25 November, 2020

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Ecological Disaster – In Vallikamam, North Sri Lanka

By Daya Somasundaram

Prof. Daya Somasundaram

Prof. Daya Somasundaram

There is an ecological disaster of serious proportions taking shape over the last few years with the effects already showing in the Vallikamam area of Northern Sri Lanka. It is being realized by the more than quarter million people living in Vallikamam that their ground water is polluted by oil waste. According to samples of well water from a 1.5 km diameter area surrounding the Chunnakam power station taken during 2013 – 2014, the great majority of wells (73%) were contaminated with oil levels above the acceptable level (1 mg of oil/ L of water). Since then, from observations reported by residents, the oil contamination appears to have spread to contaminate wells to an area of over 4km in diameter. The health, ecological and other long term impacts of the oil pollution is not known. The recent Water Resource Board reports says “long term expose of the contamination may cause cancer, miscarriages and detriment to Early Childhood Development, Skin and mental health”. However, though there is already widespread alarm, apprehension, anxiety, panic and confusion among the general public, they have not been informed of what the risks are, what they have to do; and, what the government needs to do or will do to contain the disaster. Instead, with the lack of authoritative, authentic and clear information, there are unsubstantiated rumours, misinformation, conjectures, theories, fear and unrest. For example, recently (28 Feb. 2015), at a public meeting arranged by Transparency International on Good Governance held in Jaffna, representatives of civil society organization claimed that Lead has been found to be contaminating the water source. However, the Water Resources Board Report found no heavy metal contamination in their samples.

The Water Resources Board Report has identified the Chunnakam Fossil Fuel Power Station area as the possible source of contamination. From a detailed analysis and mapping of their data, the ‘oil spreading pattern’ showed that there were ‘high oil and grease concentration layers’ surrounding the Chunnakam Power Station with gradients of diminishing concentration outwards from the power station. By 2015, the contamination appears to have spread further. Apparently, testing of samples from the wells have been done before by government and private organizations but the results have not been made public. It is suspected that the waste (lubrication oil from generation of electricity from fossil fuel during periods when the Jaffna Peninsula did not receive power directly from the National Grid (Laxapana)) had been disposed into the surrounding land by pumping it under pressure through drill holes.

It is possible this process may have been practiced from the late 1950’s by the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) until 1973 when Jaffna started receiving electric supply from Laxapana, and then again more recently during the war years when electric supply was cut off. Initially Agri Co and then Northern Power Company were contracted to provide electricity supply using generators until 2012 when Jaffna again regained connection to the national grid. It is estimated for that the Northern Power Company may have had to dispose of around 100,000 to 200,000 Litres ( @2,000 L per 5 generators three times a year for six years) of lubrication oil. During the war years, the power station at Chunnakam was tightly guarded by the military and public did not know what was going on inside the more than 20 acres of land. After over a decade without electricity, people were more than happy to have some irregular supply, than to ask any questions.

Now with the end of the war, and the emerging awareness about the contamination of the ground water, the state, considering the high risk to public health and ecology, has a grave responsibility to investigate the source of contamination and take remedial action. The organization(s) involved should be compelled by law to disclose what they have done and where. The possible area of contamination should be dug up or at a minimum bore drilling done to locate the source of contamination, so that it would be removed to prevent further contamination and spread of the pollutants. However, it is said that powerful and influential parties are preventing the release of vital information that is if of public interest.

Although the government institutions and organizations tasked with responsibility of first approving these procedures and monitoring for environmental protection and safety such as the National Environmental Authority, Ceylon Electricity Board and the various governmental bodies, local and national, had not done their duties, the alarm was raised in 2010 by farmer’s associations of Chunnakam South, who wrote to the Government Agent (GA), Jaffna when they noted the water they were using was polluted with oil. No action was taken. Shortly after, the Kalaivani Community Centre in the area complained of foul smells and oil contamination in their water. Subsequently, the Water Resource Board had stopped taking water for distribution from the Chunnakam Intake site. A warning in 2012 by the head of the Water Resources Board on the dire ecological consequences of the spreading oil pollution was ignored and he was removed from office instead.

It was only after legal action instituted by the local civil society, Nature and Environment Protection Association, that further contamination has been stopped with the courts ordering the Northern Power Company to stop functioning. It is welcome news (26.02.2015) that even belatedly, after the civil society agitation, the authorities have asked Norwegian experts and Nation Building Research Organization to use radar to locate the source of contamination. Further an expert committee of the various national universities has been formed to investigate and report on the issue. They are reported to consult appropriate national and international experts on how to remedy the pollution.

