By Raisa Wickrematunge and Maryam Azwer in Negombo
It was a glorious sunset. The waves from the lagoon lapped gently on the jetty steps. An idyllic scene, until you notice the heavy machinery in the foreground. Around the steps, a layer of scum floats. This quiet lagoon (part of which lies opposite the Katunayake airport) was the backdrop to a vociferous protest on Wednesday (17).
The Negombo sea plane project has been in the works for some time, but it is only now that local fishermen and other communities are raising their voices in protest. Due to an influx of tourists, the government planned a new project — sea planes for tourists who wanted to travel inland. The Negombo lagoon seemed a perfect location. But local fishermen disagree.
Joseph Peter is one such fisherman. He has been fishing for 15 years.
“If we lose the lagoon, we’re ready to die,” an impassioned Peter says. Garment factories already cluster around the lagoon, polluting the water. Though the government promised to clean and treat the water, nothing is being done. The government also assured that no oil from the sea planes would enter the water, but others say that it is already too late. “At the Pitipana junction, on the right side, there is a small river. You can’t catch any fish worth selling, they’re all contaminated,” Peter says. He adds that with the arrival of the seaplanes, soon none of the oil-polluted catch will be fit for consumption.
What’s more, the lagoon is shrinking, while the fishing community around it is growing exponentially. “It’s already so overcrowded and hard to work,” Peter complained. He added that if the project led to fishermen being forced away from the lagoon, they would be left with no livelihood.
“We can’t survive without the lagoon,” he said. The lagoon generates many jobs — from net-making to fishing itself. Even educated youth who can’t find jobs, often turn to fishing, while others use it to supplement their income, Peter said. With the new project, the delicate balance could be threatened.
Many others felt the same way. The end result was a protest on Wednesday, where around 5000 people took to the streets to demand that the dredging of the lagoon be stopped.
Herman Kumara, a convenor at the Alliance for the Protection of the Negombo Lagoon, was one of the protest organisers. The alliance was formed a month ago in light of the issues raised following the new project. The Negombo lagoon is one of the richest areas for cuttlefish and prawns in Asia and one of the highest earning. In total, the fishermen can bring in Rs. 200,000 a day, according to Kumara.
One of the areas affected by the sea-plane project, ‘Madabokka’ is where lagoon prawns breed and feed. It has already been affected with the construction of the Katunayake-Colombo highway. In addition, sea-planes will disturb the fish. Methods used to find prime locations for fishing will no longer be effective, Kumara said. Astoundingly, neither an Environment Impact Assessment nor a surface survey was carried out for the project, Kumara claimed. The talk is that fishermen might be banned from using the lagoon for 12 hours — but fishing is a 24-hour job and precious income could be lost. “We are not against tourism and development. But why does it have to take place in the lagoon?” asked a distressed Kumara.
Marcus Anthony is another fisherman who was actively involved in the protest. “(The sea plane project) won’t benefit the fishing community at all, despite increasing tourism. We will lose our jobs and it’s because of this that we protested,” Anthony said. He worried that the influx of tourism could cause social problems, such as an increase in child sex abuse.
On November 11, Deputy Minister of Ports and Civil Aviation, Dayasritha Tissera assured that they would suspend the sea plane project, said Anthony. However, they continued work following the meeting. Seeing no other choice, the 5000 strong protesters sat on the road leading to the lagoon, refusing to move until the project was stopped. Accordingly, the project ground to a temporary halt. Anthony said that authorities assured that a ‘discussion’ on the situation would be held on November 19.
Kumara said the protest took an ugly turn when navy personnel openly asked, “What if we make this area a High Security Zone? What will you do then?”
“Now, that is our fear,” Kumara said.
All In Vain
Interestingly, some state bodies are calling for the sea plane project to stop. Chairperson, Negombo Lagoon Management Authority, Ranjith Fernando was one of the first to initiate the protests, Kumara said.
Secretary to the Authority, Joseph Anthony said anger had arisen after Deputy Minister Tissera had broken his promise to put a stop to the project. “Because of that, we have no trust in them,” Anthony said.
Other communities have also come forward calling for the sea plane project to be stopped — everyone from environmental activists to priests.
Unfortunately, those protests may be in vain. Father Sherard Jayawardena of the Doowa Church was also present at the protest on Wednesday. “Almost all of the (fishermen) are devotees here. I feel it is my duty,” Father Jayawardena observed, explaining why he had attended. He took part in a prayer service held during the protest. The people’s requests were threefold, “They requested to first, stop the work; second to take all the machinery out of the lagoon. Finally, they wanted a discussion,” Fr. Jayawardena said.
Shortly afterwards, a twist of fate found the priest speaking to no less than the Defense Secretary himself.
“I think the navy contacted the Navy Commander. He may have contacted the Defense Secretary,” Fr. Jayawardena said. He explained that a navy officer on duty at the lagoon had called Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who had asked to speak to the priest.
