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Serving Sri Lanka

This web log is a news and views blog. The primary aim is to provide an avenue for the expression and collection of ideas on sustainable, fair, and just, grassroot level development. Some of the topics that the blog will specifically address are: poverty reduction, rural development, educational issues, social empowerment, post-Tsunami relief and reconstruction, livelihood development, environmental conservation and bio-diversity. 

Monday, May 30, 2005

The 100-metre rule – What’s the logic?

The Island: 26/05/2005" By Dr. Kingsley A. de Alwis, Fellow of the Academy of Sciences of Sri Lanka

Many articles and letters to the editor have appeared in the newspapers over the past few months regarding the pros and cons of the 100-metre rule on reconstruction of buildings damaged by the tsunami of 26 December 2004. Unfortunately, this problem, like most other public issues in Sri Lanka, has got highly politicised. Each party seems to regard it as an opportunity to fish for votes. Moreover, even if a political party is convinced that a change of policy is needed, it is seen as a loss of face to revise its position in public. Even more tragic is the way in which the controversy over the 100/ 200 metre rule has clouded more urgent and fundamental issues that need to be tackled if we are to recover quickly and come out stronger as a nation from this disaster.

This letter is addressed to decision makers in the government and opposition, who are sincerely interested in understanding the salient facts regarding the tsunami disaster and its aftermath. It is also aimed at providing an objective basis for developing policies for recovery from this disaster that are in the interests of the nation and the victims of the tsunami. It does not take pre-determined positions or enter into polemics about who is to blame for the present situation. Decision makers would find it a useful backdrop for planning the recovery effort on an objective scientific basis. The material in the background section is drawn from a number of existing published documents, too numerous to mention.


Sri Lanka’s coastline extends over a distance of about 1,585 kilometres. It includes a wide range of geomorphic features and provides a variety of tropical habitats such as lagoons, estuaries, wetlands, mangrove swamps, salt marshes, sea grass beds; coral reefs, sand dunes, barrier beaches, and spits. The coast is one of Sri Lanka’s most important natural assets. This meeting place of land and sea possesses distinctive landforms, flora and fauna, combining to create a unique scenic appeal and recreational prospects not available elsewhere. The coast also links various forms of land and sea transport with commercial activities.

The coastal zone accounts for about one third of the country’s population and one fourth of the total land area. The main economic activities of this population are fishery, tourism and industries. Marine fishery accounts for 97% of the country’s fish production. Some 800,000 persons derive their livelihood from economic activities in this zone.

The increasing population in coastal areas has created many problems for the coastal environment, including coastal erosion, degradation of valuable coastal habitats, and resource use conflicts. A key coastal management problem is coastal erosion resulting both from the natural action of tidal waves and currents and from human causes such as ill-designed coastal erosion protection works and coral mining. Shoreline erosion has resulted in damage to or loss of hotels and other buildings near the shoreline, destruction of coastal vegetation, deterioration of fish breeding environments and disruption of recreation. The most severe effects of shoreline erosion are seen in Sri Lanka's western and south-western coastal areas.

Moreover, the concentration of population in Sri Lanka's coastal areas has contributed to the increased rate of degradation of valuable coastal habitats, such as mangrove forests, small lagoons, coral reefs, and sea grass beds, that eventually causes collapse of local fisheries. Coral and sand are mined for construction and other purposes. Most of the coral mining has occurred along the southwest coast. Sand is mined from river mouths such as the Kelani River and dunes along beaches such as the Uswetakeiyawa area, contributing to instability of the rivers and entire beach areas. Urban development and industrial activities also threaten other natural settings such as those of Hikkaduwa and Rekawa Lagoon.

With the intention of halting this continued deterioration of the coastal zone environment, the government established a Coast Conservation Department (CCD) within the Ministry of Fisheries in 1978, and enacted a Coast Conservation Act in 1981. The Act required the CCD to prepare a coastal zone management plan (CZMP) and stipulated that all development activities in the coastal zone be subject to permits issued by the CCD. One of the main elements of the CZMP was a national permit-issuing program, which required construction setbacks within the 300-meter coastal zone. The permit system became an effective and controversial tool for achieving the programme's limited management goals.

