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As the waters of the great Mahaweli River recede during the dry season, many areas below the Kandy Polgolla dam such as Lewella, Polgolla and Tennekumbura become a sight for sore eyes. Generally not visible when the water levels remain high, however, visitors and residents are confronted with a tragic scene during the dry season where they can witness a  polythene and plastic- cluttered river bed and river bank running for miles downstream.

According to the residents of the area, polythene bags along with other trash that gets collected in the dam are let out when the dam gates are opened. “This happens often and once the gates are opened, all the collected polythene is let out to the areas below the dam,” says resident and member of the Riverside Welfare Society in the area, Hiran Fernando, who also says the tangled up polythene can be seen during the dry season due to low water levels.

“This is a result of direct discarding of garbage by residents in populated cities above the dam,” accuses another resident of the area, Shabith Muthalif while Fernando adds that during seasons such as Vesak, people can be seen discarding polythene directly and other trash to the river after visiting Dansal. According to Muthalif, this has been the situation for the past decade. He says that while 70 percent of the garbage is food waste that gets decayed in the water or consumed by animals the polythene instead is collected in the gates of the Polgolla dam which is then released along with the opening of the dam gates.
Today the Mahaweli, the longest river in Sri Lanka with a basin of which covers one sixth of the Island is considered as the most polluted water course in the island due to human activities. According to a research done by professors WBMM Weerakoon and G Herath of the Department of Civil Engineering, University of Peradeniya, in recent times with the increase in population and urbanization, settling around townships especially on the banks of Mahaweli has shown a marked increase. “Among these, Kandy the second largest city in Sri Lanka is believed to contribute most of pollution into the headwaters through a number of its tributaries around the city,” they say. According to environmentalist and director of the Environment Conservation Trust (ECT), Sajeewa Chamikara the quality levels of the water too have rapidly declined in recent times.

Chamikara says the collection of such excess amount of polythene in any area can be obviously detrimental to the ecosystem. “Due to the polythene and plastics collected the ecosystems of a river bank cannot function as normal,” he says adding that the issue lies with the time it takes for such items to degrade adversely affecting the soil composition on the river bank.  According to Chamikara, while death of animals such as water monitors due to the consumption of polythene is a common scene likewise such issues too may be present along the Mahaweli River, he opined. While the polythene has impacted the area environmentally, it has also affected the beauty of the surrounding area that is often visited by tourists.

Taking the situation in their own hands, the members of the Riverside Welfare Society, consisting of residents in the area, conduct cleanups every six months. “We get the Kundasale Pradeshiya Sabha involved as well,” Hiran Fernando says adding that the collected trash is taken away by them.

Speaking to The Nation an engineer attached to the Polgolla Dam project, Lalith Samaraweera, says the Mahaweli Authority conducts mechanical cleaning of the water body in order to collect floating trash. “We then sort them in to various categories in order to discard them,” he says adding that, however, sorting through large amounts of trash in the river is not a permanent solution. “The trash collected at the dam comes mainly from major towns such as Nawalapitiya, Peradeniya, Gampola and Katugastota,” he says.  As previously reported a number of massive encroachments in the Mahaweli river reservations and Polgolla reservoir reservations too have greatly contributed to the pollution.

Speaking further on its impact Environmentalist Sriyantha Perera says plastics do not bio-degrade, but overtime breakdown into micro-plastics. According to him while fish accidentally feed on these they are eventually passed into birds and humans.

“Consumption of mico-plastic ingested fish for a longer period of time kills birds and can cause severe health issues for humans,” he said adding that the ugly sight of thousands of plastic bags on the river banks especially at places such as Lewella in the World Heritage City of Kandy is an eyesore which can have an impact on tourism in the area.

However, reiterating that cleaning of the trash is not a permanent solution Director of the Central Environment Authority, Central Province Office KGTN Kiriella implementing proper waste management should be looked at. According to him while Sharamadana campaigns are carried out to clean the area a better solution needs to be looked at.

According to Chamikara polythene issues are a direct result of people not being made aware of its adverse effects on the environment. “They are not very environment conscious,” he said adding that stricter laws are the need-of-the-hour in order to control polythene consumption as people themselves have no management when making use of such products. He,too, emphasizes on the need of a waste management system. “This should be implemented islandwide,” he says adding that this responsibility should be given to local government of the area.

Environmentalist Sriyantha Perera suggests that Public Health Inspectors and Environmental Police should be deployed to identify recurring polluters and issue fines as well as require community service to clean up the waste for those repeatedly polluting the river.

In his opinion Kiriella says laws against polythene will help minimize issues caused by it. “It has to include as to which instances can polythene be used and amount of consumption allowed and other similar details,” he says adding that President Maithripala Sirisena has in fact taken a step in the right direction in this regard.

Mahaweli River (2)