Professor Daya Somasundaram – Ecological disaster in North Sri Lanka

Profile Professor Daya Somadundaram ecological disaster north sri lanka live encounters magazine 2015

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Ecological Disaster  in Vallikamam, North Sri Lanka – Professor Daya Somasundaram University of Jaffna

There is an ecological disaster of serious proportions taking shape over the last few years with the effects already showing in the Vallikamam area of Northern Sri Lanka. It is being realized by the more than quarter million people living in Vallikamam that their ground water is polluted by oil waste. According to samples of well water from a 1.5 km diameter area surrounding the Chunnakam power station taken during 2013 – 2014, the great majority of wells (73%) were contaminated with oil levels above the acceptable level (1 mg of oil/ L of water).  Since then, from observations reported by residents, the oil contamination appears to have spread to contaminate wells to an area of over 4km in diameter. The health, ecological and other long term impacts of the oil pollution is not known. The recent National Water Supply & Drainage Board reports says “long term expose of the contamination may cause cancer, miscarriages and detriment to Early Childhood Development, Skin and mental health”. However, though there is already widespread alarm, apprehension, anxiety, panic and confusion among the general public, they have not been informed of what the risks are, what they have to do; and, what the government needs to do or will do to contain the disaster. Instead, with the lack of authoritative, authentic and clear information, there are unsubstantiated rumours, misinformation, conjectures, theories, fear and unrest. For example, recently (28 Feb. 2015), at a public meeting arranged by Transparency International on Good Governance held in Jaffna, representatives of civil society organization claimed that Lead  has been found to be contaminating the water source.  However, the Water Resources Board Report found no heavy metal contamination in their samples.

The Water Resources Board Report has identified the Chunnakam Fossil Fuel Power Station area as the possible source of contamination. From a detailed analysis and mapping of their data, the ‘oil spreading pattern’ showed that there were ‘high oil and grease concentration layers’ surrounding the Chunnakam Power Station with gradients of diminishing concentration outwards from the power station. By 2015, the contamination appears to have spread further. Apparently, testing of samples from the wells have been done before by government and private organizations but the results have not been made public. It is suspected that the waste (lubrication oil from generation of electricity from fossil fuel during periods when the Jaffna Peninsula did not receive power directly from the National Grid (Laxapana)) had been disposed into the surrounding land by pumping it under pressure through drill holes.   

It is possible this process may have been practiced during the war years when electric supply was cut off.  Initially Agri Co and then Northern Power Company were contracted to provide electricity supply using generators until 2012 when Jaffna again regained connection to the national grid. It is estimated for that the Northern Power Company may have had to dispose of around 100,000 to 200,000 Litres ( @2,000 L per  5 generators three times a year for six years) of lubrication oil. During the war years, the power station at Chunnakam was tightly guarded by the military and public did not know what was going on inside the more than 20 acres of land. After over a decade without electricity, people were more than happy to have some irregular supply, than to ask any questions.

Now with the end of the war, and the emerging awareness about the contamination of the ground water, the state, considering the high risk to public health and ecology, has a grave responsibility to investigate the source of contamination and take remedial action. The organization(s) involved should be compelled by law to disclose what they have done and where. The possible area of contamination should be dug up or at a minimum bore drilling done to locate the source of contamination, so that it would be removed to prevent further contamination and spread of the pollutants. However, it is said that powerful and influential parties are preventing the release of vital information that is if of public interest.

Although the government institutions and organizations tasked with responsibility of first approving these procedures and monitoring for environmental protection and safety such as the National Environmental Authority, Ceylon Electricity Board and the various governmental bodies, local and national, had not done their duties, the alarm was raised in 2010 by farmer’s associations of Chunnakam South, who wrote to the Government Agent (GA), Jaffna when they noted the water they were using was polluted with oil. No action was taken. Shortly after, the Kalaivani Community Centre in the area complained of foul smells and oil contamination in their water. Subsequently, the National Water Supply & Drainage Board had stopped taking water for distribution from the Chunnakam Intake site. A warning in 2012 by the head of the Water Resources Board on the dire ecological consequences of the spreading oil pollution was ignored and he was removed from office instead.

It was only after legal action instituted by the local civil society, Nature and Environment Protection Association, that further contamination has been stopped with the courts ordering the Northern Power Company to stop functioning. It is welcome news (26.02.2015) that even belatedly, after the civil society agitation, the authorities have asked Norwegian experts and Nation Building Research Organization to use radar to locate the source of contamination. Further an expert committee of the various national universities has been formed to investigate and report on the issue. They are reported to consult appropriate national and international experts on how to remedy the pollution.

People have been living in the Valikamam area for centuries as evidenced by the historical  Kantharodai archeological site, using the high quality pristine and perennial ground water resource for drinking, agriculture and other uses. The National Water Supply & Drainage Board describes four aquifers in the Jaffna peninsula. The Chunnakam aquifer had the highest capacity with a thick lens of fresh water floating over sea water. That this historical source of water is now polluted is a calamity of great proportion. If drinking and using this polluted water is going to pose a risk to the population and all living organisms, what is going to be the future of this land? If wells in the surrounding area of the Chunnakam Power Station and further afield are contaminated by a visible, thick layer of floating oil, could it be that microscopically, the contamination has spread to affect the whole aquifer? It is noteworthy that the same National Water Supply & Drainage Board Report also incidentally found unacceptable high level of nitrate (above 0.01mg/L) in some wells as a result of the excess use of synthetic fertilizer for agricultural purpose. The risks to health of high levels of nitrates, including blood disorders, is well known unlike the risks from oil pollution of ground water. Manmade disasters are becoming far too common in the modern world of aggressive and unsustainable development and exploitation of nature.  

Would the people have to be displaced to some other safer environment as has happened in other ecological disasters life the Fukushima and Chernobyl nuclear disasters, Bhopal gas leaks or the droughts in Sudan and Somalia? The manmade disaster of this rich water resource can spell the doom of this hospitable land that has supported life for years. As in Weliweriya in the Gampaha district of the South, the people from the Valikamam area have started to protest the pollution of their water, demanding urgent action by peaceful means. It is the responsibility of the authorities to take the necessary step and action to reverse the process of pollution and find immediate and long term solutions to the problems threatening the people of the area. It is a positive sign that some of the more affected rural areas are now been provided regular clear water through bowsers. However, this has to be expanded to all affected areas. Along with the supply of clean water, people need to be provided with proper information and warning about the risk and implications of drinking and/or using the water for cleaning, bathing, cooking, and the risk for other living organisms. Compensation will have to be paid for the losses people have suffered and risks they have been exposed to. But more important and urgent are preliminary steps towards short and long term strategies to prevent further spread, remedies and a recovery process initiated to return the water to its original state. Perhaps a useful step to garner all available resources, plan and implement interventions towards recovery, and attract international aid and expertise would be to declare a disaster situation which it is. For example, regular testing and monitoring with well equipped laboratories with the greater sensitivity and speed the contaminations levels, perhaps even mobile laboratories that go to affected sites are needed. Adequate arrangements for regular supply of clean water to the population, possibly pipe born supply from other unaffected areas or bowsers is needed. Research on the impact on human and other living organisms, on the ecological system and food chain will need to be carried out with remedial or precautionary action based on the findings.

Daya Somasundaram © 2015

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