The plight of migrant workers in the Gulf

In 2014 an estimated 300,000 men and women left Sri Lanka to work primarily in the Gulf States. The majority of men went into the construction industry whilst the women accepted jobs as housemaids. They went because they wanted to provide for a better life for their families, and the government was happy for them to go; not least because the money they send back (remittances ) amounts to $7billion; or 9% of GDP.

What the migrants didn’t know or expect was that the contracts they were promised would never materialise and many of them would end up working in conditions which amount to modern slavery.

This recent report in the Sri Lankan Daily Mirror is a good place to start: www.dailymirror.lk/article/Fotune-favoured-Rani-from-the-jaws-of-death11936

Sri Lanka does not rank highly on the Global Slavery Index, yet pollsters estimate there are approximately 26,000 Sri Lankans trapped in a form of modern slavery in 2016;

My guess is that you might find this hard to believe, but that is because:

  1. Slavery is illegal, so it is either hidden tacitly ignored by the authorities or denied by the perpetrators. But in any case it goes unrecorded; one example Ask yourself next time you stop at the traffic lights in Colombo. Do the beggars you see keep the money you give them or are they forced to hand it over to  others in exchange for the most basic of food and shelter; in effect slaves. We could go on.. the case of sex workers would be another instance
  2. More importantly; most Sri Lankans trapped in slavery are not living in Sri Lanka but in The Gulf States
Facts and Figures: Migrant workers
  • An estimated 1.7 million Sri Lankans are employed abroad affecting 1 in 4 households.
  • A total of 300,413  left for employment in 2014 of which 63.2 were males and 37% were females
  •  80% of females were employed as domestic workers
  • The Middle East is the largest source of remittances: 60%
  • Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait and Qatar are their main destinations
Why they go

You can think of three groups of factors; geographers will already be familiar with them:

Push Factors:
  • Low incomes whether in rural or urban areas; not enough income to adequately support a young family. Even where there is relatively full employment, wages are low. A textile factory worker will not earn much more than 25000 rupees per month; not enough to sustain a comfortable way of life. The same is true of office workers. Few are paid a living wage.
  • Lack of opportunity for advancement
  • Political patronage at a local level
  • A general feeling that life must be better elsewhere
Pull Factors
  • the promise of high incomes
Facilitating factors
  • migration to the Middle East is a well trodden path; often an individual will know of people in their community who are already migrants; they hear the stories…
  • some migrants already have people living and working in the Gulf who can help them get jobs
  • local agents and their contacts who are active in local communities arranging documents
Plus, of course they have no idea of what is waiting for them when they get to their destination
Where they go and where they come from

The top destinations are Saudi Arabia, Qatar, The Emirates and Kuwait with smaller numbers heading to Oman and Jordan. Whilst Western province is the biggest exporter in terms of numbers; in terms of the % of the population it is, in fact Ampara Trincomalee and Puttalam who export the biggest % of their population; (around 3%) annually

Life for a domestic migrant worker in the Gulf States

The migrants are often recruited by unscrupulous and unregulated agents on the promise of high incomes. The agents or employers not only pay their fares, but also arrange for passports and visas, sometimes illegally.

Migrant labourers often receive a monetary advance as an incentive to work overseas. What they are not told, or don’t realise is that these incentives will bind them into debt upon arrival in their host country. Worse is to follow: recruitment agencies in the host country regularly commit fraud by changing the agreed upon job, employer, conditions, or remuneration after the worker’s arrival.

A recent report alleged that the police and other officials in Sri Lanka accept bribes, and some sub-agents reportedly work with officials to procure forged or modified documents, or genuine documents with falsified data, to facilitate travel abroad for those desperate for a better life. The problem is that these documents are not legal. The migrant enters a country with these documents and is immediately at the mercy of their employers who could report them at any moment.

The report also observed that the Sri Lankan government does not have the ability to regulate sub-agents under the SLBFE, which officials recognized as a problem contributing to trafficking.

The situation is made worse because the migrants have little knowledge of the situations they are going to end up in. For domestic workers in particular, this involves the Kefala system, which ties the domestic worker to one employer, effectively giving that employer full control over the migrant worker. (click on the link to check this out)

The reality is that the migrants end up in slavery. Their passports are often taken from them. Employers routinely pay well below what the workers were promised, and sometimes refuse to pay their workers at all. Housemaids in particular live under conditions similar to house arrest: subject to mistreatment, abuse and both physical and sometimes sexual violence.

Kuwaiti journalists attend a Human Rights Watch press conference in Kuwait City on October 6, 2010 announcing a new report that shows abuse of domestic workers in Kuwait is rising, and maids in the Gulf emirate face prosecution when they try to escape. AFP PHOTO/YASSER AL-ZAYYAT (Photo credit should read YASSER AL-ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images)

This summary from Digital Commons says it all
  • Complaints: 12,061 of which 78% females
  • Physical and sexual harassment: 96% female
  • Not sent back at the end of contract: 92% female
  • Not payment of agreed wages: 81% female
  • Breach of contract: 62% female
  • in 2009 333 deaths of housemaids working abroad were recorded
  • 2009 survey states about housemaid returnees to Sri Lanka
  • 48% were assaulted by someone from the employer’s household
  • 52% were not paid the promised salary
  • 84% were not paid for their overtime work

The situation for the women who end up in domestic work can be grim and there are plenty of examples you can find for yourself by going online: For example have a look at:

rothna-saudi_arabic_mdw_op-ed-october_2015-photo

see link; serious violence in the Gulf States

this an extract from another victim’s story

“Even if I went to bed at 3:30 a.m., I had to get up by 5:30 a.m I had continuous work until 1:00 a.m., sometimes 3:00 a.m…. Once I told the employer, “I am a human like you and I need an hour to rest.” She told me, “You have come to work; you are like my shoes, and you have to work tirelessly.”

The conditions were getting worse. I told the employer that I wanted to leave but she would not take me to the agency. [Her husband] would say, “You want to go, you want to go?” and he would pull my hair and beat me with his hands. He went to the kitchen and took a knife and told me he would kill me, cut me up into little pieces, and put the little pieces of me in the cupboard By this time they owed me four months’ salary.

There are more and more innocent women going abroad, and planning to go. It is up to the women to care of themselves. The [Sri Lankan] government gets a good profit from us; they must take care of us. They must do more to protect us.”

Kumari Indunil, age 23, a former domestic worker in Kuwait

Qatar : The Plight of construction workers

This You Tube clip speaks for itself and needs nothing extra from me

So why is this happening?

Simple answer? Nobody cares!

  • So far as the domestic employers in the Arab world are concerned there is probably little that can be done to combat the blatant racism that exists or to combat an arrogant attitude which views servants as property, and is simply a reflection of the values and attitudes of wealthy Kuwaiti, Saudi, Qatari and Emirati society. They simply don’t see what they are doing wrong. Their servants are theirs to dispose of as they wish without threat of law; they are not viewed as equal human beings in any sense. This clip sums it up.
  • Migrant workers have no legal protection or legal rights in the countries where they work., plus they are usually unaware of what their rights are
  • Some feel that the exporting governments do little to put pressure on the host governments to remedy the situation and do little to support them when they get into difficulties
So what needs to be done?

To begin with  there is a need to collect data to improve understanding of:

  • who is migrating
  • from which villages
  • what factors govern their decision to migrate
  • what factors influence the choice of where they migrate
  • what role recruitment agents playing the migration process; how do they persuade people to move? Are agents regulated, audited or even licensed?

Mapping the results allows NGOs and government organisations to focus initially on areas which are hotspots of out-migration to the Gulf and then to develop a better understanding of the migration process.

After that there are two approaches that could be considered.

  1. Reduce the flow of migrants to the Gulf
  2. Improve the conditions for those who still want to go
Reducing the Flow
  1.  The obvious answer is to give people a positive reason NOT to migrate in search of work. Poverty is the driving force. Now the government would argue that only 8% of the population fall below the poverty line, but that line is drawn very low. Unemployment per se is not the issue. However, large numbers of Sri lankans earn less than 30,000 rupees per month; this is not a living wage, so what can be done? There are options:
  • a realistic minimum living wage for paid employment enshrined in law would be a start; companies making big profits on the back of cheap labour may not like that idea..
  • improved subsidies to farmers to raise their incomes; this could be paid for out of taxation if taxes were collected more efficiently.
  • looking at ways of decentralising economic activities from the large cities like Colombo, improving infrastructure and road connections in order to spread economic growth. The governments Megalopolis plan could be a large step towards achieving this

2.  Help local people to develop small scale businesses using cheap forms of credit and support from local NGO’s like Sevanatha and The Institute of Women in Management  and the women’s co-operative bank

check out the links and you will see that what they do is:

  • Equip leaders to negotiate with local authorities on behalf of their communities to improve their socio-economic conditions
  • Develop local credit /savings bank operations run by and for the local community (often by local women) which can fund small businesses locally
  • Support and encourage women to take a bigger role as community leaders or as small scale entrepreneurs.

