Wednesday, November 23, 2016


Hemantha Withanage
Executive Director, 
Centre for Environmental Justice

Thirty five year old Central Environmental Authority (CEA) is one of the agencies in Sri Lanka that always subject to criticism as a failed institution. Sri Lankans have lost the faith on the CEA over the last decade since it has not been able to control natural resource  destruction or control pollution as expected when establishing this agency in 1980. It is now an agency demonstrating its nickname ‘Can’t Enforce Anything’.

CEA’s problem starts with putting politically appointed Board of Directors who are not sharing the vision on environmental conservation. I believe the CEA management in the past decade has misunderstood its mission and has taken development mandate from political leadership forgetting that CEA’s role is to protect the environment. The National Environmental Act has not given powers to the CEA to compromise the environment with the development but the “management and conservation of the country’s natural resources in order to obtain the optimum benefits therefrom and to preserve the same for future generations ...(Section 17 of the NEA No 47 0f 1980).

CEA does not know its limits. It has taken roles on the waste management, public awareness, and even managing the waste landfills rather than ensuring the environmental quality in the country, environmental law enforcement, management of natural resources and guiding the rest of the government agencies by providing standards, guidelines etc. CEA has not developed its staff capacity, skills and even the mindset of the employees to play a more leading role in the conservation.

There are plenty of examples to show that it has failed to manage the Environmental Assessment procedure and the Environmental Protection License procedure. Our rivers, soil and air have become more polluted; the forest and wetlands have been more destroyed and encroached while CEA is sitting on the National Environmental Act.

The most recent example is that approval of the 1 MW mini hydro-power project in Morapitiya- Athwelthota waterfall where National Aquatic Resource and Research Agency found that 15 fish species out of 25 species found during their visit are Critically endangered (1) Endangered (9) Vulnerable (1) and near threatened (4).  In fact two point endemic fish species i.e Martenstyne’s Goby and  Rasboroides nigomarginatus have been recorded only in this location. It is a living laboratory for the scientist and national pride for the Sri Lankans.

As mentioned in the Eppawela Jusdgement "The capitalist economy" [as distinguished from Adam Smith`s concept of a market economy] "has a potentially fatal ignorance of two subjects. One is the nature of money. The other is the nature of life. This ignorance leads us to trade away life for money, which is a bad bargain indeed. "

CEA Chairman’s decision to destroy this nationally and internationally important habitat in public trust clearly shows that in his thinking life has no value compared to making money by converting water pressure into electricity. I wonder whether he can tell his children and grand children the he decided to destroy this habitat for just 1 MW hydropower project which is insignificant where more environmental friendly alternatives are available in this era of climate change.

Fifty-five years ago, a famous author, Wallace Stegner 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,....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.”

Soon Athwelthota waterfall will start pumping money for the Sakura Energy, a company owned by a political dynasty. People will have no choice rather naming and shaming the government and the CEA. Is this the public interest we can expect from the public bodies such as CEA?

The report produced by Dr. Kularathne in the University of Kelaniya at the request of CEA argue that people agree to destroy of the Athwelthota waterfall just because 22 people died over the past 5 decades in this fall. I wonder why they do not understand that in a country where about 2700 people have died only in 2015 by road accidents, where more than 150 people die annually due to elephant attacks, where over 2500 people commit suicide annually and almost 1 million people are at earth slide risks, the destruction of this important habitat cannot be justified in this way. I was also shocked to hear that he justify the destruction of waterfall that because some people use this location for drinking alcohol when even Sripada and Kataragama also have found drunken pilgrims.

It is unfortunate CEA has no conservation mindset, competent experts or adequate staff to save the environment.  So far CEA has approved over hundred Mini Hydro power project with Fish ladders and environmental flow has given as an important conditions. But non of these dams are operating the fish ladders or adequate the environmental flow. The truth is that CEA doesn’t monitor these projects and they have no idea what these dams done to our river network. Over 143 dams operating in the country has already killed more than 200 kilometers of the rivers and streams in Sri Lanka. 

