‘‘Reporting for this story was supported by internews’ earth journalism network.’’
By Arul Karki
Water resources are considered as the main natural resource of Sri Lanka and since then it has been a major factor contributing immensely to the development of this country.
Sri Lanka, an agricultural country, has made a significant contribution to the agricultural economy of the country through various irrigation systems from then until today.
Apart from this, it is not only for industry, service supply and drinking water demand but also for recreational activities, tourism industry and hydropower generation.
Sri Lanka's water resources are very important. Sri Lanka is a country of about 103 major rivers. Of these, about 20 are year-round tributaries, and the rest are seasonal tributaries. The size of the rivers varies according to the area and varies from about 10 sq. km to 10000 sq. km. geographically; the land area of rivers is about 9% of the total land area of Sri Lanka.
Similarly, the waterfall system, which is made up of more than one pond in the dry zone, is one of the most important components in conserving Sri Lanka's water resources. In addition to these, large numbers of springs are found all over the island.
It is estimated that there are 1544 such springs in Nuwara Eliya district, 204 springs in Kandy district, 319 springs in Kurunegala district, 210 springs in Moneragala district and 288 springs in Matale district.
Thus far the number of springs identified throughout the island is 3540. Apart from these, underground limestone rocks in the arid areas of Sri Lanka also play an important role in Sri Lanka's water resources. These groundwater areas play a major role in obtaining water for drinking and agricultural purposes.
Thus Kumbukkan Oya is one of the important water sources in Sri Lanka. It originates in the Lunugala area in the Central Highlands and is the main source of water in the Monaragala district. It is the 12th longest river in Sri Lanka and the 18th largest river in terms of flow. Its catchment area receives an average of 2115 million cubic meters of rainfall per year. It is estimated that about 12 percent of this water reaches the ocean. The river has a catchment area of 1218 sq km and is the 14th largest catchment area in Sri Lanka.
Thus the most important ‘Kumbukan Oya’ is ravaged by destructive human activities such as illegal gem mining, and sand mining. About 6000 farming families including Kumbukkan, Puttala, Maduruketiya, Parawila and Okkampitiya directly benefit from this river. The river also forms the basis of their main source of livelihood, agriculture.
We began our research on this subject with the support of the INTERNEWS EARTH JOURNALISM NETWORK.
Monaragala district in general has low income communities. So the economy of the people here is at a low level. This makes it convenient for them to engage in illegal occupations.
There has been an increase in the number of people involved in illegal gem mining in the areas adjoining Kumbukkan Oya. While this has increased as an environmental issue, on the other hand, the plight of the people involved in this life-threatening illegal activity is also precarious.
What the local Kandasamy says...
One of the locals, 'Kandasamy', says that residents were initially engaged in gem mining on a small scale in their border river areas.
According to Kandasamy, although the excavation of the gemstone took place illegally, it did not take place on a large scale and the environmental impact was negligible.
At the same time it has evolved into a venture business over time. Today the land adjoining the river is being bought at great cost by the rich in the outlying areas. Kandasamy says traders who have identified the poverty of the people in the area are taking advantage of it.
Monaragala district is a district with a naturally dry climate. The drinking water problem here has been around for a long time. So it is the opinion of the locals that some selfish people who do not realize the need to conserve the water here have made the natural resource Kumbukkan Oya a dangerous area today.
From the angle of the Villager Mohan..
Mohan, a resident of the area, said that Moneragala was a country known for its Kumbukkan Oya. This river is connected in some way with our daily life. So we have to protect this. Today illegal gem mining is taking place in various parts of the river. He says this is happening today with some locals and people hired for the contract.
"Kumbukkan Oya water used to be suitable for drinking but today it has turned into river mud due to illegal activities such as sand mining and gem mining. In this context, biodiversity is greatly affected by such illegal activities. We can observe it in many parts of Kumbukkan Oya today. Although this is a crime, many locals are involved and no one informs the security forces. So this illegal activity is taking place widely," he added.
