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Caught in a high tide

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Every morning visitors can witness the fishermen of Balapitiya trudging along the Maduganga (A river known as Maduganga) dragging their boats behind them on their way to the sea. The cause for such a strenuous task and uncommon sight even before they begin their day is due to the delta being filled up with sand. The sand banks make it dangerous and impossible for the fishermen to take the boats over the river, forcing them to carry the boats out to sea.

Balapitiya, a coastal town known for fishing, has around 500 fisher families in the vicinity of Maduganga and due to the issue has faced many difficulties in continuing their trade.

According to the fishermen having to carry their boats such a long distance is exhausting and the sand banks can cause serious damage to their boats. Speaking to The Nation Balapitiya Pradeshiya Sabha Member Ushan Mendis said the filling of sand in Maduganga requires it to be dug out every three months. According to him fishermen of the area have resorted to docking their boats in other fisheries harbors due to this obstruction.

Explaining as to how such large amounts of sand are collected at the mouth of the river, fisherman S. Chandrasekara says it is due to the high tide. “The high tides push sand into the river and not enough sand are pushed back as the flow of the river is less strong,” he said. He points out that the mouth of the river has become narrow and therefore the sand is now not carried out to the sea naturally.

“Even large sail boats came down this river during the British era and this is even today called the Customs Road due to the customs office that once existed,” he said adding that this problem didn’t exist during his father’s time. “If it was so how can sail boats come down the river?” he queried. According to Chandrasekara, sand banks made their appearance in the early 70s.

When The Nation visited the site the sand was once again being dug out. This endeavor is funded by two politicians in the area. If not for the government mechanism and in the case there are delays, it would resulted in fishermen not being able to go to sea before the Sinhalese New Year. On the day The Nation visited Balapitiya, only 20 out of 150 boats had ventured out to the sea.

http://www.nation.lk/edition/images/2015/04/05/Insight/people.jpg“We have not been able to buy anything for our families as we have had to stop fishing due to this problem,” says G. Somapala another fisherman in the area. He worries that if the sand is not cleared fast enough his children will have to go without celebrating the New Year. According to the fishermen while they spend around Rupees 5,000 to set sail for fishing there are days they return without any catch.

“The river also does not have a prawns harvest now due to the lack of salt water in the river. This is due to the river being literally blocked out from the sea because of the sand banks,” said Chandrasena.

“This is why we stepped in and are now funding this,” said PS member Ushan Mendis along with UNP chief organizer of Balapitiya Kamal Jayantha De Soysa. Currently they have footed a bill worth Rs 100,000 for this project while another Rs 300,000 will be required to ensure its completion.

According to Assistant Director of Planning, of the Divisional Secretariat of Balapitiya Irosha Hinuduma, the government has also dug the river bed at the request of fishermen at different occasions.

However the fishermen including the two benefactors of the project admit that this is in no way a permanent solution to the problem. “Sadly this will fill up once again reducing the river entering the sea to a trickle,” says Chandrasekara.

Mendis also pointed out that if the currently built rock barriers in the sea can be elongated this too would ensure that less sand is brought to land during the high tide. “The previous government spent Rs 1.5 million to just measure the barrier,” he said adding that they could have completed the project at that cost instead. He also directed The Nation team towards a playground built for the families of the fishermen at a cost of Rupees two million saying that these were pointless projects that wasted government funds.

Speaking to many fishermen it was clear that as a permanent solution what Balapitiya requires is a harbor. “It is essential to us as Balapitiya has a long history in fisheries and has many families dependant on the trade”, said Kamal Jayantha De Soysa while pointing out that smaller fisheries communities have received fisheries harbors while Balapitiya has continuously being ignored. “Former MP Vajira Abeywardane has promised to look in to the matter as well” he said.

According to the fishermen, many politicians including former President Mahinda Rajapaksa during his tenure as well as Minister of Fisheries and Minister Rajitha Senaratne had erected foundation stones to build a harbor in the area. Today, however, these foundation stones don’t remain and Balapitiya has been left without a harbor which can solve the problems of the fishermen permanently. “We were always given false hope,” said the President of the Maduganga River Fisheries Association R. Senaratne.
“We request at least now the two Ministers of Fisheries will take this in to consideration and build a harbor for Balapitiya,” said De Soysa.

When The Nation spoke to an engineer attached to the Department of Irrigation in Galle, he said that their authority ends two kilometers before the mouth of the river.  According to his expertise, there is no environmental issue preventing a harbor being built in Balapitiya. “The Previous government also declared it safe and suitable for a harbor” said R. Senaratne.

Clearly a harbor should be built as an answer to the woes of these fishermen. While they have been given false promises it is yet to be seen if authorities will address this issue while providing them with a permanent solution this time around.
Pics by Rasika Kotudurage


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