The Mahaweli River Lane is a marvel of nature. The path is narrow enough to cross the river by jumping from rock to rock when it is not raining. When you come down another half mile from that section, which is about three meters wide, you will find the widest point of the Mahaweli River. It is 1.2 km long. Gannoruwa Harbor, an area of 59.4 hectares associated with the 'Hakkinda Island Complex' is an environmentally protected area. This is the only place in the 335 km stretch of the Mahaweli River that originates from the Samanala forest and kisses the sea from Trincomalee.
Biodiversity of the islands
The Hakkinda Archipelago is home to around 20 islands in the Mahaweli River. The largest island covers an area of about 12 acres. Research has shown that there are 23 species of mammals, 77 species of birds, 17 species of reptiles and 17 species of snails in the archipelago. Research conducted by the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA) in the Hakkinda Archipelago area has identified 18 species of fish living here. Among them, the Green Labeo-Labeo fish, a species endemic to Sri Lanka, can be seen only in this region. This species was listed in the Red Data Book in 2007 as endangered. According to NARA, the area is home to endemic fishes such as Lella and Gangara, as well as endemic Sri Lankan fishes such as Mountain Abirawa, Galpadiya, Dankola Pethiya and Thalakosa. Sixteen species of dragonflies live here, eight of which are endemic to Sri Lanka. This is a habitat for endangered species of Sri Lanka, including the green leopard and the sand leopard. Endemic bird species such as Giri Maliththa can also be seen in the vicinity of these islands. Other endemic species that can be found here include the amphibian lizard, catfish lizard, Sri Lankan ringed lizard, flea beetle and Kahairi Danda.
Wildlife researcher Pradeep Samarawickrema, one of the pioneers who won recognition for this wetland as an Ecological Protection Zone, described its uniqueness.
''This land is biologically as well as historically unique. It is the site of the historic Battle of Gannor on March 28, 1638, which defeated the Portuguese. Legend has it that when the Portuguese came to the upcountry, King Rajasinghe II, who ruled Senkadagala, and his army crossed the Mahaweli River and retreated to Gannoruwa through the lane of the river. As the Portuguese crossed the Mahaweli River through the gorge, they surrounded our army from the jungle, except for their ammunition. These are the areas behind the greatest guerrilla war that ended in victory in the history of Ceylon. The temple where Tibetan monk Mahinda Thera lived is also nearby. The first Government Agent in Kandy, George Turner, a British national, opened a sluice gate with two tunnels on November 9, 1831, and a memorial plaque erected for this purpose can still be seen in this area. Although it has been identified as an archeological site and declared a site for conservation, no action has been taken so far. These tunnels, large enough for a person to walk on, are thought to have been used in the past to divert water from the Mahaweli River. The Sri Lankan Kolagadaya fish species, which is thought to have become extinct in the country about 20 years ago, has been re-identified in this area. The site is home to two of the largest specimens ever found in the world. This is a breeding ground for squirrels.
In 2010, a plan was launched to build a small power plant in the scenic Biodiversity Area of Hakkida. Despite protests from the locals, the disruption of the Mahaweli River caused many rare species of fish and island animals to die. Among them were two specimens of fish known as the Sri Lankan Kolagadaya, which were thought to be extinct in the country.
An international research paper on these specimens has also been published. After confirming the existence of the fish in the vicinity of the Hakkinda Islands, Samarawickrema took steps to inform the then-President Mahinda Rajapaksa about it. It was because of his actions that the foundation was laid for a NARA-led investigation into the area. The construction of the power plant was halted after NARA submitted a report that the Hakkinda Islands area is a highly sensitive ecological zone. This area was declared as Hakkinda Environmental Protection Area by the Gazette Notification 2024/6 issued on 17 June 2017.
“Despite the issuance of the gazette notification, the rate of destruction of this area increased rapidly. The main reason for this was the neglect of the duties of the state institutions empowered to protect Hakkinda. Due to the scenic beauty of the islands, a perch of land sells for about a million rupees. Landlords in the River Place Garden area on Second Rajasinghe Mawatha and on the left bank are filling up the part of the river behind their houses. The Environmental Authority is not taking action on these. Following the declaration of the Hakkinda Island area as a Protected Zone, a Management Committee should be appointed as per the Gazette Notification to protect this area. We proposed making this a conservation zone. Despite the President's recommendation to include in this committee the environmental group dedicated to all these things, the Environmental Authority ignored it and included an organization under a false name in the last committee meeting held in October 2021. It was done four years after the formation of the committee. The Environmental Authority is not fulfilling its responsibilities and is trying to delegate that responsibility to environmental organizations. They are waiting for us to file a case against those who destroyed Hakkinda. Although we informed the Environmental Authority about the encroachment of valuable trees such as kumbuk in the reserve, they are silent,” said Pradeep Samarawickrema.