Rajapaksa then told Fr. Jayawardena that plans for the project had been underway even in 2005. He queried why the people were protesting only now, rather than at that time. “He thinks this is a political move and there is a party behind this. He said that for the development of the country, the government will have to do this,” Fr. Jayawardena said. He added Basil Rajapaksa had spoken to the fishing community through a Western Provincial Council minister and had assured them that a discussion would take place after November 19, the delay being due to the President’s second term swearing in ceremony. So despite the vociferous protest, it seems that the sea-plane project is far from being shelved.
As The Sunday Leader witnessed, the machinery remains, floating on the lagoon — a menacing reminder that the future of many families hangs in the balance.
- The Other Side Of The Story…
Negombo Lagoon By Night
We have today extensive coverage on new developments and accompanying reactions in Negombo for a development initiative. Another aspect to the story we found was while the lagoon being famous for its fisheries and aquatic resource has other challenges. The Lagoon is fed by several sources of waterways and marshes. It is home to not only those who live under water and off the water but also to many activities which are illegal. Sources who requested anonymity said the most common being a means to brew and transport illicit liquor, the trafficking of drugs and an entry point for smuggled goods. Much of these movements occur by night. Any development activities clearly will upset the status quo.
The unfortunate part is legitimate claims to fishing, the need to maintain a balance with the ecology are largely overshadowed by common knowledge amongst all associated that there are darker, sinister forces at work indulging activities which run counter to the legitimate livelihood claims of those inhabit the banks of the lagoon and tributaries.
Given the efforts at combating the drug menace, the focus on the lagoon is inevitable. Likewise illegal trading. Illegal hooch has been a perennial problem which for some reason unknown to many remains unfixed.
It is though clear any activities which result in the Navy and Air Force moving into secure assets of value as would be the case if the Float planes are secured at its Bays will result in great discomfort to those in businesses outside of the law, particularly by night.
Statement From SriLankan Airlines
SriLankan Air Taxi aircraft have operated for several years in the past (from June 2004-2007) from rivers, tanks and lagoons throughout the country, with no complaints of adverse effects to fishermen or area residents.
They include Lake Gregory in Nuwara Eliya, the Kelani River in Colombo, the Polgolla Reservoir in Kandy, the Victoria Reservoir also on the Mahaweli in Kandy, the Bentota River, Tangalle’s Mawella Lagoon, the Konduvattuvan Reservoir in Ampara and the Tissamaharama Tank.
Floatplanes have operated on waterways all over the world for more than a hundred years, with no ill-effects to fisheries. The De Havill and Twin Otter Floatplane is one of the quietest and most environment-friendly aircraft, with absolutely no discharge of oil or other waste into the water.
In addition, there have been many non-SriLankan Airlines floatplanes operating on the island’s waterways. They include the privately owned Lake Buccaneer in the 1970s, which used the Beira Lake and Bolgoda Lake among others. The British Royal Air Force operated Catalina Flying Boats from the Koggala Lagoon for many years during World War II.
The operation of the floatplane will only require an insignificant amount of deepening of just one hectare of the enormous 3,000-hectare Negombo Lagoon. This will deepen the small area up to four feet, barely chest-deep on a person. The strip itself will be just ten metres wide. The deepening would remove just one to two feet of mud from this small area.
The deepening is only being carried out in the existing channel that was dug in the lagoon in 2004 for high-speed motorboats of the Water Rescue Unit of Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA). In effect, it will merely remove silt that has accumulated in the existing channel over the last six years.
The deepening has almost been completed already, with work completed on a 650-metre stretch, leaving just 350 metres to go.
As for concerns on sound pollution, the noise level of the silenced turboprop engines of a Twin Otter is merely equal to that of a large motor boat. In fact, far more sound is emitted by the more than 50 jet airliners which take off and land directly across the same area of the lagoon every day.
The National Carrier satisfied all environmental criteria prior to the launch of SriLankan Air Taxi, including tests by the Central Environmental Authority.
The landing and takeoff area required on the Negombo Lagoon is less than 500 metres in length and is in a deepwater section that does not need deepening. Much of the fishing on the Negombo Lagoon is carried out at night, which would not be affected by the Air Taxi operation, which is restricted to the daytime.
A typical landing or takeoff takes less than five minutes. With Air Taxi expected to have just four movements on a daily basis, this would result in the aircraft being on the water for a total of just 20 minutes.
Arrangements have already been made to inform area fishermen of aircraft movement times a full day in advance, via boats equipped with sirens. In any case, they could continue fishing anywhere outside the small landing area even when aircrafts are operating.
The only buildings that are being constructed are small ones to house the aircraft on a tiny property owned by Airport & Aviation Services (Sri Lanka) Ltd, at the end of the clearway of BIA’s old runway.
SriLankan Airlines, with a long history of uplifting the community surrounding BIA, is also currently planning ways by which to support the fisheries industry on the Negombo Lagoon.