Sunday Times (Sri Lanka)
Mini-hydro's power bulldozes Athwelthota ecology concerns
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.