The canals of misfortune

  • 14/10/1994

The canals of misfortune WHILE the world celebrated World Environment Day on June 5, Sri Lankans relived the horrors of another June 5. On the night of June 4, 1992, while the country's prime minister and key environmentalists were attending the Earth Summit, a considerable portion of the island of Sri Lanka was going under water. It was the worst flood in the country's living memory.

After 493 mm (20 inches) of rain in 12 hours -- equal to one-eighth of the city's annual rainfall -- 40 per cent of Greater Colombo was flooded. The loss was colossal.

While floods have been a grim reality for the poor living in Greater Colombo's low-lying areas, it was for the first time that waters reached the city's best residential and commercial areas, affecting government offices, diplomatic missions, business houses and residences of VIPs, and Sri Lanka's new parliament building.
Canal artifice Colombo and its suburbs are served by a network of artificial canals, which have deteriorated from negligence and siltation. At least 10,000 poor families live in unauthorised constructions on the banks. The city's underground rainwater pipelines have also been neglected. The natural marshland in and around Greater Colombo has been reclaimed. About 16,000 ha of low-lying land have either been reclaimed or earmarked for reclamation since 1960. Even the remaining wetlands have become dumping grounds for municipal and industrial waste, and cannot absorb excess water to prevent floods.

Nevertheless, the furore raised after the what came to be known as the "Great 1992 Flood" yielded results. The government formed the Greater Colombo Flood Control and Environmental Improvement Project (GCFC&EIP). It was launched in October 1993 by the Sri Lanka Land Reclamation and Development Corporation (SLLR&DC).

The main objectives of the project were to: operate and maintain the 45 km of canals to be rehabilitated; acquire and conserve 4,000 hectares of marshland as flood retention areas; resettle and upgrade the low-income communities living on canal banks; improve the environment in project areas.

The project is estimated to cost US $82 million (Sri Lankan Rs 4 billion), of which US $47 million is being provided by the Japanese Overseas Economic Cooperation Fund as a soft loan; the balance is through the Sri Lankan government.

But D V A Senaratne, a consultant engineer who has been studying land reclamation and flooding in Colombo, says that the GCFC&EIP does not address some central issues: "The proposals amount to a massive rejuvenation of the internal canal system without adequate measures to push the floodwaters out to sea, the best option for a maritime city like Colombo."

Several engineers feel that the GCFC&EIP should not be handled by the SLLR&DC. A T G A Wickramasuriya, a retired irrigation engineer and former SLLR&DC consultant, calls for an independent probe of the corporation and its financial dealings in connection with past land reclamation and flood control programmes, because its documents "do not say a word about the money already spent on flood control attempts since the corporation's inception 25 years ago".

Landowners have formed the Marsh Land Owners' Association (MLOA) of Colombo District. The association has petitioned the president that the SLLR&DC does not allow individual landowners to develop their marshy lands. The corporation is being accused of acquiring land without prior notice and proper compensation, and of filling and selling land acquired for "public purposes" and "flood retention" at exorbitant prices to property developers.
Shifting the poor On the other hand, over 10,000 families living in 90 settlements on the city's canal banks are being moved. They are daily wage earners who cater to Colombo's informal labour market. But, says SLLR&DC chairman Sarath Obeysekera, "These people have no steady income. They are more into illicit activities." Says Premaratna Thiranagama, project co-ordinating engineer, "It is essential that all canal banks are cleared of all encroachments, legal and illegal, so that the construction and rehabilitation work can proceed."

Nearby resettlement sites have been identified in suburban areas like Attidiya, Ratmalan, Dehiwala and Kolonnawa. The corporation says that the communities were consulted. Each family is to be given Sri Lanka Rs 1,000 (US $20) in cash to build a temporary shelter at the new site, a bank loan of Rs 20,000 (US $408) and a free foundation for the new house.

Affected people complain that these amounts are grossly inadequate; some also say that obtaining the promised bank loan is difficult, and that the relocation sites lack drainage and toilet facilities. As one irate man complained, "It's like moving from one hell to another." Nalaka Gunawardene is a journalist from Sri Lanka

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