The Sri Lankan capital of Colombo is a city crossed by canals, a legacy of colonial rule in this South Asian island nation. The longest canal within the city is Sebastian Canal, which connects Beira Lake with the Kelani Ganga river.
Above, the canal flows beneath Khettarama Temple Road, near a small picturesque stupa nestled between oil tanks and a cricket stadium.
City of Colombo
Looking at a map of the city’s waterways, we see it bound on the western side by the Indian Ocean, Kelani Ganga on the north, Heen Ela canal on the east, and Dehiwala Canal on the south.
Although the city’s name sounds like that of the famed explorer who erroneously “discovered” India half a world away, it is actually derived from the classical Sinhalese name කොලොන් තොට Kolon thota, meaning “port on the River Kelani.” Colombo was put on the map by the Portuguese, the first in a long line of European visitors who prized the port for its location They were followed by the Dutch in 1656, who brought to Colombo their country’s penchant for urban canals. In the Americas, the Dutch outpost of New Amsterdam also had canals running through it.
Both of these cities later fell under British rule. New Amsterdam became New York and its canals were subsequently filled, while Colombo’s canals continued to transport spices on flatboats for generations to come. The canal passed by features that still carry Dutch names to this day, such as the Bloemendahl swamp and Hulftsdorp Hill on its way to Beira Lake. Along with geography, there are many Sri Lankans today who are descended from the Dutch, a class known informally as the Burghers. In 1796, the British ousted the Dutch and ruled the island until 1948. Owing to its location at the tip of South Asia, the crown colony of Ceylon was a vital link in the British Empire’s maritime trade routes. Colombo and its canals were experiencing their busiest traffic during this period.
Pollution and Overdevelopment
In the decades following independence, the city’s population increased greatly. Lacking adequate wastewater management, much of the sewage from homes and industries ended up in the canal.
In 2014, the Sri Lanka Ministry of Defence and Urban Development commissioned a study on the canal, documenting (above) the conditions along its banks. Recommendations in the report included the reconstruction of the banks to prevent erosion, improving flow to prevent stagnation, and creation of more open space along its banks. In September 2016, the local firm Access Engineering announced that it had completed improvements on Sebastian Canal, with dredging and retaining wall constructed. Sebastian Canal functions primarily as a stormwater conduit for the city. The canal is managed by the Drainage & Reclamation Division of the Sri Lanka Land Reclamation and Development Corporation.
As improvements continue, perhaps in the near future the flatboats will return to its wider sections, this time transporting not so much spices as tourists, making Colombo the Amsterdam (or Venice) of South Asia that it once was.
For Your Visit: If you’re planning on exploring Colombo, start with Colombo City Tours’ double decker bus excursion.
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