Meethotamulla garbage dump

(Biodiversity Conservation and Research Circle of Sri Lanka)

The government has planned to send Metro Colombo solid waste to the proposed landfill site at Aruwakkalu in the Puttlam District. The public hearing period of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Report of the Proposed Metro Colombo Solid Waste Management project submitted by the Metro Colombo Urban Development Project, Ministry of Urban Development, Water Supply and Drainage end by 13th Tuesday of this week. The proposed site is an old limestone mine located about 20km to the north of Puttalam and 130km from Colombo in the Eluwankulama, Aruvwakkalu forest, which is an extremely environmentally sensitive area and according to my point of view this site should not be used for a development project of this nature due to following reasons.

The site is entirely located within the Buffer Zone of the Wilpattu National Park (WNP) which is also an International Ramsar Wetland in Sri Lanka, declared in 2013. The closest distance between the National Park boundary and the landfill site is only about 300m. As the proposed sanitary landfill site is located in close vicinity of the Wilpattu international Ramsar wetland, serious ecological impacts are expected to affect the latter. These impacts will be irreversible and serious in nature.

Being a marine deposit, Aruwakkalu contains a wide variety of marine fossil fauna ranging from foraminifera to mammals. In Sri Lanka, only Aruwakkalu is known to contain Miocene fossils of large invertebrates and vertebrates and therefore this site is unique having high palaeo-biodiversity value. These fossils represent nearly 40 species consisting of gastropods, bivalves, echinoderms, marine algae, tube worms, sting rays, whales, dolphins, fish, tortoises and turtles. There are no protected areas declared for the sole purpose of conservation of fossils in Sri Lanka A considerable portion (500 X 300m area) of the proposed landfill site, known as ‘Wedipitiya’, was recently demarcated by the Ministry of Environment and Mahaweli Development (MEMD) to be preserved in the hope of gazetting in the near future as a palaeo-biodiversity conservation area.

After a pre-historic human settlement was found in this area further archaeological research has been initiated by the DA. Several historical monuments and artifacts have also been discovered. Therefore, it is possible that relevant areas will be identified and declared in the future under the National Environmental Act, Archaeology Act or any other Act deemed appropriate for the preservation of the sites.

The largest and pristine mangrove forest area in Sri Lanka is located only about 200m from the landfill site. These mangrove forests lie mainly within the WNP in association with the Kala Oya/Lunu Oya estuary extending to the Pomparippu Oya estuary on the north. Therefore, the above area is highly environmentally sensitive and important with respect to biodiversity.

EIA report has indicated imminent hydrological impacts such as pollution of the Kala Oya/Lunu Oya estuary by surface runoff, noise, wind-blown dust and waste particles during the construction phase of the project. The loss of ecological habitats due to soil extraction from borrow pits will be another concern. During the operation phase, the leachate generation and seepage leading to contamination of groundwater and open water bodies of the Lunuoya/Kala Oya estuary is expected. The pollutants include heavy metals, non-biodegradable organics and nutrients that can cause eutrophication, acidogenesis, toxicity to aquatic organisms including fish and bioaccumulation in fauna such as birds etc. Although mitigatory measures, such as biological treatment plants, have been proposed, nothing guarantees full safety. Furthermore, the land use change due to at least 40m high garbage heap will cause visual pollution impacting the aesthetic value of the area negating the eco-tourism potential of the area. The emission of landfill gases that include many toxic chemicals has also been predicted.

The “Conservation of Biodiversity in Environmentally Sensitive Areas project” (ESA Project) was developed by UNDP/GEF (June – December 2014) for the MEMD. The five year project was approved in early January 2015 by GEF (Global Environmental Facility) for funding during the next five years (2015-2020). The Kala Oya Basin (KOB) was selected as the pilot site. Within the KOB, two main sites (Site 1 = Kala Wewa and Site 2 = Wilpattu) were selected to initially and intensively implement the ESA project by the MEMD. The Site 2 (Wilpattu) includes the KOB portion of the WNP and Aruwakkalu Forest (Vanathavilluwa DS Division), the Bar Reef Sanctuary (Kalpitiya DS Division) and the marine area in between. The total land area and the marine area of the Site 2 are 85,000 and 73,700 hectares respectively.

As the Aruwakkalu area is included within the ESA Site 2, any environmentally unfriendly development activity, such as the proposed sanitary landfill project will dissuade UNDP/ GEF in supporting already approved ESA Project (2015-2019).

The elephants migrate between WNP and Aruwakkalu forest using the proposed landfill area as a corridor. The landfill can attract more elephants to the area as it has happened in other solid waste dumping sites located close to elephant habitats. There is a fishing village (Gangewadiya) almost adjacent to the project site that is composed of 73 households and a total population of 225. At present there is a low level of human-elephant conflict in the project area. However, increased presence of elephants due to the establishment of the landfill may contribute towards a high human-elephant conflict. Some mitigatory measures, such as electric fences, have been proposed to prevent entry of elephants to the site. There is also the possibility of attracting other wild fauna such as small mammals, reptiles, and birds and the possibility of spreading diseases among wild animals. The possibility of the above situation occurring in the close vicinity of a national park is very much discouraged.

Along with transport of solid waste from Meethotamulla, many weedy and invasive plant species and animals are expected to be introduced into pristine habitats at Aruwakkalu.
Loss of unique ecosystems/ habitats is another worst impact of this project. Basin Mangrove is one such unique ecosystem located kind of the existence of this unique vegetation formation at the proposed landfill site (abandoned limestone quarry) was discovered during the EIA survey. This is a habitat modified (geographically, edaphically and hydrologically) by human activities about twenty years ago, and now the nature has taken over its restoration which has resulted in a novel vegetation formation called Basin Mangrove.

Loss of rare and threatened plant biodiversity is another major issue.

Rhrynchosia velutina (‘Bu-kollu’): This is a very rare plant species and considered Critically Endangered in Sri Lanka. Aruwakkalu is the third known locality in Sri Lanka for this coastal species and the only known place in the west coast of the island.

Dendrophthoe ligulata: This is a hemi-parasitic plant growing on shrubs within the proposed landfill site and it has not been observed elsewhere in Aruwakkalu. It is also a very rare Endemic and Vulnerable species known only from the north –western coastal forests in the Dry Zone. There have been only three gatherings of this plant during the 19th Century and three more during the 18th Century.

Therefore authorities must pay their prompt attention in this regard and try to find out sustainable solution to the garbage issue in Sri Lanka, not just throw it to others’ backyard.