Ma­rine pol­lu­tion around Sri Lanka and the in­evitable en­vi­ron­men­tal dis­as­ter

Sunday Times (Sri Lanka) - - COMMENT - By Carmel Corea

The Na­tional Geo­graphic Mag­a­zine April 2017 is­sue car­ries a satel­lite im­age show­ing the pol­luted wa­ters around Sri Lanka. This ir­refutable ev­i­dence in­di­cates a pos­si­ble en­vi­ron­men­tal dis­as­ter for Sri Lanka’s coral reefs.

Coral reefs pro­tect Sri Lanka from nat­u­ral dis­as­ters and are es­sen­tial for sus­tain­ing this coun­try’s fish­ing in­dus­try. The tourism in­dus­try boldly ad­ver­tises Sri Lanka’s pris­tine beaches and states, “In­vestors favour coastal belt tourism devel­op­ment’.

In view of re­cent re­search, en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists warn that un­less ur­gent mea­sures are taken to con­trol ma­rine pol­lu­tion, the fi­nan­cial loss and in­come down­turn to the coun­try will be in­evitable.

What is ma­rine pol­lu­tion?

Ma­rine pol­lu­tion oc­curs when harm­ful or po­ten­tially harm­ful chem­i­cals, ma­te­ri­als, pathogens or dis­rup­tive ac­tiv­i­ties in­vade the oceans.

Eighty per­cent of ma­rine pol­lu­tion comes from the land. Air, too, con­trib­utes by car­ry­ing pes­ti­cides, toxic gases, hot air and sound, all proven to be harm­ful to ma­rine life and habi­tats.

Green­peace UK’s se­nior ocean cam­paigner Louise Edge says more than 12 mil­lion tons of plas­tic end up in the oceans each year.

Sri Lanka is the world’s fifth worst ocean plas­tic pol­luter, with China top­ping the list. Fish­er­man say pol­lu­tion is killing ma­rine life and their liveli­hood.

The United Na­tions will hold an Ocean Con­fer­ence from June 5 to 9 to re­verse the de­cline in the health of oceans for the ben­e­fit of the peo­ple and the planet.

Global warm­ing stresses the en­vi­ron­ment

Global warm­ing -- due to an in­crease in green­house gases (GHG) such as car­bon diox­ide pro­duced mainly by an­thro­pogenic (hu­man) ac­tiv­i­ties -- is caus­ing cli­mate change.

Records in­di­cate at­mo­spheric car­bon lev­els in­creased from 280 to 400 parts per mil­lion from 1750 to 2015, re­sult­ing in at­mo­spheric warm­ing.

Re­searches state that our oceans ab­sorb about 30 mil­lion tons of car­bon diox­ide ev­ery day chang­ing the chem­istry of the sea and in­creas­ing its acid­i­fi­ca­tion.

This re­duces sea wa­ter’s car­ry­ing ca­pac­ity for cal­cium car­bon­ate needed by corals and other ma­rine or­gan­isms to build their ex­oskele­tons. Hence coral reefs are un­der sur­vival threat and need care­ful man­age­ment.

Sri Lanka for­mally rat­i­fied the Paris Agree­ment to limit GHG emis­sions on April 22 last year.

The im­por­tance of coral reefs to Sri Lanka

Coral reefs are vi­tal for Sri Lanka’s econ­omy. They are the ‘rain for­est of the sea’ -- the most bio-di­verse and pro­duc­tive ecosys­tem on earth, oc­cu­py­ing only 0.2% of the ocean, yet home to a quar­ter of all ma­rine species. More than 4000 species of fish make coral reefs their home. Corals can only ex­ist within a nar­row band of en­vi­ron­men­tal con­di­tions found in trop­i­cal and sub­trop­i­cal wa­ters. The wa­ter tem­per­a­ture must re­main ideally be­tween 23C and 29C (or 77F and 84F).

The con­di­tions needed for coral sur­vival are found in the seas sur­round­ing Sri Lanka. This makes Sri Lanka a unique is­land, with po­ten­tial for de­vel­op­ing into a high for­eign in­come gen­er­at­ing eco-tourist re­sort.

Coral reef de­struc­tion and sewage pol­lu­tion

Dr. Stephanie Wear, the Na­ture Con­ser­vancy (USA) lead sci­en­tist for coral con­ser­va­tion, has car­ried out ex­ten­sive re­search on ma­rine pol­lu­tion. She says, “When you think of the top threats to coral reefs sewage isn’t usu­ally at the top of the list. Cli­mate change and over fish­ing are the more fa­mil­iar haz­ards, but pol­lu­tion from un­treated sewage is a se­ri­ous threat to reefs and the ser­vices they pro­vide for ma­rine life and peo­ple.”

