Leisure

Eco-disaster confronts last beauty spot in Colombo district
by Venuri De Silva
Pics by Kamal Wanniarachchi

Standing on the bund of the Talangama Tank, I am afforded a three hundred and sixty degree view of the surrounding and only one word can be used to describe it: breathtaking. Yet all this tranquillity is about to be wiped away due to the actions of callous individuals and complacent authorities who have turned a blind eye to the happenings there. The last bit of unbroken greenery close to Colombo is now on the verge of disappearing and the tank, despite her calm exterior, is faced with the worse possible threat to her very existence: the construction of houses right next to her bund on the paddy fields below.

In this light, a pledge to re-build ten thousand tanks and cultivate every inch of the country to boost local agriculture, seems just an empty promise as time begins to tick away for the only tank of historical value in the Colombo District and more than two hundred and fifty acres of fully cultivable paddy land.

The Talangama Tank is situated in the Kaduwela Divisional Secretariat Division, bordered in the north by the Akuregoda Road which starts at the Pelawatta junction and in the south by the Hokandara - Thalawatugoda Road. Connected to the tank is Averihena Wewa, built recently for storm water drainage in Colombo under the Colombo Flood Detention Area project. Excess water in Colombo drains to the Averihena Wewa and from there it is diverted to the Kelani River through a canal

The history...

The word Talangama is said to derive from the word ‘Thadaka Gama’ or ‘village of ponds’ according to E. Percy Perera. Percy is the unofficial guardian of the tank and the bordering paddy fields. As a member of the Talangama Wewa Govi Sanvidanaya, and custodian of the keys to the tank’s water spill, he has been instrumental in keeping the area under close observation. According to him the wells in the area, even during the worst of droughts, retain enough water as the tank is built raised from the ground. Before the tank was dredged in the early 90’s, it was in a state of terrible neglect and disrepair which had led to unscrupulous land owners claiming tank reserve lands as their own. Nevertheless once the dredging was completed, the Talangama Tank was elevated to its original glory. Today it stands at 37 acres, a little less than her original 44 acres.

The tank was built during the reign of King Parakramabahu VI (1551-1557) and to date is the primary source of water in the area. Two medium sized canals starting from the tank, feed nearly two hundred and fifty acres of paddy cultivated between Akuregoda and Talangama North. Between these two canals, fertile paddy land stretches as far as the eye can see, as far as the Palan Thuna Junction in Battaramulla. According to the villagers, paddy has been cultivated for hundreds of years dating back to the times of the Kotte Kingdom. The field that provided paddy to the Kotte Palace known as Muttetuwe Kumbura, a six and a half acre field, is still cultivated, according to Percy.

It is said that elephants from the Royal Kraal were taken to the Talangama Tank for bathing, on their way to Athunkadeniya (where the jumbos fed), a feeding place situated in what is now the Malabe town. More recently, a Second World War Japanese fighter plane that crashed into the lake was dredged out several years ago by the Irrigation Department.

The visibility of the area, especially along the Talangama Tank have increased several fold in the past decade with many Colombo residents moving to the outskirts to avoid choking in the dust and dioxide fumes of Colombo. The area has become one of the most sought after pieces of residential land outside Colombo, with prices skyrocketing from a mere thousand rupees per perch in the 80’s to nearly five hundred thousand today.

The threat...

The biggest threat to the Talangama Tank at present is construction on two plots of paddy land besides the lake bund which have been purchased by individuals at exorbitant prices. Over the years, the Talangama Wewa Govi Sanvidanaya, has been trying to get the relevant authorities to designate this as a Tank Reserve Area where only paddy can be cultivated. Most paddy fields in the area cannot be sold as they are held in joint ownership and many owners show no desire to sell. Nevertheless, the power money has today is far stronger than the need to preserve the environment and it threatens an entire society that depends on the tank on a daily basis. People bath in the water, wash their clothes while some wash their tractors and go fishing. On poya days, more than one villager ventures deep in to its exterior looking for lotus and manel flowers to sell near the temples. Most importantly the water is used to cultivate, especially paddy.

Members of the Talangama Wewa Govi Sanvidanaya say that they have been driven from pillar to post at Sethsiripaya for the past few years trying to get the attention of the government. Oliver Samarakkody, Treasurer and farmer says "It’s the same thing everywhere, whether its the Central Environmental Authority or the Urban Development Authority. They tell us to go to one department and they direct us to another". They also said that on several occasions files with important information and correspondence between them and the relevant ministries have gone missing. It is a wonder why at least one ministry concerned with environment cannot give due attention to this burning issue, they say. Nevertheless at last the Central Environmental Authority has set a course of action in motion by putting up boards all over the area stating that it is illegal to fill up or build on the areas to be designated as the reserve.

Present situation...

