Kelani River Contaminated With Cancer Causing Chemical?

Posted in: Global Water News, Water Contamination
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Coca Cola Factory in Sri Lanka (Photo credit: Hafsa Sabry)

Article courtesy of Hafsa Sabry| September 22, 2015 | The Sunday Leader |Shared as Educational Material

The issue of water pollution is yet to be addressed seriously since the relevant authorities say that the inspections and the investigations are still underway to find the reason for groundwater and surface water contamination in several areas in the country.

Water contamination is not a new problem to Sri Lanka as people have already undergone such problems in the recent past in Rathupaswala, Jaffna and most recently in Kelaniya. Colombo and its suburbs experienced a water-cut on August, 17 due to the contamination of Kelani River water with around 1,900 liters of diesel leaked by the Coca-Cola Beverages into the Kelani River.

Despite the fact that measures were taken to purify the Kelani River water, people in the area complained that there is still some content of oil left in the water. A considerable number of people who have been using only river water for their domestic usage and for consumption are still affected by the incident.

Many People in the area along the Kelani River bank say that they use the river water only for their domestic usage whereas they get supplies of well water for drinking.

“The water is not that clean as it used to be even after the purification, there is a little bit of oil in the water hence we use the well water for drinking purposes”, said Priyadharshani, one of the villagers in Hewagama.

People from that area as well as Colombo areas faced many difficulties as a result of the water cut on   August 17, which was enforced without a prior notification from the relevant authorities.

The villagers say that they were not aware of the contamination of the Kelani River water until it was too late –  they had already consumed the contaminated water by the time they realised that there was something wrong with the water.

“There was a heavy smell of Kerosene oil and water tasted of some chemicals and we could clearly see oil floating on the surface of the water filled in the bottles. Therefore, we started using water from the wells”, said the villagers.

Chandralatha from Mulleriyawa, one of the areas along the Kelani River bank said that she and her family was badly affected by the contaminated water since they use neither pipe-borne water nor well water. They claimed that river was the only source of water they used. She also said that she could not even bathe in the river due to the oil contamination which could be seen very clearly even with the naked eye.“Since I am an employee of a factory in the area I cannot afford to buy mineral water bottles hence, I boiled the water for consumption but used the contaminated water for cooking purposes reluctantly”, said she.

She went on to say that there was a thick layer of oil on the surface of the Kelani River on the day of the water cut and they did not have any access to pure drinking water as they did not have any facility to store water. She added that they did not own a well nor had a well anywhere nearby, therefore underwent lot of difficulties.

Another villager Indika in Welivita area said that he uses a water tank to store water hence that day he had stored a tank of oil contaminated water unknowingly. Thus, he had to drain the whole tank of water unused which caused him an extra expense for the month.

He went on to say that he has a paralysed father and a family to look after therefore the extra expense caused him lot of hardships. “What happens to people like us when things like this happens without prior notifications?” he questioned.

In the meantime, people in the villages of Biyagama, Welivita, Hewagama, Ambatale and Mulleriyawa along the Kelani River Bank accused the Coca-Cola Beverages for not informing the people about the contamination. “They are the first people to know about the leakage they should have at least informed us not to drink the contaminated water. It even had a heavy smell of Kerosene and was oily” they said. However, it was said that the contaminated water of the Kelani River was purified – and purified water was supplied to the affected areas by the National Water Supply and Drainage Board (NWSDB). The Chairman of the Water Board K.A. Ansar said that he was not aware that the issue still prevails. “I thought it was over and I would not make any counter arguments on it, we will check and arrange to purify the water if it is still contaminated, but I assure the purification process was successful and over”.

However, since 2011 there were many allegations against several factories in Galle and Gampaha districts claiming that the water for domestic use has been contaminated by the disposals from the factories. The groundwater as well as the surface water was contaminated by these factories.

The Chairman of the National Water Supply and Drainage Board (NWSDB) K. A. Ansar, while responding to question told The Sunday Leader that the ground pollution purification process is underway around Galle and Gampaha districts and the CEA is doing their best to arrest such incidents in future.

“One of the palm oil factories in Galle did not have a proper water treatment plant in their premises during the past few years but now we have fixed that problem following the establishment of water treatment plants for the factory”, claims CEA.


The Director of Environment Conservation Trust (ECT) Sajeewa Chamikara said, that the Kelani River water was not only contaminated by diesel of the Coca-Cola Beverages Sri Lanka (CCBSL) but also with 4-methylimidazole, an organic chemical which is used in Coca-Cola to get the colour of Caramel.

When the relevant authorities checked the contaminated river water, it was reported that 4-methylimidazole has been contaminated as 0.5 grams/liter which was not an ordinary level.

The Kelani River water was contaminated with diesel on August  17, but, the purification process started on August 28, hence, for more than 10 days people have been consuming the water which was contaminated by a high level of 4-methylimidazole, an organic chemical which has been banned in California as it contains elements that causes cancer. Most of the factories in Sri Lanka are located along the river bankas to dispose their waste easily and they function while violating the National Environmental act which should be updated or strongly implemented says Chamikara.

Even though, the Environmental Protection Licenses (EPL) are renewed every year the CEA lacks man power to monitor the factories during that one year.

If they have a mechanism to monitor and inspect the factories once in four months, they will be able to arrest such contaminations with domestic usage water in futureI, said Chamikara.

Environmentalist Jagath Gunawardena noted that the Sri Lanka government should pay more serious attention to the existing water contaminations in the country since it is the fundamental rights of the people to get clean water for their consumption.

There have been several contaminations all over Sri Lanka during the past few years. Even though the relevant authorities promise to prevent such water contamination incidents in future, no solid actions have been taken to prevent the contamination of domestic usage water.

There are two ways of water getting polluted, one is the groundwater pollution and the other is the surface water pollution. Most of the factories in Sri Lanka do not adhere to the law in disposing their waste materials which cause the water pollution in both the ways.

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