Residents say that a permanent solution to the problem has not yet been found, despite occasional police harassment. Similarly, the fact that human lives have been taken away by such illegal activities is good evidence to understand the danger. That is, today they hire people for a living and outsource this illegal work. These are traders outside Monaragala. Similarly, in addition to gemstone mining, illegal sand mining is also concentrated in the river.
Thus the river has become dangerous today. Individuals involved in gem mining are making barriers across the river.
Similarly they appear as massive pits for excavation. Then people who do not close them properly and thus meet daily needs are at risk.
Last month, a cow that went to the river for drinking water fell into a pit and died. People who come to the river for bathing are also greatly affected by the state of the river which has become dangerous. The natural beauty of the river has been damaged.
Mohan, a resident of the area, said he was concerned that various environmental issues such as soil erosion and massive tree felling were emerging along the river.
What Dammika Lakshman, Chief Coordinator of the Monaragala Social Security Center, says..
When contacted, Dammika Lakshman, the chief coordinator of the Monaragala Social Security Center, a civil society organization based in Monaragala, was asked about the issue, and he revealed the other side of the issue.
"We have been working for the community and the environment for the last 20 years through the Monaragala Community Protection Center. In that sense, Monaragala is a district with an agro-based socio-economic background. Most of the people here are middle and low income earners. So they use the natural resources here to make a living. Kumbukkan Oya, located in the district, is an important source of livelihood for them," he said.
But today the river is said to be subject to severe environmental problems due to illegal gem mining and sand mining.
According to Dammika, there is strong political patronage behind this illegal gem mining. These illegal activities are taking place on a massive scale today.
Behind this are politicians in local councils and other positions. Although in the early days the local people were involved in gem mining illegally on a small scale, it did not become an environmental problem, but today it is being carried out on a massive scale by the locals with the help of politicians. The big bosses who come here from areas including Colombo and Ratnapura are buying up lands owned by the people and engaging in these illegal activities.
These people have sold their own land and today they are hired to do gem mining for a daily wage. Similarly, Dammika said, those who fit the political power of any regime are abusing their power and engaging in such activities.
"Through our organization we have on several occasions taken counter-measures against this illegal gem mining. We particularly mobilized the public and staged demonstrations but it did not fully benefit us. Religious leaders in our area, as well as civil society and the media, have strongly opposed this illegal activity.
One of our regional journalists who were involved in the illegal gem mining was attacked. This shows the strength of the gangs that carry out such illegal activities. They often wield political power. We mobilized the farmers and fought against this.
We also clarified the people and the government departments responsible for this. People today are clear but government departments have not taken appropriate action. If they make any comments at that time and then do not implement the relevant norms properly.
Together, we can prevent these illegal activities. Appropriate standards for gemstone excavation should be duly followed. Thus the damage to the environment is an injustice to the future, for which the National Gem and Jewelery Authority, the Divisional Secretariat, the Department of Forest Conservation, the public and civil society should work together to develop a mechanism against this illegal activity," he said.
The income from legal gem mining should be available to the people of this area. Civil activist Dammika is of the opinion that our people and environment cannot be allowed to be sacrificed to traders from outside.
Jothikumar, Chairman of the Monaragala District Interfaith Committee expressed his views as follows...
Mr. Jothikumar, Chairman of the Monaragala District Interfaith Committee
"I am from Kumbukkan area in Monaragala. Kumbukkan is our native land. Monaragala is a district with a traditional agricultural background. Kumbukkan Oya is the main source of livelihood for the people here.
Today, Kumbukkan Oya has become a crime area. The main reason for this is illegal gem mining, as well as illegal sand mining in riverine areas.
Depending on the beautiful Kumbukkan Oya and the Puttalam area alone there are more than 5000 farming families. But today, this illegal gemstone mining has caused environmental impacts such as environmental pollution, erosion, and massive tree felling. These have increased significantly today.
The water management project started by D.S. Senanayake in Okkampitiya area is facing massive problems for the farming community today due to lack of proper management. Today, Kumbukkan Oya is the main source of drinking water in Buttala, Okkampitiya, Attaramandiya, Malikawila and Kalavillarugama.
