July 2016 witnessed the emergence of “Mount Lavinia Beach lovers” (MLBL), a unique multi-phase community project. Powered by a small, committed group of artists, musicians and beach lovers, the project’s mission is to transform Mt. Lavinia Beach into a safe, clean, sustainably operating artistic, model “Green Beach” in Sri Lanka by raising awareness, cleaning the beach & designing sustainable solutions to bring about some of the changes we all want to see in the world…
Known as the “Golden Mile” the beach stretch South of Colombo has long been a hotspot for tourists and locals alike. On Sundays and Poya days it’s packed with families and couples strolling along the coast line, teenage boys who spur each other on to battle the waves in the (often) rough sea and little kids building their first sand castles. It is a happy picture. Colombo’s in-house beach is as popular as it was 30 years ago. Business is thriving with cafés, bars, restaurants and hotels lined up closely together on the shore.
But something is tarnishing the picture and one can only wonder how visitors can be so oblivious to this issue. Take a walk along Mount Lavinia Beach, especially off-season, and you can´t fail to notice the litter and trash piling up in the area. Plastic bottles and bags, cups, lighters, shoes, all kinds of packaging material – there is almost nothing you would throw into a trash bin that you can´t find at the beach. But the problem is much bigger than what is immediately visible at first glance.
A study published in the Journal of Science in 2015 measuring the world’s mismanagement of plastic waste revealed that Sri Lanka ranks fifth (!) among 192 coastal countries in the total amount of plastic debris deposited into the ocean. And this figure becomes even more alarming when you look at the waste generation rate – the coastal population of Sri Lanka produces an average amount of 5kg waste per person every day. That is the highest amount of waste production worldwide, followed by the coastal population of the US with 2.6 kg per person.
The main problem is the lack of a proper waste management system. The sewage of the whole population that lives west of Galle road (in Mount area) enters the sea unfiltered. With the natural slope, all the waste on the streets and in the drainages between Galle Road and the beach stretch eventually gets flushed down the hill. The garbage disposal service of the municipality only operates in certain areas where the roads are big enough for their trucks to pass through. Many residents don’t bother to bring their trash all the way to the official pick-up points. For the businesses at the beaches it’s an effort to transport their waste across the train tracks. The residents and entrepreneurs who care spend lots of money to treat their waste water before it enters the ocean and pay extra for the garbage trucks to attend to their places. Others just bury and burn their waste right at the beach.
Mount Lavinia Beach is not a safe place to swim anymore and that is not only because of the syringe needles and broken glass that lie scattered across the area. Environmental engineering expert Mahesh Jayaweera from the University of Moratuwa claimed in an article published in The Hindu on the 8th of August that levels of faecal contamination at Mount Lavinia were now 60 times higher than maximum safe limits: “(…) at certain times of the year, the water in Mount Lavinia is so filthy it is worse than taking a dip in a cesspool.” The sand is full of toxics, the water has become a real health hazard. The reef that once sealed off the bay from the currents and dangerous undertows has long gone and the mangroves and trees that protected the coastline from increasing erosion have been chopped down to make room for bars and restaurants.
MLBL was born out of the memories of what the beach once used to be. Avrille de Valliere, initiator of the project, remembers the beach from her childhood days – a shady, green beach with mangroves and trees, calm and save waters and an intact reef. “I´ve lived here since 2004 and grew up in this area as well. Those days, we didn´t have all those waste water canals coming in. The big canals were there, but there was no plastic. Mt. Lavinia has been a famous beach for years and years. Look what it has become right now.” The vision of the project is to return Mount Lavinia beach to its former glory, to transform it into an eco-friendly “green” beach that is not only self-sustainable, but can also serve as model beach for the whole country.
The project plan envisages 6 different phases that build on one another, each dealing with a different part of the problem, each needing a separate funding. The first step is to raise awareness for the problem in the community through social and other media and public cultural events and to gain financial support. At monthly beach cleanups people can come together and roll their sleeves up to set a good example in collecting the scattered litter. The events feature musicians and artists who support the cause with interactive art installations and live music. In the second phase an effective litter disposal system is going to be installed with waste bins at every access/exit point of the beach and a team of garbage collectors who make sure that no litter is left at the beach, a switch from plastic to glass bottles at the cafes and restaurants and the distribution of bio-degradable bin bags. Avrille has talked to all the restaurants in the area to see how they would response to the idea. “I asked them how many plastic bottles they use and I did a count. At the end I calculated that 600,000 plastic bottles are thrown on this beach per month – minimum. I asked them, if they wanted to help out with this problem and, of course, glass bottles are really expensive. So I’ve cut a deal with the company American Water to come half way that even the poorest restaurant can afford to switch.”
The following stages involve the implementation of a waste water management system to filter the sewage from the canals and the planting of adult mangroves that are able to trap pollutants with their deep complex root systems, combat coastal erosion and provide a more green and shady environment. Once the waste problem is dealt with, the reef can be reconstructed with either concrete blocks or ideally a 3D printer that would make use of the sand itself to build structures that better imitate hard coral. The beach will be secluded from the tides again, thus protect it further from erosion and turn it into a safe place to swim. Floating piers made out of plastic bottles will give visitors the opportunity to take a walk out to the reef.
Of course, this is not going to happen over night. Avrille believes that a minimum of 3 years is required. “The are now in the third month of phase 1. This phase will go on until we have successfully got support of the people by the community to get involved into it. The speed of it depends on how many people get together and help out.”
The hope of MLBL is that, once their goal of a green sustainable beach is achieved in Mount, others will follow in their footsteps, for this beach is only the tip of the iceberg. Without the implementation of a functioning waste management system and with the growing influx of tourists every year, the beaches of this beautiful country are likely to lose their attraction in the near future. Initiatives and projects like MLBL are therefore much needed, until the government realizes that it has to change its outlook on this issue, not only for the sake of the health of the people and this planet, but also to ensure that Sri Lanka can keep its status as one of the top holiday destinations in the world.
How you can help
There are a lot of different ways in which to contribute to MLBL’s cause. Everybody – tourists and residents, families and volunteers – is invited to drop by at the monthly beach cleanups. Spreading the word through social media and financial contributions for the needed material, like trash bins and sand sifters, are also welcomed means of help. The logos of the companies who sponsor a trash bin will be painted on the installed bins in a public cement bin painting celebration. The team itself is also open for support, be it in fund-raising, contributing to the cultural programme (artists, musicians) or in documenting the public beach cleanups (photographers/videographers).
Even small contributions can make a change, Avrille assures. “People can come here every month on that particular Sunday, connect with us on Facebook or on the phone. If you can’t come, you can also donate some money or some food for the event, if you are a restaurant (vegan/vegetarian). Little, little things. Anyone who helps becomes part of the community.”
Contact: Mount Lavinia Beach lovers
T: 072 224 1174 (Avrille) / 076 545 5533
(Anissa) Next public beach cleanup: 30th October, Ranveli Beach Resort