It was announced last week that the desalination project (converting sea water into drinking water) to be undertaken in Maruthankerny would be shelved after it came to light through scientific assessment that the project would cause harm to the environment and to the livelihood of the fishermen of the area.
A meeting was held on the 18th of April regarding this desalination project at the Jaffna District Secretariat. This meeting headed by the District Secretary Mr. Nagalingam Vethanayahan, was attended by representatives of the Vadamaradchi East Fishermen’s Cooperative Association, the Vadamaradchi East Development Organisation, the Vadamaradchi East University Students Forum, Member of Parliament Mr. M.A. Sumanthiran, and Northern Provincial Councillor S. Sukirthan. Dr. K. Arulanandam, Director of National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA) who conducted the scientific assessment on this desalination project also participated at the meeting.
Dr. K. Arulanandam submitted his findings of his 1.5 years of research on this project. After his submission, the representatives of the Vadamarachi East organisations put forward their doubts regarding the project in the form of questions. Since no proper answers were given to those questions and because the research showed that the negatives were proportionately higher it was announced that this project would be shelved. This announcement was made to the media by parliamentarian Mr. M.A. Sumanthiran at the end of the said meeting. The Jaffna District Secretary was at his side when this announcement was made. Therefore, it may be considered a somewhat official announcement.
But what happened afterwards? Dr. K. Arulanandam, immediately on the very next day (April 19th), held a press conference at the Jaffna Press Club and announced that there is no harm that would be caused by the planned desalination project in Maruthankerny and that especially there would be no adverse effects on the environment. But, he kept silent about the fact that the said project was shelved mainly due to his incapability to properly respond to the questions directed at him about the research findings at the meeting held the previous day.
Following these two meetings with the media, there have been two kinds of issues regarding the desalination project raised amongst the public and being blown out of proportion. Firstly, it is being said that the people of Vadamaradchi East are being an obstacle to the efforts being taken to bring drinking water to the people who are suffering due to inadequate water supply. Secondly, is the view taken by those who are politically opposed to Mr. Sumanthiran who are intent on taking revenge on him by using this opportunity.
It is unfortunate that neither the media, nor civil society groups, Tamil National political parties or experts in the required field are unwilling to research in depth on the initiation of this proposed desalination plant in Maruthankerny and its current status. It is being handled in a slippery manner. In such a situation, certain persons are intent on portraying the quest for justice by the people of Vadamarachy East on this issue as a sort of ‘ugly revolt’ to the majority people of the North. If one considers the issues in depth and the actual truth on this matter, one will understand the justness in the requests made by these innocent people. That would necessitate making decisions in their favour. It is a fear of this that is behind the refusal of most people to talk about this issue. This is an expression of a dominant mind-set which refuses to understand the plight of these innocent people.
The desalination project was put forward by the Northern Provincial Council almost 2.5 years ago as a solution to end the water crisis in the Jaffna and Kilinochchi Districts. This desalination idea came to the forefront as a result of the objections raised by the Kilinochchi District Agricultural and other organisations to the plan to obtain drinking water from the Iranamadu tank. All of a sudden, it was announced that a desalination plant would be built in the Thalaiyadi area of Maruthankerny, Vadamaradchi East.
Usually, when projects which may impact on the environment are undertaken, there should be a step by step research process which considers the pros and cons of the project and this should be submitted in report format and publicised. In proposing the project, the people of the area should be first consulted and their questions answered, doubts clarified and only after their consent is received should such a project go ahead. That is basic ethics. But, with regard to the Maruthankerny desalination project, the people of the area were unaware of it till the announcement was suddenly dropped upon them. A group of people were suddenly imposed with a project for which they were not given any pre-warning. It is only at this point of great disappointment that they prepared to protest this move.
