I have always loved the sea. I retired recently and returned to Dehiwela, my hometown, to live by the beach after having lived in Australia for over 35 years and am greatly distressed, as many are, by the level of pollution taking place on the beach and sea these days. Interestingly, it is the people returning to Sri Lanka after many years, that seem to be most concerned.
Since returning I have been trying to find ways to get the beach in Dehiwela cleaned and worked with the Municipality and Coast Guard in this endeavour. Last year, the Sunday Observer of March 26, 2017, to mark Social Work week carried an article on the six month project I supervised, carried out by four students from the National Institute of Social Development working with the Dehiwela Mount Lavinia Municipality. The aim of the project was to reduce the use of plastic in the Dehiwela area.
One aspect of this was to deal with the problem of plastic in the ocean and beach by involving various groups – the Mosque in the vicinity, the apartment residents, schools in the area, restaurants, beach users (walkers, sporting groups that practice on the beach) to participate regularly in keeping the beach clean. Two beach clean ups were organized through the project.
A six month project is like a drop in the ocean when it comes to addressing such a massive problem and cannot provide any sustainability. While various groups indicated they would continue the clean ups it has not happened. I believe, an organization working with the community, would take a long while to generate sustainability.
Many issues compound the problem and need to be addressed like rubbish coming down the canals and pollution by beach users. I am encouraged that after several years of talking there are plans afoot to stop the rubbish coming down the canals. This is still not enough as the currents from as far as Panadura bring rubbish to our beach.
Seeing the Coast Guard officers do clean ups early in the morning led me to join them to consider ways to address the problem. Cleaning the beach is not an essential part of their duty.
They do it more as a social service/responsibility – a responsibility that is ours as well. When I spoke to people about getting involved and taking a little time to clean the beach as they walk and play there, or sit around after coming back from fishing, the usual response was “The Municipality should be doing it”, the “Navy should be doing it”, it was always someone else who should be doing it. There was no sense of ‘this is our country, our beach, we come here to walk, talk, eat and play and enjoy the beauty of this place, so let’s keep it clean’. Having lived overseas where there is little pollution I asked myself a hundred times will Sri Lankans ever change their habits? Will they ever recognize and care about the damage they are doing?
There are many inspiring stories of what people in other countries are doing. One is the story on FaceBook of Afroz Shah a lawyer who started to clean up the Versova Beach in Mumbai, one of India’s dirtiest beaches, by himself, in 2015.
Soon, other citizens and community groups pitched in to help. Over a thousand volunteers worked over 96 weeks to clean up this beach and collected five million kilos of plastic. The result was a very beautiful beach that people could enjoy. Besides, a remarkable thing happened - turtles that had not been seen there for years started coming in their hundreds. It inspires me to keep going and hope it will inspire others too.
A problem that many mention is, ‘there is no place on the beach to put the rubbish’. Yet, the Coastal Conservation Department complained that when they put bins people lifted them during the night. I tear my hair! Now there is another attempt to place bins.
I believe that the sea and beaches offer us such great gifts if we are open to receiving them. As I walk on the beach and see the joy of children it brings back memories of living in Dehiwela as a child, the sea baths with our gang, building sandcastles, jumping into the waves, or going to the reef on rubber tires. As an adult in Australia where the beaches were places of such beauty, many an hour have I spent just walking on the beach or gazing at the sea for hours on end.
It was a friend who seemed to understand, reflect and share my moods - exuberance, joy, sadness, despair and even depression. The spirit of the sea soothed, healed, inspired and even danced within me. I am so grateful for these gifts.
“In my work with children, to support change, I try to inspire a love of nature and gratitude for this and sorrow at what we are destroying so thoughtlessly – beauty, animals, birds and even humans. I believe it is important to connect to feelings, a change of heart, to bring about change, just awareness is not sufficient.
After finding out that the Coast Guard takes plastic bottles to Crow Island where a Navy project recycles them into flower pots, I decided to collect plastic bottles and hand them over to the Life Guard Office.
Later they agreed to dispose of glass bottles and cans as well. An interested person donated pohara bags which are now kept at the Life Guard centre, along with some gloves. I started talking to people who come to the beach regularly or for sports practice, to collect a bag full of plastic and glass bottles and cans, and keep it at the Coast Guard Bases, there is one at Frazer Avenue and another near Station Rd. Dehiwela.
Soon we will start to collect other forms of plastic - plastic bags are all around us. As an aside I am informed the new thinner plastic is even more dangerous to the environment, marine life and even plants as it is not biodegradable as many think, but degrades more quickly than the thicker plastic, and goes into the soil or our waters as very small particles, micro plastic or nano plastic.
It is time to realise what an asset our beaches are and think this is ‘our country, our beach that we enjoy and our responsibility as citizens to keep it clean’.
Each person picking up a few pieces is still a help, talking to others as we do this may encourage others to join. There is no government body totally responsible for keeping the beach clean.
Sri Lanka is the fifth highest ocean pollutant in the world with a population of just over 20 million people. So we have a very serious responsibility here.
Perhaps fines are in order, Singapore is squeaky clean and has very heavy fines; the second offence involves a Corrective Work Order (CWO), where the offenders clean up a specified area while wearing a bright luminous green vest.
The Marine Environment Protection Authority organized a beach clean up for Environment Day, last week.
Sevanatha a US Aid sponsored organization working with the Dehiwela Mount Lavinia Municipality with a team of very enthusiastic mobilizers, organized 2 beach clean ups to mark Ocean Day last week in Mount Lavinia and Ratmalana, with great support from the Police, the Coast Guard, restaurants nearby and many other generous sponsors.
The Municipality, the Coast Guard, the Marine Environment Protection Authority, Sevanatha and some other organizations are interested in coming together to make a coordinated effort to develop the Dehiwela-Mount Lavinia Beach and hope the citizens of these areas and those who even come from afar to enjoy this beach will join in these efforts.
A strategy to instil in citizens a feeling of pride in this beach – one of the loveliest in the Colombo vicinity - and their contribution to keeping it clean like Afroz Shah was able to inspire, would be amazing, wouldn’t it? In other countries there are areas that various communities have taken the responsibility to keep a little stretch of the beach clean and their efforts are recognized.
People tell me it is a pointless effort in the context of the huge problem we face.
But, I say to myself, maybe I saved one sea bird from dying. A million die each year from eating plastic. President Obama in a recent interview with Bill and Melinda Gates talking of his community development days said things develop but only slowly, and we have to be patient. I am impatiently learning to be patient!!