Dr. Wear elab­o­rates that some of the great­est sewage pol­lu­tion in the world oc­curs in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries, where most coral reefs ex­ist. It ap­pears that the in­fra­struc­ture in sewage waste man­age­ment in these coun­tries may be old, and poorly main­tained – and that causes un­treated sewage to be pumped into the sea.

A sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion ex­ists in Sri Lanka. Ni­hal Fernando, Project Di­rec­tor ( Colombo Port City) and Ur­ban Devel­op­ment Au­thor­ity Di­rec­tor, in an ar­ti­cle pub­lished in this news­pa­per on June 19 last year states, “... thou­sands of met­ric tonnes of raw sewage are an­nu­ally dis­charged to sea.”

He says this sit­u­a­tion may con­tinue for the next five to seven years.

Sri Lanka is a densely pop­u­lated is­land, with 21 mil­lion peo­ple liv­ing in a 65,610 sq km area. ( Its pop­u­la­tion is al­most that of Aus­tralia which is one hun­dred times larger.)

Thus large vol­umes of raw sewage from Colombo and its sub­urbs are pumped into the sea daily through two 1.2 km long pipes at Modera and Wellawatta.

This in­cludes un­treated sewage from Na­tional and pri­vate hos­pi­tals.

Dr. Wear says. “When stacked up against the value of coral reefs, the threat of sewage pol­lu­tion is im­mense.”

Value of coral reefs to Sri Lanka

For Sri Lanka, coral reefs are of im­mense im­por­tance. They pro­vide sev­eral crit­i­cal ser­vices to this coun­try and its peo­ple: Reefs pro­tect the shore­line, pro­vid­ing a nat­u­ral bar­rier along the coast­line by break­ing up waves, thus re­duc­ing wave force and mak­ing coastal wa­ters safer for re­cre­ation. This also pro­tects coastal com­mu­ni­ties from nat­u­ral haz­ards. Reefs also pro­vide pro­tec­tion against coastal ero­sion and even tsunamis, by act­ing as a buf­fer. Coral reefs are the spawn­ing, breed­ing and feed­ing grounds of small and big fish of eco­nomic im­por­tance. Coral reefs are the main source of sup­ply for the or­na­men­tal fish in­dus­try. Cen­turies old fish­ing com­mu­ni­ties have de­vel­oped their var­i­ous liveli­hoods in coastal ar­eas as­so­ci­ated with coral reefs. Medicines for var­i­ous ail­ments have been ex­tracted from ma­rine or­gan­isms as­so­ci­ated with coral reefs.

Sewage: a toxic cock­tail for corals

Dr. Wear, in her re­cent re­search, says the most widely recog­nised pol­lu­tant in sewage is ex­ces­sive nu­tri­ents.

She says: “On the reef, there is a bat­tle be­tween coral and sea weed for space and light. Corals typ­i­cally main­tain the up­per hand but ex­cess nu­tri­ents can tip the bat­tle in favour of sea weeds. Even with the help of her­biv­o­rous fish which act like lawn mow­ers, corals can lose the bat­tle and be over­grown by sea weed -- e.g. Al­gae cur­rently smoth­er­ing parts of the Bar Reef in Sri Lanka.”

Dr. Wear’s re­search makes the case that sewage pol­lu­tion is a far more com­plex is­sue than just nu­tri­ent over­load. Sewage is a toxic cock­tail where the dif­fer­ent pol­lu­tants in sewage can in­ter­act with each other and in­crease tox­i­c­ity.

What is sewage and how does it af­fect coral reefs?

The com­po­nents of sewage:

Fresh wa­ter, the pri­mary com­po­nent of sewage, can stress and even kill corals. It is well doc­u­mented that in­fluxes of fresh wa­ter from storms in­creases reef mor­tal­ity.

En­docrine dis­rup­tors: These chem­i­cals dis­rupt the hor­mone sys­tems in both hu­mans and other liv­ing or­gan­isms. They are found in many house­hold prod­ucts that end up in sewage wa­ter.

Heavy met­als: Sewage wa­ter is known to carry heavy met­als such as mer­cury, lead and cop­per, and these can lead to de­creased pro­duc­tiv­ity, bleach­ing and death in corals. Heavy met­als also ac­cu­mu­late in the skele­tons of corals, just as they do in peo­ple. They in­crease the strength of pathogens on the corals’ sur­face, mak­ing corals more sus­cep­ti­ble to in­fec­tions.

Tox­ins: A dan­ger­ous class of tox­ins is phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals. All drugs that peo­ple take end up in sewage. An­tibi­otics are es­pe­cially prob­lem­atic for corals, which have a pro­tec­tive layer of mu­cus that is home to a di­verse com­mu­nity of bac­te­ria, which func­tion in much the same way as the mi­crobes in hu­man guts. Sci­en­tists sus­pect that an­tibi­otics in sewage may ad­versely im­pact bac­te­rial com­mu­ni­ties and make corals more sus­cep­ti­ble to dis­ease.

