Saturday, April 25, 2015

Saving Athwelthota Waterfall

Aesthetic beauty is something that everyone appreciates but very few cares. Injuring the scenic beauty has rapid increase in the industrial era of the world. Over 400 waterfalls is a major landscape that contribute to the mother lanka’s natural beauty. However Sri Lanka is loosing these waterfalls due to the irresponsible development activities mainly for hydropower generation.

The permission given to Sakura Energy, a company own by Dhammika Ranathunga  to injure Athwelthota waterfall also known as Pilithuda waterfall is now under reconsideration by the Project approving agencies i.e. Central Environmental Authority and the Forest Department. The project is planning to add 1.5 MW energy capacity to at to the national grid.

Mini hydropower project is Sri Lanka are deadly to the Sri Lanka’s waterfalls, one of the most beautiful landscapes of the country. Watawala waterfall, Naya Ganga  falls, etc have been already destroyed. Even the beauty of St. Clair waterfall is now regulated. The permission has given to Sakura Energy mini Hydro project located in Morapitiya on the basis that there is no waterfall in the Athwelthota river which is connecting to Palan Ganga and a tributary of Kaluganga.  Is this true?

Can Athwelthota-Pilithuda waterfall be count as a waterfall?

The Initial Environmental Examination does not mention this as a waterfall.  During the technical evaluation stage a so-called waterfall expert has also concluded that this is not a “waterfall” but a “water drop”. 

According to the Lanka Council of waterfalls (LCWF), the only index available in the country Pilithuda is a 5-meter high waterfall.  Sri Lanka has much smaller waterfall too. This waterfall is located in a river flowing down from Sinharaja rainforest. It used to have much more water before the infamous logging of Sinharaja in the 70s. Due to the fast flowing water Pilithuda waterfall has created a deeper hole and often times entire waterfall cannot be seen.

How tall must a waterfall be to count and a waterfall?  This is not only a question to us, but other countries are asking the same question. To answer this question I quote the following section from an article appeared on the “world of waterfalls.” 

“We’re basing our answer on how height plays into its aesthetics and shape. In other words, does the waterfall’s geometry make it both obvious and pleasing to the eye? For example, Angel fall and Iguazu fall are obviously waterfalls of differing heights and widths yet they’re aesthetically pleasing while being geometrically obvious that you indeed have a waterfall here. However, what if you have a 5ft tall waterfall (not even 2m) and it looks like a waterfall if the stream is narrow enough?  Ordeville Canyon Waterfall falls under this category. I’m sure there will be people who say this is not tall enough to be a waterfall. But if we didn’t tell you the height and you just looked at the photo, would you have called it a waterfall? So why did this waterfall get attention when there are thousands (maybe millions) of other miniscule ones that don’t even get noticed?  That’s because this 5ft waterfall is an obstacle preventing progress further up Orderville Canyon for many without technical canyoneering gear. That’s why it gets noticed and pegged by many people as a waterfall. So we ended up concurring with the local consensus on this and called this one a waterfall even though it’s really stretching our comfort level (perhaps bordering on hypocrisy) on evaluating what counts as a waterfall.”

Althwelthota waterfall has been treated as a waterfall since the era of Prince Wideye Bandara who ruled “Palinda Nuwara” during the period of Portuguese colonization in Sri lanka( 1505-1670 AD). According to the chronicles he has hidden the jewelries behind the water curtain. Our elders say that there is a tunnel constructed just below the waterfall to “Yakkunge Wala” where people have seen steps to enter the tunnel. Some people say some treasure is hidden in “Yakkunge Wala” and some says a golden bed appeared in this deep water hall which is located about 1 km downstream the waterfall.

These chronicles around Athwelthota waterfall are at least 500 years old. This means people in the area has the consensus that this is a waterfall. It is part of our natural heritage too. Therefore, there is no dispute about counting this as a  waterfall.

Other than the consensus of the people in “Pasdun Korale”, Palindanuwara Pradeshiya Saba has tendered the parking location to a shop owner in the area and it assures that there is no dispute on counting this as a waterfall.

Fifty-five years ago, a famous author, Wallace Stegner, wrote a letter explaining the value of undeveloped wilderness to our spirits and souls which later published it as a chapter in his book, The Sound of Mountain Water.

