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People’s power vs hydropower

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Through Udamalimboda runs Naya Ganga creating Eli Hatha (Seven Falls), a collection of seven waterfalls. The area is picturesque and serene save for the constant hum of a generator as one nears the foot of the first waterfall. On the banks of Naya Ganga, one can observe what appears to be a mini-hydro project despite no clear indication of one through a notice or otherwise. It appears to be in its last stages of completion.

While many mini-hydropower projects are implemented making use of the many waterfalls in the country thereby generating power, what makes this mini hydropower project a matter of contention is its location. The project lies roughly two kilometers inside the Sri Pada Nature reserve and such activity is not legally permissible in a protected forest.

Legality
Amounting to 12,979 hectares, the area was declared as a nature reserve by a gazette notification in September 7, 2007 and is protected by section 2 (1) of the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO). Section 3 and 6 of the ordinance strictly forbid any development activity in a nature reserve such as construction of permanent or temporary structures, deforestation, removal of plants, destruction fauna and flora or construction of roads. However despite this, the project remains inside the Sri Pada Nature reserve causing much confusion among nature lovers.

“Acquiring of land by private persons in a nature reserve is not possible according to law,” said lawyer and environmentalist, Jagath Gunawardena when contacted by The Nation. He added that therefore permission given for such a construction by the former secretary to the Ministry of Wildlife Conservation Udeni Wickramasinghe is in fact illegal. On inspection, not only did The Nation find the power plant, but also a number of houses that were located within the same area. These houses were occupied by those working at the project site.

However while the legality seems clear cut, it is not so, as permission for the project at its inception in 2003 was provided when the area was not part of the Sri Pada Nature Reserve.

Confirming this, the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) Director General HD Rathnayake said that as construction had already commenced it only made sense to allow the project to continue as the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) was done and no issues were discovered in its review by the department.

However, according to Gunawardana, there was no construction at the time when the area was declared a nature reserve and therefore the project could have been stopped. Permission had been re-granted to a different company in 2009 on the permissions obtained by the first company which was a 1MW project although the second one has now been increased to a 3MW project.

In February 2010 a Range Forest Officer of Deraniyagala had sent a letter to the then DWC Conservator General WADA Wijesuriya urging him not to grant permission to the second party since the area has been declared as a nature reserve.

In the letter he had opposed the project as the first party has done extreme damage to the forest while noting that certain waterfalls could go dry due to the construction of the weir that will prevent a proper water flow to the waterfalls beneath. However, permission was nevertheless granted to the new company.
Rathnayake also confirmed that after inspection of the site thereafter the project had halted for some time. “The company was fined for some damage caused to the environment,” he said adding that permission was once again given a year ago to continue with it due to an appeafrom the company. However contradicting this, villagers claim the project only recommenced in November 2014 at the height of the election period.

Lawyer Jagath Gunawardena said, “This is an illegal project and there is no question about it”.

Impact
The project has clearly had an adverse effect on the environment. Any visitor can notice that no efforts have been taken to conserve the soil around the area of the project that has been cleared of trees to lay the main line providing the water needed for the project which could result in severe soil erosion during the rainy season.
Unwittingly the project has also impacted many species in the area. While generally the Sri Lankan Magpie is known to be a shy bird, they appear to be now accustomed to human food and their presence. While Pit Vipers and many other endemic animals have made this habitat their home it is obvious their existence is linked to the waterfalls and its loss could heavily affect them.

According to the Deraniyagala provincial correspondent of Vidusara, Gihan Dodawatta water flow of the falls has reduced since the beginning of the project.
At the weir built near the second waterfall, currently the water flows through a 6 inch wide pipe to the two waterfalls below thus limiting the flow. “Once the power plant begins its activities the waterfalls will dry up as even at the moment the water flow is less,” said Thilanka Wijekoon from the Rain Forest Protectors Organization.

He also noted that water discharged from the turbines of the power plant may contain mechanical wastage.

Major opposition
The project, despite obstacles and opposition, has unfortunately progressed throughout the years leaving the residents of Deraniyagala disheartened and disappointed. The government, having never consulted them regarding the project, leaves many in a state of disapproval.
Chief Incumbent of the Deraniyagala Sri Sama Bodhi Mangala Viharaya Kotte Sri Vidurakkhitha Thera said, “There is the power of money and politics behind this project that is being built disregarding all the environmental laws in the country,” he said. “This is part of our natural heritage and must be protected,” he said.

According to Gihan Dodawatta, this is the only such waterfall system in Sri Lanka which is being destroyed for the benefit of a minority. He added that political personalities like Minister of Power and Energy Patali Champika Ranawaka must be sensitive to these issues.

“Why destroy such a unique waterfall system to just generate 3MW of power?” villager Roshan Chathuranga questioned.

Government responsibility
However, when contacted by The Nation, Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka said as no objections have been raised by the Department of Wildlife Conservation, the Ministry of Power and Energy will go ahead with the hydro power project. “We cannot get involved in looking at the effect the project would have on the environment,” he said adding that only if the Central Environment Authority protests against the project will his Ministry review it.
But it must be noted that according to the 100-day program initiated by the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment, it promises to protect forest reserves while also identifying areas that are currently in danger of being destroyed.

For the past decade the people of Deraniyagala have been voiceless, but have fought a long-drawn battle to stop the destruction of Eli Hatha. Despite the project being in its last stages the courage of its people are admirable as they continue their conservation efforts. The question now is will the government along with the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment once again let down the people of Deraniyagala.

Last modified on Saturday, 28 February 2015 20:08

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