People have been living in the Valikamam area for centuries as evidenced by the historical Kantharodai archeological site, using the high quality pristine and perennial ground water resource for drinking, agriculture and other uses. The Water Resource Board describes four aquifers in the Jaffna peninsula. The Chunnakam aquifer had the highest capacity with a thick lens of fresh water floating over sea water. That this historical source of water is now polluted is a calamity of great proportion. If drinking and using this polluted water is going to pose a risk to the population and all living organisms, what is going to be the future of this land? If wells in the surrounding area of the Chunnakam Power Station and further afield are contaminated by a visible, thick layer of floating oil, could it be that microscopically, the contamination has spread to affect the whole aquifer? It is noteworthy that the same Water Resource Board Report also incidentally found unacceptable high level of nitrate (above 0.01mg/L) in some wells as a result of the excess use of synthetic fertilizer for agricultural purpose. The risks to health of high levels of nitrates, including blood disorders, is well known unlike the risks from oil pollution of ground water. Manmade disasters are becoming far too common in the modern world of aggressive and unsustainable development and exploitation of nature.

Would the people have to be displaced to some other safer environment as has happened in other ecological disasters life the Fukushima and Chernobyl nuclear disasters, Bhopal gas leaks or the droughts in Sudan and Somalia? The manmade disaster of this rich water resource can spell the doom of this hospitable land that has supported life for years. As in Weliweriya in the Gampaha district of the South, the people from the Valikamam area have started to protest the pollution of their water, demanding urgent action by peaceful means. It is the responsibility of the authorities to take the necessary step and action to reverse the process of pollution and find immediate and long term solutions to the problems threatening the people of the area. It is a positive sign that some of the more affected rural areas are now been provided regular clear water through bowsers. However, this has to be expanded to all affected areas. Along with the supply of clean water, people need to be provided with proper information and warning about the risk and implications of drinking and/or using the water for cleaning, bathing, cooking, and the risk for other living organisms. Compensation will have to be paid for the losses people have suffered and risks they have been exposed to. But more important and urgent are preliminary steps towards short and long term strategies to prevent further spread, remedies and a recovery process initiated to return the water to its original state. Perhaps a useful step to garner all available resources, plan and implement interventions towards recovery, and attract international aid and expertise would be to declare a disaster situation which it is. For example, regular testing and monitoring with well equipped laboratories with the greater sensitivity and speed the contaminations levels, perhaps even mobile laboratories that go to affected sites are needed. Adequate arrangements for regular supply of clean water to the population, possibly pipe born supply from other unaffected areas or bowsers is needed. Research on the impact on human and other living organisms, on the ecological system and food chain will need to be carried out with remedial or precautionary action based on the findings.

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Latest comments

  • 4
    1

    Thank you Prof Somasundaram.

    What is being done to fix this disaster?

  • 3
    3

    Ayyo brother Somasundara(m),
    “Would the people have to be displaced to some other safer environment as has happened in other ecological disasters life the Fukushima and Chernobyl nuclear disasters”,
    Isn’t there any better solution while keeping, maintaining these essential energy services? I couldn’t find the type of this power station in your essay, but web search showed it is 36MW diesel power station in Chunnakam…
    Companies and people in Japan maintained those diesel/coal power stations safely from 1950.. 1950s. 70 years back…., now Japanese are using nuclear power for 70~80% of of their power requirements. very different story.. different people..
    Please work with necessary people and make these primitive power stations works economically. Running Coal or Diesel power plants without harming environment is NOT complicated like nuclear power plants. Please… try bit harder to make it work without harming people.

  • 1
    0

    Prof Daya Somasundaram.

    You refer to water resources Board.

    It could not be Water resources Board.

    It should be National Water Supply and Drainage board.

  • 3
    0

    Prof:Somasunderam.

    Thank you.We in the south appreciate this kind of Public awareness essays.

    Valigamam has been in the News for a very long time.It is in this region that the security forces have helped themselves to large parcels of Land and established even Golf Courses! You say that during the War years,the Power station at Chunnakam was tightly guarded by the Military[understandable though] and the Public did not know what was going on the more than 20 acres of Land.Is there a relationship to this and the contamination of the ground water? Accidental or by design? As a result of the impending Ecological disaster,if there is a large scale displacement what happens to these Lands? More Golf Courses? I have heard about you; Pearl amongst the Swines.

