Hikkaduwa’s man-made sea erosion poses threat to tourism industry

Kamani Hettiarachchi

“Our Hikkaduwa beach is being destroyed by illegal sand miners. They continue their activities, causing serious damage to the coast. Complaints to government officials draw little or no action because some of them are hand in glove with illegal sand miners. If this trend continues, the world-famous Hikkaduwa beach will be lost, along with its tourism potential.” 

This is how Hikkaduwa’s coastal area residents expressed their grievances to the media. Most of them depend on tourism to make ends meet during these difficult times. They say the issue is not confined to Hikkaduwa alone. It is widespread and can be seen along the southern beach from Ambalantota to Ginthota.

“The country badly needs tourism dollars. We expect tourists to arrive from next month. We urge the authorities to pay attention to this problem and take swift action against illegal sand miners,” a resident said.

Income from the tourism industry is vital for the country to come out of the economic crisis. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the tourism promotion authorities to take measures to preserve tourism sites and infrastructure. But judging by the damage caused to Hikkaduwa beach, it appears that the authorities have neglected their duty. 

The natural beauty of the coast enhances the value of a country as a tourism destination. It attracts not only foreign tourists but also locals who want recreation and relaxation. Coastal erosion, however, devalues the country’s aesthetic beaches. The adverse impact of coastal erosion on the tourism industry, the fisheries sector, and the livelihoods of coastal dwellers is immeasurable. 

Statistics show that 75% of Sri Lanka’s rated hotels and 80% of total hotel rooms are located along the coastal belt. When coastal erosion goes unchecked, it threatens to wipe out hotels, resorts, eateries, swimming pools, and other tourism facilities on the coast. A visit to the area will show that several buildings have already been destroyed by sea erosion. It has been identified that 89 scenic spots along the country’s coastline are threatened by coastal erosion. Also, sea erosion has begun to pose a serious threat to many places of historical significance.

According to a study, every year, Sri Lanka loses an estimated 175,000 and 285,000 square metres of its coastal land along the 685 km-long stretch from Kalpitiya to Yala due to sea erosion. Since this phenomenon is not readily apparent, the Seenigama temple is cited as an example. Between 1840 and 1920, the temple was located close to the seashore. But today, it is found in the sea a quarter of a mile off the shore.

Coastal erosion is caused by both natural and anthropogenic activities. Along the coast, coral reefs, which act as breakwaters or natural barriers to prevent damage to the beach by waves, are destroyed by those engaged in the lime industry and illegal fishing activities. Sadly, the coral reefs are also being damaged by the very people who depend on tourism to eke out a living. They display them as items of attraction in tourism facilities.

Along the coast, the mangrove vegetation, a crucial part of the ecosystem, once protected the coastal zone from sea erosion. However, at present, mangroves are cleared for construction and economic activities, security purposes and to obtain wood. As a result, coastal erosion is accelerated with destructive waves gobbling up more land. When wave erosion becomes acute, stone dykes are built to mitigate its effect. However, if dykes are built without a proper study of the strength and direction of sea waves, it could divert wave energy elsewhere and aggravate erosion there. 

With human activities worsening sea erosion, leading to the country losing its valuable land resources to the sea, the brunt of the wave attack is on the southern and southwestern coasts, as was the case during the 2004 tsunami. Due to these environmental effects, the coastal areas are now at a lower level than the adjacent land areas. As a result, saline water intrusion occurs through estuaries, while saltwater accumulates in rivers and inland reservoirs. When salt water mixes with drinking water and agro-industrial water, it affects crop productivity and people’s health.

Sea erosion’s impact on the lives of coastal area residents cannot be underestimated. It has affected shallow-water fishing in lagoons and bays, diminished fish breeding areas, and denied fishermen space to moor their boats on the shore.

The crisis highlights the socioeconomic importance of coastal areas which are Sri Lanka’s valuable natural assets. In recognition of the vital need to preserve the country’s coastal land areas, the Coastal Conservation Act No. 57 of 1981 came into force in 1986. The Coastal Zone Management Project was started under this Act which has undergone several amendments, with the latest amendment being in 2018. The Act, among other objectives, seeks to improve the condition of the coastal environment, develop and manage the coast, improve the quality of life of coastal communities, promote coastal resource-based economic development and provide necessary facilities.

If, as the Hikkaduwa residents say, illegal sand miners are dredging and destroying the beach with the connivance of the authorities, it warrants an immediate probe; because the problem affects not only the people of Hikkaduwa but also the entire country, the people, and the national economy.

The views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Sri Lanka Press Institute.

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