The human – elephant conflict: does it have to be like this?

Every year on average over 200 elephants are killed and 60 to 80 people lose their lives as aresult of elephant attacks. With maybe no more than 5000 to 6000 elephants left in the wild in Sri Lanka time seems to be running out for the Sri Lankan wild elephant.

At one time wild elephants could be found in most parts of the island. Now they are confined mostly to the north-central region of the island. They were driven out by hunting; for example on the Horton Plains where elephants once used to be plentiful, as well as the land clearances which created the vast tea and rubber estates.

Elephants and People; the old days

The traditional agriculture of the intermediate and dry zones is called Chena. It is a version of slash and burn. Chena cultivation is dependent on the rainfall, so at the onset of the monsoon, a patch of forest was cleared and cultivated for about 4 to 5 months and then abandoned. This then created low scrub/ woodland ( secondary regeneration) which is the habitat the elephants prefer

So, traditional Chena cultivation was compatible with maintaining the elephant population and, in fact, meant that people and elephants didn’t come into contact as often as they do now. The elephants simply moved on to abandoned and regenerating forest when the farmers moved on to open up another patch of forest.

What has changed?

The extension of sedentary agriculture in the centre and east of the country which began in earnest in the 1970’s was the single change that brought elephants and people into close contact and which has put the elephants at  risk of extinction.

The main causal factor is the  Mahaweli River Development Scheme (an irrigation scheme) Aimed at agricultural development it was begun in the 1960’s but accelerated after 1977.

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The Mahaweli scheme

The project had a number of inter-related aims:

  • to reduce growing population pressure and landlessness in the wet zone
  • to expand rice production and reduce dependence on imports
  • to develop hydro electricity to power new industrial development
  • opening up new employment opportunities to landless farmers

Settlers were encouraged onto the newly irrigated lands with the promise of land, a house and irrigation water. Apart from rice, the staple of Sri Lanka, farmers were encouraged to diversify into sugar cane, soya, corn, vegetables, fruit and cash crops.

The area under rice cultivation almost doubled to 87,000 hectares whilst rice production rose from 164 million tonnes p.a. to 471m tonnes p.a.

Land under other crops also doubled in area as a result of the  programme. However large areas of secondary forest were lost and the traditional chena system was largely  abandoned because it was not profitable.

and you have to question why large areas around Udawalawe in the South have been turned over to sugar cane production and at what cost? Surely a crop that Sri Lanka doesn’t really need; ask the 20% or so who are type 2 diabetics for example…

And the result:

  • the traditional elephant ranges have been reduced in size and become fragmented.
  • the traditional migration routes have beenblocked off to the elephants
  • with the traditional source of food for elephants (secondary forest) now not so readily available to elephants,  their food supply diminishing and migration routes blocked the elephants raid villages for food which is how the conflict is created.

The Farmer’s story

 Kalawagala is a small agricultural village with approximately 200 + families and a population of around 1200. The farm economy is centered on padi (or rice) cultivation, vegetables and fruit.

Hinnimama is typical; along with his family he farms around 3 acres and grows padi rice plus melon, pumpkin, okra, sweet corn, green grains long beans sesame and brinjal. Some farmers may also keep a few buffalo from which they sell curd.

 

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Apart from rice which is irrigated all the rest rely on the seasonal monsoon.

He would expect to grow crops in three cycles through the year (which he calls Chena) ; the more water demanding crops first and so on, and make around 100,000 rupees plus sales of rice surplus; each cycle yields around 30000 rupees dependent on amount of rain.

