Revived to be killed

Sri Lanka’s Lunawa lake returns to its polluted state after a momentary sparkle

By Sushmita Sengupta
Published: Thursday 15 August 2013

Revived to be killed

Residents of the resettled colony around Lunawa are its only caretakers

It took the Sri Lankan government eight long years to revive the dead Lunawa lake and the lot of people living around it. The country’s Water Supply and Drainage Minister, Dinesh Gunwardena, wastes no opportunity to present the Lunawa lake revival project as a model for the South Asian region. But a visit to the lake site reveals that the island country’s model lake is fast returning to its earlier murky state.

Till a decade ago, the lake on the fringes of Colombo, was the dumping ground for waste from shanties dotting surrounding hill slopes. Industries and commercial centres used to release untreated effluents directly into the lake. Irregular expansion of shanties had encroached the catchment area and blocked several drains and channels that used to feed the lake. Every time it rained, the clogged canals and the choked lake would spill over, causing flash floods and subsequently disease outbreaks.

Efforts to restore the lake began in 2000. With funds from the Japanese government, Lunawa Environmental Improvement and Community Development project (LEI&CDP) was set up. The projects devised a three-pronged strategy to tackle the situation: it de-silted the lake, checked the flow of waste from the catchment area by improving the living condition of people in its vicinity and involved them in the maintenance of the lake.

More than 1,300 of the 1,925 households had encroached the lake’s catchment area. They were resettled in an organised manner, leaving space for canal and feeder channels to flow freely. As the construction of houses and community infrastructure geared up, there was a demand for carpenters, masons and electricians. LEI&CDP trained the unskilled people and employed them in resettlement works.

“Never before we had included community development in works like canal development, flood control and storm water drainage restoration in the country,” says Anura Dassanayake, former project director of LEI&CDP. Now we are replicating the model in other restoration projects.

Soon after Lunawa’s revival, land price went up by 200 times; expenses on health cost went down. Those who were unemployed now have jobs. In 2010, when Cyclone Laila hit Sri Lanka, the housing colonies around Lunawa lake did not get flooded. A rough estimate shows the project’s direct economic benefit due to “no flooding situation” is SLR 75 million (US $570,000) a year.

But floodings are about to return. Since the project got over in December 2012, industries and commercial centres have resumed releasing untreated effluents into the lake. Dassanayaka says when LEI&CDP wound up, it entrusted the Sri Lanka Land Reclamation and Development Cooperation and municipal councils of Morutawa and Dehiwala-Mt Lavinia with the responsibility of maintaining the canals, drains and the lake. Even every police station in these municipal councils has environmental cells. But it seems no one is bothered about it,” he adds.

“We are not able to maintain these canals and drains due to lack of manpower and fund,” says Kesaralal Gunasekera, deputy mayor of Dehiwala-Mt Lavinia.

The community at many places cleans the canals and feeder channels in fear of dengue and floods, says Philip from Angulan North area. “But unless the municipal authorities chip in with us the lake cannot be maintained and the floods may soon return,” he adds.

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