Weerawila: Clearing ground realities before take-off

Acres of lush paddy fields, the livelihood of an entire farming community, diverse plant and wildlife - will they be under serious threat if plans to set up the country’s second international airport in Weerawila go through? Residents have launched a series of protests against the proposed development, but have had little success in convincing the authorities that it will have many adverse impacts both on the environment and the community.

The Sri Lanka Nature Forum and the Swarna Hansa Foundation earlier this month drew attention to what they saw as the shortcomings of Weerawila as a prospective site for an international airport.

“The Centre for Research and Development compiled an Environmental Impact Assessment Report for the Airport and Aviation Services, but this report was not accepted by the Central Environment Authority,” said Thilak Kariyawasam, Co-ordinator of the SLNF. The report had indicated that Weerawila is the most suitable location for a new airport, and that the effects of building an airport would not have a lasting negative impact on the environment.

Weerawila’s largely farming community is, understandably disturbed by the threat to their livelihood and well-being, which they see as being sacrificed in the face of development. “Most of us came to live in this area because we had an affinity to the land and a passion for farming,” said - Prematilleke, a representative of this community. “The area on which we work yields a harvest of about 3500 kg of rice per acre, and this will all be destroyed if the airport is built.”

Many organizations, environmentalists included, have voiced their concerns on the damage inflicted on the environment if the project goes ahead.

Weerawila is home to some of the island’s richest wetlands, and many endemic and migratory birds. According to environmentalists, the Environmental Impact Assessment report addresses this issue, but has not paid adequate attention to it. The report states that the new airport will not pose a serious threat to the resident and migratory birds that take refuge in Weerawila.

However, The Sunday Times learns that the level of sound from the airport could reach even beyond the borders of the Bundala Wildlife Sanctuary.“According to the report, there are a very few migratory birds in the area. This argument has no basis, for the research into this aspect of the report has been done prior to the migratory season.The revised version also had a survey conducted outside the migrant season,” pointed out Udaya Siriwardene of the Ceylon Bird Club speaking to The Sunday Times.

The new report should have been compiled on the basis of fresh data, but actually the old data had only been slightly revised in the new draft, he said. The SLNF and the Swarna Hansa Foundation also revealed that prior to any incoming flight at the Bandaranaike International Airport, birds in the vicinity are shot down to prevent accidents. The two organizations expressed concern that the same situation could arise in Weerawila.

Bird strikes are a serious problem in airports, with some 35% of aircraft accidents occurring due to them. The report says that the risk of bird strikes in Weerawila is low. This conclusion is reached by comparing Weerawila with the Katunayake Airport, where there is an astonishingly small number of birds due to the frequent bird killings.

One of the many birds found in Bundala

According to statistics compiled by the IUCN (World Conservation Union), a total of 759 species of plants and wildlife, some endemic, are found in Weerawila. The environmental impact report glosses over these details, and there are a great number of discrepancies between the statistics presented in the report and actual fact, the SLNF spokesperson added.

The report also stated that Weerawila holds no historic significance, but research done by the Archaeological Department of the University of Kelaniya, indicates that the area is of historic importance- excavations have found a number of weapons and implements used by people of the prehistoric era.

“As of now, construction of the airport has not begun, as the project does not have the approval of the CEA . The foundation stone was laid by the President in 2006, and a police post currently stands guard at this place. An attempt was made to commence construction, but the Weerawila community strongly opposed this, staging protests and demonstrations at the site,” Mr. Kariyawasam said. Environmentalists are hoping that their voices and those of the villagers will be heard before any further development take place.

Source: sunday times
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