By Shanika Sriyananda
The recent proposal by the Kandy Municipal Council to construct a road through the ancient Udawattakele forest reserve, the lush forest cover behind Sri Dalada Maligawa, to ease heavy traffic congestion in the city, has raised a hue and cry against it.
Udawattakele, the only royal forest reserve in the country, serves as the catchment of the Kandy City. Declared as a ‘thahanchi’ kelle, which means a strictly prohibited forest, it boasts a rich biodiversity as it is a home to a wide range of flora and fauna, including endemic species.
At a recent meeting of the Kandy Municipal Council, a member came up with a proposal to construct a road through the Udawattakele forest reserve to connect Tennekumbura road at Buwelikada. He proposed the new road as an alternative to the road that has been closed for vehicles near Sri Dalada Maligawa.
However, the Federation of Environmental Organisations (FEO) of Sri Lanka has posted an online petition against the proposal and has urged President Maithripala Sirisena and Mayor of Kandy Municipal Council Mahindra Ratwatte to abandon the proposal and find alternatives to ease heavy traffic congestion in Kandy.
“Udawattakele Sanctuary also provides a vital watershed and lung for the City of Kandy in addition to its great recreational and educational value for the citizens of our Island. However, a road slicing through the forest and the resultant urban traffic will lead to a rapid degradation and eventual destruction of this forest,” the FEO stated.
The FEO claimed that this road was originally proposed in the 1970s but was stopped by the J.R. Jayewardene Government as a result of a campaign headed by the late Dr. Nihal Karunaratne but it was mentioned at the Kandy Municipal Council that this proposal was renewed by the Minister of Plantation Industries, Lakshman Kirie
It further requests the President to direct authorities to consider alternate routes which have been proposed to save the ancient forest reserve.
“We appeal to you not to revert to an era of unsustainable development in the style of the regime you succeeded,” it stressed.
The Udawattakele forest reserve has a long history that dates back to many centuries where ancient Sinhala kings who made Kandy their capital city.
Although it is located close to Sri Dalada Maligawa and the royal palace, this swathe of forest patch with huge trees, creepers, lichen, mosses, ferns, grasses, fungi, and bacteria are found in abundance, became secret hideouts for some kings to escape during ancient wars.
The historical record named ‘Asgiri Upatha’ describing how Udawattakele became a forest reserve when the ancient village, Senkadagala, was chosen as one of the early settlements in the country, states that the settlement was founded during the rule of King Gajabahu of Anuradhapura (114 -136 AC).
According to this record, the King Wickremabahu of Gampola is popularly believed to be the founder of the city of Senkadagala who built his palace on a site carved out of Udawattakele.
The FEO claims that this proposal is an alternative to the road adjoining Sri Dalada Maligawa which is currently closed for vehicular traffic.
The FEO has stated that the President ‘see the great value of preserving the multiple heritage that this forest enshrines and overrule the objections to an existing road being reopened’.
Dr. Siril Wijesundara, the former Director General National Botanical Gardens, Peradeniya, said when the forest is opened up for a road, the temperature along the road will rise up, will have more light, invasive species will prop up and people will set up shops and boutiques along the road, electricity line will be erected and these activities will alter and affect the eco-system of the forest.
“This is not a good idea as we need to protect the ancient forest reserve,” he said, highlighting the need of finding alternative proposals by the development agencies.
He said that in other countries w
hen designing development projects they take the best available option to avoid destroying forests.
Originally, Udawattakele spanned to over 1,000 acres before the British rule but according to a latest study it has been reduced to 200 acres, he noted.
Sajeewa Chamikara of the Environment Conservation Trust said a road construction through the Udawattakele forest reserve is a violation of the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance as Udawattakele is a sanctuary. It was declared as a sanctuary in 1938 and the Forest Ordinance as it was declared as a forest in 1897.
“Under the Special Provisions of the special gazette notification of the National Environment Act, if a development project is proposed to carry out 100 metres away from the forest boundary, an Environmental Impact Assessment should be carried out to evaluate the impacts on the forest eco-system,” he explained.
Chamikara said as there are many archaeological sites including remnants of Buddhist hermitages and caves in the Udawattakele forest reserve, the authorities has to furnish an Archaeological Impact Assessment.
“When roads are constructed through forests, animals living in forests face a grave threat as there will be more road kills. They lose their natural habitats and forests divisions will increase the edge effect which destroys the eco-system of the forest,” he explained.
He urged the authorities to find alternatives through a proper EIA process to find the best solution to reduce the traffic congestion in Kandy. “If the authorities decided to proceed with the proposed road construction through Udawattakele forest reserve, as environmental protection groups we will take legal action against them,” he cautioned.
