A timely appeal | Daily News

A timely appeal

R M Suwandratne (Farmer/ Area Resident), Priyamali Perera (Area Resident), Dr. Ajantha Perera (Environmentalist and Activist) and Lahiru Perera (Area Resident and member of save our wetlands group)  speaking at Wetlands day press conference in Thalangama
R M Suwandratne (Farmer/ Area Resident), Priyamali Perera (Area Resident), Dr. Ajantha Perera (Environmentalist and Activist) and Lahiru Perera (Area Resident and member of save our wetlands group) speaking at Wetlands day press conference in Thalangama

At a time when the COVID19 global pandemic is raging, when periodic floods and heat waves are battering the planet and with the most recent UN Report on Climate Change delivering the starkest warning by way of a Code Red to humanity on Greenhouse Emissions, Wetlands, which are biodiversity hotspots have proven to be among the most biologically productive ecosystems in the world and often surpassing forests and managed farmlands in the provision of services to humanity. Yet, they are being threatened with further destruction. Wetlands are indispensable for the countless benefits or ecosystem services that they provide, ranging from freshwater supply, food, livelihoods and building materials, much needed biodiversity, flood control, groundwater recharge, oxygen production, carbon absorption, support to health through provisions of clean air, as also, climate change mitigation and adaption.

Threats of Destructions to the Thalangama/Awerihena Wetlands

With all these at stake at the global and national levels, and with nearly 40 percent of the Wetlands in and around Colombo having been destroyed to date due to development activities, more destructions are also being threatened with an Elevated Highway from Rajagiriya to Athurugiriya being proposed to be built across 3.1 KM of the Thalangama/ Awerihena Wetlands in Colombo. What is at stake is not a mere marsh land or a paddy field, but an internationally recognized, rare, unique and irreplaceable biodiversity hotspot such as the Thalangama /Awerihena Wetlands EPA playing multiple roles such as flood control, carbon absorption and contributing to the global carbon footprint, thus mitigating climate change, oxygen production for the diverse species and for human life, paddy farming and food production, clean air, a calm, serene and scenic environment frequented by bird watchers, joggers, environment researchers, star gazers, film makers and wedding picture takers, given its visual beauty. All of these factors contribute immensely to the authenticity and integrity of this historic area which is considered one of the few green areas left near to Colombo. It is also to be noted that the Thalangama Wetlands are amongst the seven wetlands included under the City of Colombo, when it emerged as the only South Asian City to be given this honor under the Ramsar Wetlands accreditation scheme and also to be considered the only Capital City in the world to be accredited as a wetland Capital City. All of these shall be adversely impacted upon if a monstrous elevated highway is allowed to run across 3.1 km of the Thalangama Wetlands for this Highway Project, spewing emissions and noise pollution 24/7 which are hitherto unknown to this pristine area inhabited by thousands of residents and rare species, including migrant birds and despite many alternative routes having been listed as available. It can be said with responsibility that the costs of the permanent damages to this irreplaceable asset gifted by nature in a particular place for particular purposes and for invaluable services shall turn out to be far more costly than an alternative route that can be used to construct the elevated highway, so as to avoid building over these sacred wetlands which are listed as Environmentally Protected Areas. The Economic Service Values of the Wetlands and the EPA and permanent and irreparable damages to the invaluable ecosystems when considered and ascertained will be incomparable. There will also be hundreds of houses and buildings that will be destroyed in the process, in addition to irrecoverable environmental damage. There is ample evidence to show that even if properly and carefully constructed, wetlands adjacent to roads and highways, or even Elevated highways, get damaged and slowly disappear due to reasons such as toxic emissions and noise. Therefore, an alternative route should be considered.

Legal principles

There is also the importance of the Legal Principles of the Doctrine of Public Trust, as also, the rights of the people to a healthy environment, with Sustainable Development being considered the need of the hour the world over, the obligations of the state to exercise its sovereignty over the natural resources, has to give pride of place to the consideration of the promotion of the well being of the people. The International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), as also, the inherent rights of the people to have the enabling environment to enjoy and utilize fully their natural wealth and resources, is further stipulated in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) , articles 1 and 25. There are also the International Covenants on Biodiversity Conservation, as also, The International Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, where Sri Lanka is a State Party to and are bound by these provisions.

