Is Sustainable Urbanization Possible in Sri Lanka?

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ImageWith urbanization in Sri Lanka expected to increase from 20% in 2000 to 60% in 2030, perpetual gridlock, polluted waterways, and smoggy skies could all be potential side effects. However, Managing Cities for Sri Lanka Green Growth, organized by the Urban Development Authority and attended by representatives from all major cities taught me some ways we may mitigate some of the negative effects and create a sustainable urban development through innovative locally driven initiatives.

The workshop introduced the Eco2Cities approach to urban development which looks at helping developing countries achieve ecological and economic sustainability in urban areas. Although all Sri Lankan cities currently face challenges related to poor urban planning, it was enriching to hear some successful and innovative initiatives carried out by certain communities that can be used as examples for others.

The concepts behind this approach focus on compact urban design, integrated systems, and increased energy and resource efficiency.

Centered around all the discussions on success and failures within Sri Lanka and abroad, it became clear that the key is political commitment. What does this really mean at the local level? A recent visit to the Urban Council (UC) in Weligama’s solid waste management plant proved inspirational.

Leading by Example

It all started in 2006 when World Bank Environmental Specialist Sumith Pilapitiya volunteered to set up the municipal solid waste compost program in the town of Weligama, with the support of U.C. Chairman, M.H.H. Mohamed, who took pride in rolling-up the sleeves of his team to pursue a more hands-on approach and to motivate workers. Composting is a two month process requiring collection, sorting of organic waste for composting, and disposal of the non degradable residue. “I believe that we have no right to ask another person to handle our waste and complain that it’s not done in the right manner, unless we feel comfortable handling our own waste,” said Sumith who leads by example and working alongside the labor force.

Results have been encouraging. “This is a truly innovative and economically viable initiative where organic waste is converted to compost and then sold with a profit, but at a reasonable price. Everyone benefits," Sumith said.

Political Commitment

Why hasn’t similar initiatives taken off in other communities? The answer lies in Political Commitment. For example; Kathmandu, Nepal, has a lower fund allocation and technical expertise for SWM but is doing better than Sri Lanka in this field.

When the Southern Provincial Council constructed a concrete pad for composting and a small building for waste separation back in 2003 in Weligama, but no attempt was made at composting as the previous Chairman was not interested and would not facilitate the project. “About 20 other local authorities had compost plants constructed in 2000-2003. Virtually all of them are not in operation today, even though many resources are available to them.” said Sumith.

ImageThis changed in Weligama in 2006 with the election of Chairman Mohammad who provided the political leadership to make the project a success. He remembers how people from neighboring areas protested against dumping garbage at the plant. Now schools are having field trips to the plant to help teach students more about the process of waste management and the Chairman remains committed as ever.

One of their best measures of quality is customer satisfaction and returning customers. The waste management plant has received high demand from the local villages for their compost. Today the plant receives 18 tractor loads of garbage, which is around 12 tons of waste per day from Weligama and nearby villages. It produces approximately 60,000 kilograms of compost per month that sell at a rate of 9 Sri Lankan rupees per kilogram, totaling 540,000 rupees in the last month ($4737). With a clear vision, strong effort, and lots of patience, comes success.

“This work has to be done with complete honesty and integrity. We don’t leave room for corruption and this is the secret behind our success,” concluded Chairman Mohammad.

The application of international knowledge coupled with a homegrown approach along with political will and commitment demonstrated by Chairman Mohammad and the team at the plant is a useful example of practicing sustainable development. With more commitment, Sri Lankans can rest assured that such homegrown approaches to sustainable urban development will benefit their communities.


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