For Hinnimama there are 2 problems:

  1. When rainfall is not enough his yields take a tumble, and his income falls.
  2. Elephant herds invade the village land on a regular basis;  one raid can completely decimate his crop leading to serious loss of income

He told me that:

  • in the last 2 years alone 8 villagers have been killed as they attempted to drive marauding elephants away from their fields
  • groups of elephants (ranging from 2 or 3 to over a dozen) raid the village fields most nights
  • when they come for food elephants will completely destroy a farmers’ crops with the loss of the potential revenue; one night of destruction costs LKR 30,000 or more: this would be the equivalent of 1/3rd of the annual revenue

There are electric fences surrounding the village, which are supposed to keep out the elephants, BUT the elephants kick them over causing the electric current to fail and they walk through the gaps. (one ranger told me he had even seen an elephant jump a fence). The fact that the fences are poorly maintained doesn’t help Hinnimama to have much confidence that the Department of Wildlife Conservation (who are responsible for managing the situation) can do much to help him.

As a result, Hinnimama sleeps out in temporary shelters on his fields most nights. He has little choice and he feels he has no alternative but to drive away the elephants with whatever means he can employ. These methods can include shouting, using firecrackers or home made explosives, raising the voltage on the electric fences, poisoning, digging pits and possibly (although he wouldn’t say so) shooting the elephants.

The elephants story

Recent research has uncovered a lot more information about the Sri Lankan elephant:

  • Elephants don’t migrate far either seasonally or annually and their ranges are small in size (roughly 50 – 150 km2 on average).
  • Elephants follow the same migration routes (elephant corridors) year after year.
  • Ranges and corridors are well established and pre date human settlement.
  • Ranges don’t always match up with protected areas, however. Around 70% of elephants live outside protected areas.

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from the Sunday Times

To accommodate there elephants the number and size e of protected areas needs to be much bigger

  • Elephants prefer open low canopy woodland and grassland and disturbed habitats such as abandoned Chena lands which are the result of clearance and secondary plant succession.
  • A single wild elephant consumes approximately 150 kg of food per day. A hundred elephants would require 15,000 kg of food per day, and a large area of woodland every day.

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elephant country

Elephants were well established before commercial farming pushed into the interior. In simple terms they were there first. However, they have been squeezed out of their traditional “range” lands. Their alternatives have been shrinking every year.

  1. Between 1948 and 1975 as a result of the Mahaweli Project; 1/3rd of the natural forest was lost due to clearance for agriculture. The depletion of the elephants main food source increased pressure on remaining natural food supplies to the extent that the elephants were forced to search elsewhere for food.
  2. A combination of fragmentation of habitat and blocked migration routes have created major pressures on the elephant population. Land was allocated to settlers by politicians (seeking electoral advantage), which blocked the traditional elephant migration routes or corridors.
  3. Increased numbers of cattle and water buffalo have further reduced the amount of grassland available to elephants.
  4. The disappearance of the traditional Chena (shifting cultivation) system will mean that through natural succession, habitat in many of the protected areas will become progressively less able to support high densities of elephants because they thrive on secondary forest created by Chena cultivation.
  5. An inadvertent introduction of the plant lantana camara into Sri Lanka has had an almost catastrophic impact on the vegetation in Udawalawe, one of the protected “elephant homelands”. The plant is toxic to elephants and highly invasive. It is currently replacing the endemic vegetation at a rapid rate resulting in significant habitat and disastrous food loss for the elephant population.

The net result has been that elephants and villagers are increasingly competing for the same space with disastrous results all round.

Managing the Human – Elephant conflict

So far the main response has been to try to keep elephants and farmers apart. This has been attempted in the following ways:

  1. The irrigated and resettled lands have been protected from elephants with electric fences.
  2. Protected areas and national parks have been created for the elephant population. Elephants living outside of the protected areas are captured and relocated into the protected areas where possible.

Problems

  1. However, so far this strategy hasn’t worked too well. Elephants break down fences which results in major problems for villagers. The fact that those fences are poorly maintained is a major source of frustration to the villagers.

