The lack of strategic policy and practice in relation to the supply of construction materials is affecting infrastructure building projects throughout Sri Lanka in varying degrees but more seriously, projects in the Northern Province.
The implications of a lack of strategic thinking and a coordinated national plan to deal with the supply of construction materials for post war infrastructure rebuilding are many and carry serious consequences. I will attempt to highlight a few of them here so that the various government ministries and advisers to the President and the ministers can take appropriate measures to redress this situation in order to improve quality, durability and efficiency of infrastructure construction and more importantly to preserve the environment and nature blessed beauty of this island country of ours.
Unplanned and un-coordinated material supply
Commendably the government, through its different ministries, is carrying out maintenance work as well as a massive amount of new construction work. These are not only government funded but also funded by ADB, China, India, Japan, EEC, UN bodies and others. In addition there are many small projects undertaken by the NGO’s, private entrepreneurs and citizens. Therefore the demand for construction materials is enormous. The quality deficiencies in projects and the damage to the environment arising from unplanned, uncontrolled and un-coordinated material supply are also enormous.
While some of the projects are undertaken directly by the government sector, most of the big projects are being carried out by the private sector through competitive tendering.
In this situation the absence of a nationally developed, centralized, quality and price controlled material supply chain is causing many problems such as quality and price variations, illegal quarrying, serious environmental damage, corrupt practices and black markets, unfair competition among private contractors, project delays and delivery of poor quality and less durable projects, none of which are in the long term interest of Sri Lanka and its people, who deserve better especially after what they have gone through during the 30 years of war.
Sri Lanka urgently needs to bring back to life its Building Materials Corporation (BMC) and manage it efficiently to enable high quality and fast infrastructure building in Sri Lanka.
Only standardised building products and construction materials, meeting all the necessary technical specifications and environmental compliances, must be manufactured and distributed via BMC branches in all the provinces. Distribution work of construction materials must never be given to politicians. It can only be done effectively by an independent body with no vested interests.
The quarrying of materials such as sand, stone, gravel and clay for construction purposes must be controlled and centralized and not given to socially irresponsible and profit thirsty private companies unless they are strictly monitored. The environmental effects of quarrying must be studied by Geologists, Environmental Engineers, Marine/Coastal Engineers and Town Planners. Only materials suitable and specification compliant should be quarried.
We are probably blessed with the longest sea coast line per square km of land in the world and therefore in a fortunate position to use sea transport, which is virtually friction-free and therefore, can be operated at very low fuel cost. Transportation of materials could be done by sea/ships to all the provinces bordering the ocean and by train to all the land locked provinces. This is not only cost effective but also protects the environment in many ways. It avoids the constant pounding of our highway network by heavy lorries. Consequently our road network will last long without potholes. Road traffic will be less congested and much safer.
Frequency of re-constructing and resurfacing our road network can be reduced, which also saves harmful effects to the environment and prevents disruption to the economy, businesses and peoples’ lives. It avoids air pollution from exhaust fumes from heavy lorries. Our use of petrol and diesel will be considerably reduced saving the environment and also valuable foreign exchange, which can be diverted to more development work.
I understand that some government corporations such as the Ilimenite Corporation has a vast number of ships idling, simply being moored in jetties and ports without any work. In this situation it is criminal negligence not to put them into use for transportation of construction materials and to allow highly polluting and carriageway damaging lorries to transport these materials. It appears that inter-departmental and inter-ministerial co-operation to maximize the use of available resources (ships) is lacking. The Navy too can be asked to do this valuable task during peace times, as now. In this way Sri Lanka can get some economic return from its huge defence expenditure, which has now become a permanent feature in our annual national budget.
We cannot continue to perform mere paper exercises and pay lip service only to the environment, when we know for certain that our sea water levels are rising, vehicle pollution levels and carbon contribution to the green house effect are increasing and flood damage is on the rise. While emission testing stations are dotted all over the country most vehicles on the roads are spewing dark clouds of smoke and poisonous gases all along our roads while police officers in large numbers stand on the road sides, watch and breathe these poisonous gases without attempting to prosecute the offenders.
Road side exhaust testing on vehicles must be introduced immediately as is common in Malaysia, Singapore, UK and Europe. The fines generated from such offenders will more than pay for police officer training and time and the cost of all test equipment. Moreover, by doing such duties the police officers can legitimately feel proud of their service to improve the environment.
At present vehicle pollution is worse in Jaffna and Colombo. Monitoring of air quality in all cities must be encouraged and these can be given as projects to A- Level Science students in all the 9 provinces as an awareness raising exercise. Air quality monitoring is a very simple matter and can also be undertaken by technicians/engineers in the Municipal Councils.
Availability of construction materials at standard prices and quality is critical to achieve the government’s infrastructure building targets to quality, on time and within budget. Just like Irrigation, Water and Electricity supply, the extraction from the earth and distribution of construction materials are also best undertaken by the state. This should also apply to all other building products.
Sri Lanka definitely needs an efficiently managed and centralized Building Materials Corporation urgently. Environmental protection and reducing carbon emission has to be an integral part of this vent.