Climate change heightens coastal erosion risk in Sri Lanka

by Amantha Perera | @AmanthaP | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 15 March 2012 12:46 GMT
"My only worry is where my family will go if the house is washed away. There is no space free anywhere now," says one coastal resident.

LUNUKALAPUWA, Sri Lanka (AlertNet) – Leela Hendawitharana has fond memories of her childhood near the coast in this scenic village in Sri Lanka’s Southern Province. The 66-year-old recalls the daily journey with her mother or father to collect firewood.

“We used to walk in the shrub and we had our favourite resting place,” she says. It was a large rock that rose about 3 metres (10 feet) above the ground. Today, that same rock lies 100 m (110 yards) out at sea, visible only when the white foam of the waves breaks over it.

“In my lifetime I have seen rows and rows of trees washed out to sea,” says Hendawitharana, standing next to a row of coconut palms just a few feet from the water’s edge.

Marakalamanage Saladin is from the same village, and just a few years younger than Hendawitharana. Both have lived all their life in this village and have watched the sea drawing nearer.

NO ONE KNOWS HOW TO STOP THIS’

“When we were small, our parents used to tell tales of how the sea used to be one, even two kilometres away. Now the waves are breaking almost at our doorsteps,” Saladin says.

 “No one seems to know how to stop this,” adds Hendawitharana.

Coastal erosion has been occurring for generations in this region, with no lasting solutions. But experts now worry changing climate patterns and rising sea level could aggravate the sea’s advance.

 “Climate change will magnify the problem,” said Anil Premarathne, director general of the Coast Conservation Department (CCD), the country’s lead agency tasked with preventing coastal erosion.

Monsoon patterns in Sri Lanka have changed, with large amounts of rain concentrated in shorter periods, according to Premarathne. The intense rainfall brings stronger winds and waves. As a result, some areas on Sri Lanka’s coast have recorded annual erosion of more than five metres (16 feet) of land, Permarathne said.

Only around one-fifth of Sri Lanka’s 1,500 km (940 mile) coastline is prone to erosion. But this vulnerable stretch is also the country’s most economically vital one, extending from the Western Province to the Southern Province.

DENSE POPULATION AT COAST

More than 40 percent of the island’s population of 21 million call the two provinces home. The capital, Colombo, lies by the sea in the Western Province. The province’s three districts are the country’s most densely populated and contribute more than 40 percent of its GDP. Two of the country’s busiest highways and railway lines link the Western and Southern provinces, hugging the coast along most of their length.

Premarathne said that most coastal areas in the two provinces are low-lying wetlands, prone to erosion if sea levels continue to rise.

“Population density is very high in these areas. Even a minor sea level rise could disrupt lifestyles,” he said.

Premarathne singled out the coastal town of Hikkaduwa as an example. Situated about 100 km (60 miles) south of Colombo, it is a favoured location for tourists wanting sun and sand. 

“In Hikkaduwa you have everything together and next to the coast - the businesses, the schools, the public administrative buildings, everything in a very small area,” said Premarathne.

Even if no drastic erosion is yet visible, there still could be major shifts taking place just below ground level, he warned.

GROUNDWATER THREAT

In Gampha District, just north of Colombo, 40 percent of the district’s water needs are met by pumping groundwater. Just a small rise in sea level could increase the salinity of the groundwater, creating a major problem for those that use it, said the CCD chief.

Wave breakers consisting of large boulders placed about 25 metres out at sea, and sandy beaches covered by miles of dark-coloured boulders along the western and southern coasts, are indications of attempts to thwart erosion. These two methods have been used to protect about 80 percent of the coast identified as prone to erosion. But some have proven counterproductive, according to Premarathne.

“Once you put up barriers with boulders, there is almost zero possibility of any economic activity on the beach, most certainly none for tourism or fishing,” he said.

Boulders also “just transfer the erosion from one area to another,” Premarathne said. 

ZONING CHANGES

The CCD is now promoting new zoning regulations that will keep beaches free of buildings. In addition, mangroves are being planted to combat erosion, and sand dredged from the deep sea is being added to beaches, particularly in the area just north of Colombo.

“When the beach is wide, the chances of erosion are less,” Premarathne said.

But even if new zoning laws are introduced, they cannot be applied retroactively to force the removal of existing structures, including thousands of houses, hotels and other establishments that dot the western and southern coasts and increase the vulnerability of these stretches of beach to erosion.

CCD officials are concerned that other parts of the country, traditionally safe from erosion, may be put at risk. 

“We are keeping a close eye on the east,” said Premarathne. He added that the situation there has been compounded by illegal construction and sand mining near the coast.

Large development projects have proved detrimental to some parts of the coast. The construction of a new port in the southeastern town of Oluvil has resulted in increased erosion in areas north of the project, the CCD has found.

The seeming inability to stop the sea from taking away their land is something that ordinary villagers living near the coast now take as a fact of life.

In Lunukalapuwa, Marakalamanage Saladin gazes at the waves breaking near his feet.

“My only worry is where my family will go if the house is washed away,” he says. “There is no space free anywhere now.”

Amantha Perera is a freelance writer based in Sri Lanka. 

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