Environmentalists and development projects

Wednesday, 16 July 2014 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

In a recent report in the Sunday Times, a Director of an environment conservation group raised concerns of flooding in areas surrounding expressways, stating that wetlands, river basins and sensitive flood plains have been ignored, blocked, and filled during the construction of Southern, Outer Circular and Colombo-Katunayake Expressways. The Director claims by building the three expressways, wetland areas such as rivers, streams, marshes, swamps, salt water wetlands, lagoons, mangroves and man-made wetlands such as paddy fields have been destroyed or partially damaged. The article presents a photograph of the Welipenna entrance on the Southern Expressway showing flooding caused by recent heavy rains. The Director claimed that the Colombo-Katunayake Expressway, passing through the Muthurajawela wetland bordering the Negombo lagoon, is similar to the Outer Circular highway where acres of paddy land were destroyed. The environmental groups had expressed concern over the possible flooding threat and the lack of flood mitigation strategies. The group highlighted their persistent demand the need to build highways on columns. However, the RDA Project Director of the Colombo-Katunayake Expressway, said his office had not received complaints over flooding or other environmental issues triggered by the construction of the expressway.   The photograph The photograph showed the entrance to the Expressway at Welipenna exchange under water and boys wading in the water, some almost waist deep. However, a closer look shows the absence of a flow of water through the entrance. If the filling for the expressway caused a dam effect, there would have been heavy ponding on the upstream and water would be rushing through the entrance opening. No such flow is visible on the photograph. Welipenna exit/entrance The Welipenna exchange is located at the intersection of the Aluthgama-Matugama road (A-M Road) and Meegama Ganga, a branch of Bentara Ganga which crosses the highway nearly 300 metres north under a several span long bridge. The highway has another bridge a few hundred metres to the south of the Exchange. The Meegama Ganga zigzags through marshes and paddy fields and crosses the A-M Road through a large bridge 200m to the west of Welipenna exchange and progresses over a large span of marsh and paddy fields ending in Dedduwa lake. Currently, the A-M Road is being raised and developed under the Expressway Access Roads Improvement Program, with the addition of three large bridges close to each other commencing near the existing bridge. During the construction of bridges, the road has been dug up and earth filled by-passes offer passage for vehicle traffic (the photograph). These by-passes effectively prevent the passage of flood waters crossing the road. Nearby residents inform that flooding in the area is common and heavy floods as happened few weeks ago occur every seven to eight years. High-level burial grounds An unusual burial ground exists nearly 50m to the east of the highway on the Matugama road (the photograph). The burial ground with four tall granite tomb-stones near corners, erected possibly over a century ago, stand on an earthen platform raised over six feet from road level, indicating the severity of flooding in the neighbourhood – clear proof that flooding of the region had been a regular occurrence over the ages and not connected to the Expressway. The obstruction of passage of water during bridge construction would have increased the recent flooding. When the bridges are completed in few months, the earthen by-passes will be removed, creating additional waterways through the three new bridges, waters will easily discharge into Dedduwa Lake and flooding would be avoided. Demands by environment groups The manipulation of events to blame the development projects and exaggerated concerns during planning stages of development projects by groups claiming to safeguard environment has been common in Sri Lanka during the past few decades. Their combined voices have managed to cancel, delay, and modify some of the projects. Building on columns The Environment Conservation group’s demand for building highways on columns have been accepted to a certain extent by the RDA, as recently opened Outer Circular Highway (OCH), Kottawa to Kaduwela, 10.9 km road includes a 3.3 km long via-duct, built on columns. The road cost Rs. 27 billion or Rs. 2,477 million per km. Comparatively, the Southern Expressway (SE) from Kottawa to Galle cost Rs. 77 billion for 110 km or Rs. 700 million per km, which in itself was called expensive. This represents an over 3.2 times cost increase in OCH over SE. The 3.3 km highway on columns, locating the road mostly over the paddy fields, averting demolition of houses, resulted in an additional expenditure of Rs. 19,370 million at SE rates. Can this additional expenditure of Rs. 1.78 million per metre length of road over an 11 km distance for avoiding flooding be acceptable? Surely a different, cheaper, and acceptable solution needs to be found. The National Environmental Act Sri Lanka’s National Environmental Act was passed as an act of Parliament and came into force on 29 October 1980, at the insistence of funding agencies during the J.R. Jayewardene era, but had little impact for almost a decade. Samanalawewa Investigations for a hydroelectric power plant across Walawe Ganga was initially carried out by the Russians in the early 1970s, who found large cavities in rocks under the proposed dam location and suggested a new location, and supposedly said “building the dam in the proposed ground would require a cement factory too for grouting”. In 1986, with financing from governments of Japan and UK, the designing the project was awarded to Sir Alexander Gibbs & Partners and construction to Balfour Beatty (both were involved with Victoria Dam). During the dam construction in 1988, extensive cavities were found in rock formation below the dam and curtain grouting was carried out as a remedy at a high cost. However, when the reservoir was filled, a large leak surfaced about 1,000 ft below the dam, causing an earth-slip. Measures taken to control the leakage were extremely costly but largely ineffective. However, the power plant is in operation since its commissioning in 1992. During the project proposal and implementation stages various groups highlighted the problems envisaged, but none took to courts. Perhaps foreign NGOs did not mind British companies’ involvement in Sri Lanka’s sensitive projects. Premadasa era Two major projects proposed under the Premadasa Government in the late 1980s were the Matara-Kataragama railway with Matara-Beliatta as the initial sector and the Katunayake Expressway, first proposed by BOI, delayed due to conflict with RDA. The British over 60 years ago had planned, selected the route and had reserved lands for the Matara-Hambantota railway. But Premadasa wished a design speed of 120 km/hour. A new route was selected in a mighty hurry over the marshes and hills, creating the longest tunnel for any railway line in Sri Lanka. The proposal did not have environment approval, nor was it challenged by the environmentalists. The construction went ahead and Premadasa opened the first railway station in 1991 at Piladuwa, two km from Matara just before Nilwala Ganga, and a train ran from Matara to Piladuwa on the same day, but construction came to a standstill with Premadasa’s death. The present Government wished to construct the railway on the same route; the contract was awarded to a Chinese company and is expected to cost $ 366 million or Rs. 48,300 million for the 24.75 km long single track line. The cost of the proposed railway averages to $14.78 million per km. In one of the most difficult terrains in the world, in China, the Yichang-Wanzhou main line completed in 2011, the cost was $9.1 million per km for the 377 km railway line, out of which 278 km were in either in tunnels or bridges. Katunayake Expressway The construction of an expressway to the east of the existing Colombo-Negombo road was accepted for implementation by President Premadasa in 1989. The selected route avoided marshes, and was to pass over highlands to the airport, with a connection to the Free Trade Zone. The 30-km long, four-lane dual-carriageway, designed for 100 kmph traffic, was estimated to cost Rs. 5,544 million or $ 110 million in 1991. The venture became the first major project challenged in court, due to non-consideration of environmental aspects and the construction had to be delayed. Finally, approval was obtained for the overland proposal, but the construction did not materialise due to the demise of Premadasa on May Day 1993. Chandrika Kumaratunga during pre-election campaigns promised a route over Muthurajawela marshes and awarded the contract for Rs. 11,000 million. The change over from the overland route to the Muthurajawela marshes was not challenged in court. After a series of delays, the expressway was constructed over the marsh, filled with sand dredged from the sea, and when opened to public in 2013, the total cost had exceeded Rs. 50 billion. Kandy Expressway The first proposal for an expressway to Kandy through Kelani Valley was suspended when challenged at environmental hearings for creating flooding in the Kelani Valley. RDA engineers were unable to justify their selection of route and to propose an acceptable solution. The project had to be abandoned when environmental approval was denied.   Coal power plants The need for coal-powered power generation was in discussion since the 1980s; the location at Trincomalee had to be abandoned due to the war situation. In early the 1990s CEB selected a site in Mawella Bay near Tangalle, a natural harbour with deep sea nearby, capable of allowing large coal ships of 60,000 dwt to be handled. The site was confirmed by Sir Alexander Gibbs & Partners, world-recognised consultants, stating the site to be superior to Trincomalee for a medium size coal power plant and Mawella was considered an excellent site. Shortly after suitability was declared, demonstrations were held at Mawella by the locals, against siting the coal power plant, that they would be expelled to make way for the project. It was later learned that the demonstration was instigated by an external party from Colombo who misguided the locals. President Premadasa, upon hearing that the location required the relocation of large number of houses, without investigation in depth, withdrew the project. Later, the local Pradeshiya Sabha passed a resolution requesting that the power plant be located at Mawella and promised they would assure fullest cooperation. But CEB was not interested. Norochcholai came to light thereafter and dragged on for nearly 15 years. When President Rajapaksa wished to take a decision on Norochcholai, the CEB failed to mention Mawella to Rajapaksa.   "The manipulation of events to blame the development projects and exaggerated concerns during planning stages of development projects by groups claiming to safeguard environment has been common in Sri Lanka during the past few decades. Their combined voices have managed to cancel, delay, and modify some of the projects. Project planning is an expensive, time-consuming exercise, in Sri Lanka conducted in secrecy to suit politicians. At the time of public announcement, modifications are costly. In developed countries, projects over a threshold value are evaluated under ‘Value Engineering’ and costly mistakes are avoided. Sri Lanka lacks a culture of constructive criticism and public discussion of proposed projects is unheard. Highlighting deficiencies or suggesting improvements are considered against the ruling party policies and the proposing minister. Under these circumstances, so-called environmentalists have a field day. These groups continuously give out incorrect/distorted statements to newspapers and over a period, the public tend to believe their statements"   Kukule Ganga The Kukule Ganga hydro power project was to produce 80 MW of power; construction started in 1999 for completion in 2002, financed by Japan’s Overseas Economic Cooperation Fund. The construction contract for the project has been awarded to AB Skanska of Sweden, while some diversion facilities by a joint venture of Japanese companies. The reservoir was to inundate 120 hectares, affecting 50 families. The powerhouse is located 200 m below ground level. The Kalu Ganga discharges the highest volume of rain water to the sea and Kukule Ganga is a branch of the same. In the design, although the river had sufficient water for generation of higher quantum of power, the dam height was deliberately kept low, supposedly for preventing inundation of forests. But today a visitor could see the area around the reservoir had been cleared, people settled and planted mostly with tea. Having incurred basic expenditure, Kukule could have produced double the power for a slightly higher investment. Kukule Ganga project when referred for environment approval was not challenged by any group. Colombo-Kandy Expressway Project (CKH) The Environmental Proposal for the CKH project was accepted and was to commence construction nearly two years ago; a Chinese contractor agreeing to fund and receive payment as toll was accepted by the Cabinet. The locals protested claiming that the overland route would deprive them of their houses (with environmental groups’ support?) A local minister met the protesters and promised to re-route the road over the paddy fields parallel to railway and the project got postponed. According to the Ministry of Ports and Highways, “This road traces traverse river basins and sensitive flood plains that underwent severe floods in May 2010. In order to address the flood issues, construction of a nine km viaduct (overhead road) has been proposed for some sections of the expressway.” The modified highway, away from the environmentally-accepted route, which runs over the paddy fields for nine km on columns, must be a delight to the environment groups. With the project already delayed by over two years with much enhanced costs, financial viability would be questionable to the investor. Cost of roads on pillars When roads are built on pillars, the reservation is acquired (to a lesser width) to provide access for the construction workers and machinery. The heavy road load involves construction of concrete piles down to the rock, which are generally deep, being in paddy fields. A highway on high ground is much cheaper, but involves acquisition of lands and housing. In acquisition of public property for highway construction, compensation payments have been very liberal. Lands are valued at the current market prices and housing based on the current cost of construction of a similar house without considering the age of the building. Thus the owners of large, old houses receive a windfall profit. Even the persons on temporary structures on others’ property are being compensated. In recent acquisition of property for the Pamankada-Kesbewa road, flower sellers near Pillawa temple were occupying stalls constructed by the Pradeshiya Sabha on RDA property. The stalls were given at a nominal rent, on strict understanding that the stalls would be demolished when required for road widening. The stalls were demolished, UDA has promised stallholders with newly-constructed stalls near the temple and meanwhile flower sellers are being paid Rs. 15,000 per month. The cheapest construction mode of a highway would be to locate the road on high ground, away from main roads and preferably near the edge of paddy fields. The property owners could be offered alternate housing in a scheme as Millennium City, offering different levels of housing, according to value of housing acquired. The cost would be far cheaper than Rs. 1.78 million per metre length of road and faster than building on pillars. The expenditure on piling is lost to the country wasted on concrete, while new housing is an investment for the benefit of people, who sacrificed their property for development. The role of environmentalists Project planning is an expensive, time-consuming exercise, in Sri Lanka conducted in secrecy to suit politicians. At the time of public announcement, modifications are costly. In developed countries, projects over a threshold value are evaluated under ‘Value Engineering’ and costly mistakes are avoided. Sri Lanka lacks a culture of constructive criticism and public discussion of proposed projects is unheard. Highlighting deficiencies or suggesting improvements are considered against the ruling party policies and the proposing minister. Under these circumstances, so-called environmentalists have a field day. These groups continuously give out incorrect/distorted statements to newspapers and over a period, the public tend to believe their statements. The local public, ever-willing to protest and shout in front of TV cameras on matters they do not understand, are easily manipulated by these groups. Challenging projects under the Environmental Act has made them heroes to some. The environmentalists’ actions during the past make one wonder as to their genuine role. Their involvement in major projects and actions over the decades have delayed, increased costs and led in some cases to abandon projects and the public is forced to bear the increased expenditure. (The writer is a Chartered Civil Engineer graduated from Peradeniya University and has been employed in Sri Lanka and abroad. He was General Manager of State Engineering Corporation of Sri Lanka. He can be contacted on tudor@rivendaleresort.com.)

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