‘It’s not too late to save our forests, fauna and flora’ : Environmentalists up in arms over mini-hydro plants

Construction of a mini-hydro plant in progress - EIA or IEE approved?

With the increasing demand for electricity and exploring new avenues of power generation, sometimes we forget what the limit is or the lines that need not be crossed. Is electricity so important that we must get it at whatever cost?

For many reasons mini-hydro plants were opted for, in order to circumvent the power crisis. But, the impact it has made socially, economically and most importantly environmentally is catastrophic.

Many environmentalists and activists who are raising concerns and making awareness in this regard, point the finger at the procedure in granting licences to mini-hydro plant builders. One of the top environmental activists in the country, Kusum Athukorale points out, it is imperative that these constructions are halted if we are to salvage whatever remains of the environment.

“One of the main factors is that this entire process of granting licences or giving the green light to mini-hydro plants is done without community consultation. The best way to tackle this is to make the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) mandatory, instead of the Initial Environment Examination (IEE). Under the EIA the community consultation component is mandatory. This is one way to mitigate this distress,” Athukorale explained.

The EIA is typically carried out by an independent third party and most importantly in preparing an EIA it will take the concerns and opinions of those who will be affected by the project. However, an IEE is a report usually compiled and filed by the developer and in most circumstances it is heavily tampered with to benefit the builder.

Many at the initial stage were of the view that mini-hydro plants can be beneficial. The chairman of the Organisation, Jagath Thrimawitharana, to protect Anda Dola says, he was also of the opinion that these projects would be beneficial to the people. “When these mini hydro projects were initially introduced we were of the opinion that it could help us and be a beneficial project to the village and the villagers. But, when we did our own research and found out its effects, we realized that the damage that will be caused is far greater than the benefits, and irreversible. Specifically, in Anda Dola over 5.85 kilometres have dried out,” he said.

Financial giants

Thrimawitharana is an ex Air Force automobile engineer, now retired and settled down in a village near the Anda Dola, and attends to his small scale cultivation. As much as the environmental impact, another disaster that came along with mini-hydro plants are disagreements within the people of the village. “By now even the people in the village have locked horns with each other. Most of them have been paid in order to get their support,” he says. According to Thrimawitharana, builders who are financial giants have paid many along the line from its initiation. The villagers and some temples are also being influenced by them. “In a village it is important that the people are cooperative in their day to day living and the breach of such social togetherness can harm in many unfathomable ways,” he said. A key factor that needs to be considered here is, whether the contribution by mini-hydro plants outweighs the damage it causes. However, when you consider the power contribution towards the grid, mini-hydro plants barely make the line.

According to the President of Rain Forest Protectors of Sri Lanka, Shriyantha Perera: “The average contribution of a mini-hydro project to the National Grid is approximately 1 MW which is just 0.02% of total power generation in the country which stands at 4,200 MW. Even if all viable waterfalls, streams and rivers are dammed for mini-hydro projects, no more than 400 MW will be added to the National Grid, which is less than 5% of the total power needed by 2025.”

The detrimental effects of mini-hydro plants will be evident in time to come by which time the damage done will be irreversible.

Natural occurrences

“About 50 waterfalls have been directly affected by these projects and overall the number is much more. Most of the waterfalls and water resources spanning from the Central to the Sabaragamuwa Provinces have been heavily affected by these projects. There are 106 waterfalls in Sabaragamuwa alone, and a majority of them are corrupted”, said Jayantha Wijeysinghe, convener of Rain Forest Protectors of Sri Lanka The environmental impact, especially, its effect on fish and other species that depend on water for breeding and many other needs is unimaginable. Fish living on the bottom of the river tend to travel to the top to lay eggs and vice versa. Similar natural occurrences are hindered by barricading the natural water flow for construction.

Thrimawitharan points out that even when licences are granted certain requirements need to be abided by. However, there have been instances of breaches of such requirements. For example: “It is a requirement that construction is carried out without using explosives for rock blasting. But, there have been instances where it was carried out illegally and some have been penalized to pay compensation. But, how can compensation help after the damage is done to the flora and fauna? And, they are only allowed to cut a minimum number of trees; there have been breaches of such requirements. However, other than compensation, no constructions have been halted for this reason. And, I very positively say, this is because of the political influence that is behind it.” Kusum Athukorale says, another mitigating factor is to stop the damage to our very sensitive ecosystem which is under distress.

“We add to it by devastating the sensitive ecosystem areas which we cannot bring back by regeneration. Over and over again, we have showed the importance of a moratorium.” Sri Lanka is a signatory to the Sustainable Development Goals, and hence, we must ensure that development is reached without destroying nature. Environmental sustainability is a factor that was harped upon in the Sustainable Development Goals which provides:

“Environmental sustainability: Climate change and other environmental problems have a serious impact on people, economy, and natural resources. Therefore, it is important for countries to develop their economies while eliminating or minimizing damage to the environment. 

 It is abundantly clear that “develop first and clean up later” model used by developed countries and some advanced developing countries at the initial stage of their development, cannot be continued anymore because, such an approach is likely to be costly to those countries.

Therefore, it is critically important for Sri Lanka to find an appropriate balance between economic growth and environmental sustainability.”

Speaking to the Sunday Observer, Minister of Sustainable Development and Wildlife, Gamini Jayawickrama Perera says, he is working to curb the unnecessary adverse environmental impact.

Chaotic

He said, “based on the shortage and electricity crisis at one point mini hydro plants were encouraged. However, at present, the situation has become chaotic.

It is more harmful towards the environment than what we predicted. It’s high time to forward a proposal to the Cabinet to monitor this process and control the damage it has created socially and environmentally. According to the information I have been able to gather, villagers are at rift and divided on the matter.

I would be appointing a committee to make recommendations and advise how to move forward with minimum impact, and to forward a report to the Cabinet,” he said. However, so far the government or the relevant authorities have not looked at alternatives such as, solar power, says Thrimawithara.

Solar power

“To produce one megawatt of solar power the cost is very minimal. We could encourage the use of solar power by introducing it in government institutions. Even the Ceylon Electricity Board shows less enthusiasm despite what they have promoted,” he said.

“Another point they bring forward is that solar power only works during day time and not during night time.” Which is complete false, he said.

Kusum Athukorale, pointing out that it is still not too late to save our forests, fauna and flora, insists that recovery needs to be immediate.

“Let’s not misunderstand how much we can play around with nature.

The natural resources and development is something that can go together if people don’t become so greedy. At the end of the day it will be you and I who will have to pay,” she said. 

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