Serene Pilithuda Falls in Athweltota
- There are 213 commissioned mini hydro projects and 40 solar power plants in Sri Lanka and the numbers continue to increase
- Many of these projects don’t operate efficiently and therefore the contribution to the national grid is limited
- The Palindanuwara Provincial Council has repeatedly questioned how a mini hydro project could be constructed in a high risk area
- Many solar power plants are constructed by clearing forests
- Elephant corridors and sensitive ecosystems are destroyed in the process of making power plants in the absence of a plan to conserve catchment areas
- The CEB and SLSEA should improve the efficiency in existing plants before constructing new plants
Sri Lanka aims to be an energy self-sufficient nation by 2030. Right now, the primary sources of generating electricity include thermal, including coal and fossil fuels, hydropower and other non-conventional renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. However, the renewable energy sector has transformed itself into a money-spinning industry with the emergence of solar plants and mini hydro projects scattered across the country. So far, there are 213 commissioned mini hydro projects and 40 solar power plants in Sri Lanka and the numbers continue to increase. However, many of these projects don’t operate efficiently and therefore the contribution to the national grid is limited. Apart from that many projects are being constructed in highly sensitive ecosystems or landslide-prone areas, posing greater threats to wildlife as well as people in surrounding areas.
Serene environment under threat
Peelithuda Falls is a tributary (a river or stream flowing into a larger river or lake) in the Sinharaja ecosystem, located near Pelan River at Athweltota, Morapitiya in the Palindanuwara Divisional Secretariat. “The ecosystem associated with this waterfall is a region of high biodiversity and is home to over 32 endemic freshwater fishes,” opined Senior Consultant at Centre for Environmental Justice, Hemantha Withanage. “However, in 2007 a proposal to construct a 1.5 megawatt (MW) mini hydro power plant, by Sakura Energy Ltd., comes to light. According to the plan a 1.5 metre embankment will be built and about 900 metres of the river will be drained to generate electricity. As a result, a lot of trees need to be felled for this purpose, disrupting the entire ecosystem,” said Withanage.
Villagers utilise this river during the dry season and it is a tourist attraction as well. “Out of the 32 endemic freshwater fishes found here, 15 of them are confined to this area. Among them, species such as Rasboroides nigromaginatus (Kalu waral halmal dandiya), Stiphodon martenstyni are critically threatened. Some of the vulnerable species include Garra ceylonensis (Gal paadiya) and Channa orientalis (Kola kanaya). Apart from that, this area is a landslide-prone area and as a result of a landslide that occurred in 2017, nine lives were lost. The powerhouse for this project will be built near a landslide-prone area. Even though the National Building Research Organisation (NBRO) has issued red notices for people to evacuate to safer locations, they have issued recommendations to continue this project.
“ The concurrence was done in 2014 and the documents are now at the legal department”-
Siripala Amarasinghe CEA Chairman
Legal procedures bypassed?
In 2017 the Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) had filed a case to request for a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA), prior to constructing mini hydro projects. “Parties including the Ceylon Electricity Board, Central Environmental Authority, Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Energy Authority collectively agreed to formulate a SEA prior to giving approval for mini hydro projects. Most mini hydro power plants cause irreversible damage to the environment. Many dump their e-waste into rivers and as a result, rivers get clogged. As a result of this discussion, they agreed to investigate and earmark designated areas along rivers which could be given for the construction of such projects and which areas need to be protected. But before the incumbent government came into power this agreement was dismissed and we had to withdraw the case. Had we come into an agreement to conduct SEAs, the designated rivers could have been earmarked,” he said.
Protest staged by area residents urging authorities to halt the proposed mini hydro project
He further said that the Palindanuwara Provincial Council has repeatedly questioned how a mini hydro project could be constructed in a high risk area. “Members of the Council have not only disapproved this project, but have also sent a letter to the Minister of Energy, reasoning out why this project shouldn’t be carried out at this location. But it is in such a backdrop that the contractors are once again starting to do site inspections to proceed with the project,” Withanage further reasoned.
