The government’s agriculture policy under Mahinda Chinthana is the eventual creation of an agriculturally self-sufficient country. While Sri Lanka still has a long way to go with concern to achieving such a goal to realise such aspirations and in consideration of the present era where world markets are oriented towards industrial supplies, it is evident the agriculture sector and its stakeholders cannot survive without government assistance.
The proposed Yan Oya reservoir project in the Anuradhapura district was one such venture initiated by the present government in 2011 to boost agricultural production and inland fishery development in the North Eastern areas.
Majorly funded by the Chinese government and a Chinese Engineering Firm (China CAMC Engineering Co Ltd. – 85%), the project is envisaged to mainly enrich agricultural land that is presently not being nourished by the surrounding reservoirs such as Padawiya and Wahalkada.
" The environmentalists of the FEO expressed their concern over the risk of the human-elephant conflicts in the vicinities of the proposed project areas resulted by an inevitable deprivation of shelter and feeding grounds for elephants as well as other endangered species including leopards and sloth bears residing in the area "
Under the amendments made to the National Environmental Act (NEA) in 1988 through National Environmental (Amendment) Act No. 56 of 1988, the approval of projects stipulates the submission of the Initial Environmental Examination (IEE) report and Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report, which should receive the concurrent approval of the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) and of the relevant Project Approving Agency. Hence, the EIA of the proposed Yan Oya reservoir too was submitted by the Mahaweli Authority in May this year for approval.
However, environmental activists have raised concern over the presently submitted EIA of the proposed Yan Oya reservoir project, alleging the current report is rampant with inaccurate, inconsistent and unreliable data.
Biased, unreliable data?
The Federation of Environmental Organisations (FEO) Sri Lanka – an alliance representing environmental activists, organised a media briefing earlier this week to raise awareness concerning the alleged hoax, which is the presently submitted EIA of the proposed Yan Oya reservoir project.
The concerned group of environmentalists pointed out that the benefits and losses listed out in the EIA has been conveniently swapped to serve the purposes of those in charge of the reservoir project, pointing out that the losses incurred by the project has been downplayed while its benefits have been exaggerated.
Vimukthi Weeratunga, environmentalist and representative of the FEO, drawing examples from the report highlighted on the inconsistent and inaccurate nature of the cited figures said. “The total value of the paddy cultivations in the area at present has been calculated into a total of Rs. 92,177, whereas an accurate calculate carried out in consideration of the present market prices reveals it to be a whopping Rs. 119,216. The report has also severely undervalued the annual value of various other crops such as black grain, maize, Cowpea (Vigna unguiculata) that would cease to exist due to being inundated after the construction of the proposed Yan Oya reservoir, to a mere Rs. 8 million even though its actual value is close to about Rs. 25 million, in consideration of the present market prices.”
He said, another serious flaw of the report is the failure to account for the impacts of the proposed reservoir on the natural resources in the vicinity including the Pulmudai mineral sand mines. “It has been scientifically proven that the Pulmudai mineral sand mine is a creation of the Yan Oya basin. The EIA report does not contain any assessment of what would become of the mine once a dam is constructed across the Yan Oya; it is vital that such factors are taken into consideration as economic values that the proposed Yan Oya project would bring about could be easily disregarded before the value and benefit of preserving the mineral sand mines.”
Moreover, he emphasised on the fact that even basic figures listed in the EIA such as the total area enriched through the proposed reservoir and its presently estimated economic value are either vague or inconsistent throughout the report.
“Upon thorough analysis of the report, it is made evident that the construction of the proposed Yan Oya project cannot be justified even in economic terms as it seems that a sum of Rs. 27 billion is being invested in a project that would incur irrecoverable costs to the environs of the area while destroying close to 1677 hectares of paddy cultivations,” Weeratunga said.
Inaccurate content and lack of scientific basis
Among other flaws highlighted with concern to the proposed Yan Oya project EIA was the failure to include vital and accurate information concerning the assessments done on the environment in the area itself, which is obviously the crux of the report.
“A table included in page 283 of the report, lists out environmental monitoring and mitigating values that adds up to several millions but these finances are not added to the total project cost. This is a clear indication that these figures are mere numbers simply included in these pages for convenience,” he said adding, “Moreover, inaccurate data concerning the Species inhabiting the area and incorrect scientific names have been listed in the bio-diversity column while actions such as cutting down close to 50% of trees over 30 cm DBH has been cited as ‘timber benefits’. All these factors clearly reflect the poorly executed state of the EIA,” FEO representative, Nadeeka Hapuarachchi added.
Hapuaarachchi also highlighted that although the area where the proposed Yan Oya reservoir is to be constructed is rich in archeological value, an archeology assessment report has not been carried out. “Instead, a brief annexation has been included concerning several artefacts in the area along with proposals of what should become of particularly those located in the areas that would be inundated. There is no mention of the official who has contributed to this section, which casts grave doubts concerning the reliability of the information but that is not all; the proposals that have been made to preserve the archeological constructions are absurd!” he said quoting one such suggestion, which states that the ancient Yan Oya stone bridge, should be uprooted from its present location and should be replaced across some other location of the river.
" The proposed Yan Oya reservoir project in the Anuradhapura district was one such venture initiated by the present government in 2011 to boost agricultural production and inland fishery development in the North Eastern areas. "
Human-elephant conflict to worsen?
One of the main concerns of the villagers and cultivators in the areas is the human-elephant conflict that keeps worsening by the day, before the unprecedented development projects carried out in ignorance of their environmental impacts. The environmentalists of the FEO expressed their concern over the risk of the human-elephant conflicts in the vicinities of the proposed project areas resulted by an inevitable deprivation of shelter and feeding grounds for elephants as well as other endangered species including leopards and sloth bears residing in the area.
Representative of the Species Conservation Centre Pubudu Weeraratne commenting on the issue said, “To compensate for the habitat fragmentation that would occur following the construction of the reservoir, the EIA claims 500 hectares would be reforested but the EIA has failed to specify its location, which leads us to wonder whether this is simply a suggestion that would never be translated into action. Moreover, the reforestation is to be carried out 1 – 5 years following the completion of the project. Until then, what is to happen to these animals who would lose their habitats?” he questioned.
Meanwhile, senior environmentalist and Environmental lawyer, Jagath Gunawardena said certain legal and ethical concerns have been raised concerning the approval of the EIA. “Concurrent approval of the Central Environmental Authority and the Project Approving Agency on the EIA is required for the project to commence. However, there is an issue with concern to the approval process itself as the institution that created the report falls under the purview of the Irrigation and Waterways Ministry, which is the Project Approving Agency of the proposed Yan Oya reservoir.”
The environmentalists also commented on certain statements made with reference to the proposed project initiation dates. Quoting a statement made by Anuradhapura District Irrigation Director Engineer Lalith de Alwis concerning the initiation of the project in August – September, they said that under circumstances where the EIA has not yet been approved, it has raised doubts concerning whether or not the intentions of the NEA have been defied by the EIA that has been presently submitted on the proposed Yan Oya project.
The concerned environmentalists say they have already written to the CEA regarding the flaws within the report and called for the relevant officials to instruct the creation of a fresh EIA report for the proposed reservoir project in Yan Oya. It is understood and there is no doubt concerning the need for successful development projects in rural areas to fuel the country’s economic progress. However, in an era where much hype is created concerning environment conservation is it not of paramount importance to ensure that strict measures are implemented and the presently imposed regulations are followed to strike a balance between development and environment protection?