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a fence pushed over by an elephant

  1. Nor does moving captured the elephants into the protected areas doesn’t make ecological sense; in effect this is a policy of creating elephant concentration camps. This is because:
  • Protected areas can support only a certain number of elephants (the carrying capacity), which is determined by the amount of resources such as food and water available for elephants. Eventually there will be too many elephants in each “safe zone”
  • Translocating a large number of elephants that normally range outside protected areas into protected areas just adds to the elephant numbers, and increases the pressure on the habitat leading to habitat destruction.
  • Any attempt at managing protected areas to provide more food for more elephants would require a vast amount of funds and resources that would have to be spent indefinitely. It would also result in a massive loss of biodiversity, as a large number of fauna and flora, many of them endemics, require relatively undisturbed forest. Simply put it is not sustainable
  • In any case most elephants range outside of the protected areas or maybe their ranges are partly in and partly out of protected areas. So you can move them into a protected area but the chances are that they will take off at some point and go back to the areas they are used to ranging in.

The Main Point:

Translocation of elephants into protected areas keeping them there and finding enough food for them is just not sustainable; a new approach is needed.

New Management for Old

One such approach is suggested by The Centre for Conservation and Research in Sri Lanka:

  • Manage the protected areas and their elephant populations as the core of future elephant conservation.
  • Manage areas outside protected areas so that together with the protected areas, they form a contiguous landscape for elephants.

They argue that Management of outside areas can be achieved by regulating Chena cultivation, so that:

  • Traditional cycling regimes are preserved and conversion to permanent cultivation is prevented.
  • Providing facilities to chena farmers, so that they derive a direct conservation benefit from elephants being outside protected areas, and costs of having elephants in their area, such as crop depredation, are offset.”
They argue further that “such a conservation strategy, … will benefit both elephants and humans, and will ensure the sustenance of a healthy elephant population in Sri Lanka, for the future.”

This means going back to a form of slash and burn; Chena. But Chena farmers would need to be financially supported and that does not appear to be a likely outcome. In any case would the government be able to persuade the second/third generation farmer/ settlers to accept this? It seems unlikely.

The Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society (SLWCS) takes a more practical view.

The idea is to engage with people at the grassroots level:

Mission: “to build capacity, foster leadership and empower citizens to support sustainable, long term conservation success.”

They adopt a range of innovative approaches which are all aimed at helping the local people live in harmony, not in conflict with elephants, and which are sustainable.

Here is a summary of some of their projects:

  • Electric Fence Intrusion Alert System (eleAlert) monitors fences remotely and give early warning of elephant intrusion to villagers and fence damage to crews who can go and repair the breach.
  • An electric fence maintenance team was established in the 2,300-year-old Buddhist Temple, historic Somawathiya Chaitiya, in the North Central Province.
  • in Wasgamuwa, SLWCS formed a community organization to promote the cultivation of oranges. Elephants do not eat citrus, therefore farmers are less likely to lose their crops to elephant raids.; see Project Orange
  • A number of community based organizations for human elephant conflict mitigation, home garden development, and agro-forestry, have been established at Lahugala, Pottuvil and Panama in the Eastern Province.
  • microfinance is being made available to communities to enable them to diversify away from farming into other activities.
  • encouraging improved methods of dairy farming to raise yields not numbers of cattle which would reduce the demand on grassland resources
  • Ele bus: Saving elephants while helping people is at the heart of the SLWCS’ brand new “Ele-friendly Bus project.” The bus will buffer school children, farmers and other pedestrians from elephants (and vice versa) by providing safe transportation along a busy rural roadway that transects one of the region’s most important, ancient elephant corridors. In turn, fewer negative human-elephant encounters will occur, helping to keep people safe and elephants alive.

In one of the newer projects they are experimenting with beehive fences, where beehives are strung out along fence boundaries. Elephants stay away from bees and so the hope is that a network of such fences will deter elephants form invading farmers land

see: http://elephantsandbees.com/sri-lanka-beehive-fence-progress/

Summary

The future for elephants in Sri Lanka is far from secure. There are signs in the media and in various pronouncements from the authorities that the threat to the Sri Lankan elephant is now being taken increasingly seriously.

Tourism can  play a part. Around 20% of tourists visit Sri Lanka hoping to see elephants in the wild. What would the loss of the wild elephant do to the tourist trade? What does the decimation of the elephant population do for the image of Sri Lanka?

