Mini hydro power plants are steadily conquering the energy sector in Sri Lanka. Amidst much controversy, private companies, politicians and other influential people have resorted to this new avenue of earning a few more bucks. Even though the drainage pattern of the country is well suited for Small Hydro Power Plants (SHP), with the availability of fast flowing water to generate hydroelectricity centralized in the highlands; not all potential locations are necessarily environmentally viable. According to a research conducted by the Environmental Foundation Limited (EFL) the implementation of such less or unviable projects would lead to the irreversible damage of the environment that has a direct effect on the natural resources and ecosystem services to the communities. The Central hills and their surrounding slopes also contain most of the country’s biodiversity, especially within Protected Areas (PA’s) - areas protected under the legislation of Sri Lanka. These are called ‘NoGo’ areas for mini-hydro power plants. However, the current trend is to ignore these restrictions and establish a weir to get the maximum water flow for power generation neglecting the existing biodiversity. Further, there have been many instances where proposed project locations were shown to lie outside PA’s but lie within the PA in reality.
The initial Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is supposed to be the key document that determines whether the project is acceptable in the grounds of environmental, social and geological impacts and whether the environmental clearance should be granted for the said project. It is one of the principle documents needed for the approval process stipulated by the Sustainable Energy Authority (SEA), which is the main project approving agency for mini hydro power plants.
"The IEE is not only meant to identify potential environmental, social and geological impacts but also supposed to address hydrological features which may prove the projects’ viability"
However, it fails in its objective of identifying errors and unfeasible projects due to many reasons for which the detailed discourse is timely. Supporting reports and studies for gaining approvals are the most likely to contain inaccurate, false or inadequate information, especially the Initial Environmental Examination (IEE) report. The IEE is not only meant to identify potential environmental, social and geological impacts but also supposed to address hydrological features which may prove the projects’ viability. However, EFL and many other environmentalists have encountered several instances where it was found that the proposed quantity of energy cannot be produced by the river/stream and subsequently jeopardizing the ecological health of the Rivers’ downstream through inadequate provision of the environmental flow.
Quite recently, the Daily Mirror received details about another mini hydro which will be constructed under the supervision of Rivinmo Hydro (Private) Limited, a company run by former Commander of the Sri Lanka Navy, Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda. The project is planned to be constructed within close proximity to Pundalu Oya, which belongs to the Kotmale Divisional Secretariat.
"...another mini hydro will be constructed under the supervision of Rivinmo Hydro (Private) Limited, a company run by former Commander of the Sri Lanka Navy, Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda"
Environmental experts believe that with the construction of mini hydro projects, the biodiversity is facing major threats. People in rural areas thrive on natural resources of water for farming and other purposes while they are an asset during times of drought. With the construction of mini hydro projects, most streams and estuaries would be blocked, affecting the livelihoods of the people. As such villagers in Kumbaloluwa, Madakanda, Niyamgandara, Kosgahapathana, Bogahawela, Katarandana and many other Grama Niladhari divisions use the water from Pundalu Oya for their day-to-day purposes, especially, at times of drought. With the construction of this project, the waterfalls at Egodawela and Wewahena would be affected in addition to several other natural ponds.
Another risk factor is that the location has been identified as an area that is prone to develop landslides.
Speaking to the Daily Mirror, Systems Ecologist, Dr. Ranil Senanayake said that mini hydro power plants do have a role to play. “But before they start constructing these they should consider the Downstream Recharge Capacity. But what they do is, they block the water flowing through the stream and send it through a tube. Once the water start going through a tube, the biodiversity is adversely affected. This is an important aspect to consider because they take water from the downstream. Mini hydros do contribute but we could get an equal amount of energy if we developed wind or solar power projects as well. These will not interfere with the flow of water in a stream. We live in an island and we thrive on surface water accumulated from rainfall. If these people keep building mini-hydros ultimately we will not have any water for consumption or for any daily use.”
"Mini hydros do contribute but we could get an equal amount of energy if we develop wind or solar power projects as well"
In his comments to the Daily Mirror, Central Environmental Authority (CEA), Director Hemantha Vithanage said that back in 2001 several private companies decided that an IEE would be sufficient to carry out mini hydro projects. “An IEE doesn’t require any public hearing unlike an EIA which is open for the public for a period of 30 days. Within this time, the people in that particular area can voice out their concerns in relation to the proceedings of the project. According to my knowledge, mini hydro projects cause an irreversible damage to the ecosystems in which various species survive.
"According to my knowledge, mini hydro projects cause an irreversible damage to the ecosystems in which various species survive"
We have to protect the endemic species in this country along with other natural resources like the waterfalls. For example there are only two water orchids endemic to Sri Lanka as of now and 19 species of fish. Another problem with these procedures is the fact that these people identify a 3 metre high waterfall as a ‘water drop’. As a result close to 70 locations within close proximity to a waterfall have been identified as sites for these mini hydro plants. As far as I know, there are no studies done about the impact this type of projects would cause to the biodiversity of the country. This has turned out to be a mafia for political bigwigs and private companies. I suggest that these people use alternate methods of providing energy to the national grid either through solar or wind power plants which would be less damaging to the environment as well.”
In an attempt to find more details regarding the impacts of this project, the Daily Mirror spoke to a villager, under condition of anonymity said “They still haven’t started working on the project. However, they have given the proposal suggesting few locations to the CEA but according to my knowledge, these locations had been rejected by the CEA. Many villagers are against this project. Nevertheless, it was alleged that Admiral Karannagoda had promised to build roads and benefits for the villagers in an attempt to proceed with the project. As a resident I believe that a project of this nature would cause great damage to the environment.”
Dr. B.M.S. Batagoda, Ministry of Power and Sustainable Energy Secretary said that mini hydro power plants are one of the best resources that Sri Lanka could ever have. “These projects are definitely beneficial to our country. If not, we would not have any fuel and therefore, we have to rely on wind, solar and hydro power.
Our dream is to become an energy self-sufficient nation. Of course there is a certain amount of environmental damage done during the construction phase. Therefore we have suggested the CEA identifies all sensitive waterfalls and gazette them. Thereafter the remaining waterfalls could be utilized for the projects. The only issue is that people are not working together. Sometimes the developer is trying to find money and there is minimum coordination between the people and the developers. As of now there are around 75 projects which have been approved and I believe that around another 100 more projects will be approved in future.”
"These projects are definitely beneficial to our country"