What the above can do is help to create cohesive communities and develop viable economic alternatives to migration for local people.

3.  Educate people to the stark realities of life on a construction site in Qatar or imprisoned in a home in Saudi Arabia : a negative reason not to go.

  • set up groups led by victims to visit communities to tell their stories
  • disseminate material to vulnerable communities on the realities of working conditions in the Gulf: it could be illustrated books, video material, victim narratives
  • mobilise  the press to tell these stories and place the spotlight.

AT the same time pressure must come from politicians, NGO’s the media and local people to force the authorities to ensure all agents are properly registered and licensed via the SLBFE for example. The issue of licences must be on the basis of conditions, which are stringent, open, and subject to scrutiny and enshrined in law. All agents should be required to lodge a bond with the authorities to be used to meet the costs of repatriation, and loss of earnings where migrants fall foul of local practices in the Gulf and need to return home.

Unlicensed agents must be prosecuted, along with corrupt government officials and police, as must those who knowingly mislead clients and do not exercise a duty of care. At present very few licensed agents are audited and few are ever prosecuted.

b.  Addressing the situation in the Gulf States

 The surest way to force a change in attitudes amongst employers in the Gulf is to dramatically cut down the flow of migrant labour. In that respect the SLBFE should be taking pro-active steps to warn migrants of the potential situations they could find themselves in.

In the meantime: there are issues to overcome:

  • governments from source countries like that of Sri Lanka (India, Nepal, Pakistan also) need to become more pro-active in lobbying host governments to ensure their citizens are protected.
  • the appalling nature of working conditions in the construction industry requires immediate attention. British companies engaged in building stadia in Qatar who appear to be indifferent at best to the plight of workers on the construction sites should be prosecuted under  the Modern Slavery Act where they are failing to heed the warnings of the British Government over working conditions.

Steps that should be taken:

  1. The dismantling of the Kefala system immediately.
  2. Migrants must be allowed to retain their passports at all times.
  3. Migrant workers must be afforded through their visa status full rights as they would apply to resident nationals, enshrined in law.
  4. Workers need to be better educated in terms of their rights as migrant workers. Lack of awareness on legal procedures, lax law enforcement  and the inability to communicate in the host country’s local languages all leave migrants vulnerable to exploitation.
  5. Employers whether companies or private households should be prosecuted where clear human rights abuses have occurred and must be made to honour the contracts they signed again under penalty of law.
  6. In the case of Qatar all countries engaged in qualifying for the next World Cup should threaten to boycott the event unless conditions change.

Within the Gulf States the embassies of the “exporting” countries should at least have staff fully trained to support abused victims. There should be a list of all addresses where migrants are living; regular checks made on them visits to ensure health and well being, wages are being paid, and they are not subject to mistreatment or abuse.

Key legal reforms are needed to ensure the most vulnerable workers, particularly domestic workers, who must be covered by basic labour law protection.

Steps must be taken to make certain victims are not further traumatized by arrest and detention if they run away to escape violence or exploitation.

Despite their contributions to their host countries, women migrants are not generally assured of basic protection. A simple 40-day mandatory training programme by the SLBFE does not simply address the concerns of those who seek foreign employment. Employers and recruiters alike must be held responsible for their role in exploiting the helpless workers.

What this needs, however, is co-operation between the sending countries and the host countries. However, if the host governments are unwilling to comply then governments like that of Sri Lanka should take steps to stop the flow of migrants to those countries, which they can do at the exit airports. Although painful in the short run tapping the economic potential of the poor at home, turning them into productive individuals through community and self help schemes could be a way forward and would spare many the fate that awaits them at the hands of  employers in the Middle East.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z7pkhFnwXkImeasures should be taken to challenge perceptions about migrant workers, in order to recognize their values and contribution to the development of the country.

See more at: http://www.dailymirror.lk/115002/Vague-promises-of-greener-pastures-for-migrant-workers#sthash.iHusvVN2.dpuf

 

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Short term lets on the rise in Sri lanka: is this good for the tourism industry?

The informal tourism sector is growing in Sri Lanka and Hiran Cooray Chairman of the Tourist hotels of Sri Lanka for one thinks it’s a good thing.  ( see  report in the Daily Mirror )

So do I.

By his reckoning 2/5th of tourists coming to Sri Lanka now stay in rented apartments, villas and homestay accommodation many of which are rented out via organisations such as Homestay.com Trip Advisor, AirB&B and the like.

Benefits

So why is this a good thing? Let’s start with the positive side.

  • Money paid by tourists goes directly to local people;

“Tourists staying within the local communities pass the revenue directly to the bottom of the income pyramid, fast-tracking grass root level economic development.” Hiran Cooray

  • Visiting tourists get to mix with local people rather than stay cooped up in hotels full of foreigners and they get to experience and enjoy true Sri Lankan hospitality; plus they get to hang out away from traditional tourist areas.
  • Because tourist are using existing facilities there is no additional strain on local authority services
  • The emergence of the informal rental market actually expands what Sri Lanka has to offer to tourists.

Not everyone (Chinese apart maybe) wants to stay in an hotel. A significant number of tourists like to do their own thing, explore local areas eat when they want in and around local Sri Lankans, and so on. They don’t want to be “trapped” in a cramped and possibly quite expensive hotel room. They like the space and informality that the informal sector can offer and when you can stay in an apartment in Havelock City for example.. at a much lower cost.. well why wouldn’t you?

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Havelock City; example of apartment

doing away with the negatives :

  • Unlike the major developments which are springing up around the coast from Kalpitiya to Mirissa and down the east coast; there is no negative environmental impact.
  • There are no major costs to be borne by local communities, economic, environmental or social
  • Homestay and the rental market place no extra strain on stretched local authority services such as electricity, water supply and refuse disposal (although the latter doesn’t seem to be working that well)
Costs
  • owners of rented accommodation don’t pay tourist taxes
  • they are not registered; no-one knows how many there are
  • there is no real quality control beyond what TripAdvisor and AIR B&B can exert
Is it a threat?

So does  the hotel sector needs to worry? No of course not. Sri Lanka can offer world class tourist accommodation for those who want it; plus Colombo is set become a signicant business hub in South Asia so the growth of business tourism which depends on quality hotels is almost assured.

It’s just that not every one can afford the prices that some city centre hotels charge in Colombo for example.

(I could add from my experience that for the money sometimes the service could be a whole lot better, some hotel staff could be a little less “up themselves” but that is for another blog.)

Where it is possible to agree with the Hotels Association is that it is not a level playing field because the informal sector are mainly unregistered and do not have to pay the tourist tax and development levy paid by the hotel chains.

True but the owners do pay local and regional taxes; adding the other costs could simply cause them to raise their rentals to a level where they would not get business so thinking about applying these extra costs or banning the advertising of short term rental and homestay on the web (as has happened in New York for example) is not a step to be taken lightly.

That said there is a case for regulation to be introduced in homestay and private rentals to ensure quality and value for money.

Research needed

In the meantime there is very little data available on the growth of the informal sector at present and maybe it would be worth conducting research so that all concerned know what it is they are discussing.

So time to start asking questions;

  • Where do informal sector tourists stay ? In Colombo? Western Province? Or coastal areas? Maybe it would be worth finding out.

To judge by the Air B&B site much of it is in and around Colombo. If that is so then is it a bad thing? Getting more people to visit Colombo and stay for longer, not necessarily in the city centre can only be good for the economy.

  • Who are these type of  tourists; where do they come from?
  • How long do they stay?
  • What do they do, where do they go what do they visit?
  • Why do they choose rental/homestay?
  • What about the owners/renters: who are they? What accommodation is being used and why?
  • How much money is it making for the owners?

As I wrote in an earlier blog; A Paradise Lost ; see https://geosrilanka.wordpress.com/2015/06/16/sri-lanka-tourism-is-it-just-a-case-of-re-branding/, my belief is that Sri Lankan tourism needs a balanced portfolio of investment; homestay and apartment rentals are.   a part of that, (as is mass tourism) because it has the value of bringing tourists much closer to an understanding of Sri Lankan life and culture.

