Mattala International Airport In Mid-air Battle
Disregard For Environmentalists’ Warning Nosedives
By Nirmala Kannangara
The Aviation Ministry’s failure to heed the warnings issued by the environmentalists over the birds’ movement in Mattala airstrip has now become a great threat for air travel, environmentalists claim.
Following the second accident faced by SriLankan Airline flight – UL 114 on its way from Male to Katunayake via Mattala on Monday March 25, environmentalists claim that these accidents could have been averted had the Aviation Ministry listened to them when plans were drawn to construct the country’s second international airport.
“All attempts to educate the Aviation Ministry of the consequences that have to be faced in future when plans were drawn to construct an international airport at Mattala were ignored. Since this area is populated with migrant birds throughout the year we told the government to shift the location to a place with less vulnerability, but their failure to listen to us has now brought several consequences,” Director, Environment Conservation Trust, Sajeewa Chamikara said.
Meanwhile, the Central Environment Authority (CEA) and Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) too have come under severe criticism for granting permission to construct an airport in an area where migrant birds are in plenty, disregarding the strong opposition from environmentalists.
“There was no reason for the CEA to allow the Aviation Ministry to carry out an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for the Mattala airport project as it was clear that the area is not suitable for such a project as the lives of birds and animals as well as humans that travel in aircrafts were always at a risk. When the EIA was opened for public comments, we submitted our proposals showing what the impact would be to the wildlife as well as to the Aviation Ministry. As a result the CEA had to hold back granting their approval for the project, but ultimately due to strict presidential orders approvals had been given disregarding our proposals and warning. We know that government institutions cannot overrule presidential directives but what is the purpose of maintaining such institutions with public money if they are not given a free hand to discharge their duties. As a result of these shortsighted ideas the country is losing millions of rupees,” said Chamikara.
Due to the Aviation Ministry’s failure to ignore the environmental impact, aircrafts are now faced threats when landing and taking off flights from Mattala.
According to SriLankan Airline sources, UL 114 flight from Male to Katunayake Bandaranaike International Airport via Mattala had collided with a flock of birds in midair after taking off from the airport. This has caused a crack on the cockpit windscreen.
Although the windscreen was not shattered according to sources, there was a great threat to the lives of the pilots had the windscreen shattered due to the pressure, which would have been a dangerous situation.
“The pilots were able to bring the aircraft to Katunayake within a short period. In case of a crack on the cockpit windscreen, there are chances to get it shattered due to the air pressure. Fortunately such an unfortunate incident did not occur, if not the lives of the pilots would have been in danger. It was not an issue since this aircraft was to be landed within a shorter period, but it would have been a complete different story had this happened to an aircraft that was going out of the country,” said the sources.
Meanwhile, Chamikara said that this situation would have been made worse had the government constructed the airport in Bundala as planned before.
“Before the Mattala proposal was forwarded, the government wanted to construct the airport in Bundala where migrant birds are in flocks in midair all the time. It was the farmer organisations and the environmentalists that agitated against the idea and filed a fundamental right application in Appeal Court and got an injunction order. That was how the initial plan had to be shifted to Mattala,” said Chamikara.
Pressure from the top
Chamikara further accused the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) for releasing 2000 hectares of wildlife land for the Mattala airport project once again due to the pressure from the ‘top’.
“When we inquired the DWC as to why they were releasing 2000 hectares for the airport project, we were told that only 800 hectares would be given and the rest would be used to build an elephant corridor to bring more elephants to the area in order to boost tourism in the country. They wanted to make the surrounding area populated with elephants, so the tourists that were flying over the Mattala tarmac could see the elephants and other wildlife clearly,” added Chamikara.
According to Chamikara, an electric fence is to be installed around the airport to prevent wildlife coming to the area, but added that it would not be easy to keep away the wildlife from the airport premises once their day- to-day life is disturbed due to loud noises during landing and taking offs.
“In the wild, the animals want to live a peaceful life. These loud noises will change their lifestyles and when they get panicked they can break the electric fence and come to the airport. In such instances, the airport officials have no other options, but to shoot at them with air riffles the way how they kill birds that come to the Katunayake tarmac. Although birds come rarely to Katunayake, it is completely different at Mattala. It would be a difficult task for the airport and aviation officers to monitor the movements of birds and other animals within the premises,” claimed Chamikara.
He further said that some air control officers at Mattala had wanted the environmentalists to urge the Aviation Ministry to change the air path towards Australia as it would disturb the wildlife in Yala National Park.
“According to these Air Control Officers, the flights that take the route towards Australia fly 3500 feet above the Yala National Park. The vibration would disturb the wildlife. It would not be a big issue for the Aviation Ministry as this path can be changed from the signal light system,” claimed Chamikara. Meanwhile, Chairman CEA Wimal Rubasinghe said that there was no issue of granting permission for the airport project as all stakeholders have given their clearance.
“Since there was no objection from any stakeholders we gave permission to Mattala project. I refute the allegations leveled against this institution by the environmentalists. Those allegations are made to mislead the people,” said Rubasinghe.
Director General Wildlife Conservation H.D. Ratnayake was not available for a comment.