The enforcement of the coastal setback provisions was criticised by the tourist industry and CCD held an open forum and workshop that brought together government officials and the private sector to review the regulations. The resulting compromises were incorporated into the revised CZM program.

The CCD undertook a more comprehensive CZM program in January 1986, with financial and technical assistance from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the University of Rhode Island's Coastal Resources Centre (CRC). The program focused on four key issues in a narrowly defined coastal strip:

* shorefront development,

* coastal erosion,

* habitat loss, and

* the decline of recreational and cultural sites.

The first generation effort was designed to reduce coastal erosion through a combined effect of the regulatory program (coastal permit applications primarily for house construction and sand mining), an extensive program of public education, and the construction of some coastal protection works. As of 1991, the most high profile measure adopted in the Sri Lanka CZM program was a complete ban on coral mining except for research purposes. Enforcement of this measure and its effects on the livelihood of coral miners was the most difficult challenge faced by the CZM program.

The CCD continues to make various efforts to resolve coastal management issues by pursuing local support. In 1990, in a provincial-level program titled "Implementation of CZM Plan," and in 1995, in a local-level program called "Preparation of Special Area Management Plan," residents were encouraged to become actively involved in the decision and implementation of the coastal zone management program. This bottom-up approach was designed to make the local community "fully aware of and integrated into the planning effort so that it is truly participatory."

In 1991, the Sri Lanka National Coastal Zone Management Plan was formally adopted by the government and CCD staff began to develop a broader and more integrated approach to coastal management. The result was a strategic plan called Coastal 2000: Recommendations for a Resource Management Strategy for Sri Lanka's Coastal Region. Coastal 2000 recommends a "two-track" approach, in which plans are implemented simultaneously at both the national and local levels. One of the initiatives implemented in the revised CZM program has been the Special Area Management (SAM) Plan which residents would be actively involved in both design and implementation. By the end of 1992, two sites were chosen for SAM programmes: Hikkaduwa, known for its coastal tourism and marine sanctuary, and Rekawa Lagoon, important for its local fisheries, mangroves, beaches and agriculture.

SAM plans provide a bottom-up strategy for managing coastal resources that complements the existing top-down regulatory approach in Sri Lanka. They allow for intensive, comprehensive management of coastal resources in a well-defined geographic setting (as contrasted with a use-by-use regulation-by-permit approach). Participation by community residents or stakeholders in planning and management is central to the SAM concept.

After the Tsunami

As a knee-jerk reaction to the tsunami, the government announced a series of decisions regarding the rebuilding of houses and other structures that had been destroyed.

* It was reported on the January 3, that the government has banned building construction over a distance of 100 metres from the coast.

* The UDA chairman has reportedly said that houses and tourist hotels within 100 metres of the coast will have to be removed as they are likely to be in danger in the future.

* It was subsequently reported that the Cabinet had decided not to permit new houses or buildings within 300 metres from the beach.

* This was followed by a statement from the Secretary Ministry of Urban Development according to which all structures excluding essential buildings like ports and harbours would be moved out of the 300 metre coastal buffer zone.

* The latest in the process of government decision-making is to declare a coastal buffer zone of 100 metres with restrictions on construction within the next 200 metres in the South and a coastal buffer zone of 200 metres in the North and East.

The government’s position regarding the no-build zone is still unclear as it speaks with different voices on the subject, or gives different opinions with the same voice on different days. On the other hand, the UNP’s voice is very clear, it wants to fish in troubled waters and to make political capital of the issue with the hope of capturing some votes. The JVP is silent on the issue. The LSSP is for the no-build zone but against the manner in which the government is implementing it. And finally, the Tigers have said that the 200-meter buffer zone proposed by the Government was not enough for the North-East especially for Mullaitivu, where a 300 metre buffer zone should be maintained. In the Eastern Province, the Muslims see this as a sinister plot by the LTTE to get them out of the coastal areas.

What about the situation in India?

The situation in India is guided by the Chennai Coastal Regulatory Zone (CRZ). It divides the coastal zone into three sub-zones:

CRZ I : This covers areas that are ecologically sensitive, like the zone between low and high tides. No new construction is permitted here except if extremely critical.

CRZ II: This sub-zone covers areas that have already been well developed with all infrastructure like roads, sewerage lines, water supply pipes, etc. Usually, these are areas within urban and municipal limits. No new construction is permitted on the seaward side of the road and reconstruction of existing structures is restricted.