After all, there is nothing better than hanging out around Water’s Edge on a Saturday night along with the thousands of families who come to chill, enjoy the street food , and relax over an affordable beer maybe.. and you don’t get to do that at The Cinnamon Grand

Boardwalk

 

Colombo floods; getting relief to the victims

As flood waters start to recede  they have been replaced by a different flood; the flood of blame and recrimination.  A number of journalists have been quick to lay blame in several areas, including the meteorological office, the disaster management centre and the government. However, whilst journalists and politicians wasted time looking for scapegoats others got on with a much more important job; getting help and aid to the flood victims

The government would have it that the flood  was the result of all those poor people who built on marshland.  As a result they have said that they will be removing upwards of 2500 families from unauthorised sites; (see Sunday Times 12th June) This is either ignorance or political sophistry.

“The squatter families will not be offered compensation or alternative locations, Sri Lanka Land Reclamation and Development Corporation (SLRDC) Chairmnan W.M.A.S. Iddawala told the Sunday Times. He said that in a survey carried out after last month’s devastating floods, the corporation had identified the squatter families which should be evicted.” Sunday Times

While some properties may have inhibited the flow of flood water in and around the canals they did not cause the flood.

Building on marshland does not cause a flood. It might put people in harm’s way, but it doesn’t cause a flood to happen.The sheer volume of water falling on an unprotected catchment is what caused the flood.

So why the evictions? We can only guess

  • it is always convenient to have a scapegoat to divert attention away from the failings of the government and its officials
  • they will not have to pay compensation to these families
  • it is part of a broader government strategy of relocating families in unauthorised settlements into the government built apartment complexes currently springing up around the city
A vulnerable population

A good place to start is to define what vulnerable means in this context. Two aspects need to be borne in mind;

  • the immediate physical vulnerability to the danger of flood
  • the longer term vulnerability to the economic impacts of the flood

Why were so many people exposed to this devastating flood and its longer term impacts? A  number of factors contributed to render the population vulnerable;

  • The areas around Colombo are low-lying and flood prone
  • there are no effective flood defences in place to control the Kelani Ganga
  • Suburban population densities are high quite close to the main river and its tributaries

Figure-2-Population-density-in-Colombo-district

Population densities in the Colombo area source: researchgate

  • Housing density is high and many of the side lanes are narrow which would later hamper rescue and relief efforts
  • Most households are in the  lower middle to low income bracket and not able to withstand the financial impact of losses due to the flood
  • How many had adequate insurance cover? None; as one person told me; “it isn’t in the Sri Lankan culture to purchase home insurance”
Flood Impact

In all more than 150,000 people were temporarily displaced by the flood. Although relatively few homes were completely lost many have suffered water damage, small shops kades and bakehouses have lost their stocks of goods to sell, livelihoods have been wrecked, many have lost all their possessions in the flood and will find it hard t replace them.

This is Imi’s story. She lives with her mother and infirm grandparents in Welivita, part of Kaduwela to the north-east of the city. This is what the flood meant to families such as hers.

Disaster Relief

The Disaster Management Centre should have been the body to co-ordinate flood relief efforts. However, at the height of the flood it was under 2 metres of water; not ideal. They did warn of the impending flood and they did issue evacuation alerts and to be fair other measures were put in place once the flood struck:

  • 1500 military personnel were organised into 81 teams and deployed to the flood areas, as were the police
  • boats were provided to rescue trapped households from roofs and upper stories
  • safe areas were identified and evacuation centres set up
  • rescued families were transported to the evacuation sites where there were emergency rations, blankets etc

However, good as this was there doesn’t seem to have been much coordination of the relief effort.  The President did instruct the local officials the Grama Niladahri to visit all affected areas and people in their districts to get an idea of what the problems were, and who was in most need of help but according to this Sunday Times report the response was at best patchy.

and there were problems:

  • some evacuation centres were overrun and became heavily congested
  • the emergency relief packages were pitifully small and not everyone got them
  • there was a mismatch in terms of what was needed and what was given; victims urgently needed clothing, sanitary wear and medicines; they didn’t receive much of any of these
  • there were not enough boats available to rescue people
  • some houses, especially the less accessible, were never visited by the rescuers
  • calls for help made to the disaster centres went unanswered in some cases. For many help never came.

Questions have also been raised about where all the foreign aid went because it certainly didn’t reach many of the victims if newspaper reports are to be believed. This from the Sunday Times 12th June:

“Three weeks after floods ravaged many of the areas adjoining the Kelani river communities are waiting for the government machinery to move in to provide aid, rebuild houses and provide other relief. Flood victims stranded in Kelaniya, Kelanimulla and Angoda areas, this week, claimed there was no responsible officer at grassroots level to monitor the process of distributing dry rations to the destitute.”

Local Volunteers

In the vacuum left by what some see as government ineptitude local volunteer groups sprung up in different districts across the city. One such group was the Welivita volunteers. Initially they came together to help their friend Imi (see above) However, they could see the need for a wider effort and within in a short time they:

  • organised themselves into a coherent group with a steering commitee
  • created a facebook page for the group
  • visited the area to get an idea of the extent of the problem
  • went to the local Grama Niladhari (government official) to identify the families most in need
  • launched an online campaign on facebook for donations
  • put out regular bulletins on the progress of donations
  • itemised a list of essential items for relief packs and school packs; all costed out; each cost around 5000 rupees and was paid for by donations. (the value of government aid packs was 1500 rupees and wasnt necessarily what people wanted or needed)
  • collected the packs and then distributed to needy families
  • when that was done they embarked on a clean up of Imi’s house and the areas nearby

They did this in the space of two weeks: and you can check out their page Welivita Volunteers where you will get full details on what they did, how they did it and also a good selection of photos which graphically illustrate their work;

So the point about their work was that it was:

  • carefully structured and organised throughout
  • bureaucracy was kept at a minimum
  • targeted at those in most need
  • delivered quickly and without fuss into the hands of the needy
  • not expensive
Comment

After the 2004 Tsunami the people were told that in future the government would be ready; those scenes of chaos in 2004 could not happen again..that does not seem to be the case. Looking through recent newspaper articles it would seem that the government effort raises more questions than answers;

  1. Where did all the emergency aid go? Many complain that they have not seen any of it.
  2. Journalists slate the government for complacency and inactivity
  3. Why was the Disaster Management Centre located in a flood prone area? It is worth noting that millions of rupees worth of telecommunications equipment stored at the DMC has also been ruined in the flood
  4. Where was the co-ordination necessary to mount a coherent disaster management plan.. indeed where was the plan?

After events like this one governments all over the world (certainly in the UK) drone on about lessons to be learned.. evidence is that those lessons are rarely learned. However, there are some take away points:

  1. Maybe it is time to look at flood prevention especially in the upper Kelani basin. It will be expensive in the short run but will save in the longer term. Have a look at flood prevention schemes on the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers, in Los Angeles, USA for an example. flood retention dams in the upper course, flood spreading zomes in the lower course, channel improvements, engineering of the channel of the kelaqni, raising the river banks.. these could all be looked at.
  2. By all means give people alternatives to living in marshy areas and on the banks of the Kelani, but these should be viable alternatives and in consultation with those living in those areas.
  3. A proper disaster management contingency plan for flooding needs to be in place. Military personnel need to be trained. Boats need to be available.
  4. There needs to be someone of ministerial rank in charge of flood relief; clearly the DMC is not up to the job.
  5. There needs to be some recognition that  roles need to be specialised.

There are two stages to a flood event like this:

Initially the need is for search and rescue; the military are best placed to do this; I suspect that if they had been in charge the rescue operation would have been properly coordinated and way more efficient. They have the helicopters to overfly flooded areas and provide first hand intelligence to direct the rescue effort plus they have a command network that would be effective in these situations

  • Once rescue is underway the focus is on relief and the government could learn a great deal from the work of the local volunteers; how they organised themselves, targeted relief on those in greatest need, paid heed to what the victims needed and so on.
  • They might also consider how they might utilise the power of social media to better direct their efforts.
  • They could think of building on the huge amount of good will shown by local people to the victims by setting up local part time or volunteer flood relief groups who could be trained as a first line of the relief effort and mobilised at times of flood.

One thing is for sure; the river will flood again whether people are living on marshland or not. The question as ever, is will the government be ready?

A profile of underserved settlements in Colombo

When it comes to developing world cities, Colombo is one example of a city that does not fit the usual text book models; no massive sprawling slums on the periphery of the city, no rampant in migration to the city and very few houses which could be classed as extremely poor.