Half of the politicians in Sri Lanka and the rich families continue to destroy the environment disregarding the value of nature. It is the practice of the CEA, Forest Department, Wild life Department, Geological Survey and Mines Bureau or NARA to provide conditions and approve the project just to manage the political pressure on the staff, the management and make developers happy. GSMB even has own technical service to provide reports in favor of the developers, which is a clear conflict of interest.  These agencies are not concern on the environmental damage to these microhabitats. Although they are on public pay role very rarely a Sri Lankan citizen question the quality of their work and validity of those conditions or even the role of project monitoring. It is unfortunate that some corrupted officials in these institutions use this weakness to make money out of destruction.

The Central Environmental Authority was set up “for the protection of any portion of the environment with respect to the uses and values, whether tangible or intangible, to be protected, the quality to be maintained, the extent to which the discharge of wastes may be permitted without detriment to the quality of the environment and long range development used and planning and any other factors relating to the protection and management of the environment”(Section 10 a). 

CEA was also set up to preserve the nature for future generations. It is clear that CEA has no powers to compromise the environment with the development but the “management and conservation of the country’s natural resources in order to obtain the optimum benefits therefrom and to preserve the same for future generations and the general measures through which such policy may be carried out effectively”(Section 17 of the NEA No 47 0f 1980).

His Excellency the president claims that he is much committed for environmental protection. In fact his manifesto says “I will prepare the background for preventing  the destruction of forestation and conserving sensitive ecological systems in order to protect forests and forest animals. All environmental laws will be implemented without reservation and in doing so offenders will be punished irrespective of their standing in society. A clear policy on forest cultivation will be formulated and implemented without prejudice to the traditional livelihoods of the rural community.  
President Manifesto also states that  “Zones that are environmentally sensitive and under threat of destruction at present will be identified and protected. Environmentally vital zones already destroyed or facing extinction will be restored using the latest scientific knowledge available in the world.”

As a public body CEA manages the environment and nature in public trust, but has no authority to allow destruction in accordance with the legal principles established under the Bulankulama v. Min. of Industrial Development (Eppawala case), S.C. Application No. 884/99 (F/R) also knows as Eppawela case.

In the Eppawela Judgment referring to Jaya Ganga judgment states “The Jaya Ganga, which the petitioners, as well as the National Academy of Sciences and the National Science Foundation, have drawn attention to, is not merely a water course or transportation canal corridor, or even ` an amazing technological feat",......, Its preservation is therefore not only of interest to the literati at a higher plane, ads a matter concerning the heritage of humankind that must be preserved, but also, at the more mundane level of the petitioners and thousands of others like them who depend on the continued and efficient functioning of that ecosystem for the pursuit of their occupations and indeed for sustaining their very lives, matter of grave and immediate personal concern.”

When compared Jaya Ganga to the Palan Ganga which is flowing down from Sinharaja rain forest has more natural value than the manmade structure such as Jaya ganga. In this context Athwelthota Waterfall is a natural heritage which public in Sri Lanka have a collective rights to this ecosystem. Therefore it should be protected for present and future generations. 

Government of Sri Lanka committed to the achieving of Sustainable Development Goal by 2030. The Goal 15 states “Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss” .

The Central Environmental Authority is totally out of touch on these legal principles, national and internationals commitments made since it is highly politicized agency. It now only services rich and oligarchy but not beneficial to the environment or public at large. Its time to reform this institution to serve the country.  If CEA is ready, then they can start with reversing the decision on Athwelthota waterfall ecosystem.

It is a known fact that environmental controversies in the country are due to the malpractices, ignorance and the falseness of the environmental agencies.  H.E the President has to listen to the conservation community as he agreed during his election campaign to reverse the situation before these agencies destroy the nature we have burrowed from our future generations.


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