By Amayaa Wijesinghe –
Sri Lanka can boast of a diverse coastline, which is ecologically and economically valuable. Our shores provide livelihoods to many people, and act as our first line of defense in case of natural disasters. The fisheries they support also act as an important source of nutrition. When a natural ecosystem provides invaluable services to people as well as fauna and flora, it is afforded protected status. The efficient management of these Protected Areas (PAs) ensures that these benefits can be sustained for generations to come.
Gazetting of Wedithalathive Nature Reserve
Wedithalathive is a small town situated on the coast, accessed by the Mannar-Jaffna A32 highway. On 25 February 2016, Wedithalathive’s ecosystems were given legal protection by its declaration as a Nature Reserve under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance. This was carried out just 2 years ago by the Department of Wildlife Conservation, and gave protection to mangroves, seagrass beds and coral reefs situated in the area. These natural ecosystems have been recognized worldwide for their importance in maintaining ocean productivity.
Proposed Aquaculture Park
According to the Environmental Foundation Limited (EFL) as well as published sources, a cabinet paper has been prepared to excise and de-gazette approximately 1000 hectares of land from this newly declared reserve, in order to establish a commercial Aquaculture park. The paper was co-proposed by both the Minister of Fisheries and the Minister of Sustainable Development and Wildlife, with the recommendation from the Cabinet Committee on Economic Management. The proposed Aquapark is slated to yield a commercial harvest of fish and shellfish, especially prawns, for export.
This raises many red flags, as pond-based prawn farming has not been a success story in Sri Lanka and elsewhere in Asia. In fact, a closer look at the area just South of Wedithalathive, in Puttalam and Mundal, show large tracts of prawn farms abandoned in the last 30 years due to disease outbreaks and unsustainable practices.
In an Aquapark, the landscape is created for artificial breeding of economically important fishery species. Land units are leased to aquaculture farmers, and these units include purpose built ponds and facilities for seawater take and discharge. The park should also have wet-laboratories and hatcheries, intensive culture facilities, and dry-laboratories, for quality assurance and updated research purposes. Overall, stringent scientific standards must be met if an Aquapark is to be successful.
However, in practice, the execution of such projects is difficult due to the complex variables that need to be considered, and de-gazetting Protected Areas for such commercial ventures is a dangerous precedent to set, as the impacts may outweigh the benefits.
The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) and many other research bodies around the world have shown a strong correlation between intact natural ecosystems and protection from natural disasters. The stretch of mangroves, seagrass beds and patchy coral reef running up the coastline of the Wedithalathive Nature Reserve provides the crucial service of regulating coastal flood events, protecting against storms and preventing the erosion of the sandy shore. They also provide protection against coastal disasters such as tidal waves.
De-gazetting of the Reserve means that natural vegetation will be cut down to make way for ponds and tanks, similar to the devastation caused by aquaculture ventures in other parts such as Puttalam. This leaves the coastline and the villages more exposed to natural disasters.
The Wedithalathive Reserve and the ecosystems in the adjoining Vankalai Sanctuary also supports important biodiversity in Sri Lanka, such as wading birds and crustaceans, and the habitat crucial for the survival of these species may be lost. Additionally, this area is an important feeding ground for thousands of migratory birds that winter in Sri Lanka, and this may lead to severe human-wildlife conflict if an Aquapark is established here.
Socioeconomic Impacts of De-gazetting
From a purely economic perspective, many would argue that creating jobs for rural communities and earning more revenue through foreign exchange takes precedence over protecting endangered animals in a delicate ecosystem. However, the EFL reports that sacrificing Nature Reserves and protected areas in order to carry out Aquapark operations will lead to unmitigated disasters that will affect both the vulnerable communities living in these areas, in addition to the delicate coastal ecosystems.
According to a research carried out by EFL, many local communities will directly feel the impacts of pollution through discharge of contaminated water from the Aquapark, and the resulting loss in productivity in natural ecosystems. The report states there are many fishers currently engaging in near-shore artisanal fishery and off-shore commercial fishery in the area, who stand to lose their livelihoods due to pollution and loss in productivity.
This is because many commercially viable species use mangroves, seagrass beds and reefs as their breeding and spawning grounds, ensuring that our oceans keep getting a fresh stock of commercially important marine species. The traditional fishers of the area are able to bring in their catches of shrimp, crab and fish because of the service provided by these mangrove and coral reef ecosystems. If productivity of these ecosystems were lost, the offshore fishing industry of the area would collapse.
Alarmingly, the community may also face shortages of freshwater in the future, as aquaparks require a steady supply of freshwater to maintain salinity. The ground water table of the arid zone may become imbalanced due to these withdrawals.
A Strong EIA Required
Following the presentation of the proposal, the cabinet of ministers have instructed relevant officials to conduct a feasibility study and provide an Environmental Impact Assessment Report (EIAR), prior to providing the approval for the project.
It is extremely important to ensure that a strong EIA is carried out, encompassing all aspects such as biodiversity protected by the Reserve, ecosystem services and values to the community, negative externalities which may be created by an Aquapark and the opportunity costs of the venture. The right experts need to be contacted, and a thorough assessment must be carried out in an accountable manner before any decisions are made.
The terrestrial portion of the Wedithalathive Nature Reserve is not just a barren land with a few bushes. It is a living ecosystem, which provides crucial services for humans and for animals. Grasping for foreign exchange through any means necessary will only lead to destitute communities, ravaged ecosystems, wasted investments and abandoned ventures.
(Amayaa Wijesinghe works as a Programme Officer at SLYCAN Trust. She studied environmenl sciences at the Department of Zoology and Environment Sciences of the Faculty of Science, University of Colombo. Her research interest lies in the role natural ecosystems can play in helping communities become more resilient to changing temperatures, especially through restoration of forests.)