 So terms like “squatter settlement” and “shanty” don’t really apply to Colombo.

A better term for low income settlements might be Underserved Settlements or USS; and underserved is a term that applies to the houses of the urban poor wherever you go.

Text book examples are helpful up to a point, but what students get are generalisations. What students need is hard facts from real examples, whilst understanding that what they see is the result of a set of circumstances which is some ways is unique to a particular country.

This is the first of two short articles looking at the situation of the urban poor in Colombo Sri Lanka. It focusses on the nature of the underserved settlements. Most of the information is taken from a report by the NGO Sevanatha ( featured in an earlier article )

Brief History  

According to the first census of population in 1871 the city Colombo had a population of just under 99,000. By 1911 this had risen to just under 200,000 and it rose steadily throughout the 20th century  at rates between 1.5% and 3 %.  It now stands at 642000. ( The Colombo district is of course much larger with the 2012 census putting the population at just short of 2,310,000.)

There was never a period of explosive growth or in migration.

According to the literature underserved settlements ( USS) in Colombo date back to the time of colonial rule when the British brought in workers from surrounding rural areas, and from India, to work in offices, factories and the port itself.

They were housed in Northern Colombo mainly in rented accommodation. These areas in what we will later call district 1 became a focus for new migrants entering the city. Over time the supply of housing began to lag behind the demand and so as the low income population continued to grow people began to encroach on marginal areas such as canal banks, along railway lines, in marshy areas and abandoned paddy fields.

Land was also set aside for new settlements in the East and South of the city.  For various reasons these settlements were never provided with basic urban services so jsut as with the USS in District 1 they remained lacking in basic service provision and that is the way things have remained.

Over the years there have been a number of improvement schemes. Even so, it is thought that around 50% of the population of Colombo city can still be classed as low income living in underserved settlements.

Sevanatha ; the survey

The NGO Sevanatha undertook a detailed survey in 2012 of all the USS in Colombo. In order to do that, the city was divided into a number of districts; see map below.

district map

Map 1: Enumeration Districts

Researchers from Sevanatha then visited all the USS in the various districts located them on a map and used a scoring system based on a range of poverty/deprivation indicators to classify settlements into one of 4 groups; see table below:

Score % Assessment Category Priority level
> 41 Extreme poor settlement needs immediate attention 1
41-60 underserved; needs improvement 2
61-80 upgraded; but can still be improved 3
< 81 fully upgraded 4
  • priority in this case means priority for improvement

and these are the types levels of service provision we are talking about

Priority 1: unauthorized settlement; houses are temporary, self built, lack of all basic services; water, electricity, individual toilets, proper access roads. In this case the railway line is the only access point. Typically there would be around 100 houses and 134 families living here.

d06-sri3-480

photo 1; railway settlement

Priority 2: this is an underserved settlement. Most of the community have freehold status. Around 75% of the houses are permanent; built with brick/cement block with tiled roofs. Most will have electricity but water supply, individual toilets/bathrooms will be lacking. There will br no connection to the main sewage system.. no proper access or internal road. Typically ther might be 50 families living here.

j09-sri1-480

photo 2

Priority 3; This is an upgraded settlement and it is much bigger; maybe 1500 houses and 3000 families and a population of around 6000. The land is owned by a government agency (National Housing Development Agency). The residents all have permits to live here. nearly all houses are of permanent construction; 80% will have electricity, and water meters and some of the inner roads will be paved. Many will have their own bathrooms.

type 3

photo 3

Priority 4: these are fully upgraded and are probably similar to lower middle class housing elsewhere in the city in terms of electricity supply, water connection, connection to the mains drainage, good standard access and inner access roads. These are often the oldest and most established USS in the city. This one has been in existence for over 30 years.

type 4 improved

photo 4

Low income housing  in Colombo

There are currently 1735 USS in Colombo, the majority of which are small; the following are the main points to note

  • 22% – under 10 houses
  • 32% – 10 – 20 houses
  • 30% – 21 – 60 houses
  • so 84% of USS have 60 houses or less;
  • only 5% of USS have more than 100 houses

When you look at the distribution of the settlements on map 2 below you can see that they are scattered throughout the city; however,

USS map

  1. there is a clustering of settlements in the north of the city  District 1, 2a and towards the Eastern boundary Districts 3 and 4
  2. Districts 1 and 2a hold 72 of the population and 74% of the USS
  3. there is a secondary cluster towards the South East District 4
  4. The western central area is relatively free of  USS District 2b and District 5
The data
  1. Settlement categories by district

Settlement Categories as a % of the total

Area Location total .houses Ex poor underserved upgraded full upgrade % total
1 North 382 0.8 10.7 51.0 37.4 22
2a Central 522 0.2 2.3 43.1 54.4 30
2b Central 376 0.3 5.6 75.0 19.1 22
3 Borella 264 0.4 6.1 56.4 37.1 15
4 East 131 0 3.8 56.5 39.7 8
5 West 60 0 13.3 31.7 55.0 3
total 0.3 5.9 54.4 39.3 100
  • So most settlements have been upgraded to some degree. Only 0.3% are the lowest level; priority 1.
  • The only district with significant numbers of priority 2 settlements  is district 1; the north of the city
  • Fully upgraded USS are similar to lower middle income households. if those are excluded the number of USS reduces down to 1053
  1. Land ownership in the USS   breaks down as follows
  • owned by occupants:             40%
  • owned by govt:                      32%
  • owned by CMDC                    16%
  • privately owned                      7%
  • unclear                                    5%
  • 22% possess user permit
  • 43% own the freehold
  • overall it is estimated that 57% of occupants do not enjoy security of tenure
  1. Housing conditions

more than 84% are classified as permanent

  1. Water/Toilets/Sewage
  • overall 41% of settlements have to make do with common toilets
  • 8% have no toilet facilities
  • 33% of USS have n0 metered water connection
  • 33% either use common facilities or rely on outside sources
  • 5% of communities are in need of safe drinking water and levels of service are rated as a serious problem in 8% of USS
  • 28%  of settlements of USS have serious problems in respect of safe disposal of sewage; only 50% are connected to the city’s sewage network
  1. Electricity supply

 most USS (98%) have electricity connection so not really an issue, BUT lack of street lighting is an issue for 34% of USS communities

  1. Garbage collection

15% of USS report irregular or no collection

author’s note: not sure how reliable this figure is; It is quite common to see mounds of garbage in the USS and there have been problems with garbage collection city wide over the last few years.

  1. Road conditions in settlements
  • 40 % have well maintained tarred roads/pavements with good width access
  • 41% have poorly maintained tarred roads
  • 19% do not have tarred roads
  • adequate drainage is non existent on 83% of internal roads leading to local flash flooding and waterlogging of internal roads

8.  Income levels

  • in only 22% of USS do the majority of households earn more than 20000 lkr (lkr is the sri lankan rupee; 200 to £)
  • in 50% of USS  2/3rds of households earn less than 20,000 lkr
  • overall monthly income in 63% of USS communities is rated as inadequate
  • in the majority of USS less than 10% are in receipt of samurdhi payments; (a kind of state welfare benefit forthe low income/unemployed)
  • in 15% of USS more than 50% of households are single parent households

Other points

  •  community based organisations do not exist in 83% of USS
  • 86% of USS don’t not have community centres
  • community savings programmes are only available in 8% of settlements;
  • there are only 23 setllements where more than 75% of households are engaged in community savings
  • 31% of USS are classified as being in high risk/vunerabilty situations.. particularly flash flooding
  • more than 60% of USS are in the municip[al rate paying category

what this means is that residents are not organised or empowered to negotiate with local or national government agencies to improve service provision and living conditions.

What do USS residents identify as issues and problems

  • need for connection to city sewage network
  • need for private toilets
  • lack of play spaces for children
  • 20% feel social environment could be better
  • 49% feel level of services is inadequate
  • common view is that there is no consultation with residents where major redevelopment schemes are concerned
  • low status and lack of legal identity of the USS makes it hard to enrol children in schools, getting service connections e.g. power and obtaining state benefits
  • where rehousing is concerned, 28% favour on site low rise development, and most wanted any future housing developmentt to take place within their USS

The view of Sevenatha is that these communities need to become  organised and therefore empowered, and to that end this NGO works with local communities to equip them to improve their local environments; see Sevanatha the work of an NGO

Conclusions

If you want to understand the nature of low income settlements in the developing world you need to understand that the conditions in which they grew up in each major city is to some degree unique. That makes generalisations about  low income settlements of limited value.

