I have just seen RED. Not because it is the auspicious colour for the New Year, but because I have just read in the Island of 11th April the seventieth Pathfinder Economic Flash entitled Colombo Port City: Monster or transformative opportunity. There has been a lot written about how transformative the project promises to be – not just of the Sri Lankan economy, but also of the environment in which we Sri Lankans live. Some consider the transformation monstrous, others an opportunity! I had gone to the Pathfinder article with a view to finding some evidence for the latter view; for learning about the ‘potential benefits of a massive integrated development project of this nature’, especially the benefits of the marina and yacht club, the seaview apartments, the five star hotel, the mini golf course, the shopping and entertainment centre and the ‘many other modern facilities’. IMHO, the benefit from projects such as the Colombo Port City Project is a zero sum game. Some people benefit, and other people lose. Not to weigh the benefits against the disbenefits, seems to me to be an act of faith, and not the balanced analytical view that Pathfinder advocates! The Sunday Leader article, Controversy Surrounds Port City maybe stating the obvious in its headline, but provides a less one-sided view. It talks about the impact of the potential loss of marine resources on fisher folk, and the impact of granite mined from internal sources on the internal environment and on the livelihoods and lives of Sri Lankans living outside the coastal areas. From all accounts, the environmental assessment seems to have been narrowly conceptualized, and there are many unanswered concerns.
Earlier this month I participated in the UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR) in Sendai, Japan and was a panelist at the launch of the2015 Global Assessment Report (GAR) on disaster risk. The overarching message from this report is that disaster risk is endogenous, that it is embedded in our development practice, and while there is plenty of evidence for this (the GAR is full of such evidence) we still continue to ‘do development’ in the same way, without recognition of this fact. This is the reason why disaster risk has increased much faster in the last forty years than the efforts that have been made to reduce it. Disaster impact reporting in Sri Lanka from 1990-2014 shows that while the tsunami claimed 95.2 percent of the lives lost due to disaster, it only accounted for 33.3 percent of the total economic losses from disasters. Floods and storm surges are the hazards that will contribute significantly to the Annual Average Loss from disasters. These are not the dramatic intensive disaster of a tsunami or an earthquake, but the day to day manifestations of ecological imbalance. I do not have the technical expertise to link Sri Lanka’s disaster risk pattern to the changes that the Port City Project will surely engender, but looking at the arguments made by the different analysts in Sendai, I do think that a disaster risk assessment of the project is also in order.
An article written about a year ago raises some legal issues that I have not seen highlighted in the more recent exchanges, and questions whether the Port City Project conforms to some of the advances in environmental jurisprudence. The author quotes the Coast Conservation Act where she points out that even where permits are issued for “proposed development activity which may have any adverse effect on the stability, productivity and environmental quality of the Coastal Zone” the “occupation of any part of the foreshore or bed of the sea lying within the Coastal Zone can only be permitted for any period not exceeding three years after which the permit may or may not be renewed.” She finds it hard to reconcile this statutory obligation, with the type of ownership of the seabed that the Chinese company will have for a considerable period of time for the purpose of significantly and permanently altering the marine landscape. The article also raises the issue of public trust. It points out that EIAs are expected to be consultative, and asks whether public consultation did in fact take place. Even if it did, she raises the precedence of a Supreme Court ruling in the Waters Edge case where it was considered that major development projects do not manifest all their multifarious facets till long after the public have had the opportunity to object and so it is not enough to argue that procedure is followed, if what has resulted is the violation of a public trust. The assessments of Dubai's mega-projects such as the World Islands and the Palm Jumeirah to which the Port City has been compared bear this out. According to Peter Sale, marine ecologist at the United Nations University (UNU) Institute for Water, Environment and Health who co-authored a report on the impact of development of the Gulf these projects are "so substantial that they have changed the ecology in ways that are only going to become clear in decades" Sri Lanka’s legal system considers air, running water and the sea to be public property and people as the owners of natural resources. The government is merely holding them in trust, and therefore has all the obligations of a ‘trustee’.
I can sympathise that the ‘new trustee’ of our environment is between a rock and a hard place. We seem to be stuck with a project that for all sorts of contractual, geo-political and practical reasons we may not be able to stop or reverse. But to dismiss the environmental arguments as the outcome of the easily vilified NGO community and not so easily exposed ‘hidden hands’ as the Pathfinder article does, is to indulge in one favourite Sri Lankan pastime – conspiracy theorizing. Would it not be better if we did not descend into denial mode, but honestly appraised the situation, the legal irregularities, the potential disaster risk and the accruing disbenefits, and tried to mitigate them? And maybe even suggest that on the principle of the polluter pays, the investors should make a significant contribution to the mitigation costs?