Pathogens: Sewage is team­ing with virus and bac­te­ria – and fae­cal con­tam­i­na­tion is a ma­jor cause of ill­ness around the world. For in­stance, in the Caribbean, re­searchers have dis­cov­ered that Ser­ra­tia marcescens, a bac­terium as­so­ci­ated with hos­pi­tal ac­quired in­fec­tion in hu­mans, was caus­ing ‘white pox dis­ease’ in threat­ened Elkhorn corals. Out­breaks of this dis­ease killed more than 70 per­cent of corals in the Florida Keys. “A hu­man pathogen caused a dis­ease in a ma­rine an­i­mal, and the source was sewage,” says Dr. Wear.

Coral Dis­eases: Dur­ing the past 10 years, the fre­quency of coral dis­eases ap­pears to have in­creased dra­mat­i­cally, con­tribut­ing to the de­te­ri­o­ra­tion of coral reefs glob­ally. Most dis­eases oc­cur in re­sponse to the on­set of bac­te­ria, fungi and viruses. Hu­man-caused ac­tiv­i­ties may ex­ac­er­bate reef-form­ing coral’s sus­cep­ti­bil­ity to wa­ter borne pathogens. (Sewage Pol­lu­tion A Sig­nif­i­cant Threat To Coral Reefs by Justi­nee E Hausheer, June 8, 2015.)

Sewage dis­posal: Im­me­di­ate ac­tion urged

The re­cent re­search men­tioned above de­mands an ur­gent eco­log­i­cally safe dis­posal of Sri Lanka’s sewage.

We trust that Ni­hal Fernando will use his po­si­tion in the UDA to ur­gently im­ple­ment mea­sures to stop raw sewage dump­ing in the sea.

This will not only ben­e­fit coral reefs but also hu­man health. Peo­ple in coastal ar­eas will ben­e­fit from health­ier wa­ter and from im­proved san­i­ta­tion fa­cil­i­ties.

The Ma­rine En­vi­ron­ment Pro­tec­tion Au­thor­ity (MEPA) could pro­vide data on fae­cal pol­lu­tion lev­els for the safety of tourists and res­i­dents.

Ef­fi­cient sewage treat­ment helps wa­ter con­ser­va­tion

Im­prov­ing sewage treat­ment will help con­serve wa­ter -- a much needed com­mod­ity now in this coun­try due to fre­quent droughts caused by cli­mate change. It is now pub­li­cised that the lev­els of wa­ter in the Ke­lani River are de­cid­edly less than in pre­vi­ous years. This river has to pro­vide drink­ing wa­ter to more than 4 mil­lion peo­ple and sup­ply wa­ter to some 10,000 busi­ness es­tab­lish­ments.

Gam­pha is the ma­jor wa­ter catch­ment area for the Ke­lani River.

It was also pub­li­cised re­cently, that gran­ite is be­ing mined us­ing ex­plo­sives in the Gam­pha district to con­struct the Colombo Port City or the In­ter­na­tional Fi­nan­cial City. We, the pub­lic, wish to know if this min­ing ac­tiv­ity us­ing ex­plo­sives has desta­bilised this im­por­tant wa­ter catch­ment area.

We un­der­stand that a de­tailed study of this area for wa­ter man­age­ment pur­poses was car­ried out by Prof N. T. Sohan Wi­je­sek­era of the Uni­ver­sity of Mo­ratuwa in March 2011.

Does this re­search ap­prove the use of ex­plo­sives for gran­ite min­ing in this area? There is a wa­ter shortage now in this area. Has the wa­ter catch­ment area been desta­bilised by the use of ex­plo­sives?

Could the Min­istry of the En­vi­ron­ment re­quest Prof. Wi­je­sek­era to in­ves­ti­gate this area again, as it is now an im­por­tant na­tional health and wa­ter sus­te­nance is­sue?

Sewage a source of en­ergy and fer­til­izer

Sewage is a re­new­able en­ergy source. Sewage could be turned into bio­gas -- a much needed en­ergy source for this coun­try -- and its byprod­ucts could be used as fer­til­izer. Many de­vel­op­ing coun­tries have im­ple­mented this method. In­ter­na­tional re­search and fund­ing could be avail­able for such en­vi­ron­men­tal friendly, cost-ef­fec­tive projects. We trust the UDA will con­sider such eco-friendly projects for the ben­e­fit of all cit­i­zens.