Most of the urban poor in Colombo have solved the basic need: shelter. Not only that, in many cases they have gone much further in terms of improving their individual homes although this has taken them a fair amount of time to acquire the funds to do it. This is a pattern you see across the developing world.

What has been lacking in Colombo is any real drive by the authorities to support the efforts of the USS residents by adding in mains water supply, connections to the sewage network, and improving access and internal roads.

Once again the residents have realised that they have to do this themselves which is why the efforts of  Sevanatha and the women’s cooperative bank  (see earlier article) have gained traction

next up:

The government response has been different.

I was around in the 1960’s in the UK when comprehensive redevelopment and slum clearance brought in the hi rise urban council estates.. and we maybe can reflect on how (un)successful that was..think of Hulme in Manchester, (thankfully now bulldozed away) for example.

Sadly the authorities in Colombo seem bent on making the same errors..so the next article is all about the current rehousing scheme or enforced resettlement depending on your point of view.. what, where, how and the likely impacts.

 

 

Sampoor Power Station; dead in the water? environmental impact case study

The Ministry of Power and Renewable Energy has decided not to go ahead with the construction of the Sampur Coal Power plant, see Daily Mirror report 14/09 in what many will see as a victory for environmentalists. 

In November 2015 The Sunday Times also reported that the new power plant earmarked for Sampur near Trincomalee was a non starter. The main reasons given were that:

  • the plant has failed to meet the Environmental Impact Assessment criteria laid down
  • Sampur has been earmarked for 800 returning IDP Tamil families (internally displaced persons) who do not wish to see a large power station built on land so close to them.

On the face of it you can see why.

The Sampur plant

The proposal is to build a 500 megawatt coal fired power station on the east coast at Sampur across the bay from Trincomalee.

Trincomalee.8

Trincomalee: Location

SM71812

source: Ministry of Power

The power station is proposed to be built on 500 acres of land currently sectioned off as a high security zone by the Sri Lankan Navy but was formerly land belonging to the local Tamil population driven from their lands during the final months of the war which ended in 2009.

It will be a joint venture with the National Thermal Power Company of India using low grade coal imported from India.

The Case against 
  1. Damage to the marine environment of Shell Bay: Shell Bay is home to 56 hard coral species, 160 of coral associated fish species and many other invertebrates including the rare giant clam. The Mahaweli Ganga ( river) also exits to the sea nearby bringing a high nutrient concentration and all these factors contribute to make Trincomalee Bay a unique ecosystem with high biodiversity ranging from tiny organisms to large whales.

1357318175_0!!-!!Hikkaduwa coral reef

Negative impacts will likely include the following:

  • when operational the discharge of cooling water from the power station will raise the water temperature of Shell Bay by 4 degrees celsius; sufficient to result in bleaching of the coral which will then die
  • contamination of the water from sulphur. and mercury as a result of the burning of coal
  • chlorine  will be used to clean the water and if discharged without treating, it can first impact on tiny organisms like planktons and can have a major impact on the food chain

2. Air Pollution

If the plant uses imported Indian coal (coal with a high ash content) then engineers suggest that significant amounts of air pollution will occur locally resulting in:

  • acid rain (from nitrogen oxide and sulphur oxide  carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere)
  • significant amounts of ash/dust particles and unburnt hydro carbons which can cause lung damage
  • ash and sludge which will have to be buried in large landfill sites

3.  Social Issues

The new government have already begun the proceed of resettling tamil families back into the Sampur area and, as the Sunday Times recently pointed out:

“the unfavourable impact of a coal power plant has been a major worry for the people who are waiting to come back to their land in Sampur. They fear their precious agricultural lands are contaminated and the air they breathe would be polluted.” ...

… not without reason you might think.

It is also suggested in some areas that the land set aside for the plant in fact belongs to displaced families and so should not be used for industrial development.

4.  Political Issues

  • The Tamil National Alliance are firmly against the project and see this ( the high security zone) as an a attempt to keep out the Tamil population. They allege:

” a hidden agenda to the project to permanently evict Tamils from the Muttur east region.”

  • The restoration of lands taken from the Tamils features high on the agenda of many external governments,
  • At the same time  Sri Lanka is under pressure from foreign governments to show it is making progress in this aspect of post war reconciliation and in the field of human rights

So for these reasons it was politically expedient to reconsider siting the plant at Sampur.

5.  Power exports

Some of the power would have been sent via a new grid to Southern India; Sri Lanka would not get the full benefit of the new generating capacity although it would suffer all of the disadvantages outlined above.

So you might think the case against is overwhelming. But it is not that simple

The Case For
  1.  Sri Lanka needs power

The Sri Lankan economy is growing at around 7% annually; fairly impressive when compared to the  low growth economies of the developed world. However, continued growth in the manufacturing and business sector is going to drive up energy demand, particularly electricity demand. Some are even predicting that Sri Lanka will be in energy deficit by 2017.

current projections (see page 282) suggest that electricity demand is likely to increase by around 5% per annum but meeting this target may prove difficult and expensive given that the Island is not self sufficient in terms of energy production.

The country has no domestic production of coal, crude oil, or natural gas, and as a result all the fossil fuel demand is met through imports.

At the moment that means oil which now accounts for just over 50% of power generation.

BUT relying on oil-fired power comes at a heavy price pushing up the cost of electricity to the consumer.

(How lucky then that the recent fall in oil prices allowed the government to reduce electricity prices and the cost of petrol.. trouble is it won’t last. Prices will go up again!)

Sri Lanka needs to move from a dependence on imported oil is an urgent issue for Sri Lanka’s power sector to address, but options are limited:

  • hydro electric power is already at close to full capacity
  • nuclear power as an option is not under serious consideration yet and in any case would be way too expensive and take too long to get up and running
  • solar/wind/geothermal/wave power; are all in their infancy

Which means the only viable option for developing large “base line” energy supplies in the short term, is to build new coal fired power stations.

So far one major plant has been built on the west coast at Norochchalai which will generate around 17% of Sri Lanka’s energy.

 

Noracholai_3

The Norochchalai  Power Plant

However it won’t be enough; That is why the Government entered into an agreement with  to build a large 500 mega watt power plant at Sampur near Trincomalee.

2. Cost:

It is argued that the current site incurs the lowest development cost; environmental protection and pollution mitigation measures plus consideration of alternative site would add to the cost already standing at $512 million

3.  Politics

The the Sri Lankan government agreed to partner an Indian company in the development of this power project. It has already “disappointed” the Indian authorities by not co-building the Norochchalai complex with them but going with the Chinese design and build. Reneging on this agreement could further damage relations between the two countries

Something has to happen

The question is: what happens now? Sri Lanka cannot build sustainable economic growth on the back of rising oil imports, nor can it squeeze more energy from existing renewables like HEP.

Nuclear power is not an option either.

That leaves wind and solar as alternatives, unless of course the government simply decide to build a coal fired plant somewhere else (maybe less environmentally sensitive?)

The energy clock is ticking and if the plant is not going to be built in Sampur, energy will have to come from another source; and with major growth projects such as the Megapolis plan for Western Province already under way the decision on how to generate more energy needs to come soon.

 

 

Colombo; progress but who is it for?

Colombo is modernising fast, and many would argue ; not before time.  In 2010 although the Sri Lankan economy started to grow rapidly in economic terms at least Colombo was not pulling its weight.

A lack of inward investment was the main cause and the reasons for that were fairly obvious. The image of Colombo was a negative one. Colombo was a city:

  •  prone to flooding,
  • suffering increasing levels of traffic congestion and chronic air pollution;
  • with garbage choked waterways
  • with high levels of deprivation and relative poverty often focussed on the pockets of underserved settlements you can still find all over the Colombo
  •  that looked “down at heel” and in need of a major makeover
  •  that seemingly went to bed by 8pm
  • with a very limited home domestic market and a small tourist base

and of course this was a country still emerging from a brutal period internal conflict.

Contrast this with the glitz of the major Asian cities; KL, Singapore and Hong Kong and it isn’t hard to see why  foreign companies were not too keen to come to Colombo given a commercial environment typified by an out of date and unattractive  commercial environment a shortage of land, and lack of modern business facilities in the city.

Garden city

Not surprising then that the last government saw the need to “rebrand” Colombo as it embarked on a major regeneration exercise, post 2010.