CRZ III: This covers areas that are relatively undisturbed, which do not fall under the zones mentioned above. Here, up to 200 metres is a no-development zone, while 200 to 500 metres can be used for hotels and beach resorts. Fishermen’s rights to build small huts are honoured. The Chennai government is presently discussing the desirability of extending the limit of the no-development zone, CRZ III, to 500m.

Facts to be considered in a Coastal Zone Conservation Policy

1. Many houses were situated beyond 100 metres line from the shoreline but this did not save them from being completely destroyed and their occupants from being killed by the tsunami

2. Likewise, many houses within the 100m distance from the shore were not seriously affected by the tsunami.

3. Careful study of the tsunami damage using satellite photography shows that the distance traveled inland and the level of destruction by the tsunami were related to the adjacent undersea contours and the on-land contours, rather than simply by the distance from the shoreline.

4. This is the first tsunami to strike Sri Lanka in many centuries, and the probability is that there will not be another one for a long period on the same time scale.

5. So, there is no scientific justification for the tsunami to be used as a reason for having a 100 or 200 metre reservation.

On the other hand, there are more compelling, permanent reasons for having a coastal reservation, viz:

1. The coastal zone, including the estuaries, is ecologically very sensitive and can be irreparably damaged by

* waste water from homes,

* effluents from industries,

* septic tank construction,

* interference with coastal vegetation (e.g. burning of mangroves)

* interference with coastal fauna (e.g. collection of turtle eggs)

* throwing of non-biodegradable garbage.

Consequently, it is necessary to have some controls on establishment of residences and other buildings and activities in this zone.

2. It is also desirable to have coastal reservation for economic reasons. Tourism is a significant contributor to the country’s economy. Last year it directly accounted for 4.6% of GDP and 303,150 jobs. If the broader Tourism and Travel economy is considered, it accounted for 10.8% of GDP and 720,500 jobs. Tourism is also the fifth largest foreign exchange earner, with the potential to become the second largest after foreign remittances. It is the beauty of the coastline and the beaches that attract tourists – not only the hotels. Cluttering up and hiding the coastline with shanties and unsightly construction is no the way to attract more tourists.

3. The aesthetic beauty of the Sri Lankan coastline is another major reason for having a beach reservation. As Sri Lankans, it is our heritage to enjoy the unrivalled splendor of our beaches, as well as the other beautiful parts of the country. It adds to our quality of life when we can feast our eyes even when driving by on coastal roads, instead of seeing only the slums and urban ugliness that previously occupied the areas immediately adjacent to the beach.

4. Rising sea levels due to global warming would also make some of the tsunami-affected areas liable to damage from tidal waves and sea erosion. This would require some consideration in deciding on the area to be reserved.

What should we do?

The question is what should we do now? What areas should be reserved to cater to the requirements mentioned above? What should be the government’s policy regarding resettlement of displaced persons?

1. The first step would be to set up a task force of experts to study the different needs for which a reservation is required (excluding tsunami protection) and develop a clear coastal zone conservation policy and regulations. These should guide the planning for resettlement of those whose homes and business premises have been destroyed by the tsunami. Preferably, the coastal zone should be divided into three sub-zones as India has done, and regulations and guidelines provided for each of them. These would involve specifying building codes for essential buildings in each zone.

2. The second step would be to empower and help local communities to develop their own policies and systems for protection against future disasters. This should be applicable to communities everywhere, not just those who have been hit by the tsunami. Within the guidelines of the new coastal zone conservation policy, decisions on where to resettle the people should be left to the local communities. A good example of such a policy developed by local people is that suggested by some people from Matara town (See box below). The suggestions include construction of a protective dam from Brown’s Hill to Totamuna (as is done in certain Japanese and low-lying European cities), establishment of an effective disaster warning system, and designing an evacuation plan.

3. The third step is to implement the law and regulations on coastal, road and railway reservations without fear or favour, but in a humane way. Compensation should be paid up-front on a replacement value basis to those having to move in order to implement these regulations. This policy is now accepted by the Government and is being applied successfully in the Southern Highway Project. In the meanwhile, temporary resettlement in their original locations should be allowed.

The Author is a retired Senior Adviser (Agriculture) in the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, Italy.

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