Former Director of the Coast Conservation Department (CCD) and Chairman Fisheries Harbours Corporation B. S. Kahawita an interview with the "Sunday Observer" talks about how to deal with the aftermath of the tsunami disaster in the coastal areas. He is of the view that CCD should play a leading role as they have experienced in the much talked about "setbacks" (area that has to be left free of any construction activity). He believes no new laws or gazette notifications are required to enhance the role of the CCD as all they have to do is abide by the Coastal Zone Management Plan (CZMP). Kahawita is unfortunately a victim of pre-mature retirement due to his efforts to implement "setbacks" for construction activities and adherence to the Coast Conservation Act, No. 57 of 1981.
Q: The government is talking about a 'setback buildings' 300 m away from the beach in the aftermath of the dreadful tsunami disaster. What are your comments about it ?
A: We must consider this as an opportunity in adversity.I would say that the Coast Conservation Act, No. 57 of 1981 (this came into operation in 1983) defines the Coastal Zone as- 300 m landwards from the high waterline and 2 km seawards from the low water line, where it also states that any development activity within the coastal zone, e.g. buildings, hotels, houses etc., has to be constructed after obtaining a permit from the Coast Conservation Department (CCD). So the 300m that has been talked about is not a new concept, it has been in the Act for the last 20 years, and the CCD was implementing it, though there were problems, in the CCD. Due to various pressures in some areas it was not possible to implement it. In trying to implement this setbacks I became a victim of premature retirement.
Q: What is your experiences on tsunami and tidal waves during your service in the CCD ?
A: I do not want to go into the theories of tsunami and tidal waves, since that has been dealt with in various literature and newspaper articles. However, according to my knowledge we have not experienced a tsunami. Tidal waves, yes. During the monsoons, especially during bad weather conditions waves beat over the berm (top) and then flow on to roads and houses, especially in areas like Hikkaduwa, Ambalangoda, Galle, Beruwala Porathota and Ambalantota. This process is called 'over-topping' and most of the people are used to it. This process comes back to normal after some time. In the case of the December 26 catastrophe most people I met told me that they thought it was the same process that was taking place and they were not willing to vacate the area until the tsunami wave hit them, which they were not accustomed to before.
Q: Everyone is talking about passing laws and Gazette Notification for building purposes in the coast. What are your comments?
A: Many contradictory statements are being issued by various organisations saying they propose to pass laws and gazette notifications about building in the coastal areas. The Coast Conservation Act, No. 57 of 1981 specifies that a permit has to be obtained from the CCD for any development activity in the coastal zone. There is no necessity to pass any laws or gazette notifications if one abides by this Act. The Coast Conservation Department should take a leading role in this matter and inform all concerned parties and take immediate action. Coastal Zone Management Plan (CZMP) has indicated area-wise around the island about this 'setback' for housing, commercial establishment and tourist hotels. Hence one should look into this CZMP to get the real picture instead of talking about new laws.
Q: Some say coral mining areas in the South were badly hit by the tsunami, Do you find any truth in that?
A: Coral mining areas in the South have been affected badly, but if you put the question in another form, there was an affect in areas where there is no coral mining. However, the tsunami has not paid heed to those factors.
Q: What do you suggest in the implementation of these 'setback'?
A: In reality, people are reluctant to leave the coastal areas, since their livelihood is based on fishing and tourism. The present impact has been so great, therefore immediate action should be taken to re-settle them in areas further away from the shore. The most important aspect at this point of time is to educate the people on this issue, by conducting public awareness programs, so that they could be relocated in areas not 300 m, but further away because in some areas water has gone beyond one Km.
Q: How did the Coast Conservation Act decide on 300 m landwards?
A: When the Act was prepared in 1981, it was decided as an arbitrarily act as there was no experience of water reaching that level. But due to the disaster of December 26 the time has come to re-think about this 300 m line in the coastal zone definition.
Q: Were there any pressure to build hotels and houses from various people in the Coastal Zone?
A: Yes, Some despite our warnings forcibly built hotels and houses and there are Court cases pending as well. Some had built additional unauthorised structures too. Most of them have got washed off. I do not want to name any hotel or individual at this moment, since most of their properties have been lost due to the disaster.
Q: You are also the former Chairman of the Ceylon Fishery Harbours Corporation, what is your opinion about the fishing sector?.
A: Only two fishery harbours in Kalpitiya and Mutwal were saved after the tsunami. This is nature. Now we should not cry over this but rise out of the disaster and develop and reconstruct what is in the coastal areas. The ADB suggested a fisheries harbour in Hambantota but due to difficult in developing infrastructure facilities this idea was dropped. Now with a lot of ideas emerging for relocation of Hambantota town, the fisheries harbour concept can be looked into.
Q: Will there be obstacles in reconstruction and resettlement of those affected?
A: The main problem is finding land for the relocation of people. However if a genuine effort is made this could be overcome. I feel we should think of settling people at the distance of 500-1000m, though this may be difficult due to land shortage in the coastal area. But some effort has to be made. There may be practical difficulties when people settle down away from the coast. Coastal development public awareness and education programs with community participation will have to be executed for proper implementation. This is where CCD can play a leading role, since they have enough experience in this aspect of public awareness programs. I hope the authorities will look into this. Even the relocation of some sections of damaged railway lines and roads could be taken note of and if the people are aware of these advantages they might not object to land acquisition. We should take this opportunity as a blessing in disguise and we must make as much benefit as possible. "