Arabian geographers of old named them the "Gobbs of Serendib" but the Dutch realized the potential of sheets of water which studded the Western Coastline. They seized "the opportunity to establish lines of waterways which provided both easy and cheap transport of goods from outlying areas to their ports. (Links between Sri Lanka and The Netherlands " R L Brohier)
Many of Sri Lanka"s rivers flow down to the low-country from the mountain ranges and then move over the flat land to the sea. The sand and soil that comes down river collects in heaps, and forms sandbars at their mouths. These obstacles force the river waters to flow behind and around them in search of new outlets forming chains of lakes and lagoons. "Few Dutch projects contributed in larger measure to the prosperity of the districts they served, than the canal-cuts made to link streams, lakes and lagoons." (Links between Sri Lanka and The Netherlands " R L Brohier)
The system of canals dates back to the time of King Vira Parakrama Bahu VIII of Kotte, the country"s capital for some time in the 15th century. The canals led to Negombo on the Western Coast of Sri Lanka, then a busy seaport and there is evidence that countries such as China, Burma, Rome and Greece traded with the rulers of Lanka at that time. The purpose of the original waterways was to transport the export produce to seafaring ships leaving from the port of Negombo; the cargoes consisting of precious stones, pearls and spices, cloves, cardamoms, pepper, arecanuts and above all, cinnamon " "the bride round whom they all danced in Ceylon."
Spices which grew in profusion drew the attention of many foreigners to this country. Keble writes of "the wilderness of cinnamon that stretches from Mount Lavinia almost up to the guns of Colombo." The first to arrive were Moorish traders, followed by the merchant adventurers " the Portuguese with the Dutch hard on their heels. The Moors used packbulls and cheap manual labour for transporting goods. The Portuguese constructed a canal from Hendala to Pamunugama in the 17th century and even established a fortress in Negombo overlooking the spice fields rather than fortification. (Most of the fort stands to this day and is used as a prison.) The merchant adventurers from The Dutch East India Company were also lured by the same treasures, besides, "the strategic value of this Island was clearly seen by both nations in their scheme of an Eastern Empire" (Brook Elliot).
Having established Colombo as their capital the Dutch tried to grow paddy in the Muthurajawela marshes, but found, as the kings had done before them, that changing tides inundated the fields with sea water. Therefore, around the 18th century, the Dutch set up the structures, dams and water cuts which enhanced and developed the old system of waterways to siphon out salt water from the fields and transport cinnamon in barges to the nearest port. Thus, the canals formed a "continuous line of waterways between ports and the remote sections of territory under the Dutch" (Brohier).
The canals which meander through the city of Colombo and its suburbs, connect the Kelani River to Puttalam in the North, through the Negombo and Chilaw lagoons, with a cut across to Kalpitiya. The connection to Kalutara and Beruwela in the South is through the Kotte Lake, Kirillapone, Dehiwela and Nedimale canals to Bolgoda Lake and then to the Kalu Ganga. Canals were also constructed in Galle and Matara for the transport of goods, floating timber down from forests and as a flood control measure, while the coast North and South of Batticaloa was one of the oldest routes developed.
Grandpass, as the name denotes, was the centre for all canal traffic in Dutch and, later, British times where, there was a ferry on the Kelani River. It was often congested with the flat-bottomed "padda" boats used for the transport of goods such as copra, pepper, cinnamon and arrack from the distilleries. A branch flowed past Lake House to join the harbour while another section, now blocked up, joined the sea at Galle Face, beside the beautiful old parliament building now used as a Secretariat. One of the main canals was the San Sebastian Canal which began at Grandpass and flowed through the Bloemendhal marshes, past the bottom of Hulftsdorp Hill to flow into the Beira Lake. It is interesting to note here that Hulftsdorp Hill, named after the Dutch Governor Hulft, is now the centre of the judicial system housing the splendid colonnaded old buildings of the Dutch Courts as well as the magnificent new Superior Courts.
South of Colombo city, the Dehiwela and Wellawatte bridges are built across further extensions of the canal network in those two suburbs and the British had added a cut later for flood control. These branches join the sea at two picturesque outlets both popular haunts for the anglers of Colombo who are often seen silhouetted against the sky before the first rays of sunlight streak the sky or later after the sun has dipped beneath the sea.
