By Yasara Kannangara and Ananda Mallawatantri The Kelani River has been in the receiving end of industrial effluents from many of the industries that are located within the Kelani River Basin. These discharges along with agricultural, urban and domestic sources of pollution have greatly deteriorated the water quality of the Kelani River. Therefore, it is [...]

Sunday Times 2

Reviving the Kelani River Basin: A sustainable approach


By Yasara Kannangara and Ananda Mallawatantri
The Kelani River has been in the receiving end of industrial effluents from many of the industries that are located within the Kelani River Basin. These discharges along with agricultural, urban and domestic sources of pollution have greatly deteriorated the water quality of the Kelani River. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that the Kelani River is the most polluted river in Sri Lanka. In this context, the Kelani River needs urgent attention and involvement of everyone concerned to better manage and conserve its ecosystem and natural resources.

This is the first of the three articles on the Kelani River Multi-Stakeholder Partnership. Further information on KRMP including reports can be found at

The Kelani River Basin is a population hub with nearly 25 percent of Sri Lankans residing within the area. This has resulted in it becoming a center for human activities. However, the tenants of the Basin and those who are dependent on the river are facing multiple consequences of pollution with health issues and lack of clean drinking water being a few notable ones. The list of causes that have led up this situation is quite extensive with the release of industrial effluents and solid and liquid waste, the improper disposal of sewage, poor land use practices leading to river bank erosion and sedimentation, over extraction of water, sand and gems and unauthorised constructions and encroachment of river banks being only a few of the many reasons.

The Kelani River Basin is extremely important for its socio-economic contributions. For instance, the river supplies drinking water for about 4 million people and sustains more than 10,000 industries and businesses. Further, the river is a power source. The electricity generated from the reservoirs of Moussakele, Canyon, Laxapana, Castlereagh and Norton contributes to about 1,382 GWH a year. Therefore, it is evident that the Kelani River plays a key role in maintaining the economy of the country and is a life source to many people.

This factor should be taken into consideration during conservation efforts so that the positive attempts to combat pollution would not adversely affect the economy and livelihoods. Hence, industries cannot simply be obliterated in the name of conservation. Instead, it requires a multi-stakeholder approach seeking to implement quality standards that industries should adhere to and the measures should include water quality monitoring and proper land use regulations.

Due to the contamination of water many residents are deprived of their right to access clean water. For instance, the water from the river is unfit for direct human consumption without expensive water purification, an extremely challenging responsibility which the National Water Supply Drainage Board has undertaken. An alternative approach could be to manage the water catchment in a way that the pollutants will not be added to the river water thereby, minimizing the number of health issues among those who utilise the river water. Cancer, cholera, liver damage, typhoid, and heart diseases are few of the health issues related to this matter. Therefore, highlighting the gravity of the current status of the Kelani River Basin and demanding due attention to the river Basin needs to ensure the right of the future generations to safe drinking water have been identified as the key theme by all agencies involved in the planning of the new project.

Despite the pollution, the Kelani River Basin is still able to boast of a rich biodiversity consisting of many fauna and flora varieties. The breathtaking diversity of the river Basin can largely be attributed to its location, covering three floristic regions — the Northern Wetlands, the Foothills of Adam’s Peak and Ambagamuwa. Adam’s Peak is home to many point endemic species. Yet, these species are facing an uncertain future with quite a number of them being listed as Critically Endangered, Endangered or Vulnerable in the National Red List as a result of continuous pollution. Therefore, action must be taken to protect these species from extinction. The stakeholders aim to protect these species by ensuring the continued existence of their habitats in the Basin.

However, as an area that consists of both natural and human activities, it is imperative that conservation efforts should concentrate on incorporating both conservation and development of the Kelani River Basin. Conservation should not hinder development but, instead, ensure the sustainability of natural resources. In line with this, the Kelani River Basin Multi-Stakeholder Partnership (KRMP) was developed with the participation of more than 60 agencies as a project to manage and conserve the Kelani River Basin. This approach developed in line with “National Pavithra Ganga” programme led by the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment is being introduced to policy makers as a four-year initiative (2016-2020).

It may be possible to change the industrial dependency of the basin and convert it into a less polluting and more sustainable high income tourist destination that is both nature and culture based by balancing industrial based income with enhanced nature based income.

The establishment of the basin as an ecological site can contribute greatly towards the minimisation of these health hazards as it hopes to create a culture through which priority is given to human health. This is done by focussing on spiritual development through nature and pollution prevention which will not only avert pollution related diseases but will also promote a healthy lifestyle through activities such as mountain trekking, canoeing etc.

The multi-stakeholder approach has also suggested making use of the dependency of industrialists on the river as a means of conservation itself. This is through a trade-off of resources between the industries and the river. In exchange for the river water, industry owners would be required to take environment regulations and the standards stipulated in the Environment Protection Licences (EPL) and work with communities promoting environment best practices through water catchment plans developed under the proposed approach. Therefore, the multi-stakeholder approach concentrates on eliminating the negative impacts of pollution as well as revitalising and restoring the Kelani River to its former glory. This is beneficial to everyone who is dependent on the river. After all, nature is the basis on which human life is created hence, the continued existence of nature ensures the continuous existence of humankind.

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

Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.