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Coastal disaster beckons

By Nimashi Amaleeta
The story behind the mining project is rather interesting. Certain beaches in Hambantota, Kirinda and Devinuvara are ‘rich’ in a particular mineral sand known as garnet. Garnet accounts for 20% of the sand in these beaches while ilmenite accounts for 12%.
Having understood that these beaches contain appreciable quantities of the respective minerals, a company known as ETA Lanka Natural Resources Pvt. Ltd. obtained an exploration license to assess the qualities of these minerals. They confirmed that a stretch of 1,400 metres along the Kirinda-Magama beach is rich in garnet sands.
Immediately its value in terms of commercial exploitation became stark evident. And in no time GSMB Technical Services Pvt. Ltd. was assigned to carry out an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) on behalf of ETA Natural Resources Pvt. Ltd. to enable the issuance of an environmental clearance license for heavy mineral sand mining in this stretch of beach.

The project, according to the EIA, is completely export-oriented. The project will entail a processing plant approximately two kilometres away from the mining site. The private company also envisages introducing the latest technology to the processing plant and thence create employment opportunities plus development in the region.
“The EIA by all means, is not satisfactory,” affirmed the Green Movement of Sri Lanka (GMSL) upon an inquiry made by The Nation. “There are many dubious points that need clarification.”

The coastal dunes concerned span two grama seva divisions, that of being the Magama grama seva division and the Andaragasyaya grama seva division. The EIA clearly specifies that as a conservative measure, two 100 metre stretches on either side of the dune – one on the sea side and the other on the land side – will be declared as a buffer zone. And no mining activity will take place in these buffer zones. One end of the coastal dune is located close to the river mouth of the Kirinda Oya, while the other end is located in Doravamodara. The end at Kirinda Oya river mouth is about 500 metres wide, but as it approaches Doravamodara it narrows down to 200 metres.
If the company ETA Lanka Natural Resources Pvt. Ltd. is to abide by the regulations specified in the EIA, how is it going to demarcate a 200 metre buffer zone in Doravamodara? The company will be left with no area to mine lest they demarcate a buffer zone. Nobody, not even the Coast Conservation Department (CCD), is certain as to how this narrow strip is to be tackled within the mining process.

Since mining becomes impractical at this point, would the company refrain from mining that particular strip? “No,” said the GMSL representative. “What’s actually going to happen is even more alarming. They don’t care about the buffer zone.”
“In fact the CCD hosted a meeting at its headquarters in Colombo on March 16 and the directors of the private company were also present at this meeting. What they said was quite unexpected and alarming. They were going to incorporate an extra half metre strip into their mining zone, so that they could utilise the sands of the beaches, too (apart from the sand dunes). This strip has not been mentioned in the EIA. They are attempting to go against the EIA and to make things worse, the CCD never objected.”

According to the EIA, the dunes will be mined four metres deep. However, the distance between the tidal line and the dune is not that wide. Therefore, mining the sand dune four metres deep and so close to the sea will destabilise its structural makeup. This would result in an instable, erosion-prone beach front. On the other hand, there’s a variety of trees, shrubs and grasses which have helped to reinforce the stability of the sand dunes. Mining in these dunes will remove the protective cover of vegetation. The net result once again is the destabilisation of beaches. What is the CCD doing? Sanctioning coast conservation or coastal destruction?

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Dubiety

The coastal stretch in Kirindi-Magama area is nourished by the Kirindi Oya river, which in turn substantially contributes to the active deposition of heavy minerals like garnet on the beach. The coastal area is also known for its extensive development of dunes.
The initial surveys carried out by the respective companies have revealed that this mine contains 419,000 MT of garnet and 377,790 MT of ilmenite. The scheme of extracting and processing these minerals is expected to span three years, wherein it is also expected to increase the rate of production of yield annually.
Further data reveals that the demand for the extracted sand will be 15% to 18% in the US alone. However, the Government of Sri Lanka will receive only a 4% royalty by exporting this material in the form of raw material (GSMB data).

The mean distance between the residential area and the site of concern is a mere 100 metres. There are about 40-50 permanent houses in this area. The housing area if flanked by the Bundala-Kirinda Road. The road network in this village is completely composed of gravel. Thus, is it practical to allow heavy vehicles loaded with sand to utilise a gravel-road network? In addition, the gravel dust would cause health problems. Have such aspects been scrutinised in the EIA?