He wrote “Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed; if we permit the last virgin forests to be turned into comic books and plastic cigarette cases; if we drive the few remaining members of the wild species into zoos or to extinction; if we pollute the last clear air and dirty the last clean streams and push our paved roads through the last of the silence, so that never again will Americans be free in their own country from the noise, the exhausts, the stinks of human and automotive waste . . . ”and
“We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”

A famous US Supreme Court case in 1972 Sierra Club  v. Morton, says that “Aesthetic and environmental wellbeing, like economic wellbeing, are important ingredients of the quality of life in our society . . ..”   Damaging a aesthetic beauty is considered as  “aesthetic injury” under the US law.

1971 case in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, Scenic Hudson Preservation Conference v. FPC [Federal Power Commission] is worthwhile to study.

The case was filed when the Consolidated Edison Power Company announced a plan to build a hydroelectric “pumped water storage facility” on top of the highest, most beautiful mountain along the Hudson River.  The plan was to have pipes carrying water up the mountain during the night when there was little demand for power and then carrying water back down the mountain during the day to drive turbines, when New York City needed energy. The environmental group, Scenic Hudson Preservation Conference, went to court.  The Federal Power Commission tried to block them from bringing the lawsuit, arguing that the Federal Power Act did not mention anything about aesthetic beauty.  The Court of Appeals, however, ruled that the term “aggrieved party” in the Federal Power Act was sufficient to encompass aesthetic injury.  It said: “In order to insure that the Federal Power Commission will adequately protect the public interest in the aesthetic, conservational, and recreational aspects of power development, those who, by their activities and conduct, have exhibited a special interest in such areas must be held to be included in the class of ‘aggrieved’ parties under § 313(b) [of the Federal Power Act].”

In the case against the Mawanella Pradeshiya Sabha by Environmental Foundation Ltd in 1997/98 for not saving the  Kadugannawa scenic beauty by the vendors and the bill boards, the Pradeshiya Sabha agreed to preserve he scenic beauty of Kadugannawa pass.

There is no doubt that Athwelthota waterfall is a common property. No one has the absolute ownership to the waterfall. Under the Sri Lankan Constitution, It’s the duty of all every person in Sri Lanka to preserve and protect public property, and to combat misuse and waste of public property (28 d) and to protect nature and conserve its riches( 28 f).

Therefore, it is clear that this waterfall should not be given to Sakura Energy or any other person to injure or destroy. In fact it’s the duty of the Central Environmental Authority and the Forest department to conserve it.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Stop destroying Athwelthota waterfall for power generation

-->Athwelthota waterfall is a known tourist destination among the local people in Kalutara and Rathnapura district. However, Forest Department and the Central Environmental Authority) CEA) have approved a mini hydro project proposed by Sakura Energy, a company owned by Dhammika Ranathunga. The project will generate on 1.5 MW electricity capacity to sold to the national grid. The water flows along the river will add few more millions to the wealth of Ranathunga family.

However it will destroy the livelihood of local people who depend selling Kitul Honey and Jaggery to the local tourist. 

Beauty of this location was a gem for the Sinhala films industry before. White water flaws from Sinharaja forest along the  Athwelthota river creates a natural pool then falls down creating a waterfall, which is about 12 feet.  The water which falls down disappearing in a deep hole created by the nature makes this fall different to other waterfalls. 

I was born in Morapitya, only 2 km away from the waterfall. I know that there are many legends around this waterfall. One legends says that Prince Veedhiya Bandara who ruled Palindanuwara in 16th century has hide his jewelries and gems inside the water curtain in this water fall. According to our elders, there is a tunnel located little downstream of the waterfall  connect to  Palanda (a small village located near Molkawa) a city developed by Prince Veediye Bandara then. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest generals of Sri Lankan history who fought against the Portuguese.

I know that many people travel 30- 40 km to reach this waterfall for picnic and all local people enjoy it as part of their life. Ironically the Initial Environmental Examination (IEE) does not mention this as a waterfall. This IEE also does not mention this waterfall as a tourist destination. According to the officials, this waterfall does not come within the technical definition of a waterfall.  A waterfall higher than 3 meters will only be considered as a waterfall.  However, all people in the area refer Athwelthota fall as a waterfall.  This is clearly an issue of how we treat our aesthetic beauty in the DEVELOPMENT BUSINESS.