These protests were not in contravention of any moral obligations. They came to this conclusion in the fear that the desalination project was a death knell to their livelihood which almost exclusively depended on the sea. These protests were not against the efforts taken to provide for the people who are suffering due to inadequate drinking water. Instead, these protests were against the decision that is being imposed upon them with a dominating mind-set and without proper research or clarification about the project. These kinds of protests are continuously undertaken by affected communities throughout the world. It was such protests that the people of Vadamarachi East initiated almost 2.5 years ago. At that time, the intention of the Northern Provincial Council and a majority of Jaffna district parliamentarians was to somehow impose this project upon these innocent people. This is what opened the eyes of most of the people of the area.
It is in such a situation that the Northern Provincial Council and other parties finally agreed to conduct scientific research on the project about an year later. The research was conducted for the last 1.5 years and it was the announcement relating to those findings that was made last week. It is only then due to the finding that the harm caused would be great the decision was announced that the project would be shelved.
This writer spoke to a fisherman of the locality when this project was first proposed and the consequent controversy arose, almost two years ago.
The fisherman made the following comments: “They are going to implement a desalination project in the Thalaiyadi area, near the Nelliyan open space, the sea near that location is where the largest number of prawns are caught in the Vadamaradchy East area. This is because between Maruthankerny and the Nelliyan open space there are 6 water mouths (canal areas through which flood water runs and meets the sea during the rainy season). Prawns reproduce during the phase in which freshwater meets the sea. Due to this, we catch a large number of prawns during the December and January months. But, after the tsunami, the shrubs and forest area have been destroyed and settlements made and the canals through which the flood water runs have been blocked in some areas. Due to this the amount of water that runs through these canals and meets the sea has decreased. Because of this, there are less prawns caught. First, we thought of repairing the canals and clearing the route to the sea. But, it is in such a situation that they are bringing this desalination plant to the Nelliyan open space and are going to dump the wastage salt and the hot water that will be used into the sea. This might lead to zero prawning (prawn catching), this is a great threat to us.”
At the end of the research process Dr. Arulanandam had mentioned that wastage salt two units denser than seawater would be dumped into the sea. He mentioned that it would keep the salt density at consistently higher levels upto 20 metres outwards. He said that, during seasonal currents salt density is known to rise upto 6 units higher, so there is no issue with an increase of 2 units. At this point he was asked a question as to whether 6 units increase during seasonal currents and a consistent 2 units density in one area could be considered the same? Aquatic animals change their location and reproduce according to the seasonal currents. In such a case, if there is a consistent increase in salt density in one area would it not cause harm to these animals? These were questions raised to Dr. Arulanandam to which he gave no adequate reply. Further, neither the research nor the researcher were able to allay the fear on the part of the people that this would cause harm to their livelihood i.e. fishing. This is just one example.
It is a basic requirement that when a project is planned that atleast three sites should be looked at and the pros and cons considered. But, the desalination research was only conducted in Maruthankerny. Why? This question was raised with the respective authorities but the people received no answer. A suitable area where such a project can be conducted is the sea near Keerimalai, when the issue was raised as to why there was no research done in that area the given reply was that it is not possible because it was where people conduct last rites. What is behind this upright mind-set when interacting with the affected people?
What is seen in the past few days is that there is a callous thinking within some people, even the ‘intelligentsia and well educated’, that the sea is wide and huge, what harm is there in taking water from it. By expressing the idea that the sea is made of salt, and therefore when seawater is converted into drinking water and the wastage salt and chemicals is dumped back into the sea, what harm can be caused we callously disregard the questions raised by the affected innocents. Why not listen to the voices of these affected people, lend your ears to their fears and doubts atleast a little bit? After that come to your conclusions. That is the just thing to do. That is what the people of Vadamarachi East expect. Instead, accusing them of being unjust persons denying drinking water is the wrong way to approach this. It is non ethical and unjust.
*The writer is an independent Journalist and Columnist. This is a translation of his Tamil column which appeared in the ‘TamilMirror’ on April 26th, 2017.