The road is flanked by a stretch of paddy fields. The giant sand dunes act as a natural barricade providing ample protection against the raging gales, saturated with salt and dust. These gales are most intense during the period from April-September. What will guard the paddy fields when the dunes are mined? Have these aspects been comprehensively studied in the EIA? No.

According to the EIA, the requirement of water for the processing plant alone is 250,000 litres. Another additional 50,000 litres will be needed for basic sanitation. However, it is not certain whether this requirement is on daily basis. The EIA does not specify this point. Also, given the geographic and climatic layout of this area, obtaining such vast quantity of water is definitely going to pose a problem. The EIA suggests that this quantity can be obtained via the construction of two to three tube wells. However, it does not specify the capacity or depth of these wells.
On the other hand, drawing out such a vast quantity from the arid zone, needless to mention, is going to deplete the groundwater resources. Would the fate of the groundwater aquifers be if such vast quantities are to be pumped out on a daily basis for three years? The EIA is clueless.

Further, the EIA prescribes constructing rainwater tanks to circumvent the water requirements of this plant. No one knows how and when these tanks will be built. And by the way, whose idea was it to build rainwater tanks in a scorching hot arid zone?

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Sand dunes — the frontier to the sea

Most beaches are backed by vegetated sand ridges called dunes, built up by dry beach sand blown inland and trapped by plants and other obstructions. As sand accumulates, the dunes become higher and wider.
Plants play a vital role in this process, acting as a windbreak and trapping the deposited sand particles. A characteristic of these plants is their ability to grow up through the sand and continually produce new stems and roots as more sand is trapped and the dune grows.

Picturesque though they are, coastal sand dunes serve a more important purpose than beauty. Stable sand dunes play an important part in protecting the coastline. They act as a buffer against wave damage during storms, protecting the land behind from salt water intrusion.
This sand barrier allows the development of more complex plant communities in areas protected from salt water inundation, sea spray and strong winds. The dunes also act as a reservoir of sand, to replenish and maintain the beach at times of erosion.

Frontal sand dunes are vulnerable. The vegetation can be destroyed by natural causes such as storms, cyclones, droughts or fire, or by human interference such as clearing, grazing, vehicles or excessive foot traffic. If the vegetation cover is damaged strong winds may cause ‘blowouts’ or gaps in the dune ridge. Unless repaired, these increase in size, the whole dune system sometimes migrates inland covering everything in its path.
Meanwhile, with a diminished reservoir of sand, erosion of the beach may lead to coastal recession. To avoid this, protecting the vegetation is vital.
Reference; internet

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Garnet

Garnet is a group of minerals that have been used since the Bronze Age as gemstones and abrasives. Garnets are most often seen in red, but are available in a wide variety of colours spanning the entire spectrum. The name “garnet” comes from the Latin granatus (grain), possibly a reference to the punica granatum (pomegranate), which is a plant with red seeds similar in shape, size, and colour to some garnet crystals. Six common varieties of garnet have been recognised based on their chemical composition. They are pyrope, almandine, spessartite, grossular, uvarovite and andradite.

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Unjust justification

Apparently, this project has only a single cause for its justification. That is, it would create 200 to 300 job opportunities. But at what cost? Destabilising beaches, accelerating erosion, depleting groundwater aquifers, creating an unhealthy socioeconomic environment, etc., just to receive only a 4% royalty! Does the CCD consider this project worthy?

Upon an inquiry made by The Nation, the Assistant Director of the CCD had the following to say.
“Are you going to proceed?” “We haven’t decided yet. We have discussed the problems with the company. It’s up to them to talk with the people, NGOs and the like, discuss the problems associated with the project and arrive upon solutions….. The people are scared of this project. They don’t know much about it. So we asked the company to discuss maters with them in particular. However, it should be noted that if the people are against this project, we wouldn’t let the project proceed.”

“There’re problems with allocating a buffer zone at the Doravamodara end” The Nation reminded. “Yeah, yeah there are problems alright. So we have asked the company to discuss these problems with the relevant people.”
“The company has said that they are going to mine an additional half metre strip on the beach at the meeting on March 16. But the EIA does not specify anything of the like.” “They never said anything like that. We wouldn’t let them go beyond the EIA anyway.”