This NATURAL WATER POOL is a bathing spot for the local people. Many people use this for bathing especially during the dry season. Ironically Palindanuwara Pradeshiya Sabha has given the authorization to the project saying that this place is not safe for bathing. Several people have died over the last 50 years in this location. But, how can it be a reason to destroy a natural landscape.  This is the ugly side of the CORRUPT POLITICS.

Watawala waterfall is no more. St Cair had a narrow escape of destruction due to the public pressure.  Lakshapana also facing threats. Number of other small water falls have been killed by the mini hydro industry. We are not ready to loose Athwelthota waterfall for this development. 

Its ours. Government officials have no right to approve such destructive project in the name of development. The so called developers too have no right to destroy our nature, beauty,  livelihood and  history for rupees ad cents. 

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Listen to people. Respect the environment. Ensure happiness


Majority of the Sri Lankans are celebrating the victory of the joint candidate Maithripala Sirisena. They deserve to celebrate, as this is a victory of the common against some evil powers not necessarily by President Mahinda Rajapaksha but his subordinates. However, I salute President Rajapaska for facilitating smooth transfer of the power.

It’s time to think what went wrong to become people’s man to an autocrat. Many people say that power corrupt people.   But Aung San Suu Kyei, said, “It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.” I believe this is true for President Rajapaksha.

This election results shows that majority wanted the abolition of the executive presidency which gives one man an enormous power. Also it shows that people did not like to drug politics and the thuggery. Lack of good governance was a major concern for many people. I was happy to see that people even at the local level started taking about good governance, although they may have not understood it clearly.

Good governance entails many different combinations as practice by various groups. Some also believe that better governance is more appropriate word.  Participation, Access to information, Rule of law or Predictability and Accountability are the minimum factors to ensure good governance. 

As an environmentalist I believe both good governance and environmental justice are key factors for green politics. I believe that both were missing in the last decade in Sri Lanka. It is always the case that the dilemma of the most governments of saving the environment when concentrating the GDP oriented growth and development. World summit on Environment and Development in 1992 brought the sustainable development as a concept to balance the two.

When last regime decided that growth is far more important than the environment it went against the wishes of many, while some shortsighted people are happy. As an environmentalist I was against the destructive development. I was also unhappy when the country was burrowing of too much money with high interest rates making the country indebted.

Unnecessary land grabbing by the military and others, capture of wild elephants, violation of EIA regulations, destruction of Forest, wildlife, wetlands and coastal ecosystems, made me unhappy about the last regime.

Politicizing the government agencies such as Central Environmental Authority, Wildlife Department and bringing the Urban Development Authority, Coast Conservation Department under the Ministry of Defense made me unhappy too.

Such moves allowed the past regime to dictate the development. This is how they got the approval for the Colombo Port City, Yan Oya and Uma Oya Project, Matara- Mattala Expressway, Mattala Airport and Hambantota harbor to name a few. They all violated the EIA regulations and public opinion either not sorted or neglected. Local voice not heard and no respect to the environment.

I believe Sri Lanka now has very high illegitimate debt due to the recent burrowing from the Chinese Exim Bank. According to the Asia Pacific Movement on Debt and Development “the debts involve the gross violation of basic assumptions of debt contracts, as well as widely accepted ethical, social, political, economic, environmental values, standards and principles and the debts cause harm to the well being of the people and communities in whose name the debts were incurred and who are the ones paying for these debts ate called illegitimate debt” are treated as Illegitimate debt. I believe Mattala airport, Hambatota harbor and the Colombo port City are some project that incurred illegitimate debt. I believe that Sri Lanka should have a clear opinion on how they deal with such illegitimate debt including cancellation.

Meantime it is equally important to either abandoned some so called development projects, which are unnecessary for the country or follow the environmental regulations if the new regime want to continue in some cases.  Under the new regime we want to stop illegal land gabbing, violation of the environmental laws including the EIA regulation. We also wanted to make sure that civil society and community voice heard in development decision making. While ensure abolition of the executive powers, next constitution should ensure right to life, right to health, right to environment and nature, right to water and sanitation as the fundamental rights. We also believe that they should respect the environment and the ecology and bring ecological democracy rather than just political democracy. We also believe that they should bring the ecological agriculture and stop heavy dependence on the agrochemicals. Restoration of ecosystem is a must today. Increasing environmental literacy is also vital for the nation.

