Asia-Pacific, Environment, Headlines

ENVIRONMENT-SRI LANKA: Pollutants Choke Island’s Biggest Lagoon

Feizal Samath

NEGOMBO, Sri Lanka, Apr 13 1999 (IPS) - Thousands of kilos of fish are unloaded daily at the jetty on Sri Lanka’s biggest lagoon and carted away to local fish markets, hotels or for export.

Negombo, 35 kms northwest of the capital Colombo, is the country’s biggest fish production centre, but it has also become a giant dumping ground. Fish waste, chemicals and other rubbish from a nearby Free Trade Zone have poisoned its waters.

Polythene bags and garbage from the squatter settlements along its shore add to the filth. What was once a clean stretch of blue water, has a layer of oil from the dozens of trawlers that ply the lagoon.

The 3,200-hectare lagoon is small by Asian standards. But there is a unique mixing of salt and fresh water here. Twice a day, during the high and low tide, the sea water mixes with fresh water flowing into the lagoon through five canals, making the lagoon an ideal breeding ground for prawn, crab and small fish.

Henry Fernando, the spokesman for the Negombo Lagoon United Fisher People’s Organisation, says that the pollution is threatening the livelihood of 3,000 fisher-families who live directly off the lagoon and another 1,500 who fish in the sea close to the mouth of the lagoon.

The supply of crustaceans and fish have sharply reduced, according to the fisherfolk. About a month ago, they found dead fish floating in the lagoon – killed by pollutants, Fernando says.

Fisherfolk are also to blame. With some 500 trawlers unloading between 20 and 30 tonnes of fish daily, the stench of rotting innards of fish around the small jetty is unbearable

Both fisherfolk and boat owners concede they pollute the lagoon but argue that they don’t have a choice. “What can we do?” asks Suranga Thamel, 22, whose father operates a trawler, which goes into Bangladesh’s territorial waters to fish for sharks. “There is no other place to dump these things.”

Dr Jayampathy Samarakoon, team leader of the Integrated Resources Management Programme (IRMP) of the government’s Central Environmental Authority, said that in addition to the trawlers, another 2,000 small boats anchor at the Negombo jetty daily.

According to conservative official estimates, some 150,000 litres of waste oil is dumped into the lagoon by boats. “The trawlers go deep-sea fishing, and carry a lot of oil. On their return the waste oil is just dumped,” Samarakoon, an ecologist, said.

Fisherman Thamel, who admitted that his boat dumps 54 litres of oil into Negombo after every trip, blames the “poor management of the fishing industry” for much of the problems.

He said because of overfishing in Sri Lankan waters, fisherfolk have to go further afield in search of catch. Though a commission of 3 percent of the sales is given to a local cooperative that manages the jetty area, there were no “proper” facilities for the fisherfolk.

“We are here from about 3 a.m. till late afternoon, but we don’t even have a toilet,” he laments. “Our boats have to go very far to get a good catch. If young fish are allowed to breed and grow, we could fish closer home. Then the expense for us and also the use of oil will reduce,” Thamel said, adding that they would support any measure taken to clean Negombo.

The IRMP was launched in January 1998 by the government in a determined bid to stop the destruction of Sri Lanka’s wetlands, among the world’s most productive environments.

Under this programme, Negombo lagoon, the most famous port in colonial times, and the Muthurajawela marsh — a contiguous 7,000 hectare coastal wetland lying along the Indian Ocean north-west of Sri Lanka’s capital city — are to be protected.

Fish-heads and other waste are choking the water channels and undermining the natural process of mixing of salt and fresh waters.

“When the fish-heads decay, chemical nutrients are released that aid the growth of plants in the lagoon. Normally that is good, but excessive nutrients often result in the rapid growth of plants which then endangers animal life,” Samarakoon points out.

The IRMP is working on several schemes: trawler and boat owners are being urged to fill waste oil into barrels for recycling. Samarakoon said that negotiations are underway with two unnamed transnational companies to recycle the waste oil.

With regard to the fish-heads, the IRMP is developing a technology whereby these could be turned into profitable fish

meal — a rich nutrient for plants and trees — by small entrepreneurs.

Plastic from the Free Trade Zone factories, which clogs the waterways and settles on the lagoon bed, will be utilised by Seth Sevana, an NGO that employs disabled people, to recycle plastic. The NGO which has a factory in Colombo, is planning to set up another near Negombo.

With the help of fisherfolk, private business and non- governmental organisations, the government may yet clean the polluted waters of this island’s biggest lagoon.

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