'Authorities are subject to money'
Sanghanayake Ven, Head of the Waratenna Sri Wimalabuddhi Buddhist Center, Gangawata Koralaya Deputy Chief expressed frustration over the authorities' neglect of responsibility for the ongoing devastation.
"We did our best to protect this environment," he said. When the port area was gazetted as a protected area, we thought it would be protected. But it did not happen."
"Today, this gazette notification is in name only. The effluents from unauthorized constructions in this protected area are discharged directly into the river. Even though some officials take action, the constructors offer bribes, continuing the process. Officials are subject to the monetary power of hotel owners across the river. As we wait, those buildings expand to the river. Without the knowledge of the Minister of Environment and without an environmental assessment report, several places in the port village were affected by landslides due to the firing of stones for a power plant project. No matter what laws are laid down, Hakkinda is being destroyed even at this moment .... ”
Wasantha Yapa Bandara, Attorney-at-Law, Chairman of the Kandy District Coordinating Committee, Attorney-at-Law, informed Parliament on October 21, 2021, about the ongoing environmental damage caused by unauthorized construction activity in the Hakkinda Protected Zone.
Water reserves are reserved under Land Ordinance No. 19 of 1935. According to the Act, a protected area should be maintained 198 feet from the bank of a major river. With urbanization, these limits may be reduced to some extent. But there is no such protected area in the Hakkinda Ecological Zone. It has been seized on all fronts by developers.
Amit Senanayake, co-convener of the Central Hill Protection Organization, revealed another hidden aspect of the issue.
“The reserve on both sides of this river has been captured and constructed by high-ranking government officials. Among them are doctors, engineers and university lecturers. Former officials of the Mahaweli Authority also have property here. The biggest regret is that people who know the value of the Hakkinda archipelago are doing this. It has been more than four years since this area was declared a protected area. During this period, a number of constructions and felling of trees in the reserve were reported. The Central Environmental Authority has not filed a case against any of them, to avoid taking legal action. The Central Environmental Authority, the Mahaweli Authority, the Kandy Municipal Council, the Harispattuwa Pradeshiya Sabha and the Yatinuwara Pradeshiya Sabha are responsible for ensuring the security of this area,” he said.
Professor Lalitha Dissanayake from the Department of Geology, University of Peradeniya, has been conducting research on rivers in Sri Lanka for nearly two decades. She described the current fate of the Godamunna River Reserve.
According to the river topography, there are three main types of erosion, transport and deposition, she explained. The Hakkinda Islands are located in a transport zone. The formation of river islands is common during the deposit period. However, the Hakkinda Islands in the Mahaweli River are in a transit period. It's a unique topography. One of the reasons the islands' fertility is so high is because it's a wetland environment.
"You can't file a case even if you come and go"
Local communities and environmental experts are pointing the finger at the Central Environmental Authority for not taking action to prevent environmental degradation in the Hakkinda Islands area.
''This is a very sensitive ecological zone,” says K.S. Walikanna, Central Province Director of The Central Environmental Authority. “This area was gazetted as an Environmental Protection Zone after considering a number of relevant research papers. The permitted activities in the area will be carried out in accordance with the gazette notification. Just gazetting a protected area does not protect that area. The residents of the area have the greatest responsibility for enforcing the legal provisions set out in the Gazette. We regularly monitor illegal construction by residents in the area.
An aristocrat had dug into the river and cemented it to make way for the islands. He was told to remove it immediately and did so accordingly. The city council had built a flight of stairs leading to the bathing jetty. It was built under the provisions of the Municipal Council. The city council has been instructed to demolish it. A hotel is being built next to the river in the safety zone. We have sent legal notices to the builder stating that legal action will be taken in this regard. The power to issue a law is vested in the Director General of the Central Environmental Authority. As the Provincial Director, I have been empowered to issue a legal statement expeditiously as it will take time. Accordingly, I have taken the necessary steps,” said K.S. Welikanna.
It is clear from the statement of the Provincial Director of the Central Environmental Authority that the implementation of the law against the culprits is very poor even after a disaster has occurred. The primary aim in such sensitive ecological zones is to prevent environmental catastrophe. It is clear that there is no adequate program for this and there is no proper cooperation between the authorities, the community and community organizations. The enforcement of Environmental Protection Ordinances is the responsibility of the public-funded institutions empowered to do so. It is the responsibility of citizens to support this and to raise awareness about it if it is not done properly. These factors must be properly balanced in order to safeguard the well-being of an ecosystem as well as a social system.
This story was produced with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. It was originally published in Silumina on 19 March 2022 and translated into English by Suneetha Govinda. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: Pollution as a result of human activities / Credit: Dhammika Heenpella via Flickr.