By Sriyantha Perera –
In an article published in Ceylon Today titled “Small Hydropower Developers Cry Foul”, dated Sunday January 29, Thusitha Peiris and Anil Makalande of the Mini Hydro Developers Association have made baseless allegations that Rainforest Protectors of Sri Lanka (RPSL) is a foreign funded NGO aiming to destroy the hydropower sector.
Such accusations made through the media with no facts to prove their veracity are clearly an attempt to distort the facts and mislead the public.
I established RPSL as a volunteer environmental organization in 2010 as our motherland had a lack of participation by individuals on a volunteer basis to protect the remaining forests, waterfalls and wildlife. We have carried out small projects successfully with the means of limited funding, such as native tree planting projects in the wet zone, trash cleanup and awareness projects, reporting environmental issues through media and pushing the government authorities responsible for protection of the environment to act on urgent issues.
RPSL is a volunteer-based environmental organization supported and funded by concerned citizens of Sri Lanka. Funding has always been an issue for us as we are intentionally not tied to any NGO, whether local or foreign. Our strength lies in our people who care about the country and will stand up to protect the last remaining rainforests and water rights for our future generations.
Therefore Mr. Peiris and Mr. Makalande of the Mini Hydro Developers Association are welcome to look at our bank account and transactions if they are so concerned, before making false allegations to mislead the public.
The protestors who participated on January 25 in front of the Central Environmental Authority against the mini-hydro mafia comprised volunteer activists, concerned citizens, and over 200 hundred villagers whose lives are affected adversely. The participants arrived of their own volition and at their own expense, out of genuine concern to protect the water rights of villagers, farmers and wildlife.
The Mini Hydro Developers Association’s move to ‘play the NGO card’ at this time shows their shocking desperation to protect their business interests at any cost. I vehemently reject their allegation on behalf of our volunteer based organization and on behalf of those who unselfishly gave their time and energy to speak out against the destruction of Sri Lanka’s waterfalls, streams and rivers.
Here are some facts about the ground situation.
Ecological and Social Impact Due to Private Mini Hydro Projects
Mini Hydro plants have a severe negative impact on the environment, society, agriculture and tourism sectors. Diversion of water away from the natural streams through concrete channels for several kilometers, near complete obstruction of waterfalls, construction of diversion channels within protected forest reserves such as Dellawa rainforest in Sinharaja rainforest complex, have all created an ecological disaster.
At Anda Dola, a tributary of Gin Ganga in Galle District more than 6 km of stream will go dry due to diversion of water for the construction of a mini-hydro plant. Villagers no longer have the right to water for consumption and agriculture. Many endemic and endangered freshwater fish such as Barred Danio (Devario pathirana) and Ornate Paradise fish (Malpulutta kretseri) living in these waters also lose their habitat and are pushed towards extinction.
In Belihul Oya valley within the Nuwara Eliya District, more than 500 acres of paddy fields and hundreds of farmers are severely affected due to Deegalahinna, Medapitiya and Manakola mini-hydro projects.
While the approvals given by Central Environmental Authority (CEA) and Irrigation Department state an unobstructed opening should be kept at all times to release a small amount of water downstream as environmental flow, many sites such as the Hulukelidola mini-hydro plant in Kalutara District have built controllable gates that open when Government officers come for inspection and close as soon as they leave. At other sites, these openings for environmental flow are being blocked to extract the last drop of water for the mini-hydro plant in order to maximize the profit at the expense of water needs of people and wildlife living downstream.
Impact to Waterfalls and Ecotourism
Sri Lanka is said to have the highest waterfall density in the world, with over 400 major waterfalls in this small island. In many countries, people travel hundreds of miles to see a waterfall. Although blessed with so many beautiful waterfalls, as a nation we have sacrificed more than 50 waterfalls already to mini hydro companies and can no longer attract tourists to these sites that would have generated valuable income to the villagers through eco-tourism.
Some of the waterfalls targeted by mini hydro companies include the Handagiri Ella in Balangoda, an intricate combination of more than 60 small waterfalls. These waterfalls not only act as beautiful scenery but also provide essential ecological services by filtering the water of pollutants and increasing the oxygen content thus giving life to the stream. Destroying such waterfalls is an ecological crime!
Violations and False Reports Related to Private Mini Hydro
State forest land adjoining the Koskulana River, forming the northern boundary of Sinharaja World Heritage Rainforest, has been clear cut of all vegetation for the construction of a mini-hydro project, which is a clear violation of the State Land Ordinance. At Anda Dola in Galle District, the weir (at GPS coordinates 6° 20′ 32.9″N, 80° 26′ 39.7″E) and a 2.5 km section of concrete headrace channel are both constructed within Dellawa Forest Reserve.
Construction activities within a protected forest reserve are a violation of the Forest Ordinance of 1907 as amended and punishable by law. Further, the initial environment examination (IEE) report produced by the developer for the Anda Dola mini-hydro project, has failed to include many endemic species whose habitat is this stream and surrounding forest.
A report on this matter prepared by the Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle submitted to CEA points out that environmental and biodiversity information including many key species of fauna are missing and/or incorrect on many pages of the IEE report submitted by the developer.
Findings of widespread violations indicate systemic failure of the entire process in place for the assessment of mini hydro projects. It is, in effect, a breach of trust in the very institutions that gate-keep approvals, and fully justifies the public’s skepticism in them. The Association’s claim that Sri Lanka’s mini hydro industry is an example to the world seems farcical against these multiple violations and false reports.
Actual Contribution vs. Perceived Contribution of Private Mini Hydro
The Mini Hydro Developers Association, in an effort to paint a rosy picture about their contribution to the national grid, recently stated that 7% (320 MW) of the total energy generation in the country is produced by private mini hydro plants. They intentionally failed to disclose the actual contribution.
According to the 2014 “Generation Performance” report produced by the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL), 71 mini hydro plants operated at less than 20% plant factor which is the actual contribution to the national grid. Only one plant had more than 50% plant factor and that too, a mere 50.98%.
The actual contribution by all these private plants to the national grid is less than one third of the stated capacity amounting to less than 2.5% of the energy generation. Most mini hydro plants generate 1 MW or less which is just 0.02% of the national output. Increasing frequency and severity of droughts due to climate change and deforestation will further reduce these contributions in the coming years.
It is very clear that mini-hydro is not the answer to the growing energy needs of the country but has only become a lucrative business for a few at the expense of dried up waterfalls, streams and rivers that once made Sri Lanka the Pearl of the Indian Ocean.
There are ecologically friendly, sustainable alternatives to meet the energy demand of Sri Lanka. Water flowing through small rivers and streams is a precious resource, and it plays a crucial role in the water cycle and the overall health of our forests. It should not be wasted for mini hydro projects averaging 1 MW that contribute just 0.02% energy to the national grid while aimed at maximizing profits for a few and leaving many farmers, villagers and wildlife with no access to water.
Instead of throwing baseless accusations at a citizen driven volunteer organization engaged in protecting our precious remaining rainforests and the right to access water, the individuals and companies investing in destructive mini hydro projects should switch their focus to Rooftop Solar and Waste-to-Energy alternatives. These have a greater potential to generate energy to the national grid and the ability to increase capacity for a growing population. Those looking to make money will also find these alternative energy sources to be more lucrative in the long run.
*Sriyantha Perera – Founder/President Rainforest Protectors of Sri Lanka