Other considerations involved

a) The newly introduced "Natural Capital Accounting for Mainstreaming Biodiversity" by the UN, taking into account the effects of human activities and development on the environment that has emerged as one of the most significant policy issues in environmental sustainability and should be given due consideration.. This System of Environmental Economic Accounting (SEEA) is the first international statistical standard for environmental economic accounting that has been introduced and promoted by the UN, for which necessary guidelines have already been issued, which can become a separate subject for discussion and implementation, if the world is to preserve its limited and irreplaceable assets for the future.

b) The issuance of Green Bonds to finance any extra costs entailed in taking other alternate routes should be seriously explored in order to avoid irreparable damages to an irreplaceable and unique ecosystem that comprises the Thalangama Wetlands EPA. This proposition will also attract much needed foreign currency inflows into the country when it is most needed, whilst preventing the permanent destruction of an important ecosystem of the country. Such an initiative will truly reflect the will of the government to keep in line with the declared policy manifesto of a " Saubagyamath Dekma" of HE The President and will be a big boost to the image of the government, both nationally and internationally as taking steps to contributing to the Sustainable Development Goals.

c) Evidence is available showing the futilities of Urban Highways in the US and in South Korea by tearing them down after having constructed them. The government should take serious note of such evidence based experiences for the sake of the motherland and the future generations.

Costs of financing an Elevated Highway to the tax paying public that permanently destroys an irreplaceable treasure of the country, when alternative routes are available.

The humongous costs to be incurred in paying for the " viability gap" in the Build Operate and Transfer (BOT) deal amounting to 106.5 Million USD per annum or USD 1.5 Billion USD during the 15 year period of the BOT project period has been bought to light in a Cabinet Paper that has been presented by the Minister for Highways. Such costs shall be in addition to the costs of the irreparable damages to an irreplaceable and unique ecosystem of the country, which will go to defy all logic of such an investment of scarce tax payer funds, which shall be too harsh to bear for our citizenry, particularly given the present state of the economy.


The issues mentioned in the foregoing cannot be considered as insignificant impacts to the environment, which have also been mentioned by the Secretary, Ministry of Environment in a letter dated 16/06/2020 addressed to the Secretary, Ministry of Highways in which he states, "pursuant to the meeting held on 09/06/2020 and a site visit carried out on 10/06/2021 with the participation of the RDA officers", that;


* Construction of an elevated highway on columns over this important wetland will certainly damage its biodiversity. It will also affect the free flow of water in these flood sensitive areas.

*In addition, construction of an elevated highway within the EPA is not a permitted activity under the National Environment Act. Destruction of this wetland will negatively impact on the international accreditation received as a Wetland City under the Ramsar Convention.

* The above issues cannot be considered as insignificant impacts to the environment and thus the MoE and WR is of the view that a better alternative which may have less environmental and social effects needs to be considered.

Attorney General's Opinion expressed in February 2021

A letter addressed by the Attorney General to the Director General of the Central Environment Authority, (CEA) is now in the public domain, where the following have been indicated;

a) Any activity within or adjacent to such an EPA must be carried out without any adverse impact to the environment in accordance with the National Wetlands Policy and the National Environment Act.

b) The CEA has been identified as the main state agency that should coordinate wetland related activities and accordingly, CEA is bound to give effect to Section 1.1 of the National Policy on Wetlands.

c) Therefore it is contended that any steps taken by the CEA to recommend to the Minister any revision or amendment to the order declaring the Thalangama Wetland as an EPA in order to permit a new "permitted use" such as the construction of an elevated highway which would have a significant impact on the Thalangama Wetlands, would be a violation of the National Environmental Act.

d) Accordingly, the CEA has been advised to direct the Project Proponent to consider an alternative trace which would avoid the Thalangama Environment Protection Area (EPA), as declared by the Minister by order published in the Gazette Extraordinary no: 1487/10 dated 05/03/2020, in constructing the proposed four lane elevated highway from Rajagiriya to the Outer Circular Highway. (Emphasis added).

Based on the legal, scientific, logical and evidence based arguments mentioned in all of the foregoing, we the people of Sri Lanka respectfully appeal to the temporary custodians of our country's precious assets under the "Doctrine of Public Trust", to please take into kind consideration the said facts concerning an issue which has ramifications at the national and international levels, as also, on the present and future generations of the country, as it concerns an irreparable and irreplaceable national treasure of significant importance. This shall be a fitting tribute to the celebration of this "World Wetlands Day" as declared by the United Nations of which Sri Lanka is a long standing Member State.


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