Today, riverine areas are experiencing severe environmental pollution due to projects centered on Kumbukkan Oya and illegal gem mining. To prevent this, we mobilized the public and joined hands with other civil society organizations in a struggle.
It seems to me that the government departments that have to pay attention to this issue are not paying enough attention to these illegal activities. Thus we mobilized the public and waged struggles to educate them.
Due to this, we were able to block the operations of the chemical power plant planned to be set up here. Similarly, massive trees on both sides of the river have been uprooted due to improper excavation of gemstones found in the river. He says this has created a depletion of the river in the future.
Similarly, gemstone is an important mineral in Sri Lanka. We can use gems as the national resource of the country when it is properly regulated and handled," he said.
Although licenses are issued by the National Gem and Jewelery Authority, licenses are not used properly. If the permit is also issued, Jothikumar says there is no need to say what the activities of those who do this illegally will be.
"If the government departments do not handle this properly, there will be a shortage of drinking water in Monaragala district within a short period of time. Biodiversity also disappears when this beautiful environment is affected. To this end, we will continue to work on behalf of the interfaith organization in the future. Everyone must realize that man cannot live without destroying nature," he added.
It is evident from the observation of Kumbukkan Oya at the present time that due to the protests of such civil organizations it has been possible to temporarily prevent illegal activities but has not been able to completely ban it.
Opinion of the Assistant Director of the National Gem and Jewelery Authority..
Therefore, Mr. Chambika Ginigama, Assistant Director, Moneragala District of the National Gem and Jewelery Authority was asked about this matter.
"We are in a tough position regarding illegal gem mining. And the occasional encirclement with our Authority regarding the resulting environmental impacts and destructive activities. Let's do it but some of the public is working to help with this," he said.
Ginigama says that we cannot control this completely without the cooperation of the people of the area.
Similarly, 4000 permits are issued annually by the National Gem and Jewelery Authority for gem mining. Out of which only about 500 licenses are issued by the Moneragala office.
After receiving these, we receive complaints that many people are involved in gem mining activities in violation of the standards we provide. Locals are also illegally engaged in excavations in the vicinity of Kumbukkan Oya. He also acknowledges that this has become a major environmental issue today.
"Similarly, most of the people in this area are low income people. Therefore, most of them are engaged in illegal gem mining in the riverine areas of their area. We are working with the Special Task Force and the police to prevent this. They often engage in illegal excavations at night, So he says we can't control this with the limited staff we have. Similarly, we are implementing the 'Surakima Ganga' program in collaboration with the Divisional Secretariat, the Department of Forest Management and the Department of Irrigation. Through that project we also plan to manage such illegal gem mining and sand mining," he noted, adding that he hoped such illegal activities could definitely be prevented in the future.
He further said that there is an idea to educate the public about the environmental impact of this in the future and to increase the issuance of permits to operate in accordance with the law.
What can we do to protect our environment?
In summarizing these matters, it is clear that government departments do not have sufficient legal strength to prevent such illegal gem mining.
Those who are arrested for such crimes are ordinary people. Therefore, those with the political background and money to carry out the excavations with them will never come out. They will not be punished. Only those who work for daily wages are arrested.
It is also learnt that they can be released without going to court by pleading guilty to paying one-third of the fine imposed at the time of their arrest.
So we knew they would pay the fine and release them and get back into the same business. It was through such activities that Kumbukkan Oya came to know that it is losing its charm today by visiting there directly.
Landslides occur along the banks of massive trees and massive ditches are dug in the river. The river, which used to be a clean stream, is now pale yellow and large trees are being cut down.
So the gangs involved in the work of destroying this environment must be brought to justice.
Kumbukkan Oya is a national treasure trove of water resources and natural beauty. Preserving it is for the benefit of future generations.
We cannot protect Sri Lanka's natural resources until the government and the public realize the fact that man cannot live without destroying nature.