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The once pristine city coastline from Mt. Lavinia to Fort is today, the most polluted stretch of beach in the country. Even though Colombo city had the advantage of having a sea front, the maintenance of this beach was sorely neglected. Considered an important tourist attraction and recreational facility for the city dwellers the sad fact is that today it is a paradise for pimps, perverts and drug addicts. Illegal structures on the shore are giving way to increased erosion and the beach is strewn with garbage, while bathing in the sea is restricted because of the number of polluted canals bringing in all kinds of liquid wastes into the sea.
At present several governmental and non- state bodies are showing an interest in attempting to clean up the beach -in order to encourage tourism in the area and also ensure a cleaner beach environment. But real implementation of these plans and programmes is yet to come.
The coastal belt from Galle Face to Mt. Lavinia is under threat due to several reasons. There is mainly sea erosion for which the Coast Conservation Authority had constructed a stone bund at certain points. Unfortunately this makes the beach inaccessible to visitors. Erosion is aggravated due to the large number of unauthorised constructions going on along that area. Makeshift shanties, summer huts for tourists and restaurants on the beach, only add to the erosion effects . Many displaced people from the war zones and gypsy travellers also encroach on the beaches of the Wellawatte- Bambalapitiya area adding to the cluttered, littered look on the shoreline. Regulating these encroachment problems have become increasingly difficult due to various political pressures.
Encroachments also provide cover for various extra-legal activities that take place on these beaches which is counter productive to the government's efforts to clean up shanties in the city and upgrade the lives of shanty dwellers.
Apart from encroachments the beaches have become breeding grounds for a number of other evils, driving away visitors- tourists and locals. The canals that end up in the beach bring with them all kinds of wastes not only from households but hotels and industries in the city, turning the canal waters a thick black colour.
Garbage is also thrown indiscriminately onto the beaches, plastic waste of every discription- from siri siri bags to soft drink bottles. Added to this is the nuisance of gangs of youth who roam the area making it difficult for young lovers or families to enjoy the beach in peace. Hoteliers, restaurant owners and Police confirm there are thieves and drug addicts on the beach making it difficult for visitors to be comfortable here.
" After six o clock, hardly anyone dares to venture out into the beach for it is considered to be unsafe," Palitha Seneviratne President of Urban Youth Social Development Foundation said. "People are harassed and robbed needlessly. There are gangs operating here involved in all kinds of illegal activities."
Dhanapala Weerasekera, Chairman , marine Pollution Prevention Authority said that tourists have complained of the polluted beaches near and around the mt. lavinia area and that the hotels in the vicinity are affected by the unpleasant beaches.
Ships that travel to and from Colombo are apparently releasing oil off into our coastal waters ."Ships find it convenient to flush off their used oil into our waters. Tourists have complained of oil drifts near the shore obstructing them from sea bathing, " Weerasekera said.
Through the years half- hearted attempts made by the Coast Conservation Department to clear encroachments and reduce coastal erosion have not brought about substantial results. Cleared shanties were built back again overnight where thugs with political influence ruled the roost. The CCD also monitors hotel construction and activities in the area which could be potentially threatening the beach environs. "We look into the waste disposal plans of every new hotel before approving the project. The existing hotels are expected to link unto a central disposal system operated by the local authority ." said CCD official M. Samaranayake. Most hotels apparently do not link upto the system preferring instead to flush out their waste into the canals that fall onto the beach, creating another hazard.
It is only too clear that quick action is vital to restore the environs of the beach .
The deteriorating state of coastal belt adjacent to the city has finally come to the notice of several relevant authorities. The Urban Development Authority along with the financial support of the Ministry of Fisheries has formulated a project to clean up this stretch of coastline and set up beach parks which are more attractive to visitors.
The project stretches from the Wellawatte canal outlet , near the Beach Wadiya restaurant to Mt. Lavinia. It proposes to completely transform the present face of the beach by fencing, tree planting and clearing encroachments and to transform the entire area into a large recreational ground with play areas and changing rooms.
Implementation of the project and maintenance of the park area will be done by the Urban Youth Development Foundation which is linked to the Ministry of Youth Affairs. The Foundation will be in charge of fencing the park area away from the railway reservations, planting of trees obtained from the Forest Department and building the changing rooms using minimum concrete structures. The Foundation also has plans to introduce life guards to the sea at this point. Called sea scouts , these life guards will be drawn from trained urban youth. Visitors to the beach would also have to be protected to some degree from the thieves and perverts who have invaded the area. "At present we are looking for more active members who could contribute positively towards this project." said Seneviratne.
They hope to begin work by demarcating park boundaries and fencing with railway sleepers by end April.
But encroachments are still a big problem with the project. Seneviratne complains that even though the CCD and Police clear shanties and try to resettle the families who are often displaced people from the North, political meddling makes it difficult for the authorities.
Although garbage collection and cleaning up the pollutants in the canal were responsibilities of the municipal council there is little evidence that the local body is taking this duty seriously Many complain that the Municipal Council that should clean up the beach and canal mouth on a daily basis does it only once a week or so.
It is essential that all relevant authorities work together if the beach park project is going to be a success and this includes the CCD, the Municipality, the Police, the Hoteliers , the Urban Development Authority and the Marine Pollution Prevention Authority, who has wide powers to bring polluters to book. Lack of co-ordination has seen the failure of many such good and ambitious projects. All city dwellers would certainly hope that this stretch of beach could be made accessible to all citizens , who wish for healthy recreational activity away from the daily stresses and tensions of city life.
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