'Padda' boats have been described as "flat-bottomed boats with removable roofing " often of "cadjan" or dried coconut palms " which carried loads of salt, cinnamon, coconuts, timber etc." (Colombo - Muller) The boats of old were either punted or towed by men in "double harness chanting age-old songs" as they walked. These tow paths have now been improved, widened and strengthened in an ambitious project undertaken by the Sri Lanka Land Reclamation and Development Corporation (SLLRDC). Wide service roads, landscaped footpaths and scenic walkways now stretch parallel to the canals in the Greater Colombo Area enhancing the environment. A stroll along these pathways by the Open University or Heen Marsh at the Rajagiriya end is best either early morning when birds are in full chorus or at sundown. The tranquil water meanders before you with the glorious colours of sunset painting the sky in the distance and reflected sometimes in the water below. Little shrines and temples dot the canal banks, nestling beneath sacred Bo Trees and, the flickering flames of the oil lamps lit in pooja (offering) to the deities, glimmer like fireflies at night.
"These navigable lanes present many fascinating water spreads of reposeful beauty" (Brohier). The canals and connected wetlands are veritable treasure houses of interesting flora and fauna. Varieties of butterflies and over 40 species of fish, including the Golden Raspbora and the Red Barb both of which are now threatened with extinction have been reported according to a study of the Colombo Flood Detention Area. The canals" banks are also home to 16 species of snakes, such as the python, cobra and water snakes, the latter too being near extinction. Tetrapod reptiles have been seen and some of these are nationally threatened e.g. Mela-nochelys trijuga (Gal Ibba) and Lisseymys punctata (Kiri Ibba) and two crocodile species, otters and civet cats and the fishing cat, another threatened species, have also been detected near the Kotte Marsh.
The Ibis, Purple Coot, Kingfisher, Grebes and Cormorants have been seen feeding along the Kolonnawa Canal as well as in the Dutch Canal by the Muthurajawela Wetlands Centre. The Common Sandpiper is often seen along edges of canals. The Heen Marsh is popular with the Pond Heron and Red Wattled Lapwing while the Ashy Prinia and Common Babbler favour the Kotte Marsh. Cattle Egrets and pelicans have been seen near Parliament Lake and the curlew along the bank of the canal in the Heen Marsh, near the Milk Board.
The Hamilton Canal was originally constructed by the Dutch and later improved and strengthened by the British, hence its Anglicized name. Fleets of fishing boats, painted in bright colours and bearing unusual names are berthed along this section of the canal in Hendala. Children and men swim and frolic in the water and across the canal fishermen"s simple homes of weather-board and cadjan are set among the coconut palms.
This canal is maintained periodically and rockfill work is done where banks are eroded. Hotels in the vicinity are interested in developing the canals for water sports such as rowing, boating, sailing, water-skiing and paddle boating. Related leisure time activities are also planned which would mean the construction of boat-houses, ca-banas, restaurants on land and on the water, cafes and gardens or parks, thus linking the waterways with the adjoining land. The SLLRDC intends joining the Hamilton Canal with the Colombo network to develop the tourist industry as well as for transport of public and produce. It is anticipated that these activities will get off the ground by at least the beginning of next year if not sooner. The waterways earmarked for these projects include the Diyawanna Lake, Kotte and perhaps the Beira Lake.
Investors are expected to conform to environmental requirements and the Corporation will ensure that the guidelines are adhered to. Land will be leased for these sports and leisure projects while sections of the waterways will be rented on the basis of a licensing fee. Tenders have been received for these projects and they are from private sector investors with foreign collaborators who are presently engaged in similar activities in countries such as Singapore and Thailand.
Although it has been lamented that we tend to forget or overlook the scope and uses of the canal system today, the Sri Lanka Land Reclamation & Development Corporation is now involved in a project to put this right. The canals in Colombo and its suburbs are being restored and rehabilitated with foreign funding. 90 percent of this work has been completed with about 44 kilometres of the canals being deepened, cleared and widened. Besides, certain sections of the network are still in use but not to their fullest potential. The Colombo - Puttalam canal provides water for about 900 shrimp farms which are major foreign exchange earners as well as generating employment for about 40,000 persons. Shallow water fishing is carried out even now in the Negombo area, Wellawatte and Kolonnawa Canals.
Many senior citizens still recall travelling by 'padda' boat to places of worship on pilgrimage from Colombo. One such spot is the shrine of St. Anne, close to Palangathurai where the feast is celebrated in August. The canal here is still in use chiefly by shallow water fishermen, and stretches all the way to Puttalam. The SLLRDC also proposes to improve, and, in some cases renew, the movement of people and produce along these waterways. Although at present goods are moved by boat the facilities are inadequate and will, therefore, be streamlined by provision of jetties and mooring bays etc., for payment of a fee to the authorities.
The secondary purpose of the network in Dutch times was flood control and improved draining both of which are anticipated targets of the work now undertaken.
To quote the SLLRDC, the waterways have been given "an expensive face lift" but no silicone has been used! Therefore, the canal network bequeathed by the Dutch, will form an important part of the country"s economy once again.