Insights and Analysis

Addressing Industrial Pollution Along the Kelani River

April 26, 2017

By Johann Rebert and Dhiya Sathananthan

The lush banks and rushing waters of the Kelani River served as the indelible backdrop for the 1957 Academy Award-winning movie “The Bridge on the River Kwai” and today, the river remains a vital resource for about 25 percent of the Sri Lankan population who reside in its catchment area. The river is the fourth-longest and second-largest watershed in the country, and is the main source of drinking water to over 4 million people living in the greater Colombo area alone. Sadly, the Kelani River is also the most polluted river in Sri Lanka.

Kelani River

Laundry hangs along the Kelani River in the outskirts of the capital, Colombo. The Kelani is the main source of drinking water to over 4 million people living in the greater Colombo area alone. Photo/Flickr user Dhammika Heenpella

According to the Central Environmental Authority (CEA), most of the pollution comes from liquid waste discharged by the rapidly expanding industries that operate alongside the river, as well as agricultural runoff and domestic and municipal waste. An estimated 3,000 businesses that are required to have an environmental pollution license are located on the banks of the river. According to water tests conducted by the CEA near industrial locations, basic safe water quality limits are constantly exceeded, including chemical oxygen demand (36-37% over acceptable standards), dissolved oxygen (27-43% over acceptable standards), biological oxygen demand (7-13% over), and heavy metals (7% over). In August 2015, a significant diesel leak into the river from a multinational carbonated drinks manufacturer brought to the fore the hazardous impact that industrial pollution is having on the river, and potentially on communities who rely on the river for their livelihoods.

Despite this growing threat, local industries need to do more to comply with regulations to ensure waste water discharged into the river is safe. While existing policy and legislation for curtailing industrial pollution exists in Sri Lanka, more effective enforcement is needed, as well as highly stringent monitoring mechanisms to verify that all standards are met.

In late 2015, The Asia Foundation and local nonprofit Environmental Foundation Limited (EFL) started a project to help restore the water quality of the Kelani River. After identifying the 40-kilometer stretch between the town of Avisawella and the river outfall north of Colombo as the most polluted area, we began a comprehensive mapping of pollution sources, conducting surveys by road and by boat to mark locations of possible pollutant sources, as well as drains and canals that discharge into the river. We identified 150 sources of pollution, primarily from industries involved in tanning, oil refining, beverages, textiles and clothing, rubber, ceramics, food production, fertilizers, and plastics.

To educate the local communities along the river about the threat that pollution poses and to mitigate future damage, we conducted a series of training programs for 15 prominent community based organizations (CBOs) in the most polluted vicinities. The workshops trained 63 CBO members, primarily made up of volunteers and activists from local environmental and community development organizations, on preventing pollution and how to conduct water monitoring and identify sources of pollution.

Kelani River water testing

According to water tests conducted by the CEA near industrial locations, basic safe water quality limits in the Kelani River are constantly exceeded.

EFL developed a comprehensive booklet that includes guidelines on water quality maintenance and a map of pollution sources along the highest impact areas of the river. The resource was distributed among CBO members at the training sessions, as well as with local-level government officials and some small-scale industries operating along the river. This map assists the CEA as well as other relevant local and national authorities in identifying pollution sources. Participants have already begun reporting their findings to the CEA and other relevant government agencies so that full investigations of illegal discharge can be conducted.

The challenge now is to ensure that water quality monitoring takes place regularly so that large-and small-scale industries, as well as local government authorities, can ensure prescribed standards are being met and that the law is enforced. Industries have a vested interest in the health of the Kelani River system, which meets their own industrial, and most likely personal, water needs. It is time for them to take greater responsibility to protect and rehabilitate this water body. Harnessing the potential of the local community to play a more proactive role in preserving their own environment, as well as to communicate the overall message of preventing pollution in the Kelani River to other communities living in the vicinity, is a critical step forward.

Dhiya Sathananthan is project coordinator with the Environmental Foundation Limited and Johann Rebert is The Asia Foundation’s deputy country representative in Sri Lanka. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual authors and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.


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