Sand Dredging Project on Sri Lanka’s Coast Leads to Erosion, Livelihood Loss

people walking on Mt Lavinia beach
The Morning
Mount Lavinia, Sri Lanka

Sand Dredging Project on Sri Lanka’s Coast Leads to Erosion, Livelihood Loss

Almost two years ago, while Sri Lanka was experiencing its first lockdown as a result of a few individuals testing positive for Covid-19, many were surprised by pictures circulating on social media of Mount Lavinia Beach being filled up as part of a beach nourishment program. Most Sri Lankans were confined to their homes, with no way of rushing to this much-loved beach to see what was happening.

Why was filling beaches necessary? 

“The 2017 floods caused erosion of sand bars close to the estuary, which has resulted in the erosion of a vast area of beach in Kalutara North due to encroaching waves. As a remedy, coastal conservation has begun dredging sand from deep sea,” reads the press release, ‘President inspects Calido Beach Development’, which can be found on the Presidential Secretariat’s official website.  

Sandy beach
Calido beach in Sri Lanka / Credit: Vishwa Steinwall.  

Calido Beach, which was greatly affected by these floods, is a natural formation: a sand barrier and a reef. It had a flourishing ecosystem with a wide growth of kadolana (mangroves) which acted as a sand barrier and protected the beach connected to the estuary. It greatly assisted the fishing community and the ecotourism of the area. It assisted in both scenarios; where the water from the Kalu River hit the sea at a fast speed and the sea waves hit the land with a force, reducing their velocity and the speed. 

After the floods, the authorities further expanded the estuaries along the bank of the Kalu River, hoping it would assist the water to flow out into the sea easily and reduce the impact of any future floods. The opposite proved to be true. To understand this better, The Sunday Morning Brunch spoke to Rainforest Protectors of Sri Lanka Convener and Conservationist Jayantha Wijesinghe. Wijesinghe believes that widening the estuaries was a mistake and resulted in increasing the salinity levels of the river, making it impossible for people to use the water for their day-to-day activities in Kalutara. 

Sandy beach
Calido Beach, where the river reaches the sea / Credit: Vishwa Steinwall.

As part of a three-stage project, the Calido beach in Kalutara was filled up with sand to prevent further erosion of sand into the sea, along with the Angulana and Mount Lavinia beaches. This beach nourishment program was initially meant only for the Calido Beach which was stage one of the project. The end goal was to fill a 2 km-long and 25 meter-wide stretch of the beach. Later, Angulana and Mount Lavinia beaches were added on to the same project as stages two and three, with smaller areas being filled up along these respective beaches.  

Now, deterioration is evident when visiting Calido and Mount Lavinia beaches. Most of the sand that was filled as part of the restoration project has washed back into the sea, leaving us with the question of whether the funds spent on this endeavor were worth it: Was the decision taken rashly? Were experts consulted?  

Central Environmental Authority (CEA) Chairman Siripala Amarasinghe confirmed: “An Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was not conducted in terms of filling sand for the restoration.”

Even before the implementation of the beach filling, Amarasinghe saw the need for and importance of an EIA being done. He believed the initiative would have some sort of effect on the environment. However, he also confirmed that when it comes to the sea and the coastline, the authority does not lie with them as their control is limited to water bodies found internally in the country. Conducting an EIA is considered to be good practice by conservationists prior to any project being implemented, however it is not a requirement. 

Beach on a grey day
Mount Beach / Credit: Vishwa Steinwall.

What could have been done differently? 

“Letting nature be and allowing it to take its course is the most important. Meddling with one aspect has led to new areas that need to be addressed. All of these things cost money, and with our current debt situation, Sri Lanka is not in a position to afford that,” Wijesinghe said.

Broadening the estuaries has also increased the speed at which the river water flows to the sea, having a further impact on the riverbanks and creating a negative balance in the amount of sand that flows from the river to the sea. The level at which sand is mined out of the Kalu River also has an impact on the sand erosion at Calido Beach. 

If the motive was to prevent severe floods taking place again, Wijesinghe sees the opportunity for other solutions such as increasing the wetlands and protecting the estuaries, maintaining and increasing the existing forest and mountain cover, and regulating sand mining, along with several other similar measures. 

The second most important thing to have done differently is conducting an EIA, Wijesinghe affirms, noting that an EIA could have led to a proper study being done to understand the further impact this project would have had, but also if it was necessary and if there could have been a different solution.

“Especially as this mistake was made many times before, for instance at Unawatuna Beach, where it is now impossible to swim and enjoy the beach as a result of the sand pumping,” he noted. 

The sustainability of this project has been questionable from the beginning. Wijesinghe mentions how the work looks incomplete, especially at the Mount Lavinia Beach, where submerged breakwaters have not been installed.

“When sand is pumped and dumped, breakwaters can ensure that the sand remains in the area as opposed to it eroding away and having a further impact on the marine life found in the area.” 

“In addition to filling the beach with sand, maintaining a coastal green cover wherever possible and planting mangroves are ways in which coastal erosion can be controlled.”

Neither of these were observed during the site visits to Calido and Mount Lavinia beaches, which leaves one to question if the sustainability of this project was considered at all.  

Who can the public hold accountable? 

The Department of Coastal Conservation (CCD) Director General at the time, Prabath Chandrakeerthi, confirmed that this project was under their purview, and that Rs 890 million was commissioned for its implementation and completion, based on an expert report submitted by the CCD. The Cabinet decision, which reads as “the proposal made by the Minister of Environment and Wildlife Resources, to award the contract pertaining to the Project for the Nourishment of the Coastal Belt, to M/s Rohde Nielsen A/S, at a sum of EUR 4.40 million, was approved by the Cabinet” is also recorded on the official site of the office of the Cabinet of Ministers. The tender process to select a contractor to implement the project by the CCD has also been said to lack transparency. 

In addition to the environmental impact of this project, local vendors at the Calido Beach proved that it has also had an impact economically, especially to those around the area. Several local vendors expressed their distress at trying to regain their ground following the pandemic, and two years of multiple lockdowns and losing their main tourist attraction. They shared a common sentiment – the beach will never regain its former glory.

“This beach was always filled and enjoyed by local families, youth and foreigners alike. The number has dropped significantly. We also believe the beach is unsafe for children especially as there is a sudden drop to the water.”  

Shanty in front of the ocean
Calido Beach / Credit: Vishwa Steinwall

When this correspondent visited Calido Beach early on a Saturday evening, we saw a few local families, and all the vendors confirmed that this was very few in comparison to before.  

Mount Lavinia Beach is still enjoyed by many, especially by local families who flock to the beach in the evenings. This could be a result of it being the only beach available to the densely populated Colombo City. The economic impact to the local vendors because of the beach restoration project is observed to be less damaging in comparison.  

As the sand currents of the Kalu River are shifting northwards, Wijesinghe believes that the sand erosion will reduce with time as they are collected and deposited along the Port City in Colombo (the former dredging activities to build the Port City too had an impact on our coastline and on sand erosion).

However, the amount of sand left at these beaches will depend on how strong the monsoon seasons will be. Two years later, we have already observed that close to half of the sand filled has been lost already.  

Crowded beach on a grey day
Crowded Mount Lavinia Beach / Credit: Vishwa Steinwall.

This story was produced with the support of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. It was originally published in The Morning on 30 January 2022. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Banner image: Mount Lavinia beach in Sri Lanka / Credit: RhythmicDiaspora via Flickr.

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