Bhathiya Sumithraarachchi, former Director of National Botanical Gardens, Peradeniya, said cutting a road and allowing heavy traffic to pass through Udawattakele will change the highly-sensitive microclimate of the forest due to the exhaust fumes from vehicles.
“Increase in harmful chemicals like carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide and other carbon particulate and dust particulate concentrations will kill most of the plant and animal relict species to disintegrate and lead to forest ‘die-back’ similar to what we saw around 30 years back in Horton Plains,” he said.
According to Sumithraarachchi, when Udawattakele, which now acts as an heat absorbent, is opened up for a road, the Kandy City will also be heated up like Kurunegala City, where the large Athugalpura rock getting heated during the day creates an unbearable hotter climate as there is no buffer forest to ameliorate the environmental effect due to its own natural settings.
“Kandy City which is also trapped by the ranges of mountains right round and the pollution due to heavy traffic and the demographic pressure is very well ameliorated by Udawattakele. Highly-polluted atmospheric conditions that exist within the Kandy City limits have caused lung ailments among children due to air pollution that arises due to heavy traffic and air that is trapped due to the surrounding mountains. This will be aggravated with destroying Udawattakele, which absorbs a significant amount of pollutants,” he explained.
Sumithraarachchi suggests tunnelling the traffic through the city to the other side of the Kandy Lake, to construct a bridge without affecting the beauty of the city through the Kandy Lake at its narrowest point, bridge the traffic to Kundasale road, make the road round the lake one way and widen the road to the city through Mahamaya Girls College and arriving at the Bogambara area.
“Some of these solutions are costly and long-term. Without touching the valuable forest patch in the Kandy City, authorities can find the most effective and eco-friendly means to reduce traffic in Kandy,” he said.
Dr. Jayalath Edirisinghe, senior lecturer of Civil Engineering, Peradeniya University, strongly opposing a road through Udawattakele said there were other options to address traffic congestion in Kandy rather than touching the ancient forest reserve.
“The authorities can consider other options to tackle traffic in Kandy before thinking of a road via Udawattakele,” he said.
According to Dr. Edirisinghe, traffic congestion in Kandy is not a technical issue but a management and attitude problem. “If it is a technical issue, it can be solved by having more roads and more parking spaces. But, in Kandy, before addressing the technical issues, the authorities have to address the attitudes and management issues related to traffic congestion,” he pointed out.
He stressed the need of having a technical solution to have a bypass road for 30% vehicles that just enter Kandy City to pass the city to get to their destinations. “Separate parking facilities need to provide for those vehicles, which are just entering and staying for a little while in the city,” he explained.
Dr. Edirisinghe said that the present parking structure of the Kandy is the only designated space for parking in the country but it has been failed to serve the required (expected) purpose of reducing city traffic as parking along the streets of Kandy is still allowed.
“With the opening of the parking slot (structure), the vehicle parking facilities along the roads should have been banned. But it didn’t happen. Still people park vehicles along almost all streets, including the access road to the parking structure. Even if the parking along Dalada Vidiya is banned (only the street is rescued from parking with the opening of the parking structure), due to a few three-wheelers parked at random places on the extreme left lane, that lane is not effectively use for traffic movement,” he said, stressing on the need to introduce a separate vehicle management system for school vans, buses and three-wheelers.
In Kandy, one school van rushes to seven or eight schools located at different corners, moving from school to school every morning. “They move at their own pace of speed and this creates
a serious traffic congestion in the city. On the other hand, most of them park their vans along the streets until schools are over. They clog the streets, making it difficult for other vehicles to move. Schools vans need to be streamlined,” he explained.
Dr. Edirisinghe emphasised that lack of a controlling structure for three-wheelers has also caused traffic congestion in Kandy, where they park at every junction and bus halt.
“Overflow of short distance buses has also resulted in traffic congestion in Kandy,” he said.
He also suggested having good parking spaces in the peripheries in Kandy and to have a shuttle service and also to open the road in front of the Dalada Maligawa, preferably for public buses at the beginning, to ease congestion.
Dr. Edirisinghe said that without addressing those issues in the town to redress traffic congestion, building a road via Udawattakele is absolutely not a viable solution.
Meanwhile, Major of Kandy Mahindra Ratwatte denied any efforts by the council to construct a road through Udawattakele. He said it was merely a proposal forwarded by a council member.
“He just mentioned constructing a road via Udawattakele as a suggestion to reduce the heavy traffic congestion in the Kandy City; nothing happened beyond that,” he said.
Ratwatte said that roads that were heavily blocked due to traffic congestion would be widened soon under a project funded by the World Bank.
“We hope to ease heavy traffic in Kandy under this project,” Ratwatte said, adding that three crucial points in the city which block the roads have been identified with the help of the Police and other relevant authorities and they would be widened, resulting in more space for vehicles to move fast.