Contamination Of Kelani River Threatens Drinking Water

by Ashanthi Warunasuriya, originally posted on December 3, 2016


The Kelani River plays a vital role in providing drinking water to the Colombo city. However due to continuous pollution of the river there are fears it would soon not be considered as a source for obtaining water. If the water of the Kelani River is no longer obtainable, it is going to cause a serious issue for the public, especially in the Colombo city.

Speaking about the matter, the Deputy General Manager of the laboratory section at the water board H.A.K Amarakoon said that the heavy pollution in the Kelani river may disrupt water distribution in the city.

In a query made regarding this issue by The Sunday Leader, Amarakoon said the river has been heavily polluted due to human activities and that immediate steps must be taken to prevent this level of pollution before it causes further problems.

Pollution of the Kelani River is not a new issue. Since the river flows through a heavily industrialised and populated area, tons of pollutants are released to the river daily from factories and households that are situated on the river banks. Recently a well-known beverage company in the country had to pay a significant sum of compensation for releasing pollutants to the Kelani River.

According to recent research carried out by a group of university students at the Sri Jayawardenapura University, which had been conducted from the starting point of the Kelani River to its end point at Modara, Colombo, it has been discovered that the river water contains a large quantity of chemicals.

Expressing his views regarding the matter, the chairman of the People’s Movement to save the Kelani River Asitha Niroshan says that at present a large portion of the river has fallen prey to pollution.  He pointed out that the Water Board has warned against the construction of illegal buildings and homes in the river banks due to the increased level of pollution. Niroshan revealed that there is no water in the river that is suitable for bathing from Hanwella to its endpoint.

According to reports the majority of the pollutants are being added to the Kelani River from Hanwella onwards. Although there are regulations that should be followed in case of  construction work that is carried out on a river bed such as the authorised distance, at present it has become evident that these regulations are seldom adhered to. According to the law, the government must mark a reserved area from the river to an appropriate distance as a reserve but unfortunately, at some places, there are constructions that had been carried out right on top of the river.  Also, there is a line of houses and factories along the Kelani river banks.

However, people who are living in these areas complain that they too are suffering from the pollution of the river. Apart from the common problems such as lack of space, these areas have now been invaded by various health problems and sanitation problems. Although these issues have been continously raised by environmentalists and civil society activists, so far the authorities have not been able to provide a permanent solution for removing these human settlements away from the river.

Well known environmentalist Thilan Kandegama, who has been talking about this problem for a long time said that pollution could be effectively minimised by taking away the factories near the river. “At present the people are engaged in a fierce struggle for survival in their day to day lives. So noone has neither the time nor the interest to look after nature. Most of the time we tend to forget that we have to face the consequences of what we are doing today to nature.

The Kelani River used to be one of the purest water sources in the country. But due to the actions of a small number of people who had set up tea estates near the river from Maskelliya to Ginigathhena, the river has been heavily polluted with chemicals. Although there is a small patch of forest covered area in between Maskelliya to Awissawella, after that once again it starts getting polluted after reaching the human settlement.  In Industrial zones such as Biyagama, where many international companies have set up their factories, there is a direct release of chemicals into the river. People are complaining that they have faced health problems due to this contamination of water.

In a flood most of the chemically contaminated water goes into rivers in nearby areas. It is this chemically contaminated that is being sent to water refineries. “The government must take responsibility in this matter. Instead of intervening to order these factories not to release their waste matter into the river, the government has allowed the people in the city areas to consume poisoned water. Politicians are reluctant to take action against these factory owners as they are the biggest sponsors of their election campaigns” Kandegama said.

Being a Free Trade Zone, Biyagama is home to various factories. Since it is a heavily industrialised area the release of pollutants in huge quantities has become unstoppable. Therefore the problem is escalating daily without any solution in sight. “We have highlighted this issue for a long time.

There are human settlements on both banks of the Kelani River. Almost all of them are illegal constructions. Although alot has been talked about providing these people with decent housing inland, it has not yet reached the drawing boards. Many of the people living in these areas are poor. So it is up to the environmental and health ministries to take action in order to prepare effective regulations against big companies that are responsible for the larger proportion of the pollution.

The government must insist  that these private factories install proper mechanisms to dump waste material. The recycling process must also be encouraged, “ MP Prasanna Ranaweera, who is a public representative in the area says. According to him this issue has been discussed at the parliament several times.

There is no doubt that it is high time the legislators take this matter in to serious consideration. If not this issue could lead into a possible environmental calamity and also a social problem. Flowing through five districts, Kelani rival is a vital water resource in the country.

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