This is what Gotabaya Rajapakse had to say in  2013:

The focus is on developing clean, green, people friendly cities and towns that will foster an efficient working environment and a relaxed living environment….conducive for knowledge workers and other professionals to live and work in Sri Lanka. (who) expect to maintain a high quality of life for themselves and their families…. it is also extremely important from the perspective of attracting Foreign Direct Investment.”

Out of this was borne the concept of The Garden City of South Asia with its emphasis on greening the city, opening up urban spaces and creating high quality recreation spaces such as at Waters Edge.

z_p-18-Restaurants-01-1

7-copy

pics taken from Sunday Observer

A lot of good came from this.

  1. Flooding ( a regular problem) has been brought under control and the cities drains and spillways have been improved.
  2. Canal sides have been cleared of the sprawling and messy underserved settlements and the rubbish that piled up within them. Beira Lake has also been cleaned up.
  3. Garbage collection improved and the environment generally got a lot better. Colombo in 2014 was a lot cleaner city than London that’s for sure.
  4. The city has at last got properly paved sidewalks; there is even a degree of traffic taming in some parts of the city.
  5. Ugly walls have been knocked down and the city space is opening up.
  6. Major landscaping along the Diyawanna river,  at Waters Edge and in other locations around the city make for high grade recreation space that everyone can use.
  7. City nightlife is on the up; The Dutch Hospital complex and the multiplex cinemas, bars and up market eating places are evidence of growing investment in leisure within the Sri Lankan community.
  8. Many beautiful old historic buildings have been restored to their original glory; none better than the town hall and the old auditor general’s building.
  9. Independence Square is an attractive urban area used by many and Viharamadhevi Park has been turned into a beautiful open space.

IMG_4222-600x400-1

credit: YAMU

So there are many positives and the plans go far beyond the simple environmental uplift the city has enjoyed.

Projects

Ambitious projects like Port City, The Lotus Tower, Krrish Square, the Galle Front Shangri La development  are planned to shoot Colombo into the 21st Century.

note; you can find videos of all of these on U tube via google

The image of Colombo as a vibrant modern city is one that has been promoted; and why not after so many years of hardship?

Clearly government policies are driving this development  but there are other forces at play.

  • you could argue that there is  an emerging middle class with more money to spend and the ambition to live in a more modern city
  • at the same time we live in a global world; TV and the cinema, facebook contacts with friends and relatives living abroad, and holidays abroad; all of that serves to make people aware of what the cities of Singapore, KL and Hong Kong have to offer.. and they want to have a slice of that.. all of which is quite understandable.

However, the major force at work is commercial pressure.

As I wrote at the top of the article  the government believed in 2013 that Colombo needed to attract a great deal more inward investment.

The idea goes.. attract in investment (mainly from abroad) which will drive up tourism, and possibly increase the presence of multi national companies, retail chains and the like locating to Colombo..the development will open up business opportunities, and create jobs which will trickle down to the rest of the city  in terms of jobs and per capita income; everyone benefits.

But do they really or is it a few well placed individuals and foreign corporations who will take most of the rewards from whatever growth occurs?

True, everyone in Colombo benefits from better roads/pavements, more green spaces and a cleaner environment but how relevant are the proposed commercial developments in downtown Colombo to the average joe?

The fact is that around 50% of the Colombo population is on low incomes; the average urban income ( which takes into account all the high earners in the city) is only just over Rs 60,000 whilst outgoings are around Rs 50,000 and that is with at least 2 and maybe more in the family working. (In fact the median income; the most common income, is just Rs 30,400 per month)

So  once rent/ food etc are taken into account what else is left and how many visits to enjoy the high life in Colombo can you make? ( see 2012/13 Household Income and Expenditure Survey)

Port City is justifiably a source of some national pride even among the lower income groups BUT how relevant to them is Port City and all the other developments in downtown Colombo?

Port City (if it ever gets finished) is not really for Sri Lankans is it? The only low income people in Port City will be the tuk and taxi drivers or the housemaids. the same goes for all the hotel developments; This is also true of the new shops and restaurants in the old Auditor General’s building close by Independence Square. They are lovely buildings but how many local people can afford to visit the shops and restaurants there? They are for tourists both business and recreational; something for them to spend their money on.

So is it a case of two Colombo’s are being created: one for the rich, mainly wealthy foreigners and one for the rest?

Not that Colombo is alone in this regard. It is pretty much the same in all the world’s major cities.

Forced evictions; the ugly face of beautification

Commercial pressures were also behind the forced evictions of large numbers of families from the underserved settlements under the guise of urban regeneration and beautification. In all it was planned to evict 65,000 families; around a quarter of a million people and relocate them in high rise blocks like this one:

Mihindu_Sethpura_mega_housing_20131118_06p2

this from the Centre for Policy Alternatives second report:

The rush to relocate communities to high-rise apartments was not done with the uplifting of people’s lives foremost in mind, but with the intention of freeing up property with high commercial value. What made the Urban Regeneration Project of the Urban Development Authority more problematic was the means used to acquire land. Military force, intimidation and harassment were used to evict people from their homes and the process did not follow Sri Lanka’s laws related to land acquisition.

Communities… face many hardships. Residents are forced to pay Rs 1 million for the apartments over a period of 20 – 30 years. They are yet to be given deeds to their apartments and there are restrictions on selling, renting and mortgaging the apartments, which means that a source of financial security has been taken away from them.

Winners and losers

A common concept that has been used in geography over many years is that  whenever economic/commercial development takes place there will be winners and losers.

If London is anything to go by the future for Colombo’s lower income groups is bleak. Ongoing development will most likely result in soaring land values; the lower income groups will be priced out of the city and forced to the edge of the city from where they will face an expensive commute back into the city to their place of work. Central London has already been bought up by rich foreign investors who in some cases have bought property with no real intention of living in it; just an investment. The average worker can’t afford to live in London now. Prices in restaurants and bars are obscene in some cases.. and so it goes on.

The accepted view (at least amongst governments and politicians ) is that the capital city drives the economy. London has become a monster dominating the whole of the UK; London is not a place for Londoners these days. Colombo will go the same way.

Note 1

The drive to Singapore style development has taken a step further with the launch of the government’s Megapolis plan. This is really an extension of the Port City, Skyscraper City concept mentioned before in this article. It is a grandiose plan; you can check it out via the Sunday Times (Lanka) report at http://www.sundaytimes.lk/110918/News/nws_19.html

Initial thoughts:

  • It relies totally on foreign direct investment; so where is it going to come from and with what strings attached?
  • how much of the existing architectural heritage will be retained?
  • What will happen to Slave Island and Pettah? I am betting those vibrant multi-cultural communities will be broken up and their residents forcibly evicted
  • what will we be left with? Singapore glitters but it is soulless..is that really what Sri Lankans want..
  • how if anything will it change the lives of the majority urban poor/middle income groups.. who will only be able to afford to stand and stare
  • how much of any growth will trickle down to the Sri lankan people?

Colombo is a fascinating, and in places, beautiful city but much of it will be buried by this project and in terms of the country as a whole I wonder what real good it will bring.

How relevant will Colombo really be to people in the rest of the country? Are the policy makers in ganger of creating 2  countries: Colombo and the rest?

Finally will Colombo become such a magnet for growth and development that it becomes a true primate city dominating every aspect of Sri Lankan economic life and what effect will that have on the rest of the country?

Note 2

There is another view of city life though which is worth a look; check out the vision of Jan Gehl on U tube who believes that city growth and regeneration needs to be organised around the needs of people as much as economic priorities.

 

Colombo and its garbage problem: is the Aruwakkalu project a viable solution

I came across this excellent article written by Malaka Rodrigo and with his permission have re-printed pretty much in its entirety. His blog Window to Nature is well worth a read and is a real good source of information for all geographers interested in people and environment issues.

For any student of geography this is an really good and detailed case study of one of the main (but often overlooked) problems of urban growth and development; and for anyone living in Colombo dealing with the day to day problems of waste disposal I guess it will ring a lot of bells. What it tells us is that for every solution to a major urban problem there are a number of environmental costs. How to balance the human and physical environment; how to develop a sustainable approach to solid waste disposal; these are major questions for Colombo going forward but can be found in most large cities not just in the developing world

So here it is: it is longer than usual but well worth reading through. However, before you read through the report have a read through the following:

Garbage disposal has been a major headache for Colombo which generates as much as 1,200 metric tonnes of rubbish every day. The main dumping site is located in the eastern suburbs of Colombo at Meethotumulla low income residential area. It was opened in 2010 when an existing site in Colombo was closed down but is bursting at the seams. Currently the dump site , which is 90 metres high dominates the area and pollutes the surrounding neighbourhood.