Apart from that though the Initial Environmental Examination (IEE) was done in 2014 this document is now invalid. Section 23B of the National Environmental Act No. 47 of 1980 states that the validity of such a document is only for three years. Thereafter, any permit or validity given to a project expires and requires a renewal.
“Most mini hydro power plants cause irreversible damage to the environment. Many dump their e-waste into rivers and as a result, rivers get clogged. As a result of this discussion, they agreed to investigate and earmark designated areas along rivers which could be given for the construction of such projects”- Hemantha Withanage Senior Consultant at Centre for Environmental Justice
Impact on aquatic ecosystems
In his comments, Environmentalist Sajeewa Chamikara said that renewable power plants in Sri Lanka don’t operate in an efficient manner. “They still use archaic technologies and therefore we cannot produce a maximum capacity. On the other hand there’s no plan to conserve catchment areas of major reservoirs such as Victoria, Randenigala and Rantambe. But they continue to generate electricity, thereby leading to a water crisis. Many solar power plants are constructed by clearing forests. Elephant corridors and sensitive ecosystems are destroyed this way.
“Therefore the CEB and SLSEA should improve the efficiency in existing plants before constructing new plants. People need to be made aware of utilising these resources in an efficient manner. This has resulted in a major power crisis and as a solution, solar power plants and mini hydro plants are constructed in inappropriate locations,” Chamikara added.
He further shed light on how disrupting the flow of water in rivers could impact freshwater fishes and endemic aquatic plants such as Ketala and Kekatiya. “Some freshwater fish need to reach the estuary or marine environment for breeding. For example eels lay eggs in marine environments. They come down towards the lagoon, change their body colour, reach their breeding sites. The young then follow their parents back to freshwater systems. When dams are constructed across rivers, their life cycles are disrupted. Most freshwater fish lay eggs at the beginning of the monsoon season. With the rains, these eggs flow down towards the lagoon and eventually hatch. But the authorities have no clue about the sensitivity of these ecosystems,” he added while emphasising that the environment at Pilithuda Falls would have drastically changed over a period of six years and that constructing a mini hydro power plant would pose greater threats to the environment.
Less impacts from the project : NBRO
In his comments, Dr. H. A. G. Jayatissa serving at NBRO’s Landslide Risk Research Management Division said that landslides could be activated due to anthropogenic activities. “We need to promote green energy and when we have a project of this nature we will assess if there are negative impacts from the project. Since a dam is being built the water levels won’t rise. But there’s a tendency for the soil to loosen and without a tow support, the lower area will wash away. This is a project-induced threat. As such we will assess such threats and provide recommendations to carry out the project in a sustainable manner.” said Jayatissa.
When asked if the relevant project-approving authorities would monitor if the contractor is complying to the recommendations, he said that all authorities including CEA, forest conservation department and NBRO would jointly monitor if the contractor is adhering to the recommendations. “If these are not being implemented we will stop the project.” added Jayatissa.
He further said that the impact of the project is less and that’s why the NBRO has given the clearance. “Almost all (95%) mini hydro projects are in landslide-prone areas. We can’t stop such projects as we promote green energy, but we give recommendations to minimise landslide impacts that will happen from such a project,” he added.
No approval given yet : Forest Conservation Department
However, Deputy Forest Conservator Nishantha Edirisinghe said that the project hasn’t been approved as yet since there are several issues to be rectified first.
“They still use archaic technologies and therefore we cannot produce a maximum capacity. On the other hand there’s no plan to conserve catchment areas of major reservoirs such as Victoria, Randenigala and Rantambe”-
Sajeewa Chamikara Environmentalist
Documents at the legal department : CEA
When contacted CEA Chairman Siripala Amarasinghe said “The concurrence was done in 2014 and the documents are now at the legal department,”. Speaking further he added, “We therefore have to decide whether another concurrence is needed before giving clearance to the project.”.
Repeated attempts to contact SLSEA Chairman Ranjith Sepala and State Minister of Solar, Wind and Hydro Power Generation Projects Development Duminda Dissanayake proved futile. A senior official at Sakura Energy (Pvt) Ltd., declined to comment on the matter.