It was recently announced that the Urban
Development Authority had delegated to the relevant local
authorities its powers in regard to the coastal zone. The local
authorities are accordingly charged with enforcing the 100 metre
no-construction zone in the South and, theoretically at least,
the corresponding 200 metre zone in the East.
Among the incidents reported after this
delegation of power is that of a local authority in the Kalutara
District prohibiting persons who are still living in the zone
from repairing their damaged toilets.
While directives of this sort may have a
farcical ring to readers, they pose a severe problem to those at
the receiving end. If obeyed, such directives are likely to lead
to serious health and sanitation problems in the
However the bottom line is that such directives
are presently being issued without any legal authority. No
regulations pertaining to 100 or 200 metre "buffer" zones have
yet been gazetted.
Furthermore, the UDA and any local authority
acting under powers delegated by the UDA can only prohibit
"development activity" from being carried out without a permit.
"Development activity" as defined in the UDA Law No. 41 of 1978
as amended by Act No. 4 of 1982 does not include "the use of any
land within the curtilage of a dwelling house for any purpose
incidental to the enjoyment of a dwelling house, not involving
any building operation that would require the submission of a
new building plan."
In other words, it does not include the clearing
out, repair or reconstruction of an existing toilet or any part
of an existing house.
However the present legal predicament over the
"buffer" zones does not end there. Let us take the legislative
history in sequence.
The UDA was created by Law No. 41 of 1978. Under
this law, whenever the Minister in charge of urban development
"is of opinion that any area is suitable for development, he
may, by an order published in the gazette, declare such area to
be an Urban Development Area."
Initially, by Government Gazette No. 4/1 of
30.09.1978, Colombo and a number of other major towns were
listed as such areas and this list was extended from time to
In 1981 the Coast Conservation Act was passed
for regulating and controlling development activities within the
"coastal zone" and for preparation of a "coastal zone management
This "coastal zone" is defined in the body of
the Act itself as "the area lying within a limit of 300 metres
landwards of the Mean High Water line and a limit of 2
kilometres seawards of the Mean Low Water Line", with certain
special provisions for the measurement of the zone where there
are rivers and lagoons.
The coastal zone as thus defined is to be
inventoried and managed by the Director of Coast Conservation in
terms of a "coastal zone management plan" that has to be revised
every four years. This plan and every revision thereof is put up
for public comment for 60 days prior to being submitted to
Cabinet for approval.
As part of this plan, it has been the practice
of the Coast Conservation Department to impose reservations
ranging from 55 to 200 metres along different parts of the coast
depending on local conditions. This included reservations in
urban areas that formed part of the coastal zone.
In December 1982 the then Minister of Urban
Development ("R. Premadasa") issued a gazette notice under
section 3 of the UDA Law declaring the "Coastal Zone of the
Republic of Sri Lanka" to be an "urban development area". This
coastal zone is defined in the gazette as "the area lying within
the limits of 1 kilometre landwards of the Mean High Water line
of the sea."
Thus there are now two coastal zones having
different metes and bounds, and falling under the jurisdiction
of two different public bodies.
Hitherto this 1982 gazette does not appear to
have been used in a manner that cut across the functions of the
Director of Coast Conservation. Even when the Coast Conservation
Department last revised its Management Plan in 2004 (some time
before the tsunami) it is this department that prescribed the
coastal setback limits for the towns including Colombo (55
After the tsunami the UDA appears to have been
seized by a takeover mentality and is now seeking to impose the
100 and 200 metre setback limits on the strength of the 1982
However others object, saying that a mere
gazette notice issued in 1982 cannot override the substantive
provisions of an Act of Parliament, namely the Coast
Conservation Act of 1981, under which the coastal zone is
defined and the Director of Coast Conservation is given the
exclusive power to determine what type of development will be
permitted within it.
The fact that no gazette has yet been issued,
three months after the tsunami, appears to indicate that the
Government’s legal experts are having some difficulty with it.
Meanwhile, the contents of the proposed gazette
have been published by TAFREN in a full page advertisement, as
if they were law, and are as follows:
The 100 metre buffer zone will apply to the
districts of Killinochchi, Mannar, Puttlam, Gampaha, Colombo,
Kalutara, Galle, Matara and Hambantota. The 200 metre zone will
apply to the districts of Jaffna, Mullaitivu, Trincomalee,
Batticaloa and Ampara.
