Water is life. It is the basis on which our existence is built upon. Yet, wide scale pollution of this finite resource — including the river pollution such as what we observe in the Kelani River — suggests that people have taken this gift of Mother Nature for granted. The consequences of which is the [...]

Sunday Times 2

Keeping the Kelani River clean: A multi-stakeholder approach


Water is life. It is the basis on which our existence is built upon. Yet, wide scale pollution of this finite resource — including the river pollution such as what we observe in the Kelani River — suggests that people have taken this gift of Mother Nature for granted.

Life depends on water but the river depends on people to keep it clean: pollution at Castlereagh

The consequences of which is the onset of life threatening diseases and the lack of clean water. In such a scenario, the Medium to Long-Term Multi-Stakeholder Strategy and Action Plan developed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) under the supervision of Central Environment Authority with the participation of more than 60 agencies and UNICEF funding seeks to remind the people of this forgotten fact. The proposed project named “Kelani River Multi-Stakeholder Partnership” concentrates on the protection and the sustainable development of the Kelani River, which is an ideal place to begin conveying the importance of water as it is the main provider of drinking water to Colombo.

The partnership is especially important as the wide expanse over which the Kelani River Basin is spread out has made it impossible for one organisation to tackle the mounting issues of the basin. This project, a conglomeration of more than 50 organisations, is set to take place within a four-year period starting from this year. The stakeholders of the project include organisations from the public and private sector, international agencies, non-governmental organisations, industries and the resident community of the Kelani River Basin. The collaboration of multi-stakeholders is imperative as there are many cross cutting areas related to the land use, waste management and policy environment. Therefore, as a project which comprises multiple stakeholders, five management objectives have been put forward within the main objective of ensuring the sustainable use of the Kelani River to assist both livelihoods and conservation efforts.

The first of management objectives is land use management for source water protection and sustainability. The water quality of the source or “raw” water plays a major part in determining the outcome of purified water. Therefore, it is essential to maintain proper water quality standards in input water to the water treatment facilities. However, at present, activities such as improper agricultural practices and illegal sand and gem mining – activities that cause riverbank erosion — have had a detrimental impact on the water quality of the river.

The multi-stakeholder approach intends to put an end to this by promoting eco-friendly agricultural practices, and taking measures against illegal mining. This includes identifying the target groups and providing them with alternative livelihoods. In addition, using the Kelani River water resources, the Ceylon Electricity Board and the National Water Supply and Drainage Board generate income by selling electricity and water. The continued quality and quantity of water is depending on the quality of the upper catchment. Conservation of upper catchment to improve water resources in the basin is another land use improvement proposed in the project.

Industrial and urban management is the second objective of the project. It is perhaps the hardest to achieve as it involves employment. The Kelani River Basin is an industrial hotspot, which is responsible for most of the pollution issues. A sizable portion of pollution in the basin is also due to unplanned urbanisation. This includes encroachment of the river basin, disposal of sewage into the river by residents and construction during the rainy season. Therefore, it is apparent that the combined effects of these factors play a major role in deteriorating the water quality of the river. However, a question that needs to be pondered on is: “what if the very people who pollute the river can be used to protect it?” Although this may seem like a farfetched idea at a glance, it has been tried successfully in other parts of the world. In terms of managing industrial pollution, the stakeholders have suggested a tradeoff of resources between the industrialists and the river. Industry owners make a large profit using the water from the river but they hardly, if ever, contribute positively back to the river. According to this proposal, industrialists should contribute to the protection of the Kelani River by working with local authorities and communities. Although this may seem like an excess payment in the eyes of the owners, it is in fact a long-term investment as the river will continue to be a source of income only if it continues to survive.

To facilitate the operationalising of both land use management objective and the pollution reduction objectives it was proposed to divide the Kelani River Basin in to 20 sub-watersheds and 71 minor watersheds. The minor-watershed level management and conservation plans will be developed under the project based on the water issues prevailing in the minor-watershed by the committees formed for this purpose.

The minor-watershed management and conservation committees will consist of representatives from divisional secretariats, local authorities, line agencies like health (public health officers and mid-wives), agriculture, irrigation and other relevant staff, non-government entities in the area, community-based organisations, schools and private sector business and industries.

With the capacity building and empowering support from the project, these committees will lead the planning and implementation of partnership activities at the minor-watershed levels, which in turn are expected to reflect at sub and basin scales. A special secretariat will be formed to support the training, capacity building and monitoring of minor watershed level work.

Indeed, many of the residents seem eager to participate in a project to reclaim the river and have even asked for educational programmes to further their knowledge and awareness on pollution prevention. This leads to the next management objective of the multi-stakeholder approach, which is promoting research, studies, awareness, training and education for better management and conservation.

The underlying objective of educating the masses is to create an enabling environment in the basin area to facilitate conservation efforts which are adequately backed by scientific knowledge and evidence on pollution trends. Empowered stakeholders and communities are the key result expected from this management objective. For this, the stakeholders have taken a community-centered approach as they are a vital pillar in ensuring the sustainability of the project. Therefore, it has been proposed to conduct awareness programmes across the basin. The inclusion of universities and experts from various fields has also been suggested to improve the research component of the project.

Sustainability of the KRMP approach is only ensured if there is a strong governing body. Hence, the fourth management objective gives prominence to operationalising, monitoring and evaluation of the Kelani River Basin Management and Conservation Plan. For this, it has been proposed to establish a secretariat and a steering committee which would oversee to the operationalising aspect of the project. This is to consist of representatives from public and private sectors, universities and the community. The secretariat and the committee are expected to play an important role in ensuring that necessary activities are carried out properly.

The fifth and final management objective of the multi-stakeholder approach is the establishment of Public Private Partnerships (PPP). Through this the KRMP approach hopes to ensure the participation of the private sector as engaging them in conservation efforts is crucial for the sustainable development of the Kelani River Basin. This enables the private sector to work together with the public sector and the community to ensure the sustainability and the resilience of the river basin. Therefore, the expected outcome of this management objective is to add value, enhance the resource base and improve sustainability through PPPs.

Through this it is apparent that the effect of such a synergy could be exactly what the Kelani River needs to shed its reputation as the most polluted river in the country, for life depends on water but the river depends on people to keep it clean. Therefore, if water is life, then, conservation is no doubt the future.

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

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