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Synthesis/Regeneration 29   (Fall 2002)

Upper Kothmale Hydro Power Project:
Japan to Fund Sri Lankan government to destroy her best Mountains and Waterfalls

by Prasanna S. Cooray, General Secretary,
Green Party, Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has a very dismal past record with regard to dams, but is planning to go ahead with yet another disastrous dam-building project with the assistance of the Japanese government. It is said that Japanese yen 33,265 million is to be lent by the Japanese Bank for International Corporation (JBIC), and the agreement between the two governments was signed on March 27, 2002. The proposed Upper Kothmale Hydro Power Project is being undertaken to generate 150 MW of electricity.

The destruction it is going to cause to the environment, lives of the people living in the area, and the entire economy of the country (despite what the government says about this project) is known to be enormous. If this project is carried out, it will completely destroy the prevailing ecology of the central hills, increase the threat of land slides in the area, make seven of the country’s most beautiful waterfalls go dry, and disastrously affect the livelihood of over 600 families by uprooting them from their homelands.

The Harm Big Dams Have Already Done

The dams that were built under the accelerated Mahaweli, Samanalawewa and Lunugamwehera projects have all proven to be failures, not only in environmental terms but also socially and economically. In the initial years it was said about the Mahaweli project (started in 1977 in the Central and North Central provinces of Sri Lanka) that on completion it would generate enough electricity not only for the entire country, but also for export to South India. Today, 25 years later, almost 45% of the country’s population still live without this “luxury,” and the whole country is plagued by long hours of power cuts, never mind the failed promise of export to South India.

…it will completely destroy the prevailing ecology of the central hills, increase the threat of land slides in the area, make seven of the country’s most beautiful waterfalls go dry, and disastrously affect the livelihood of over 600 families…

Siltation in the large dams is a big problem, especially in the tropical countries. Not only are all of the large dams in Sri Lanka filled with silt to the extent of 40–60% of their total capacity, they have also failed miserably in providing both electricity and water (for agriculture). So to the question, “What has been the net outcome of these gigantic projects at the end, on the environment and also on the socio-economic development of the country?” the simple answer is “Total disaster. “

As to the social impact of the big dam projects, many researchers have shown the extent of the misery that has been caused to the lives of the poor people who were displaced from their original land. Prof. Tudor Silva (of Department of Sociology, Peradeniya University, Sri Lanka) reported a high incidence of suicide among the Mahaweli settlers, and has shown “dislocation” as a primary cause. Also, morbidity and mortality due to malaria, malnutrition, and man-elephant conflict, and death and destruction of property due to terrorist activity are some other miseries that the displaced persons from Mahaweli and Samanalawewa projects have suffered.

In economic terms, they have failed to deliver the “goods,” such as increased power generation, better irrigation facilities, increased employment opportunities and reduction of poverty that are usually promised before embarking on such projects. These projects, many of which are undertaken with colossal foreign loans, have resulted in a severe debt problem for the country. Presently, Sri Lanka is indebted to foreign countries for US $14.5 billion, which is 103.4% of the country’s GDP. It is said that the share of foreign debt carried by every single citizen in the country is no less than Rs. 79,000 (US $800).

The foreign debt trap the country is entangled in seems to have taken a precarious turn. The national wildlife parks and forests have become the newest target of the multinationals. At a time when the country’s debt situation is worsening, proposals from agencies such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank have come to privatize the country’s national parks and some important forest reserves. (The Green Party, Sri Lanka [GPSL] has taken a leading role in protecting these national assets, and has formed in conjunction with some environmental NGOs and concerned individuals, the Organization for Protection of National Parks and Forests.)

The Dangerous Story of Upper Kothmale

The Upper Kothmale Hydro Power Project was first proposed by the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) to build a power station at this site in the late 80’s. Although the CEB claims that this project would generate 150 MW of electricity, many experts say that the maximum power generation would be in the range of 70–80 MW. The first Environment Impact Assessment of this project was presented to the Central Environment Authority, Sri Lanka in late 1994, and the project was rejected in February 1995. Thereafter, an appeal was made by the CEB to the Ministry of Environment. This too was rejected in August 1995 by an expert committee, which was appointed by the Secretary, Ministry of Environment to look into this matter. The destructive nature of the proposed project on the biodiversity of the area, insufficient assessments of the socio-economic impact on the lives of people living in the area and on the geology and hydrology of the area, and failure to assess the maximum water level of the dam were some of the reasons given by the expert committee to refuse their permission for this project. At the same time it was proposed by this committee to look into other possible alternatives, and another site, Yorksford, was suggested as an alternative.