Through an order of court on a complaint by the Commissioner of Govi Jana Seva, work on the first site has been stopped but to date the area remains filled and separated by a wire fence despite the order stating specifically to clear the land. Work on the second site, earlier used as a kamatha, has started once again despite complaints to the Govi Jana Seva, the Central Environmental Authority, the Urban Development Authority as well as the ministers under whose purview these institutions fall. Inquiries from the Kaduwela Pradeshiya Sabha as to who gave permission for the buildings, proved to be futile as very conveniently the present Council Chairman as well as the previous one have both denied any knowledge.

Nevertheless documents giving permission for housing construction has to be obtained from the Pradeshiya Sabha, where it is put through to the Planning Committee who has to pass it. In this case the said plans never reached the Committee as both the Technical Officer as well as the member of the UDA who sits in the Committee had no idea about this particular plot of land. It can only be surmised that someone wielding authority at the Kaduwela Pradeshiya Sabha passed the plan without even putting it through to the Planning Committee. Therefore the Chairman or the Secretary of the Kaduwela Pradeshiya Sabha are either not truthful or some mysterious force there can forge their signatures. Adding to this, again very mysteriously and to say the least conveniently, the particular file containing the documents on the land has gone missing from the Kaduwela Pradeshiya Sabha.

 

Over the years people like Percy have tried to get the area designated as a reserve through a gazette notification. But it seems that, though the UDA as well as the CEA have both recommended it, the wheels of Sri Lankan bureaucracy turn very slowly and more often than not, can be oiled to turn the other way if the right palms are greased.

Most environmentally conscious residents, a handful, take necessary precautions to minimise polluting the lake but there are those who let all refuse water from their kitchens as well as their bathrooms, flow freely onto the tank. There are also residents who have been slowly and steadily filling reserve land adjacent to their homes thus gaining more perches free of charge. Therefore the Talangama Tank is like a battered woman constantly harassed by those who are closest to her.

Fauna and flora in the area...

Jagath Gunawardena, environmentalist and bird watcher, identified the area as a bird watchers paradise even way back in the late 80’s. Dragonfly enthusiast Karen Coniff, a weekly visitor to the area for the past 8 years has identified a large number of dragonflies and damselflies living in the weedy edges of the tank, canals, and the surrounding paddy fields. On a hike in the vicinity recently with Karen, I was amazed by the number of dragonflies in the area and the remarkable amount of work done by them in reducing pests plaguing paddy. Some of them, including the fast disappearing Rathu Bath Koora, is far more effective than spraying an insecticide, said one of the villagers seeing my interest. Karen says that rapid development in the area, especially unplanned, is going to effect the unique animal life in the area. A report by professor Sarath Kotagama on bird and other life in the area have identified a large number of birds, mammals, butterflies and reptiles, including rare migrant birds, whose habitats include the mangrove island in the middle of the tank. The Kotagama Report has identified various kinds of Grebes, Pelicans, Shags and Cormorants, Waterfowls, Herons and Egrets as well as Kites and Eagles. Also identified are several varieties of mammal, which include the endemic and nationally endangered Purple Faced Leaf Monkey.

While the villagers in the area are quite unaware of the undercurrents and feign ignorance, many residents who moved to the area in the last decade feel very strongly about the whole issue. They have also expressed their desire to do what is possible to save the area from unscrupulous property developers waiting to bully and cajole poor villagers to sell their lands for a pittance. Just a few hundred yards away from the disputed plots of land, on the opposite side of the road, a large area has been cleared for an apartment complex. With no drains and methods to carry away refuse water, and the Pradeshiya Sabha willing to do anything provided the money is good, the only guess is that all of it will end up in already battered Talangama Tank.

For years now school children from all over the Colombo district have been coming to see the Talangama Tank, especially as it is the only ancient tank in the district. The spill designed over a solid slab of rock, through which water is fed to the lands below, is a perfect example of the ancient wisdom of using the natural environment to its fullest potential. Therefore its destruction will not only mean harm to the environment but also the loss of a part of our history.

If construction is allowed to go on, Talangama Tank and the paddy field bordering it will face the same fate that has befallen the Boralagamuwa Wewa and places like the Kotte wetland and the Attidiya wetland. It will also effect the livelihoods of nearly one hundred and fifty farming families whose entire lives depend on the paddy and the waters of the tank. The end result: barren land and a polluted tank, breeding mosquitoes.

The residents only ask the Government not to allow building on the paddy land between the two canals and designate the land between them from the tank up to Koswatta as the Tank Reserve Area. The farmers can continue farming, the tank will not get polluted and the residents can continue to use it.

It does not seem fair that individuals are allowed to destroy the natural balance of this place. Selfishness, greed and power has been steadily corrupting the society and now it is seeping over to destroy our physical environment. If action is taken without delay we may just be able to save the Talangama Tank and last green bastion in the Colombo District.

P.S. As I leave the bund, and walk back towards home in the fading sunlight, she looks so beautiful bathed in the sun’s warm golden light. A lone cow is grazing beside it on a patch of grass. The surface is covered here and there by lotus plants in full bloom. Drops of water caught on their leaves glisten. My thoughts are melancholy, but not hopeless. She seemed to be telling me ‘I will survive’.

 

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