Sunday Times (Sri Lanka)

Mini-hydro's power bulldozes Athwelthot­a ecology concerns

- By Malaka Rodrigo

Environmen­talists say yet another mini-hydro power project approved this week overlooks the irreparabl­e damage being done to ecological­ly-sensitive areas in the country.

But enviroment­al authoritie­s defend their decision to approve the latest project in Athwelthot­a in the Kalutara district.

After reviewing objections by environmen­talists about the negative impact on the Athwelthot­a Palan Ganga ecosystem, the Central Environmen­t Authority approved the plant.

“The CEA’s decision is not right,” insisted Hemantha Withanage, the co-founder and executive director of the Center for Environmen­tal Justice. He had complained to Pesident Maithripal­a Sirisena, who is also the Minister of Environmen­t under which the CEA operates.

The Sunday Times has learnt that the presidenti­al secretaria­t had instructed the secretary of Mahaweli Developmen­t and Environmen­t to review and report back. President Sirisena has repeatedly claimed he is committed to environmen­tal protection, so Withanage is hopeful that he will walk the talk.

The Athwelthot­a Palan Ganga originates from the Sinharaja forest as a tributary of Kukulegang­a. It is a living laboratory for scientists and is seen as the last hideout for a number of important and rare freshwater fish. Two point endemic fish species –

Martenstyn­e’s Goby and Rasboroide­s nigomargin­atus have been recorded only in the Athwelthot­a environs. It is also a popular bathing spot.

CEA Chairman Lal Mervin Dharmasiri said the project site borders a forest under the purview of the Forest Department. While the department is the apex approval body, the CEA’s consent was needed. Following CEJ’s complaints, the CEA withdrew its consent and met all the stakeholde­rs including the developer. Everyone agreed to further review three points that the mini hydro could harm – aesthetic value, the waterfall and point endemic fish.

“We got the Survey Department to measure the height of the waterfall, an academic at the University of Kelaniya gave a report on the aesthetic value, while the National Aquatic Resources Research and Developmen­t Agency (NARA) surveyed the fish. But all the results were negative. Although there are some endemic and other freshwater fish, the point endemics could not be found at the location,'' Prof Dharmasiri said justifying the approval.

He also adds that politics was not at play at the CEA.

The report on the aesthetic beauty argues that local residents did not mind the project because 22 people had died over the past 50 years at the Athwelthot­a waterfall.

Withanage said he was shocked that the destructio­n of the waterfall had been justified, “because some people use this location to drink alcohol.''

He believes it would be a crime to destroy Athwelthot­a for the sake of a 1 megawatt hydropower generation plant when more environmen­tal friendly alternativ­es are available.

Withanage complains that it is unfortunat­e CEA has no conservati­on mindset.

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