“The wars of the next century will be fought over water” – Ismail Serageldin, World Bank Vice President in 1995(1)
Water shortage has become an escalating problem globally because of the increasing demands from agriculture, expanding population, energy production and climate change (2). It was estimated that in 2007 around 1.2 billion people, or almost one in five people on the planet lived in areas of water scarcity (3). It is further predicted that by 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world population would live under water stress conditions (4). This year United Nations declared the theme of “Water and Sustainable Development” for the World Water Day held on 22nd March 2015 (5). Sustainable development is defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (6) and the selected theme of the UN emphasize creating awareness on water conservation and minimizing water pollution to ensure habitable planet for the future generations.
In developing countries, 70 percent of the industrial wastes are dumped untreated into waters, polluting the usable water supply (7). Joint ventures by global corporations such as Panasonic, Pepsi and Nestle were among 33 multinational companies that the Chinese government has blacklisted for causing water pollution (8). It is no secret that the multinational companies prefer to expand their ventures in developing countries because unlike developed world developing countries do not have strict regulations restricting industry and agricultural operations from pouring pollutants into lakes, streams, rivers and other water resources (7). It was reported that some multinational companies have paid bribes to government officials in order to get around obstacles erected against profitable operations of their enterprises (9). It is in this backdrop we have to view the water pollution issues in SrI Lanka.
Two major water pollution incidents caused by industry led to civil unrest and mass protests in Sri Lanka (10). First major protest was reported at Gampaha District in 2013 against the rubber glove factory of Dipped Products PLC belongs to the Heyleys Group located at Rathupaswala ended up in three people sacrificing their lives (11) (12). No State testing institution expressly held the private company responsible for Rathupaswala’s low water quality and state institutions may have been prevented by political influence from holding the company responsible (13). Though government agreed to pay compensation (14) opposition moved a motion in the parliament alleging that there was no freedom for the government agencies responsible for the protection of environment to perform their duties (15). Finally the company involved got off scot free without paying any penalty or compensation to the affected people.
Almost similar manipulations are now taking place in the Chunnakam water pollution issue at Jaffna District though compared to Rathupaswela it affects a much larger population estimated to be around a quarter million (16). The political influence was strong enough for a warning in 2012 by the head of the National Water Board on the dire ecological consequences of the spreading oil pollution was ignored and he was removed from office instead (16). Understandably the public protests in Jaffna came to surface vigorously after the end of white van era of the previous regime on 8th January 2015. Northern Power Company which owns the private power plant and operates as a subsidiary of MTD Walker PLC (17) has a European Union Parliamentarian among the Board of Directors who has been maintaining close ties with the ruling regimes of Sri Lanka of the present and past (18), (19). Therefore inaction by the politicians belongs to the Centre on this matter from the time the first complaint was made in 2008 is understandable though it was recently raised in the parliament anticipating the parliamentary elections (20).
The position of the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) elected by the majority of Tamils which successfully passed the genocide resolution of Tamils (21) has become controversial among Tamils in this issue. Initially on 4th December 2014, Agriculture Minister of the NPC Mr. P.Aynkaranesan passed a resolution at NPC alleging that the Northern Power Company had violated the environmental regulations and was responsible for the waste oil pollution spreading from the premises of Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) at Chunnakam (22). He further demanded that the Northern Power Company should have had the corporate social responsibility and had to pay for the water supply to the affected people in the region, experiments on the underground water and for suitable remedial measures. He also objected for the renewal of the contract between CEB and Northern Power which expires at the end of 10 years of operation in 2017. However, after 2 months position of the Minister shifted drastically and he started alleging aerial bombing during the war as the main cause of water pollution and in addition levelled allegations against Agrico Company another power plant operated before the commencement of operations by Northern Power (23). On 12th February 2015 Northern Power Company lauded Mr. Ayngaranesan for condemning the misinformation campaign against them and claiming the protests against water pollution were politically motivated (24). On 7th April 2015 he together with the Health Minister of the Province submitted a report to the NPC stating that toxic substances were not found in the underground water at Chunnakam and alleged that some persons under the name of awareness campaign preventing people from using the well water misinterpreting the calcium deposits and dust layer as polluted oil (25). Notably at this point the allegations against the Northern Power Company were completely dropped by Mr.Aynkaranesan.