  • 5
    4

    Can the Prime Minister (Mr.Rudrakumaran) of Transitional Government of Tamil Eelam provide some financial/technical support to Professor Somasundaram to solve the polluted water problem in Valigamam.

    This is more urgent than the UNHCR report?

  • 2
    1

    Accidental or by design?

    • 1
      0

      It cannot be accidental. It cannot be long term pollution by design. It is sad that the North has become a polluted area where under water source was one of the richest and god given gift to the population in the North. I assume that it is the war and the forced occupation has resulted in this disaster . It is surprising and regrettable that so far the authorities have not found out the cause for this disaster as it will spread to other areas as well in due course. I am not an expert but I feel that oil would not seep from the ground surface to the deep river flow down under in large amounts naturally.

  • 2
    1

    I am happy to find a fellow Northerner here and even happier to see that he uses his real name.

    Thanks for the details you provide. Some of these I haven’t seen before.

    Unfortunately I believe that not very much has been done to solve this problem.

    The Chunnakam water problem is a local one but might be spreading.

    Since a very long time Jaffna has suffered from brackish water (too salty). Most of the ground water here is is too salty for humans, animals and even agriculture. I have heard that only the ground water in Chunnakam is of acceptable quality and this fact is taken up now by Dr Soma also. Very little has been done to solve the problem of brackish water.

    My understanding is that the more ground water is pumped the more salty sea water enters the ground water making it even saltier. Normal rain isn’t enough to replace the ground water pumped.

    Now after the war more ground water is used.

    With increasingly brackish water and the Chunnakam problem maybe the ground water of Jaffna is doomed.

    Isn’t this unplanned and unintentional “genocide” because people are stupid?

  • 1
    0

    If this is unintentional, I would be the happiest person!

  • 1
    0

    This is a serious problem and as a way out to overcome the water scarcity around Chunnakam, as well as other parts, should not the NPC study the feasibility of Desalination of sea water project. This is in
    vogue around Chennai. The new co-operation between the two countries
    can pave the way to an engagement over such a project.

    Over to the Directors of Policy Planning under the 100 day Diary.

    • 2
      0

      I believe that there is a desalination plan. Apparently it is still in a concept stage. The proposal is to install a desalination plant at Maruthankerny, East of Pt. Pedro. This matter has to be expedited. The Tamil diaspora also should take some interest in promoting good projects like this rather than living in the clouds and discussing about unachievable goals.

      Sengodan. M

  • 3
    0

    Ground water pollution is something much more serious than other pollutions like air pollution or river water pollution. The latter two types have the benefit of some self cleansing due to circulation or continuous flow whereas no such self cleansing is possible in the case of stagnant ground water. In view of this fact there should be stringent laws to prevent any type of ground water pollution and such laws should be strictly enforced.

    Ground water pollution could take place through other sources too such as garages, hotels and restaurants though these sources may be of a much smaller scale.

    The matter of clean water for Jaffna should be considered on a wider scale including the possiblity of obtaining fresh water through desalination of sea water.

    Sengodan. M

  • 2
    0

    Find below one reference to decontaminating oil polluted underground water found through a Google search:

    http://www.polyinform.com/decontamination-ground-water-and-water.html

    Further, from what I read,

    there is also possibility of using oil-feeding micro-organisms to clean up the oil contamination.

    As immediate preventive measures:

    1. Source of contamination should be identified and eliminated.
    2. The badly contaminated wells should be sealed, until the threat is eliminated. Water should be supplied by bowsers to such homes.
    3. Simple, low cost, filtration systems should be issued to all homes in the affected areas.
    4. The people in the affected areas should be educated on the dangers of consuming contaminated water and the symptoms that could arise.
    4. A desalination plant should be installed close to the seas and water cleaned up by filters and a reverse osmosis osmosis process, should be supplied to all households in the area, as along term measure.

    No money should be spared in resolving this problem. The Diaspora should also fund this project.

    Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

  • 0
    0

    It is regrettable that so far nothing has been done to prevent further spread of the oil and cleaning of the underground water. I suggest if the following steps would have at least prevented the further spread.
    Cleaning the underground water in Chunnakam

    You may have discussed this before in which case ignore. I am giving
    you a brief outline of the process which could have cleaned the wells and prevented further spread of the oil in the underground water.

    1) Pump the water from the wells where oil leak were first seen into a tanker.
    This will allow the underground stream to bring more oil into these wells.
    2) Empty the tanker into an open tank and allow it to settle an
    remove the top oily layer and the bottom sediment.
    3) Pump the clear layer or fresh water into the channels where the
    pollution took place. This water I expect will flow into the nearby
    wells from where water was pumped out.
    4) Repeating this process should remove most of the oil and prevent
    further spread.
    It is still not too late.
    5) Finally the process should be carried out using a detergent.
    I shall be glad to discuss further details.