The TAFREN advertisement states that no
"development activity" will be permitted in these zones except
for coast conservation structures and vegetation; activities in
connection with the fisheries industry such as harbours, piers,
anchorages, warehouses and ancillary facilities; agricultural
activities approved by the Coast Conservation Department;
historical monuments and archaeological sites; and essential
In fact several of these exempted items do not
even fall within the definition of "development activity" in
terms of the UDA Law and thus illustrate the anomaly of trying
to give effect to coastal buffer zones through that Law.
Meanwhile sources at the Tourism Ministry have
been quoted in the media as saying that tourist hotels would be
exempt from these regulations, thereby increasing the confusion
and the heartburn felt by ordinary residents.
A further touch of farce was added recently,
when officers of the UDA and the Coast Conservation Department
who had both started putting markers indicating the 100 metre
buffer zone, ended up drawing two different lines. As a result
some persons who had thought they were putting up houses outside
the buffer zone were suddenly told they are within it and asked
to demolish their structures.
This kind of approach not only adds to the
trauma of the displaced, but also strains the patience of those
foreign and Sri Lankan groups that have been organizing,
financing and often physically participating in the rebuilding
Clearly there must be only one authority in
charge of the coastal zone, and one definition of the metes and
bounds of that zone.
These events also raise a major policy issue as
to whether there is justification for departing from the concept
of integrated coastal zone management under the Coast
Conservation Act, in favour of a policy of coastal zone
evacuation which is what the UDA policy amounts to. Furthermore,
does the State have the land and financial resources to
undertake such a massive relocation; and if not, will many
people be left in a state of limbo for years?
In January, the Asian Development Bank, Japan
Bank for International Cooperation and World Bank jointly
released a "Preliminary Damage and Needs Assessment" for
post-tsunami Sri Lanka.
Referring to the 100-200 metre no-construction
zone, the report observes that "Even if this is not implemented
as a blanket rule, but only applied in specific high risk areas,
there will be considerable relocation of people."
Elsewhere the report calls for a multi-hazard
risk approach to ensure that communities and assets are less
vulnerable to impacts of future disasters "while balancing the
costs of excessive resettlement".
It also calls for local communities to be
consulted, and empowered to make their own decisions. The report
also declares that "communities should be assisted to return to
their original homes as swiftly as possible wherever possible."
Thus coastal zone evacuation is not what the
donors envisage. Nor is the proposed buffer zone going to save
lives in the event of another tsunami, as it is widely
acknowledged that the waves went in much further than 100 - 200
metres in most areas. For disasters on the scale of a tsunami
there is no substitute for early warning and speedy evacuation.
On the other hand it has also been observed that
the preservation of natural barriers such as sand dunes and
vegetation were more effective than distance in mitigating the
force of the waves. Coastal communities can be actively involved
in environmental preservation projects, on the lines of
participatory forestry projects.
In short there are many ideas that need to be
discussed and evaluated in order to reach the best consensus.
The Coast Conservation Act has two salutary features in this
regard: Firstly it requires an overall management plan to be
prepared on a scientific basis with surveys, inventories of
resources and proposals on dealing with human settlements, land
use, tourism and the like. Secondly, it allows 60 days for
public discussion of the plan before it is finalized, thus
complying with international best practices of public
consultation and participation.
Following the tsunami there will obviously need
to be a revision of the 2004 Coastal Zone Management Plan. This
could form the basis for a scientifically sound and socially
conscious discussion of how best to rebuild and preserve this
devastated area within a realistic budget framework.
Critics will no doubt point to shortcomings in
the work of the Coast Conservation Department, particularly the
fact that many unauthorized structures were allowed to come up
on the beaches. However, there is no guarantee that similar
lapses will not occur in the proposed 100 and 200 metre buffer
zones. Residents of Colombo will be aware of the many violations
of UDA zoning regulations that are presently taking place in the
This is a problem of law enforcement that must
be tackled separately. First one must ensure that the law is
validly enacted and based on sound principles.