Coastal sand min­ing

Sand dredg­ing in mas­sive vol­umes ex­ceed­ing 65 mil­lion cu­bic me­tres and dump­ing of the sand in the ocean causes cloud par­ti­cles that smother coral reefs and cut es­sen­tial light for their sur­vival.

Re­search in­di­cates this could cause de­struc­tion to corals, the breed­ing and feed­ing ground of com­mer­cial fish, ad­versely af­fect­ing our fish­ing and tourism In­dus­tries.

The ad­verse ef­fects of sand dredg­ing have been mon­i­tored and doc­u­mented in the south­ern coast of Sri Lanka by the gov­ern­ment- funded or­ga­ni­za­tion Na­tional Aquatic Re­sources Re­search and Devel­op­ment Agency ( NARA). We trust its find­ings on sand dredg­ing would be made avail­able to the Min­istry of En­vi­ron­ment as a mat­ter of ur­gency to en­sure Sri Lanka’s en­vi­ron­men­tal se­cu­rity.

Ma­rine en­vi­ron­ments when de­stroyed or desta­bilised would take many years to re­gen­er­ate and be­come pro­duc­tive. NARA would con­firm this.

To safe­guard coastal fish­ing and fish breed­ing grounds, priests and politi­cians have given as­sur­ances that sand dredg­ing will take place only at places more than 10Km away from the coast. But lit­tle or no ac­tion has been taken, say fish­er­man whose liveli­hoods have been lost due to Port City sand min­ing ac­tiv­i­ties. NARA has the equip­ment and fa­cil­i­ties to mon­i­tor sea min­ing ac­tiv­i­ties, if re­quested to do so by the Gov­ern­ment.

The con­di­tions needed for coral sur­vival are found in the seas sur­round­ing Sri Lanka. This makes Sri Lanka a unique is­land, with po­ten­tial for de­vel­op­ing into a high for­eign in­come gen­er­at­ing eco-tourist re­sort.

Is Sri Lanka’s coast eroded by large scale sand min­ing?

Prime Min­is­ter Ranil Wick­remesinghe when he was the op­po­si­tion leader in 2015 said, “The Colombo Port City project is un­sus­tain­able and the coastal belt from Hikkaduwa to Kal­pi­tiya would be de­stroyed due to ero­sion and must be aban­doned.” Ero­sion is tak­ing place now due to sand min­ing and this could be proven from mapped ev­i­dence.

About 10 years ago, a Nor­we­gian­funded project ‘ In­st­com’ car­ried out a re­search on Sri Lanka’s coastal wa­ters and even mapped the coast. Its re­ports are with the Ma­rine En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Au­thor­ity ( MEPA) and the Coastal Con­ser­va­tion Depart­ment (CCD), ac­cord­ing to mem­bers who took part in this project.

The MEPA and the CCD should pro­vide these re­ports to the Pres­i­dent as he is also the En­vi­ron­ment Min­is­ter. The re­ports would tell whether the pre­dic­tions of Mr. Wick­remesinghe have come true.

If ero­sion has taken place then this project is un­sus­tain­able and not in the in­ter­ests of our coun­try and must be aban­doned.

Safe­guard the in­ter­ests of all stake­hold­ers

To sat­isfy all stake­hold­ers: An en­vi­ron­men­tally safer 269 hectare plot of land on the main­land could be al­lo­cated for the pro­posed Fi­nan­cial City and con­nect it by speed rail to the ex­pand­ing trans­ship­ment port of Colombo.

This would ben­e­fit the Coastal Fish­ing and Tourist In­dus­tries by not desta­bil­is­ing the en­vi­ron­ment as de­tailed above.

It is an es­tab­lished fact that a high den­sity city next to a trans­ship­ment port is a health and safety haz­ard to the em­ploy­ees.

The cur­rent re­claimed land could be con­verted into an at­trac­tive park, an es­sen­tial air lung and re­cre­ation cen­tre for the densely pop­u­lated Colombo.

We be­lieve that stop­ping this land recla­ma­tion from the sea as sug­gested by the Prime Min­is­ter will be a pos­i­tive step, to save our es­sen­tial coral reefs and pro­tect our en­vi­ron­ment which sup­ports our very ex­is­tence.

Our ac­tions will speak louder than words to the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity: that our cul­tural her­itage of Ther­avada Bud­dhism, firmly ad­vo­cates the well­be­ing and preser­va­tion of life and the en­vi­ron­ment. This has re­sulted in Sri Lanka hav­ing the high­est bio­di­ver­sity in South­east Asia -- and, there­fore, it is Sri Lanka’s sa­cred duty to pre­serve it for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.

( The writer is an en­vi­ron­men­tal re­searcher.)

Co­rals: A bat­tle for sur­vival in Sri Lanka's wa­ters

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