These projects, many of which are undertaken with colossal foreign loans, have resulted in a severe debt problem for the country.

However, in 1998, at a time when there was a severe power crisis in the country, an absurd resolution was passed under the emergency rule that power generation is a more important national concern than the environment. Immediately following this well-planned move, the CEB obtained approval from the Secretary, Ministry of Environment for the Upper Kothmale Project, which was granted unilaterally and without consulting any technical body.

According to Prof. P.W. Vithanage, an eminent Sri Lankan scholar in geology (also a member of the technical committee that was appointed by the Environment Ministry to hear the appeal made by the CEB), Sri Lankan mountains are made up of a soil structure that is not yet fully matured. Therefore, the hills in the Upper Kothmale region will not be secure enough to hold the pressure buildup that would result from filling the dam. This could result in cracking the mountains, which in turn would increase the risk of land slides in the area by many times. In addition, the Central Engineering Consultancy Bureau (CECB) has pointed out that digging tunnels to bring water to the powerhouse will further increase the risk of land slides in the area.

The proposed dam is to be served by water diverted from the Kothmale oya (stream). As this stream alone is an inadequate source to fill the dam, a regulated pond across the Kothmale oya is to be built in Talawakele town. This regulated pond is to be fed by 7 waterfalls, which include the 2 most beautiful waterfalls in the country, St. Clair and Devon. There is an inevitable danger to these waterfalls that they could run completely dry. The ecological assessments done on this project have shown that increased flooding in Talawakele town and increased soil erosion in and around the project area are further dangers that this project would impart on the surrounding environment.

If this project is to be carried out, it will have many disastrous effects on the lives of the people living in this area as well. Although the government claims that 460 families will be displaced, independent observers have estimated this figure to be well over 600. A proper resettlement plan has not been worked out for the people who are to be displaced, and this has been a major reason why the people are refusing to leave their homes.

The Green Party, Sri Lanka… understand[s] this crisis as an outcome of bad planning in the power sector, gross mismanagement, and corruption.

The Green Party, Sri Lanka, is by no means insensitive to the present power crisis in the country. We understand this crisis as an outcome of bad planning in the power sector, gross mismanagement, and corruption. However, we know that the country needs to generate more power, primarily for the pro-vision of better living conditions to that segment of citizens of this country who are yet to be provided with this “luxury.” Among these, almost 45% of the country’s households, are the children who study at night (in this advanced technological era) by kerosene lamp and never see television or listen to radio at home. Therefore we think that providing electricity to the people who are yet to be served with it is a much more important requirement than the requirements of the so-called “investors.” We further emphasize that these multinational investors go to other countries not for any love of them, but to satisfy their own ambition, to gain maximum profits by exploiting the opportunities provided in these countries by their weak governments.

It is heartening to note that right now the whole project has come to a temporary standstill in the wake of growing public protests. The GPSL has written to the Minister of Power and Energy, inviting him for an open debate over this project in the electronic media, (to which he has so far failed to respond). In the mean time, the GPSL has launched a strong campaign to educate the people about the dangers and irregularities that have taken place so far in this project. It is mobilizing more public support, and especially from the many environmental groups that are scattered throughout the country and world, of demanding the government stop this disastrous project urgently and completely.

Instead we urge the government to look at the present power crisis more rationally, to try to solve this problem through locally available, environment-friendly, renewable sources. We urge the government to follow the recommendations of the World Commission of Dams (WCD) and drop this project which is proven well beyond doubt to be environmentally, socially, and economically disastrous, and instead consider an alternative, perhaps Yorksford.

***Both above-ground and total biomass were found to increase highly significantly with species number in every year.***

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