By K. Arulananthan –
Jaffna Peninsula’s water need by late 2020 is expected to reach 488,500 cubic meters per day (m3 /day), in which the requirement for agriculture is 400,000 m3/day. “Arumugam Plan” or “Jaffna River” or any appropriate plan could meet the agriculture requirement and be a solution to the saltwater intrusion and land degradation in the Peninsula.
The water requirement, excluding the agricultural purpose is 88,500 m3 /day, which includes drinking water. It is reported that as per the modeling studies, the available groundwater sources can supply only 13,100 m3 /day during the drought, thus additional supply must be found from outside sources. Evaporation (1800 mm) in the north far exceeds the precipitation (1200 mm) level, thus being a chronic zone of water deficiency, ground water yield is expected to decrease. However, in contrary, the local population surprisingly perceives that the peninsula is in excess of water!
Groundwater in Jaffna is highly polluted due to contamination with synthetic and natural fertilizes, pesticide, and weedicide used in intensive agriculture, sewerage and pit latrines water and seawater intrusion. Nitrate-N concentrations in the dug wells exceeds the World Health Organization recommended limit of 10 mg/l, sometime reaching upto 35 mg/l and Nitrite-N values above the maximum permissible level of 0.01 mg/l. Nitrate-N concentration increase 1-2 mg/l annually. It was also reported that water in the dug wells of the peninsula exceeded desirable level for electrical conductivity, chlorine, sodium, hardness, bicarbonate, and coliform (found in feces of warm-blooded animals), prescribed by the WHO standards.
Nitrate is potentially hazardous when present at sufficiently high levels in drinking water, a possible cause of cancer in gastrointestinal tract. A study on the geographical pathology of malignant tumors in Sri Lanka had confirmed that the incidence of cancer is relatively higher in the Jaffna District. Furthermore, incidence of water borne diseases, including typhoid is reported to be high in the Jaffna district. It may be prudent to point out here that it is suspected that the Chronic Kidney Disease ravaging at an epidemic level in Padavia , Sripura, etc. is caused by the pollution of irrigation water, which is also used as drinking water.
National Water Supply and Drainage Board of Jaffna (NWSDB) is in a desperate search for 88,500 m3 /day safe drinking water to meet the demand of Jaffna District and Pachchilaipallai and Poonakary Divisions in Kilinochchi District. It had proposed to repair and raise the bund and head-works of Iranamadu Tank and enhance its capacity of storing to abstract 50,000 m3/day. Justifiably farmers protested it, after prolonged discussion with farmer’s representative and irrigation department, it was agreed to abstract 27,000 m3 /day. The water is to be taken along the Kandy – Jaffna (A9) road via Puthuk Kadu Junction to Pallai for treatment and then beyond.
NWSDB is in need of identifying the other sources for balance 23,000 m3/day water is also well aware that during the prolonged drought and even during the dry season of the year the Iranamadu Tank may not yield its expected water of 27,000 m3/day. Thus, it proposed to put up a desalination plant with a capacity of 24,000 m3/day. After the preliminary investigation at 20 potential sites, NWSDB had narrowed down at two location; Keerimalai and Maruthenkerny. Further, based on the feasibility studies and initial environmental examination, NWSDB had identified Maruthenkerny as the most suitable site. Thus, proposed a desalination plant, at Thalaiyadi (Maruthankerney) and to lay pipeline along the 9 km Soranpattu – Thalaiyadi road to via Puthuk Kadu Junction to Pallai to connect with Iranamadu Tank’s water pipe distribution network. Thus, major part of the distribution network shall be shared for the water from Iranamadu Tank and Maruthankerney desalination plant.
NWSDB approached the Asian Development Bank (ADB) for funding and submitted the preliminary information (PI). The ADB after screening the PI requested for the mandatory Environmental Impact Assessment. ADB’s Environment and safeguard policy are very rigorous, requires the consideration of environmental issues in all aspects. Its policy is build on the believe that environmental and social sustainability are fundamental for the success of any project. NWSDB had called open bids for EIA studies; the Lanka Hydraulic Institute employed more than 20 local and international experts on different disciplines of environment, fisheries, socioeconomics, numerical modeling, etc. for the study and won the bid and in the process of conducting EIA. As per the guideline, once the EIA is finalized, the EIA should be made public to invite public comments, which shall be addressed and incorporated into the EIA.
It is part of the EIA formulation process to engage with local people and receive their concern on the project, so that it could be addressed and incorporated into the EIA. Anyway, when the EIA is finalized and let it open for public comments, the formulator of EIA has to address the public comments and incorporate them into the EIA, so addressing them at the formulation stage itself would reduce the work after it made available for public comments.