Hence it become important in the interest of the people and future generations to reveal the truth and scientific facts behind this issue without any conflict of interest. Though I am not in the habit of responding to backboneless anonymous writers and commentators, in order to ensure validity of this article I would like to respond to a mudslinging article published under the pseudo name of Eelam County Citizen by a crony of one of the ministers levelling several false allegations against me and Jaffna Medical Association (26) (27). First allegation stated that the Jaffna Medical Association remained silent on public issues during the last 3 decades even when the Tamil people were dying at Vanni and the doctors justified their stance stating it would risk their jobs. It claimed that now the doctors are involving in this issue because of their political agenda. My answer to this allegation is that I never remained silent on issues affecting public. In fact during 2009-2010 I was kept interdicted for 13 months without salary for sending an email supporting the plight of the Tamils kept in Forced Detention Camps (28). I was reinstated only after I filed a Fundamental Rights petition at Supreme Court and exonerated by the Court. In addition I have given evidence to the Lesson Learnt and Reconciliation Commission on the plight of Tamils in 2011 (29). The Jaffna Medical Association has been conducting health camps on monthly basis targeting the most vulnerable communities recovering from the war especially at Vanni region since 2013. Second allegation was directed at me personally stating that I was seeking the post of Secretary of Health of the Northern Province and because I was rejected on the grounds that I was not SLAS qualified I am now taking revenge against the Provincial Minister of Health using this water pollution issue. The true facts are as follows. When the NPC was established in 2013 two constituent party leaders (Members of Parliament) of TNA and a Member of the NPC contacted me and requested my service as Secretary of Health to the NPC. I agreed to their request and sent my Curriculum Vitae by email to the Hon. Chief Minister of the NP. Subsequently I learnt that the previous Governor was not allowing any appointments by the NPC officials. Very recently I was again informed that the Chief Minister is looking for an eligible person to fill the post of Health Secretary and again I sent an email with my CV with a copy to the Provincial Minister of Health. Other than that I have not gone behind any politicians to get me appointed to this post. I am fully qualified with postgraduate qualifications to hold this post and do not require SLAS. In fact the first health secretary of the North East Province was Dr.C.S.Nachinarkiniyan who was medically qualified without SLAS. Health Secretary post of the Centre was held most of the time by medically qualified persons without SLAS. I am already in Medical Specialist Grade and appointment to the Secretary post does not increase my remuneration. Though I am comfortable in Colombo with my interests in postgraduate teaching and research I applied for the Secretary post for two reasons. Firstly no specialist in my field work in the Northern Province and secondly my long experience in health planning would be an asset for a Province recovering from the effects of war.
Having clarified that I do not have any conflict of interest in this issue I cannot agree with the composition and reports of the so called “Expert Committee” appointed by Mr.Aynkaranesan for the following reasons. First of all, none of the appointed “experts” have previous experience in handling water pollution with petroleum waste and they were handpicked by Mr.Aynkaranesan without any criteria. Though the members of expert committee are experts in their fields most of them do not have expertise in the relevant area. For example in the medical field an expert in medical administration was appointed. But oil pollution in drinking water more appropriately should have been investigated by a doctor specialized in environmental medicine or toxicology or epidemiology. Secondly members in the committee are having conflicts of interest. One member is having close ties with the CEB in an issue where the CEB is the main suspect. Even if the private power company has violated the environmental regulations CEB is in fault for hiring them and not supervising them. Thirdly there was no terms of reference to the expert committee and the experimental protocol was not decided in advance. Fourthly the sampling method was wrong and sample size was inadequate. The study for petroleum waste by the National Water Supply and Drainage Board (NWSDB) was done in 150 wells and 109 wells were found to be positive. Further the study for lead was done in 50 wells and 4 wells were found to have high level of lead. If Mr.Aynkaranesan’s committee want to challenge these results they should have taken effort to test the same wells tested by the NWSDB. Also anybody with basic knowledge in research statistics and probability would agree that a much larger sample of wells is required to disprove the previous study findings. In addition we have the report from Government Analyst Department confirming all the samples obtained from 30 wells over a wide geographical region in 4 MOH areas containing high levels of oil and grease in which I had personally witnessed the sample collection and seen the visibly polluted wells with the oil smell in the region. The above mentioned circumstances have led me to have no option other than totally dismissing the reports by Aynkaranesan’s committee. The most prudent step at this stage after all these conflicting reports would be to request the assistance from an international organization which cannot be easily manipulated by the multinational companies and has the ability to get down international experts from other countries which have encountered similar pollutions by petroleum waste of underground water. As responsible President of the Jaffna Medical Association I have already initiated this step by requesting the WHO to conduct a systematic study. However, for the WHO to get involved in this issue a request from the Central or Provincial Government is required and I hope the provincial and central officials who have received copies of my letter would support my request.
On the other hand the remedial measures to the people in the affected region should not get delayed until these issues are sorted out. I have already outlined 6 remedial measures that need to be taken without delay in my letter to the Chief Minister of the NP on 20th February 2015 (30). The most worrying aspect is that despite our repeated requests to date the NWSDB officials have not revealed the 4 wells found to have high level of lead. The residents around these wells would have been drinking this contaminated water for last 5 years and it can be simply proved by testing the blood levels even before the clinical signs and symptoms of lead poisoning appears. I believe these wells are being hidden by manipulations because any case proved to have lead poisoning will lead the multinational company to pay a large amount of compensation.
Few days back I was listening to an interview given by the Provincial Health Minister to CMR Canadian Radio in this issue (31). Disappointingly there were several distorted facts in this interview. Firstly he stated the problem started in fifties. I checked with retired officials from CEB and confirmed that time the waste products from CEB were transported via train and recycled at the glass factory. Secondly he stated a study was conducted in eighties at Jaffna University on water pollution by oil waste. I have checked independently and found the first complaint on the water pollution was made only in 2008 and twisting the timeline only helps the private company which began its operations in 2007. Further he stated that persons were spreading rumors that the oil waste had reached Kopay and Tellipalai. I categorically state that spread of petroleum waste to Kopay and Tellipalai were not rumors but confirmed by the samples obtained by the Central Health Ministry Officials and tested with Government Analyst Department in February 2015. He also stated that persons have exaggerated and said that water pollution could lead to subfertility and affect fetus in utero. I confirm that lead poisoning can lead to subfertility and affect fetus in utero and this fact can be confirmed in any standard toxicology book. His relative posting comments under the name of Puvi at Colombo Telegraph was sending email stating that people might pour oil into their own wells and thereby making us to believe that the people around Chunnakam having serious mental problems. I hope all these manipulations to defend the multinational company will be stopped in the interest of the poor people affected by this pollution.
I got an opportunity to meet the Chief Minister of the Northern Province on 25th April 2015 and discuss this issue. He was awarded the title of Perunthalaivar (great leader) by the Kamban Kalagam (31) and since he became the sworn Chief Minister we have been expecting a “Rama Rajiyam” where the ruler listen to the people at the grassroots level and rule in a noble manner. It was stated in the great epic Ramayana that every evening King Rama dressed up like an ordinary citizen and went around the kingdom to feel the pulse of the people to ensure that he rules justly despite the advices he received from his wise ministers (32). I wish our Chief Minister would also go around and inspect the affected wells at Chunnakam and listen directly to the grievances of the affected people and stop comparing the reaction of the affected people deprived of the basic need of drinking water to the reaction of a lady to cockroach in a restaurant (33).
Finally it appears that whoever is in power either in center or province, exploitation of the environment and poor masses by the corporate world of the multinational companies would continue irrespective of whether it happens in North or South of Sri Lanka. I therefore call upon all the righteous people to join hands with me to stand against this exploitation and injustice.
“The world is a dangerous place. Not because of the people who are evil; but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.”- Albert Einstein
*Dr.Murali Vallipuranathan – MBBS, PGD (Population Studies), MSc, MD (Community Medicine), FCCP – Board Certified Specialist Community Physician – President, Jaffna Medical Association