserve the cliff face and drape over the edge and bond to and stabilize the rock face; a further 4 metres of grassing and another 1-metre coconut fibre mound; and planting of a large number of coconut, pandanus, temple and other bird-attracting trees.

“It will be a planted and vegetated environment, with the resort even implementing rainwater harvesting,” assures the spokesman. What of the requirements for such projects?

“When the owners of the land put up a building application to set up a hotel there, we asked that certain requirements be met – a permit from the Coast Conservation Department, approval from the Central Environmental Authority and also approval from the Tourist Board, all of which they have got,” Weligama Urban Council Mayor Mohamed Hussain Hajiar Mohamed told The Sunday Times.

We received complaints from residents living in the area that their houses were getting flooded and we instructed the land developers to take remedial action – now they have put in a network of drains and we have had no more complaints, he says. However, on the alleged destruction of the coral reef, the Mayor says the UC has not heard anything about the matter. “No one has made a complaint,” he adds.

Once the cabanas are built, the owners may put up retaining walls, effectively stopping the erosion but what of the damage already done, ask conservationists. “Who will take responsibility for the dead corals and the destruction of an essential eco-system?”

Memories of the Kandalama Hotel project and protests in its wake flood back. Once again, the issue of development crucial for the country in general and the south in particular versus protection of the environment, comes to the fore. The country needs development while protecting the environment and it is of paramount importance that the authorities, the guardians of the state, ensure that at every step the right balance is strictly maintained.

Sedimentation killing the reef

The Weligama coral reef is one of the last remaining “good ones” with many varieties of ornamental fish, explained an environmentalist, stressing that silt and sedimentation would be the “best way to kill the corals”.

“Sedimentation is bad for coral reefs because the silt settles on the corals. Usually, this happens with the inflow of river water with soil raining down on the corals and smothering them but allowing the organisms which are ahithakara to the corals to grow rapidly.

Before the area was cleared. File photo of May 2005

With the soil come more nutrients and these nutrients foster growth of algae. The algae too grow rapidly and could cover the whole reef, smothering the corals.

Sounding a further warning, the environmentalist said for a project such as the one at Kapparatota, the sewage pits would be built on a hillside and because of the higher elevation than the usual ground water flow, more and more nutrients will be washed into the sea harming the corals.

The developers, however, differ, with the view that this section of the ocean had always “suffered discolouration with red silt” caused by the runoff from bordering properties.

Meanwhile, the fishermen in the area have mixed views on the discolouration of the sea water. While some say it is due to the Kapparatota headland being cleared of vegetation, others claim the river washes the silt down into the sea at certain times of the year.


CCD gives green light

The Coast Conservation Department (CCD) has approved the hotel development project subject to certain conditions, The Sunday Times learns.

The CCD looks at environmental issues if any building is to be constructed within 300 metres of the shoreline and in Weligama, the requirement is that a 55-metre reservation called a “setback” should be kept from the coastline, said Director H.N.R. Perera who went on to explain that if, however, the building was coming up on high ground the setback could be relaxed to some extent taking into consideration certain factors such as the sea level, whether there are bad sea conditions, whether the soil is kabok or rock.

When The Sunday Times queried about the monitoring process for conditions placed on a developer, Mr. Perera said a team including a CCD officer based at the Divisional Secretary’s office would carry out a routine check at the beginning and a second routine check when the project is completed.

Some of the conditions set by the CCD on the hotel developers include the demarcation of a 25-metre land area from the edge of the cliff to be maintained without structures; development to be carried out with minimum land grading which in turn should be done with structures and precautionary measures to minimize soil erosion; no blasting should be carried out, with the existing rock formations left as they are; and sewage or waste water should not be channelled to the sea.

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