During the series of discussion with Thalaiyadi community, particularly the fishing community had raised many issues and concerns about the project. Most of them are on the impact of coastal resources, including fisheries resources, discharge of possible pollutants from desalination plant and possibility of entangling of fishing gears on the intake and discharge pipe lines. Visuals from the numerical models were used to show the possible impacts, especially dispersion of discharge waters. The Thalaiyadi community is made aware that the salinity at the discharge point is 2PSU higher than the adjacent water salinity and reaches the ambient salinity at the distance of 22 m from the discharge point. Different velocity of discharge, discharge angle and nozzle system were tested to enhance the mixing of discharge water with seawater. It is also scientifically established that fish aggregates at the water front (where the two different water masses meets), thus the discharge point would serves as a place of fish aggregation. The plant being a reverse osmosis type, there would be no chemical used in the desalination process. As per the concerns of Thalaiyadi community, it was decided lay the intake and discharge pipeline below the sea bottom to avoid entangling of fishing nets on the pipeline and agreed not to use mechanical pumping of water for intake, rather allow the water to flow through the natural gravitational force into a well on the shore and then pump to the water to the plant for desalination. Further, as per the request it was agreed that the pumping speed of water from the shore well would be maintained at 22 cm/sec, lower than the swimming speed of fish and the mouth of the intake pipe is covered with small size nets. Furthermore, it was agreed that the length of the discharge pipe line into the sea would be further reduced by 100 m and laying of pipeline would be undertaken during the northeast monsoon, during which fishermen do not venture out into the sea due to the rough sea condition.
After incorporating the concerns of the Thalaiyadi community representatives in the EIA, it was again presented to the Thalaiyadi community representatives at a meeting held at the Jaffna District Office under the Chairmanship of District Secretary in late March 2017, the Thalaiyadi Community representatives were satisfied that their concerns were adequately addressed.
Thereafter, EIA formulator wanted to engage with the wider community, including the representative from the entire Vadamarachchi East and attempted to hear their concerns, so that they could be also addressed and incorporated into the EIA. Thus, a meeting was planned again at the Jaffna District under the Chairmanship of Divisional Secretary in mid April. Mr. Sumanthiran (MP) too attended the discussion.
The intended discussion was very acrimonious from the beginning. The presenter (author) started the presentation of the environmental studies welcoming the participants, where he welcomed the participants, including the Thalaiyadi representative (though later it was found that Thalaiyadi community representatives were not at the discussion) for their presence at the discussion. A participant vigorously interrupted the presenter abruptly saying that there is no place called Thalaiyadi!. Finding no other way to continue with the presentation, the presenter repeatedly asked apology for referring Thalaiyadi at the welcoming statement and accepted that there is no place called Thalaiyadi! Still the presenter was not allowed to continue, however Mr. Sumanthiran (MP) somehow stopped the interrupter and facilitated the continuance of the presentation. Another participant angrily stated that our resources; sand and water are taken by others, but we are not getting anything on return, not realizing that the water is needed not only for others but to him too. Anyway, all accepted that infrastructure and other facilities need to made available to the local community.
Another participant, insisted on the “Arumugam Plan” instead of desalination plant, he was repeatedly told that “Arumugam Plan” could be the solution to address the water requirement for the agriculture (400,000 m3/d), further it would address land degradation and saltwater intrusion issues, not the drinking water, but not succeeded in convincing! A provincial councilor, Mr. Suhirtharan participant at the discussion complained that the design presented was different from the one which was presented a year or more ago, to be told that the EIA is not yet finalized but a working document, even based on this discussion, if necessary the design would be changed, anyway he seemed to be not convinced on the reasoning!
The other issue generally raised that desalination water is costly and cannot be affordable. The average production cost of desalination water is one US $ per cubic meter, that is about 15 cents per liter. The market price of a 400 ml water bottle is ~Rs. 55, almost same as of a equal amount of milk!. When the thermal power plant was introduced for electricity generation, the same argument (costly) is put forward against hydropower, resulting in power cuts in early 2000’s. Today, I guess only 25% is generated by hydropower and renewable energy, the balance is produced by thermal power! Anyway, it is not mandatory that every citizen in the project area should get connected to the desalination water supply. Why should we refuse the opportunity at least to the affordable to get connected to the desaline water?
Whatsoever, the discussion continued for about two hours, the presenter (most of the research team being Singhalese, the author carried out the burden of presenting it), representatives from Lanka Hydraulic Institute and NWSDB officials made various attempt to address the environmental studies and the findings. At last Mr. Sumanthiran stated that he is not convinced that the project is harmless, thus the project need to be abandon. NWSDB officials stated that the study is conducted by more than 20 experts and the findings runs into more than 1000 pages, thus to give a one full day again to discuss with the participants. Mr. Sumanthiran (MP) stated that there is no point of having another discussion, thus ended the discussion!.
Arumugam Plan was proposed at least a half a century ago, the experts had the foresight to see the impending problem, but the political leadership at the time didn’t have the vision to take it up and implement it. But now with the Ceylon Environmental Authority’s and funding agencies such as ADB’s strict guideline for EIA’s, it is not very easy to convince them and make the Arumugam Plan (which is intended to transform the whole brackish water ecosystem into freshwater ecosystem) a reality!. Wish that the current political leadership, especially the political leader, on whom all the Tamil intelligentsia had pinned down their hope and elected proudly as their representative, has the foresight and vision, so that desalination would not meet the same fate!
*Dr. K. Arulananthan – an Oceanographer serves as the Head of the National Institute of Oceanography and Marine Science at the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA)