Colombo water supply in danger
This is further to articles
published in the newspapers, since May 2005, regarding the
increased demand for water, within the Greater Colombo (GC)
Area. According to facts and figures published in the previous
articles, it has become necessary, to increase the extraction
capacity of water from the Kelani river and the production
capacity of the present left bank water treatment plants or,
construction of a new water treatment plant on the right bank of
the Kelani river, to cater to the increased water demand.
To initiate a development project in Sri Lanka, certain
requirements have to be met such as, approvals from Local
Authority and Central Environmental Authority, identify source
of funds, etc. Among other things, the most difficult task is
the consent from the general public, who tend to think that
their present lifestyle may be adversely affected, due to the
implementation of development projects. Two such examples are
Norochcholai and Upper Kothmale power projects. Hence, it is the
prime duty of project planners and decision makers, to explain
and convince the public, the benefits the country will get, due
to the implementation of such development projects. If there are
any disadvantages to individuals or groups of people, then the
public should be made aware of these, including measures to be
adopted, to resolve such problems or, minimize the downside of
The decision makers, when appointed, have several
responsibilities within their authority. They are;
1. Formulating projects to meet the present and future needs of
approved development programmes,
2. Identifying and formulating infrastructure facilities needed
for the sustainability of these executed development projects
3. Timely implementation of the projects already approved by
their predecessors, without delay.
The above situation has changed with respect to the proposed
Ambatale Salinity Intrusion Barrier Project. Some of the present
planners and decision makers, without communicating with the
public, who are affected due to non availability of adequate
water supply in the GC area, decided to change the scope of the
project already accepted and approved by their predecessors.
According to available information, due to the change of scope
of the project, at the final stage of awarding the contract, the
Asian Development Bank (ADB) has withheld the funds agreed for
This decision has not been conveyed to the public up to now.
According to letters issued to certain investors constructing
buildings in the GC area to cater to the increased demand for
space, they have been promised with adequate water supply in
2009 by the NWSDB. As an Engineer instrumental in the initiation
of the construction of the salinity barrier at Ambatale, as the
most economical and effective solution to meet the increasing
water demand in the GC area, I feel it is my responsibility to
enlighten the public of the events, in sequence that they have
occurred recently, to enable them judge as to who is responsible
for the outcome of this project.
In this regard, the author of this article and a retired
Engineer of the NWS&DB R. Ranasinghe, published an article
titled “Increased Water Demand in Greater Colombo Area” in the
daily papers of May 2005. This writer also published another
article in the Daily News of November 9 2005, titled
“Improvement to Western Province Potable Water Supply”. In
response to this article, former Director General, Irrigation
Department, G.T. Dharmasena, published an article in the Daily
News of December 5 2005. In his article, among other things, he
had focused on the construction of an impounding reservoir at
Nawatha in Yatiyantota. It is appropriate to reproduce important
sections of those articles, for the benefit of the readers who
did not have the opportunity to read it, to read it at the end
of this article. In 1998, the NWS&DB acquired around 12 acres of
selected land, for the construction of a new water treatment
plant in Biyagama on the right bank of the Kelani River. Foreign
funds required to construct a water treatment plant of 40
million gals/day capacity also obtained and the tender for the
construction is under consideration too.
When this new treatment plant is operational, it would operate
only during high flows of the Kelani River. During low flows,
there is a possibility of early intrusion of Salinity to the two
existing water intakes located at Ambatale on the left bank of
the Kelani river, about 2km downstream from the proposed new
The NWS&DB Engineers had studied all these problems and
identified the necessity of the construction of the permanent
Salinity Barrier at Ambatale. They convinced the then decision
makers at the highest political level, planning ministry,
treasury, line ministry and the Directors of the Board of
Management of NWS&DB, regarding this need. Funds required for
the execution of the project were obtained from the ADB,
technical studies carried out by competent qualified people,
consultants selected according to government procedure and
designs completed. On finalizing the tender documents, tenders
were invited from contractors, according to government tender
procedure, evaluation carried out and the contractor recommended
by the CATB to award the contract for the construction.
Change of situation
The real drama started at this point, when a few senior
professionals were employed by the line ministry, as
Consultants/Advisors to advice the decision makers at the line
ministry regarding technical matters. In the latter part of
2005, the decision makers at the line ministry, had appointed a
special committee comprising five officials: two officers from
NWS&DB, one from the Department of Irrigation, one from the
Water Resources Secretariat and one consultant/advisor from the
line ministry, to re-evaluate the salinity barrier project. I
reliably understand that the report of the committee includes
the following introductory statement:
The Greater Colombo has experienced interruption of water supply
on several occasions since the early nineties, as a result of
saline water intrusion up to the Ambatale water treatment plant.
The plant has been able to protect water supply most of the time
with a temporary sandbag barrier since 1992. However, in 2004,
water supply was interrupted several times in a day between 20th
January and 6th March due to extreme low water flow and high
tidal action. This resulted in a financial loss of Rs. 11.78
million in revenue due to the loss of production of water supply
amounting to 661,000 cubic meters. The water supply interruption
in Colombo was a problematic issue for the Government during the
period and speedy action was requested by the authority to
implement the proposed structure across Kelani River. Since the
barrage is to be financed under a loan from Asian Development
Bank, the design and construction documentations were completed
for international contracting.
I also understand that the Secretary of the line ministry had
issued a TOR to this committee, to look into seven specific
issues related to the proposed structure. As indicated earlier,
the NWS&DB Engineers and their consultants had studied all these
issues raised by the secretary of the line ministry from 1992
and found positive economical solutions to propose this project
for funding, to the finance ministry and treasury, through the
then secretary of the line ministry, and in this context only,
the ADB had allocated funds for this project.
According to available information, the above committee had met
on seven occasions and during the meetings, experts had been
invited to consult on the subject of water availability,
flooding, long-term solutions and on details of construction
methodology and subsurface conditions. This committee finally
agreed to consider four options of construction of the salinity
barrier at Ambatale:
1) As already designed
2) Same as (1) without sheet piles
3) Only sheet piles, no pile foundation with the rubber dam
supported on sand bed
4) Rubber dam supported on cylinders.
The timeframe indicated by the committee was as follows:
Option 1) & 2) could commence immediately, option 3) requires
additional 2 years and option 4) requires additional 3 years.
The committee recommended that options 1) to 4) be addressed,
before making a decision on approving an alternative to the
Kelani conservation barrage (salinity barrier).
In considering the urgency of a solution and the source of
finance, changes to the project require careful planning to
avoid further delay in the implementation of the proposal, which
may result in losing the source of finance and increased cost of
capital to NWS&DB. The estimated cost of construction of the
proposed salinity barrier is about Rs.700 million, including the
By Eng. W.A. Karunarathne, former General Manager
National Water Supply & Drainage Board (NWS&DB)
(To be continued next week)
Powdered milk price hike on
59% of children under the age of one
suffering from anemia
By Rathindra Kuruwita and
An astounding 59% of children under the age of one in Sri Lanka
are suffering from anemia, a form of malnutrition.
The main contributory factor is that most mothers are using milk
powder instead of breast feeding their children, said Health
Ministry Nutrition Director Dr. Shanthi Gunawardene.
“Normally a family with just one child below five years of age
would use at least 10 packets of milk powder a month. The price
range of a packet of milk powder is between Rs. 140 to Rs. 170.
Therefore, a family would have to spend around Rs. 1,400 to Rs.
1,700 a month on milk powder alone.
“Given the present economic situation where around two million
families earn only Rs. 1,000 to Rs. 2,000 a month, they have no
other option but to cut back. I wonder what these families would
do once the proposed price hikes are implemented.”
Despite the alarming percentage of children suffering from
malnutrition, Sri Lanka is once again bracing itself for yet
another hike in milk powder prices. Dairy producers claim that a
drought in Australia is pushing international dairy product
prices to unprecedented heights.
“The severe drought in Australia, coupled with the removal of
subsidies for milk in Europe have resulted in a rise in prices
in the world market,” Fonterra Cooperative Group Corporate
Affairs Director Chetiya Sri-Nammuni.
Fonterra is estimated to hold a 60 percent volume-based market
share in Sri Lanka. In addition to its flagship Anchor brand, it
also supplies milk powder to a number of other packers.
It is only natural for prices of products to increase; however,
prices of all milk products in Sri Lanka have increased rapidly
by large amounts and reached unbearable levels over the last
The price of a packet of milk powder weighing 400 grammes was
only Rs. 6 in 1977. By 1994, it had increased to about Rs. 50.
When the People’s Alliance (PA) government came into power at
that time, it levelled criticism at the United National Party (UNP)
charging that 60 percent of the children below the age of five
were malnourished and pledged to improve the situation.
However, the price of a 400 gramme packet increased to Rs. 100
in 2000. At present the price of a 400 gramme packet of milk
powder is between Rs. 140 to Rs. 179.
The present situation
According to importers, the import price of whole milk powder
which was around US$ 2,700 per metric tonne at the end of last
year has now reached US$ 3,000 and they are of the opinion that
the price would increase further. Importers assert it is
difficult to continue production at current prices.
While a 400 gramme pack of milk powder is now retailed in Sri
Lanka at prices ranging from Rs. 140 to Rs. 170, the first round
of price increases is likely to see this increasing upto Rs. 165
to Rs. 185.
An industry source said that some suppliers have quoted them a
two month forward price as high as US$ 3,500 a tonne. If this
eventuality were to occur, it would push the price of a 400
gramme retail pack to around Rs. 200 to Rs. 225.
Trade, Marketing Development, Cooperatives and Consumer Services
Minister Bandula Gunawardena told The Nation, “The main players
in the industry met me and asked for a waiver of the existing
nine percent import duty, at least until August. We receive
appeals from every industry to increase prices every day. But
that does not mean we are going to succumb to their whims
without proper investigation into the cost of the product,
exchange rate and other relevant factors.”
He further said, “Under Consumer Act No. 9/2003, if any company
wants to increase the prices of an essential item, they must
appeal to the Consumer Affairs Authority. After the proper
protocol, we come to an agreement whether the prices should be
increased or not. On the other hand, if the market prices demand
that there is a need to increase prices, then we have no choice
but to increase prices. I believe that what we need is a
mechanism where prices can be adjusted both ways, up and down. I
would want the importers to bring down the prices when
international prices come down.”
However, the Minister is of the belief that an increase in
powdered milk products would not affect a majority of the
people, although that is the common belief.
“Although milk powder is listed as an essential item, not
everybody in Sri Lanka drinks powdered milk. Most of the rural
people prefer to have a plain tea,” he pointed out.
He went on to highlight the items that are considered essential:
“It is guaranteed that kitchens in every household in Sri Lanka
would have potatoes, onions, chillies and sugar at any given
time, but not all households have milk powder. Therefore, I
believe that a price hike in powdered milk will not affect the
general public as many claim.”
Manel Gunathilake, 34, mother of two children under five begs to
“My younger child is 19-months-old and the other is
four-and-a-half. We consume around 12-14 packets of Anchor each
month and it costs us around Rs. 4,000. It’s about one fourth of
the family income and for me the price of powdered milk is very
important. I will certainly feel the impact if prices are
Furthermore, it is not only families that include infants and
children that consider powdered milk as an essential item.
“There is no one under five in my family, which consists of four
people. But we drink a lot of tea like many Sri Lankans,” said
Rachitha Vithanage of Ratmalana.
Resort to stealing
“I don’t consider myself poor and I don’t consider Rs. 4,000 to
Rs. 5,000 a large amount. However, if prices go up to Rs. 225,
even I will have to cut down on consumption. I really cannot
comprehend how those who are undergoing financial hardship will
be able to afford powdered milk. It is the responsibility of the
government to minimise price hikes because I do not think any
man could listen to his baby cry in hunger. If they cannot
afford to buy essential items, they will resort to stealing.”
Given that over two million families in the country earn the
paltry sum of Rs. 1,000 to Rs. 2,000 per month, Vithanage’s
prediction has every likelihood of coming true.
K.G Sunil, who works on a contract basis in the Biyagama Free
Trade Zone, the father of an infant, said, “I have a 6-month-old
child. I cannot afford to give him the milk powder I drank as a
child; instead I give him a cheaper variety. I heard about the
proposed price hikes and I don’t know how I can continue to buy
even that. I cannot cut down on the amount he drinks, can? The
government should do something about this. This is not what we
expected from this government.”
One of the main reasons for the increase of prices is that
Australia, one of the major milk powder producers, is suffering
from a year long drought with forecasts of milk production
dropping by 11 percent to nine billion litres during this year.
However, according to Kotmale Holdings CEO Trevine Gomez, the
root of the problem dates back to the Iraq conflict when excess
stocks were sent as aid.
“They used up their surplus milk by sending it as aid during the
tsunami, this decreased the stocks. In addition, recently Europe
took off the US$ 250 per tonne subsidy that was in place.”
Up to the government
Although the industry expects prices to go down after August
when it’s spring in the Southern Hemisphere, which brings about
a rise in production in Australia and New Zealand, “it may even
take up to a year for the market to stabilize” Gomez pointed
“Therefore, it’s up to the government,” he added.
Asked what steps the government would take to tackle this issue,
Minister Gunawardena said, “If there is going to be an increase,
the government would consider giving a subsidy, especially
taking into account the need for children’s milk food. As a
government we cannot control the price of premium brands. I have
asked them to introduce a budget pack with minimal packaging to
protect the poor man. In the meantime, we are planning to
popularise the use of liquid milk consumption among Sri Lankans.”
He further said the government is joining with the agricultural
and animal farming bodies in the country to formulate a system
to promote liquid milk consumption.
“This would not only prove to be a good health practice, but
would also save a considerable amount of foreign exchange. We
would be able to meet milk food needs in the country itself,
without having to import,” he added.
Meanwhile, Kotmale Holdings expects to keep prices below that of
multinational brands by streamlining its operations, while
prices of its other dairy products which are produced using
local milk would also be kept steady.
The price of milk was used by many politicians in the opposition
to criticise governments. But no matter which party governs, the
price of powdered milk has risen by leaps and bounds.
The only way to avoid shocks of this nature in the future is to
improve the local dairy industry. However, since this industry
has been neglected by successive governments and is presently
unable to meet the existing demand, one is hard pressed to see
how the proposal to popularise the use of liquid milk
consumption among Sri Lankans would be realised.