“Is the amount of water going to be on a daily basis or weekly basis? The EIA does not specify this either. And what about the rain water tanks?” “Now there are many problems. We have to discuss these things. I told you no.”
“The relative densities of the sand of the Kirindi Oya Fisheries Harbour and the dunes in Hambanota do not match. Wouldn’t this be a problem?” “The experts said that this is not going to be a big issue. Anyway we have asked the company to see to all those things.”

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Hell in Hambantota – a reply

With reference to an article entitled “Hell in Hambantota” published in Green Nation on March 18, the NAWACINEOSCA Tsunami Housing Project has written to clarify some points made in the story. The following is the full text of that letter:

We kindly refer you to the article carried in your paper of March 18, 2007, on page 8 of the “EYE” section titled “Hell in Hambantota.” The inaccuracies found in certain sections of this article and some unfounded allegations contained therein, have caused immense pain of mind to the artistes who whole heartedly committed themselves to this project. It also damages the reputation of our organisations, Cinestar Foundation and OSCA by far the two largest artistes organisations in Sri Lanka.

May we take the liberty to mention here that the artistes of these two organisations were the first to reach the disaster struck areas immediately after the tsunami, carrying lorry loads of relief material when the tsunami victims were without even drinking water. They collected funds for this housing project walking down the streets of Colombo, Kandy and Dambulla for days, symbolising their genuine commitment and concern for their fellow citizens who had been struck by the worst natural disaster in the history of this nation.
It is indeed sad that all these factors have been overlooked. As such, it is felt that it would be pertinent to submit the following facts for your kind perusal and information.

1. The foundation stone for this 52 house project was laid by the then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa on January 19, 2005 with the participation of the artistes of this country.
2. The completed housing scheme was declared open by the Prime Minister on April 6, 2005.
3. No government funds were utilised for the project.
4. The entire project was completed by public donations as detailed in the attached list.
5. The houses were constructed by private contractors mostly from the area as detailed in the attached list.
6. At our request the Disaster Relief Fund launched by People’s Bank, ITN and Lakhanda, donated household furniture and appliances worth over Rs. 40,000 to every household as detailed in the attached list.
7. A set of Noritake crockery was donated to each household by Noritake Lanka Porcelain Ltd.
8. A cash donation of Rs. 5,000 was given to each householder by a private donor to facilitate settlement.
9. Cinematographer W.A.B. Silva donated a Buddha statue to each household.
10. We have attached a letter from the main contractor, Harrison Perera dated September 4, 2005 detailing what transpired when work commenced to repair the few houses that had certain defects.
We trust that these facts would give you a true picture regarding this housing project.
Thanking you,
Yours faithfully
Cinestar Foundation.

Reporter’s note:
We regret any inconvenience or damage to the artistes foundations specified in the letter from NAWACINEOSCA. We applaud your efforts to help the tsunami victims of Hambantota and this article in no way attempted to belittle your contribution.

However, having collected massive amounts of money towards this project, the actors involved themselves should want to see the construction done properly utilising the monies collected to the optimum, without wastage and the use of sub-standard material. As a newspaper, we have highlighted instances when well-intentioned NGOs and other organisations have also erred the same way and in their haste to build homes, have not adhered to the building regulations put down by the government.

Having seen the plight of the victims of Hambantota and consulted the movement representing the residents at the inquiry, The Nation’s environment page highlighted the story. We have a duty, to highlight situations in which citizens of this country are in difficult positions and need respite.
Although NAWACINEOSCA claims that a few houses had ‘certain’ defects, a visit to the area proved that this was more than just a few defects. In fact, we have pictures taken that prove the same. It is a gross breach of trust for a contractor to have claimed to complete houses that were falling apart before a year had passed. Indeed, this is something NAWACINEOSCA should have looked at in a far more investigative manner.
We appreciate the letter attached from the contractor sent to repair the houses and accept that in this instance the house occupants have behaved unfairly.

It may be that the state of the houses, which are virtually inhabitable incensed them. From the date of the repairman’s letter, it is evident that the houses had begun to fall apart less than a year after they were built. Naturally, the contractor had to be held accountable.
While it is not our intention or purpose to prove anyone right or wrong in this instance, we sincerely hope that the actors and other parties involved in the project would take urgent steps to remedy the situation before it is too late, since that would fully absolve the artistes’ organisations for any alleged wrongdoing on their part – however well-intentioned – with regard to this housing project in Hambantota.

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