Waste management is big challenge for waterside communities, but new innovations can deliver a cleaner environment.
Huts and small brick houses huddle cheek by jowl on either side of the 40-foot (12.19-meter) Taladuwa canal in Negombo, Sri Lanka. Mounds of rotting vegetation, and piles of plastic bottles and bags compete for space with canoes tethered along the canal bank.
The canal is located in Mahavidiya village in the Taladuwa suburb of Negombo town. It was constructed by the Dutch several centuries ago as a drainage outlet for the Negombo lagoon, but is now the dumping grounds for much of the waste of Negombo town. Vast underground pipes from the city discharge sewage into the canal; passersby on the neighboring bridge throw plastic bags of rubbish into the water as they travel to and from the town; the houses in the vicinity also throw in plastic bags of garbage.
Now scientists and local officials want to take a fresh look at the problem to explore how new thinking could deliver a cleaner canal. A field visit to Taladuwa took place during the workshop, Training of trainers in ecosystem-based management of estuaries and lagoons organized by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the Coast Conservation Department, Sri Lanka. The group comprised of representatives from several government agencies who were of the opinion that an in-depth study of the area, better liaison between their agencies, and proper demarcation of the area for various activities, would help to ensure the continuity of the lagoon and the equitable sharing of its resources.
“There is a wealth of knowledge and capabilities within Sri Lanka that need to be harnessed to make a better environment for fish to breed and for people to live,” said Herath Manthrithilake, Head, Sri Lanka Development Initiative, International Water Management Institute, accompanying the party. (IWMI). “At the moment the problem is mainly due to unplanned development activities and indiscriminate disposal of waste.”
Local residents agree that it is time for action. Sebastian, aged 65, is a stake-net fisherman by night and chairman of the Stake-net Fisherman’s Association. “In my youth, the canal was about 7-8 feet (2.13-2.44 meters) deep, and fish and prawns were plentiful,” he says. “Each day after school, I would swim here with my siblings. Whenever we needed to, we would fish in the canal and yield a catch of nearly a kilo of prawns within just half an hour. Now, all the rubbish thrown into the canal has built up so many layers that even a bird can walk in its center. We dare not wade in to fish for fear of injury from the debris on the canal floor.”
Stake-net fishing is one of the oldest, most traditional and best regulated methods of fishing. Nets are stretched on stakes that are fixed about 8 feet (2.44 meters) apart on the riverbed to harvest prawns. The practice is considered to be environmentally sustainable, since it manages the output of prawns in a way that does not noticeably deplete natural resources. The industry now faces challenges due to the declining productivity of the catch.
The original Mahavidiya village burnt down over 35 years ago, ignited by a carelessly lit firecracker on Chritismas Eve. The government loaned each family 7 perches (0.02 hectares) of land and provided them with low-interest bank loans for rebuilding their houses. Today, more than 70 semi-detached houses occupy the same space of land. “The canoe fishermen fight with us every evening and accuse us of throwing our household waste into the water,” declared Mary, a mother of three children. “They won’t accept that there are many others who pollute the canal. The city council cleans the area during the day, but the littering continues soon after they leave.”
New approaches to waste, such as converting it into useful compost, are being piloted by IWMI in partnership with the Ministry of Water Supply and Drainage.