Colombo Telegraph

Drinking Water Contamination In Jaffna; Reactions & Responses

By C.V. Wigneswaran

C.V Wigneswaran

Guru Brahma…

Hon’ Governor, Hon’ Ministers, Hon’ Members of the Provincial Council, Hon’ Chairmen of Piradesa Sabais, my dear officials and others!

Due to the technical nature of this meeting let me converse with you in the English language. I am thankful to the Hon’ Governor for his preliminary address. As a prelude to mine let me state hear clearly that I believe drinking water is right to life. We must on our part find a solution to any problem which affects this right because it seriously concerns the health and life of our people. We were elected by our people in large numbers hoping that we would look after their interests. People reposed trust in us. Therefore please be rest assured that we are as interested or more interested in the plight of our people as those demonstrating or reacting. We have not been complacent nor will we be. Yet let me start with a story.

At a Restaurant a cockroach suddenly flew from somewhere and sat on a lady. She started screaming out of fear. She started jumping with both her hands desperately trying to get rid of the cockroach. Her reaction was contagious as everyone in her group also got panicky. The lady finally managed to push the cockroach away. But it landed on another lady in the group. Now it was the turn of the other lady in the group to continue the drama. The waiter rushed forward to their rescue. In the relay of throwing the cockroach, it next fell upon the waiter. The waiter stood firm, composed himself and observed the behavior of the cockroach on his shirt. When he was confident enough, he grabbed it with his fingers and threw it out of the Restaurant. Now what happened? It was not the cockroach but the inability of the ladies to handle the disturbance caused by the cockroach that affected negatively the ladies. More than a problem it is our reaction to the problem that creates chaos in our life. Reactions are always instinctive whereas responses are well thought out.

It is time that all of us responded to the Drinking Water Contamination Issue rather than reacted. We could thus glean a lesson from this story.

It would be prudent to assume that the assertion of oil contamination of some wells around the Chunnakam Power Station has some basis in fact and proceed from there.

I am told by those in the field of Hydrology that the first priority should be to assess the nature and seriousness of the contamination through what is known as a Preliminary Site Assessment (PSA). On a quick study we must ascertain historical data of the site and its surrounds, then move on to assess the size of the contaminated site and also the perceived source of contamination. Next we must study the historical land uses including agriculture. We are also expected to study the soil characteristics of the area as well as permeability and absorption rates. I believe we need to also study the nature of the shallow ground water aquifer going through available data on infiltration rates and flow rates of the shallow ground water. Physical parameters including data on the topography, rainfall and runoff, general catchment area and any surface flow data to assess the likelihood and extent of off – site transport paths for the pollutants or contaminants into water sources must also be studied. We are also expected to study all data on all other chemicals used on the site since a whole range of other Hydrocarbons including fuel oil, grease and others are likely to have been spilled or dumped into these sites.

If such study with the data referred to above in the Preliminary Site Assessment finds the area to be contaminated I am told the following steps need to be taken.

01. Do a detailed physical survey of the site as well as other related sites through sampling existing wells and also installing small diameter boreholes for sampling the soil and water underground for technical rigour and quality control purposes and depending on what that produces, take the next step.

02. The next step would be remediation of the contaminated site in line with Health Regulations and International norms. This can be achieved by in situ oxidation and/or treatment using appropriate materials removing the contaminated soil to a safe site destroying the contaminants there and then placing the contaminant-free materials at the site from which it was removed.

03. Thereafter we need to establish a network of small diameter bore holes to delineate and monitor the movement of the plume vertically and laterally to confirm that no further contaminants enter the ground water from the same treated site.

04. Of course such actions will require a sound funding commitment from International funding Agencies which might not be difficult to arrange, I am told.

I believe in this complete process internationally recognized as the steps to be taken generally in cases of this nature, we are still at the initial stage. We have sampled existing wells. What more has been done will no doubt be explained by the Experts’ Committee.

Now we have reactions, like the ladies in the story, from certain quarters. They say sampling was not properly done. They say instruments used are not appropriate or faulted. They say Experts have not been property selected. All these are being done even before the Final Report is out. They on their part have not furnished any alternative report. My response to such reaction is check the process adopted in taking water from wells for sampling, check the validity or suitability of the instruments used, check the academic backgrounds of each of those Experts selected. If need be those who question the legitimacy and the appropriateness of the sampling done and as to the suitability of the Experts’ Committee should have them placed side by side with those already obtained and observe any differences.

In fact I was given a copy of the results released by a Company in Colombo at the request of those who react. There was hardly any difference in the conclusions therein in comparison with the findings so far of the Experts Committee. Unfortunately that report has not been placed officially before us yet. I might say herein that I respect the professional integrity of our Academics who have come into this to help us and not to help themselves.

There are a few matters I would like to impress here.

Firstly we have already stated that it is not advisable to drink the water from the wells in the affected areas until a proper scientific conclusion is arrived at.

Secondly we would continue to make available water in bowzers for use in the affected areas.

Thirdly I would say that oil and grease in water is only a part of the problem. I am told there are nitrates, phosphates and other contaminants in the well waters used in the Northern Province which have been the consequence of the indiscriminate use of fertilizers and pesticides in areas of intense agricultural cultivation. The consequences of the use of deadly weapons during the War on the land have still not been scientifically assessed. While we come to a decision on one aspect of pollution our failure to tackle other areas of pollution might lead to the type of kidney diseases experienced in certain areas and also to the cancerous outcome predicted in other circumstances. We must be circumspective, scientific and pragmatic in our approach. I am sure we would be.

Fourthly let me refer to an unfortunate statement recently made by our youthful Minister Hakeem. It might be noted here that neither the Honourable Minister nor his Ministry nor Department requested the NPC for any Reports concerning the Oil issue. If such a request had been made I would appreciate if a copy of such a communication is made available to me. My inquiries show no such letter was ever sent to us. If my information is correct then this statement of the Honourable Minister gives a political hue to a simple localised problem. I would sincerely ask all concerned not to make political capital out of the sufferings of our people.

I would now like to call upon any Member of the Experts’ Committee to state as to what steps they have so far taken and what more steps need to be taken hereafter. Thereafter we could discuss the several aspects keeping in mind the related matters I have enumerated above.

Let us not forget that all of us are interested in the collective health of our communities here, present and future. It is a duty cast upon each of us to formulate a sustainable solution to the issues at stake. Our Ministers have shown considerable interest in this matter and taken all possible precedent steps appropriate. It is because of the type of reaction that has set in recently that I have taken over collectively with our Ministers the task of finding the appropriate solution to the problem. All of you are part of us in finding such a solution. Please do not excise yourself from the responsibility and cast aspersions on some of us only.

May I therefore call upon every one of you to kindly respond rather than react in this instance. Thank you.

*Northern Province Chief Minister Justice C.V.Wigneswaran’s speech on Drinking Water Contamination Issue In Jaffna District – Meeting of officials and others at the Jaffna Kachcheri on 12/04/2015 at 9.30 am

Back to Home page