I hope that the President Maithripala Sirisena will respect to the voices of the environmental community as he agreed during his election campaign and bring a country wide environmental policy detailing the various environmental requirement and safeguards in the next 100 days. We hope Prime Minister, Ranil Wickramasinghe, Venerable Athuraliye Rathana Thero, Mr. Champika Ranawaka, Mr. Anura Kumara Dissanayake and rest of the political leaders will assist to keep this promise and not to make the same mistake done by the previous regime.

Pact with the Common Candidate Maithripala Sirisena and Environmental Organisation's Collective

Environmental Organization’s Collective

Monday 15th December 2014 at the Mahaweli Centre

Public pact for sustainable development, to ensure environmental democracy and environmental rights
  • Ensure environmental right of all communities
  • Protection on Natural resources
  • Establish sustainable development
  • Build a green economy

Ten actions plans proposes based on the above four principles
  • Stop abuse of natural resources and ensure its protection
  • Develop a practical action plan to stop human-elephant conflict
  • Ensure public participation in all development plans
  • Developing a sustainable national action plan for waste management
  • Establish an action plan for the promotion of sustainable energy
  • Promotion of ecological agriculture and local seed varieties
  • Making eco-tourism a principal economic act
  • Increase environmental literacy
  • Proper enforcement of the environmental laws and polices
  • Ensure food sovereignty and food security through a proper land use policy


Sunday, January 04, 2015

Environmental democracy in Sri Lanka

-->Sri Lanka has very strong environmental laws and lessons learned. However, as of now, Sri Lanka is one of the country in the region that violate the existing environmental laws, regulations and principles despite that Mahindha Chinthana, the bible of the current regime has given some thoughts on the environment. 

Port city which will make a 496 hectare island in the Indian ocean does not have an EIA. Yan Oya project which will destroy 3500 acres of Forest also did not considered the environmental impacts before launching the project. There are many more examples. 

In principle people who live in close proximity to natural resources should have a say when those resources are being developed. However in many recorded instances, the communities become victims of development processes, yet are fear to access the legal process either due to lack of awareness or due to other threats. This is despite clear articulation, in some instances in the political arena that communities do have a say in the decision-making process. 

For example, in delivering the famous judgment on the Eppawela phosphate mine, Justice A.R. B. Amarasignhe stated that land and its resources belong to the people and other living beings and the Government is only the trustee of such resources. 

The reality on the ground however, does not meet this idea of ownership by the people. As most political regimes function on the notion that voting in a democratic process is an endorsement of the power exercised by the State, it has become increasingly difficult for communities to fight against efforts to destroy their natural habitat and in particular, the natural resources located near them. 

Despite regulations and laws - that in theory safeguard the interests of the communities - the ambivalence in the interpretation of such law, the lack of enforcement of the said law and the corruption involved in many development projects, make it more difficult for communities to challenge such interventions and lobby with the relevant stakeholders to take their concerns into consideration. As a result, most development processes culminate in the violation of environmental and fundamental rights of the communities, the marginalization of the local communities in assuming a role in decision-making and the destruction of the natural resource(s). The lack of a conducive civic space for the public to raise their voices against such processes further exacerbates the widening gap between and development processes environmental protection mechanisms.  

Most developing countries utilize only the environmental impacts assessment regulations to harness public opinion in such situations. However we have experienced, this is far from being an adequate, effective or enforceable mechanism to ensure due consideration is given to the environment or the people who stand to be most affected by these ‘interventions’.
Ecological democracy attempts to address the fundamental flaws in current thinking and particularly in neo-liberal economic actions that gravely undermine the sustainability factor. In doing so, it allows those affected by the outcomes of environmental issues and those whose lives are intrinsically linked to the environment to assume an active role in the decision-making processes and not limit such processes to the governments and industries and corporations. Hence, it entails the principle of equal rights for all those in the environment debate - including the public, community groups, advocates, workers, academics and health care professionals - and not be limited to safeguarding the interests of the investors and the government. 

The civil society in Sri Lanka has failed to mobilize the communities towards ensuring this democracy. In other works bringing environmental factors in development decision making is an urgent need in Sri Lanka. However, the political debate is not bringing this vital discussion adequately in the stage today.