Back-tracking on buffer zones
By Nalaka Nonis and Marisa de Silva
Nine months after the tsunami devastation, the government has now been compelled to soft-pedal the tough stance it adopted earlier after failing to find alternate land to resettle the affected people on the hotly-debated 100/200-metre buffer zone.

Before eventually conceding to continuous requests from people for relaxing the buffer zone regulations, the government had overlooked the views expressed by the United Nations and environmentalists about the impracticalities of enforcing a general 100/200-metre buffer zone rather than making it flexible depending on the vulnerability levels in different areas.

This move by the Government at this time comes in the wake of UNP leader and presidential candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe’s promise to scrap the 100/200-metre ban if he is elected President at the forthcoming election.
He said that instead of a ban his government would educate the people on appropriate methods of construction along the coastal stretches.

The present government vacillating over a firm decision on the buffer zone regulation had resulted in the closure of a number of tourist hotels and other related businesses bordering the coastal belt in both the eastern and southern provinces.

Welcoming the government’s move, late in the day though, the spokesperson for the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Sri Lanka Orla Clinton said they were pleased to note that following extensive consultations, the Government had now decided to modify its stance on the buffer zone regulation and was now adopting a more flexible approach. “It’s hoped this move will contribute to reducing pressure for land needed to relocate and accommodate better the wishes of the community”, she said.

However despite relaxing the rule, the government is yet to carry out a proper scientific study or evaluation to identify the land areas most to least vulnerable to effects of a tsunami that could hit our shores in the future.
The new regulations have only been announced by way of interim guidelines.
Coast conservation department director R.A.D.B. Samaranayake said the Government has still not done a vulnerable-assessment study along the island’s coastal belt before the preparation of firm guidelines regarding building constructions close to the sea.

Explaining the reason behind the delay in determining the exact perimeters of the buffer zone, Public Security Ministry Secretary Tilak Ranaviraja said that firstly -- the Committee appointed by President Chandrika Kumaratunga and chaired by the presidential secretary -- had to work out how best to accommodate or incorporate recommendations by the UDA and the coast conservation department.

“Thereafter, they had to submit the report, having taken into consideration the committee’s recommendations as well. Now that the schedules have been finalised, they will have to be sent to the relevant Government Agents instructing them on how exactly to act”, he said and added that even initially the Government had mentioned that the buffer zone regulations may need to be flexible.

“The buffer zone has been redefined due to an acute shortage of land in some areas and will vary according to the elevation of the land”, Mr. Ranaviraja said.

He said if there were any former residents within the 100-metre buffer zone who were told to move out but now wanted to return to their original location of residence, such instances would have to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

Dr. Samaranayake said his department’s advisory council agreed to relax the buffer zone regulations in a number of coastal stretches after studying the reconstruction projects on a case-by-case basis.

He said requests had been made by donors, developers and other agencies calling for the re-defining of the perimeters of the buffer zones. But approval for such requests is granted only if the requests cover the design criteria of the coast conservation advisory council including a proper structure plan, evacuation methods, columns, tsunami towers and other related matters.
Dr. Samaranayake said the CCD has given approval only for specific projects in given coastal stretches and if any new projects have been planned for those areas then the persons concerned should seek fresh approval from the department’s advisory council.

He said approval for rebuilding on a smaller scale could also be considered if the strict conditions laid down are complied with. Urban Development Ministry Secretary Thosapala Hewage confirming the relaxation of the buffer zone regulations said the revisions came after representations from various quarters seeking permission for construction purposes.

Dr. Samaranayake said the approved reconstruction would be monitored by the Urban Development Authority and the National Housing Development Authority.

“So far the advisory council has relaxed the buffer zone limits in 30 Grama Niladhari Divisions in 25 Divisional Secretaries covering 8 districts. These include Colombo, Kalutara, Galle, Matara, Hambantota, Ampara, Batticoloa and Trincomalee”, Dr. Samaranayake said.

(See the graphic for a detailed account of the boundary relaxations at Grama Niladhari and Divisional Secretary levels)

He said requests from the Northern Province for any relaxation to the buffer zone regulations have not been formally reported to the advisory council of the CCD

Accordingly the recommended buffer zone perimeter for the western, southern and eastern coastal belt varies between 30 to 80 metres. Reduction in the distance would depend on land availability in Grama Niladhari Divisions in the given Divisional Secretariats.

For example the buffer zone perimeter in Mutur, Kinniya, Kuchchaweli in the Trincomalee District has been relaxed from the earlier 200 metres to 60 metres.

Dr. Samaranayake said any further requests for rebuilding purposes within the stipulated buffer zones should be directed through relevant ministries for approval.

Under the interim guidelines, Cabinet early this year allowed the hotel sector coming under the Tourism Ministry to rebuild within the buffer zone if it adhered to certain criteria.

Permission to commence rebuilding was granted if construction work was proceeding at the time the tsunami struck and if the damage was estimated at 40 percent.

According to the interim guidelines in the event the cost of rebuilding exceeded 40 percent the Ceylon Tourist Board was supposed to provide a location for rebuilding.

Hotels shut down as CCD-Govt. miss out on communication
Located within the 100-metre buffer zone, the Dickwella Village Hotel has been out of business for the past ten months, having been forced to shut down by the Coast Conservation Department, because of the lack of proper communication between the government and the CCD.

“Although, according to the government, all hotels with less than 40% in damages could reconstruct their buildings in the same location, we weren’t allowed to”, Hotel General Manager Bathiya Gunasekera said and added that when they reconstructed their boundary wall, it was pulled down by the CCD.
He said this was an instance of clear proof of the lack of communication between the government and the CCD.

“Unfortunately we were at the receiving end of their poor communication. The Italian owners of the hotel, shut it down and left the country,” he said.
Mr. Gunasekera said the hotel’s management had submitted an appeal to the CCD requesting permission to re-open, but to no avail. We are yet to receive a response from the CCD”, Mr. Gunasekera said.

What tourism without beaches, says Ramanujam
The 100-200m buffer zone would have had a detrimental effect on the tourism industry, as no tourists would patronise a hotel, located so far off the beach, Tourism Ministry Secretary P. Ramanujam said.

“If there’s no beach, there’s no tourism”, he said. This is true especially with regard to hotels along the eastern coastal belt. Furthermore, in areas like Phuket, most of their hotels have already been rebuilt on the same location and that they were back in business”, he said.

Therefore, in view of the government’s decision to revise the buffer zone regulations, making it more flexible and objective, the Tourism Ministry has stipulated a few safety guidelines, like no rooms to be constructed on the ground floor and evacuation plans for the hotels to adhere to when reconstructing their hotels, Dr. Ramanujam said.

He said decisions would have to be taken on a case-by- case basis, as the buffer zone requirement would depend on the landscape of each area.
Dr. Ramanujam said for instance areas like Tangalle which are situated on a relatively higher level, would require less of a buffer zone, whereas, most places along the east coast would require a bigger margin. He said that having one rule for tourism and another for the locals was unfair and as such the authorities were doing their best to make it fair for everyone.

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