  • 1
    0

    Dr. R. N and MR. V. N,

    The main source of contamination has already been identified, which is the Chunnakam power house. Any future power generation there should be assuredly free of even the least pollution. There should be strict and regular inspections for this assurance.

    Cleaning the ground water of the existing pollution will not be an easy task. Some foreign expertise may help. Using oil feeding microbes may be a good idea but again keeping them alive underground with sufficient supply of oxygen may not be an easy task.

    Over a period of time continuous recharge of the aquifers by rain water may help to solve the problem through infinite dilution but one cannot say how long that process will take.

    The Central government must take up this serious matter and give it utmost attention with the urgency the situation demands as almost the entire population of Valigamam North may have to evacuate their households!

    Sengodan. M

  • 0
    0

    The provincial govt.should seek external help.There is a Co. Called WESTFALIA in Singapore are experts in Oil separation and recycling.May be they should write to them and seek help.It is a German co.and they may be able to do on govt.to govt.basis.

  • 0
    0

    S.M
    Surely pumping the water out of these wells several times is not a very costly option and will remove most of the oil and minimize further spread.This will allow more oil to seep into the nearby wells which will be removed in this process. The oil holes also should be cleaned by pushing the oil into nearby wells or by using water to pump it out.If these are done recovery by natural process can be made quicker. I suggest a public meeting should be held involving all sorts of people to find a solution.

  • 0
    0

    S.M
    Surely pumping the water out of these wells several times is not a very costly option and will remove most of the oil and minimize further spread.This is the first aid for this problem and will allow more oil to seep into the nearby wells which will be removed in this process. The oil holes also should be cleaned by pushing the oil into nearby wells or by using water to pump it out.If these are done recovery by natural process can be made quicker. I suggest a public meeting should be held involving all people(farmers,biologists,engineers,environmentalists, hydrologists,physicists etc)to find a solution.

    • 1
      0

      I am no expert. But in my view, pumping the water out from selected wells will not solve the problem. There are three aquifers of limestone in the Jaffna peninsula which are generally referred to as the Chunnakam aquifer, Pt. Pedro aquifer and the Chavakachcheri aquifer with the first of these being the largest and holding the best potable water for several centuries.

      Aquifers are basically cavities in the limestone rocks which trap and contain fresh water from rains. The water lens thus formed may not be contiguous and will not have a uniform thickness. Occasionally large caverns may occur as in the case of the Puttur Nilavarai well where a huge stock of fresh water will get trapped. Because of these two factors, that is the non uniform thickness of the water lens and the non contiguous nature of same, pumping out water from selected wells will not solve the problem.

      I am sure there is sufficient expertise available locally to roughly assess the scale and mature of the problem. It is for seeking a quick and proper remedy foreign expertise and possibly foreign funding will be needed.

      Sengodan. M

  • 0
    0

    Desalination through reverse osmosis is very expensive but cheaper for brackish water than sea water.

    Large scale collection of rain water is much cheaper and a local solution that doesn’t depend on imported technology.

    Unfortunately I don’t see much political interest or funding for solving the problem of brackish Jaffna water. The people who live here cannot pay.

    If the KKS cement factory reopens ground water and air will be polluted. Mining lime stone for the factory involves a high risk of “punching a hole” in the barrier between the sea and ground water.

    The Iramandu water project to bring water from the Vanni to Jaffna has been postponed because of the protests of Vanni farmers. This huge project has even financing from the ADB but if I remember correctly the NPC has decided to study it more. Even the Iramandu project wouldn’t bring enough good quality water to Jaffna district.

  • 1
    0

    Dear Dr Daya, it has been a quite detailed article so far on Valikamam water issue. Thanks that you made the gathered info to the wider public. I have three questions regarding this.
    1. Can’t it be declared as an ‘ecological crime’ and let the police involve here? What is the present legal action of the Nature and Environment Protection Association which formed because of this? Have they become inactive legally with the immediate closure of Northern Power Company and started collecting water case studies?
    2. Can you please publish the same in Tamil to one of the local tabloids to make the general population aware and conscientisize with farming and the usage of water etc.?
    3. Can the govt instruct the National Water Supply and Drainage board to test the water samples from those area free of charge? Just a chemical test costs around Rs 3750.00 which is not affordable for all living there.
    Thanks. Alex

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