As the situation has deteriorated, a new project to collect the garbage, and transport it by train and dump it in a sanitary landfill site in Puttalam emerged as a solution.  Environmentalists  raised serious concerns over the project. As a result it appears that this scheme has been shelved, at least for the moment.

This has left Colombo Municipal Council and the Government without any kind of plan; and while they procrastinated the dump at Meethotumulla grew in size and became increasingly unstable. This has led to a kind of paralysis in decision making. Were the authorities hoping the problem would go away? It did not, and the result was the partial collapse of the dump killing 28 people and leaving many more homeless. (see below)

note: a large section of the Meethotumulla dump collapsed onto local houses on 14th April; for more information click on the live link below:

https://geosrilanka.wordpress.com/2017/04/17/colombo-garbage-mountain-time-for-the-government-to-act/

Government Paralysis ? or how to pass the buck

Check out this excellent article published in the Daily Mirror (Sri Lanka) on 22/04/17 GONE TO WASTE (live link) says it all; no additional comment needed.

 

 

IMG_1039

The Meethotamulla garbage dump reprinted with permission Malaka Rodrigo

The compacted waste was to be be packed in 20-foot containers and sent by train to the landfill site at Aruwakkalu, just North of Puttalam, about 170 kilometres away from Colombo.

The 30-hectare Aruwakkalu site, leased out to Holcim Cement Company, has many abandoned quarries, from where limestone was extracted by the Cement Corporation some 20 years ago.

The site was designed to absorb up to 4,700,000 cubic metres of garbage for 10 years in 2 phases.

MeethotamullaGraphicnew

reprinted with permission; Malaka Rodrigo

Environmental Nightmare: reasons to challenge the location of this proposed landfill site

To the dismay of environmentalists, the site is within the one mile buffer zone of the Wilpattu National Park – a fact that has been highlighted in the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report.

  • The document points out that the site is frequented by several wild animals, including elephants and warns that once the garbage comes, it can attract more elephants to the area, aggravating the human-elephant conflict, especially in the fishing village near the site.

The EIA report recommends several steps to prevent elephants and other animals from coming to the area. They include erecting an electric fence and closing up the landfill on a daily basis after the garbage has been deposited.

  • The forest adjacent to the landfill site is also home for a critically endangered legume crop, a wild relative of ‘Bu-kollu’ (Rhynchosia velutina) which has so far been spotted only in two places in Sri Lanka.
  • The environmentalists also express concerns over the impact of the project on the Kala Oya/Lunu Oya Estuary which supports the largest, richest, and the most pristine mangrove patch in Sri Lanka and is also just 200 m northeast of the site.

Hemantha Withanage of the Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) says the project is a crime and not worth the cost. He says the solution lies not in dumping garbage at landfill sites but addressing the root cause.

“Go for a zero-waste model promoting recycling. It will be a sustainable solution. Sometimes drastic measures such as banning polythene and plastic might have to be taken – but it will help in the long run,” he said.  Mr. Withanage said the people must also act with responsibility to minimise garbage.

The US$ 107 million landfill site project was approved by the previous government after a cabinet paper was submitted by the then President Mahinda Rajapakse in his capacity as Minister of Urban Development.

Environmentalists fear that just as the previous regime showed scant respect for EIAs and tweaked the findings to do development at ‘any cost’; the present government also could distort the EIA.

Many experts recognise that the solid waste problem requires an urgent solution but it does not mean creating another environmental crisis.

Due to the limestone base and dynamiting, the base of the solid waste pit could be permeable.

The leachate will contaminate the pristine habitats of the Kala Oya. Some experts suggest that to minimise the negative impacts, the solid waste should be dumped in the abandoned Holcim pits which are more towards the interior of Aruwakkalu. But the company is not in favour of this suggestion, environmentalists say.

This is why the present site has been selected for the project even though its negative impacts are apparent. It is also feared that uncontrolled dynamiting could damage the bottom lining of the landfill site, paving the way for leakages.

When contacted, a Holcim spokesperson said the quarry was being blasted with permission from the Geological and Mines Bureau and the company was following standard protocols. They said the landfill was a government project and it had nothing to do with it.

However, the project needs approval not only from the Central Environment Authority (CEA) but also from the North Western Provincial Council and the Wildlife Conservation Department (DWC) as the site is located within the buffer zone of a national park.

 

Wedi Pitiya: 25 million year geological heritage site cannot go under garbage 

Palaeobiologists who explore prehistoric biodiversity have joined environmentalists to oppose the Aruwakkalu project as it is likely to harm South Asia’s prime Miocene fossil site.The quarry that Holcim excavates contains fossils belonging to the Miocene era some 25 million years ago. During this era, this area had been a sea bed and the cement raw material that is being dug is in fact calcified fossilised shells or bony remains of many sea creatures which died millions of years ago.

The site known as ‘Wedi Pitiya’ is particularly unique as it is in its vicinity that P.E.P. Deraniyagala documented nearly 40 species of prehistoric invertebrates and marine vertebrates such as Dugongs, dolphins, whales and sea turtles from their bony remains belonging to the Miocene era.

This indicates that ‘Wedi Pitiya’ could in fact be a deeper zone of the sea. The Red Bed which lies above the Miocene Bed also contains stone tools, potsherds, beads and bony remains of prehistoric human habitation dating back to more than 250,000 years.

Considering its place in the history of Sri Lanka and its evolutionary importance to biodiversity in view of possible future finds, the Palaeobiodiversity Conservation Programme under the Biodiversity Secretariat of the Ministry of Environment, in collaboration with the Forest Department (to whom the land belongs) and the Department of Archaeology has identified a 300m x 500m area at ‘wedi pitiya’ along with 3 other sites in Aruwakkalu to be gazzetted as a protected area.

This tiny area will be the only remaining Miocene area in Sri Lanka after the Holcim Company has finished mining Aruwakkalu, but sadly a section of ‘Wedi Pitiya’ has been included in the proposed landfill site.

“Aruwakkalu is a gold mine for palaeobiodiversity studies. The excavation for limestone made visible a large cross section of a wall showing the fossil layers and this could easily attract foreign students studying paleobiodiversity to Sri Lanka,” says Kelum Manamendra-arachchie, who is Sri Lanka’s palaeobiodiversity expert.

“The Aruwakkalu site is the only visible Miocene site in Sri Lanka. Its prehistoric artefacts, the traditional fishing village of ‘Gange Wadiya’ and the legend of Kuveni can be utilised to promote ‘geo tourism’. So it is pity that our heritage is going to be covered by garbage,” Mr. Manamendraarachchie said.

 

“The site is the worst, but concept is good” – Waste Management expert 

The 30-hectare land chosen for the sanitary landfill is the worst possible area in Aruwakkalu, says Solid Waste Management expert Sumith Pilapitiya.

Primarily, the site is too close to Kala Oya, an important water source in the area. Secondly, it is located within the Wilpattu Buffer zone, an ecologically sensitive area.

The site is also close to ‘Gange Wadiya’, the only human settlement in the area and, therefore, the traditional livelihood of the villagers will be disturbed, he explains.

However, unlike many other environmentalists, Dr. Pilapitiya believes that in the absence of a solution to Colombo’ solid waste problem so far, a sanitary landfill at Aruwakkalu could be a good idea only if an alternative suitable site is selected in the same area.

The search for landfill sites within a 50 km radius from Colombo to dump wastes has been going on since 1990 with little or no success amid protests from residents living near the possible sites.

Experts describe this dilemma as typical of the NIMBY syndrome- all want a solution to Colombo’s waste problem, but at the same time they say, “Not in my backyard (NIMBY)”.

This compels the authorities to go for temporary solutions which in turn lead to environmental pollution, the magnitude of which is much bigger than the originally proposed solution. The crisis over the Meethotamulla dump is a classic example.

Aruwakkalu in Puttalam is not a populated area and it has already suffered environmental damage as a result of limestone quarrying by cement companies. Since a suitable landfill site cannot be found closer to Colombo without drawing public protests, this could be a viable option, if the project is properly implemented, Dr. Pilapitiya explains.

To address the concerns raised by some environmentalists, he proposes to select a site further south, more towards new Holcim quarries. “There is about a 15 km stretch of land between the currently selected site and Holcim excavating sites; so there is space for an alternative site,” he says.

Asked about how safe it is to transport solid waste in train wagons, Dr. Pilapitiya says there are specially designed rail rolling stock and containers that will not even let the smell out. He says the authorities should go in for such rolling stock and the cost of buying them could be added to the project.

Considering all these options, Dr. Pilapitiya proposes to make it a National Level project to solve not only Colombo’s solid waste problem but also those of other major cities.

The waste management expert also proposes to sort garbage and compost the perishable waste to minimise pollution and the load to be sent to the sanitary landfill. In this way, the dangerous leachate generated at the landfill site could also be minimised.

People are afraid of sanitary landfills, but if designed and managed properly, a sanitary landfill is good as it will confine pollution within the site, Dr. Pilapitiya says.

Commenting on other solutions proposed for the solid waste crisis, the expert renowned for his waste management work in Sri Lanka and abroad, says some propose incineration that involves the burning of waste material at high temperature as a solution, but garbage in Sri Lanka is largely organic and high in moisture content, and therefore this method is not economically viable.

Another option is plasma gasification – a process in which carbon-based waste is converted into fuel – gas that can be utilised to generate electricity. This has been successfully implemented at small and medium levels to deal with solid waste within a local council area. But Dr. Pilapitiya points to the project’s high human and capital costs and asks whether the authorities could afford it.

“When over 2/3rd of the Pilisaru funded compost plants in the country cannot be operated without odour and flies, I would not advocate sophisticated technology,” he says.

However, if the service provider is from the private sector and has the funds and capacity to sustain a hi-tech project, such an alternative could be explored.

Decision makers should study the waste disposal mechanisms that are being successfully operated in other South Asian countries – this is because the garbage is more or less similar in composition — and take a decision on a proper technology, he advises.

“Under these circumstances, my preference would be for composting the organic portion of the waste and landfilling the residual waste in an engineered, sanitary landfill. If the engineered, sanitary landfill is properly constructed, even if operations slip a little, the pollution can be largely contained,” says Dr. Pilapitiya.

This article is reprinted with minor edits with the permission of its author Malaka Rodrigo. It was also published in the Sunday Times 04.10.2015 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/151004/news/environmentalists-derail-garbage-train-to-aruwakkalu-166659.html

Photo Credit: thepublicsquare.com

For the latest on this have a look at: http://www.sundaytimes.lk/160417/news/garbage-in-kolonnawa-off-to-puttalam-in-three-months-189920.html

Sevanatha; a case study of an NGO

 A SRI LANKAN SUCCESS STORY


What kind of development programme works?

There is  a lot of discussion around this question; should it be top down or bottom up? I guess that at the end of the day it has to be about what works and what is sustainable.

Governments in many developed world countries are involved in the financing of expensive development projects in Africa, South Asia and South America, but the effectiveness and relevance of these projects is quite often questioned, as are the motives behind the giving. Do these expensive top down projects really work? Do they really meet the needs of the populations of developing countries and are they sustainable?

Development programmes not only need to be relevant to the needs of local people they also should be acceptable. To ensure that is the case local people need to be listened to and they need to be involved in all aspects of the decision making process; identification of need, planning and implementation. Without that the key criteria of relevance and acceptability are unlikely to be met.

One organisation which does make a difference is a Sri Lankan NGO: Sevanatha. Founded 25 years ago it works with local communities at grass roots level to bring about change to the lives of the urban poor.

Sevanatha:   Meeting the needs of local people:

01

http://www.sevanatha.org.lk/

Earlier in the year I paid a visit to Sevanatha a small NGO based in Colombo, Sri Lanka; this is their story.

Vision and Mission

” To be a dynamic change agent for transforming the lives of urban and rural poor to be self reliant and empowered members in the Sri Lankan society. ” and “to revitalize and enhance the capacities and creativity of urban and rural poor in Sri Lanka. “

Background

There is no significant rural to urban migration flow in Sri Lanka and there are no large areas of squatter settlement in Colombo BUT there are a significant number of people living in under served settlements or USS for short. Most of these settlements have been in place for a long time. In the USS the main problems are:

  • no security of tenure
  • poor or non-existent services; eg. legal electric supply, clean water supply, inside toilets, made up roadways
  • poor sanitation, polluted ditches and canals, garbage strewn
  • overcrowding
  • poor personal security
  • low incomes

One such area is Seevalipura

 IMG_0236

photo credit : phil brighty

Seevalipura is the biggest underserved settlement in Colombo. It houses 300 families and roughly 15000 people. The settlement which is on the eastern edge of Colombo dates back to the 1930’s when migrants from rural areas came to Colombo to work in the expanding industries around the capital. Government provision of housing could not keep pace with population growth and so informal squatter settlement grew up. In !984/6 Seevalipura was declared a special project area and electricity and water supply were brought in. Even so the area has remained poor; very much a working class neighbourhood with low income and poverty the main threat to local people.

notice

  • narrow streets
  • high density building
  • paved road surface
  • power provided

The area is clean quite neat and well tended, but it might not always have been like this. The reason for the improvements you see comes down to the amount of pressure that the local people were able to exert on Colombo Municipal Council. For neighbourhoods to be able to do this, to feel confident enough to do this the people living in them have to become communities with a common interest and purpose. That is where an NGO like Sevanatha comes in.

What does Sevanatha do?

Don’t assume that the local people living in the USS are happy with their situation or don’t want to see improvements to their environment; they do. The problem is how to go about getting the changes they want. That is where Sevanatha fits in. It doesn’t fund projects directly, although it does provide “seed” money for a limited number of exemplar projects.

Instead the focus is on providing advice and support to local people to organise themselves so that they feel empowered to make their case to the municipal authorities.. So representatives from Sevanatha work with locally elected community leaders to identify projects which the community see as necessary. Emphasis is placed upon;

  • organisation of local people
  • increasing the capability of the community leaders through training, workshops and education
  • helping to develop both hard and soft skills within the settlement; eg building and construction, negotiation with council officials, management of contracts, representation at municipal council meetings, understanding of recycling, environmental management.
  • building self confidence

In this way people in the community become empowered, they are encouraged to take responsibilty and to make the key decisions and this type of approach is sustainable because:

  1. local people are involved
  2. they get the projects that they want
  3. the work (often carried out by members of the community) is cheaper
  4. and better quality
  5. the USS aren’t reliant on external funding
  6. they manage the links they build with their local councils  and are not dependent upon outside help

The projects themselves are often quite small scale; like the building of this toilet block for example. The thing is that the locals were consulted and this is what THEY wanted. Why did they want it? Well because before it was a latrine, not connected to the main sewer system, it was not cleaned the units had no doors. There was minimal privacy and securtity especially for girls and younger women. What they wanted was modern connected toilets, with lockable doors. In the scale of things this is not a big project; but then devlopment doesn’t have to be.

IMG_0226

photo credit phil brighty

It may not look much but it is fully plumbed in, the doors lock, the units get cleaned regularly and everyone feels more comfortable using them now.

This paved area in another small USS may not look much but again it was better than  the muddy track that was there before. Again it was what the locals wanted not something that was foisted upon them.

IMG_0229

photo credit; phil brighty

in another project local people are involved in recycling dry waste particularly for compost which has formed the basis of a company MEC pvt ltd. Check this out http://www.sevanatha.org.lk/ongoing-project-community-based-solid-waste-management.html

What that does is show local people how they can acquire business skills whilst creating a greener environment.

For the full list of projects Sevanatha is involved with check out http://www.sevanatha.org.lk/ongoing-projects.html

Final thought

For me the key question is; does this NGO make a lasting and significant difference to the lives of the people and to the local environment? Sevanatha does this on both fronts not least because, instead of throwing money at a problem and wandering off to the next problem area; they work with local people they create the conditions for sustainable development in the community and they stick around to monitor its success. Money isn’t wasted on expensive 4 x 4 cars, high salaries and apartments for ex-pats or expensive education for the ex pat children (as it was in the post tsunami era). In fact money isn’t wasted at all. What they do though is they help people harvest the skills within the community and put them to good use.

Sevanatha is not  glamorous and doesn’t make a big noise about itself BUT it ought to be celebrated for what it does in its quiet and effective way. Maybe the big NGO’s could take a leaf from the Sevanatha book.

For more details of Sevanatha and what it does go to http://www.sevanatha.org.lk

Funding and Partnerships

  • Sevanatha is funded by Homeless International which is currently supporting SEVANATHA to implement a project funded by UK Aids; UNESCAP, The Asian Coalition for housing rights
  • Sevanatha is partners with a wide range of organisations including: Citynet Yokohama, The Women’s Co-operative Bank in Colombo and local municipal councils across Sri Lanka