The key to protecting the elephant is a multi layered strategy;

  • collecting more date on elephant behaviour is needed to try to better understand elephant movement
  • strict conservation zones can be useful but only as one tool in the box
  • the adoption of the practices being trialled by the excellent Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society
  • giving the villagers a stake in the future of the elephant by becoming more actively involved in elephant conservation; that also means giving the villagers a greater stake in tourism development and a greater say in how that management should take place.

If villagers can be helped to see the economic sense of maintaining the elephant population (I think arguments about biodiversity don’t cut much ice), then this may be the way forward in terms of putting a stop to the pointless and very sad loss of life we are seeing today.

Stop Press

Report from the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society is worth a real close look; check it out now

 

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Mini Hydro Schemes; threatening Sinharaja

 

In Sri Lanka large hydro power potential has been fully utilised. There is no space to add in more plus the existing schemes are multi purpose, providing necessary irrigation water especially to the semi dry and dry zones. And this places a further limit on the capacity of Sri Lanka to generate additional electricity from major H.E.P. schemes

However, there are opportunities for the development of privately owned small scale or mini hydro schemes which could add power to the national grid in Sri Lanka. The problem is that  these schemes are causing concern amongst environmentalists because they block streams and threaten the environment of fresh water fish and fragile riverine ecosystems.

The Energy situation

The Sri Lankan government has ambitious plans to achieve high rates of economic growth in the coming years. However, Sri Lanka barely generates enough energy to satisfy the demands both domestic and industrial right now. To make matters worse, existing power supply has been plagued by disruptions and power outages in the last few months.

Since coming online the thermal power station at Norochalai on the east coast has had several reported breakdowns including a fire, a leak, a trip and an instance where generation exceeded design levels, causing a shutdown. The most recent shutdown came in March when an explosion in a stepdown transformer caused an island-wide power outage.

It doesn’t help levels of confidence in the electricity generation system to read Sri Lanka’s deputy minister for power and renewable energy, Ajith Perera, saying that the plant had been built with “outdated” technologies and substandard materials.

Add in the continuing debate over whether the next thermal power station at Sampur should be built and it  is understandable that the authorities would consider  additions to the grid from  privately owned hydro electric power generation which is both clean and renewable.

Enter the mini hydroscheme

A mini hydro project works by having water in a river diverted to a powerhouse by means of a dam built across the flow. This water rotates a turbine and flows back downstream. Not all the water can be diverted: a part has to be let flow naturally in the river, according to law.

Mini-hydro-power-gra

reprinted with permission by Malaka Rodrigo

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reprinted with permission by Malaka Rodrigo

The advantages to the state seem obvious.

  • The south west of the island is an area of high rainfall so projects such as this provide a clean and renewable source of energy
  • the state is not involved in any outlay of funds but can simply opt to buy in power from the private company
  • the scale of the development is small which should minimise environmental impact

However, this form of clean energy comes at a cost;

  • alterations to the river flow have an impact  on the physical hydrology of the river changing the volume and velocity of flow downstream, changing the river load and so impacting river channel processes, often increasing erosion downstream of the dam
  • changes to the river have an ecological impact on both flora and fauna
  • there is often damage to the environment from trucks and during construction destroying pristine environments and habitats

Add to that the question of whether the state should be reliant on private companies for additional power generation when their  main motive in building these schemes is arguably profit above any other consideration, including the environment

Some tea estates up in the hills already operate their own private schemes providing power to the tea factories. Theses schemes are generally not taking place in environmentally sensitive areas and are not the focus of this article. What is of concern is applications to develop mini hydro schemes in environmentally sensitive areas such the Sinharaja rainforest reserve.

Case Study

The proposal to build a  mini hydro plant at a waterfall and beauty spot is posing a real threat to Athwelthota river; home to 39 freshwater species 19 of them endemic to Sri Lanka.

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source Youtube

The Athwelthota is one of many rivers that flows out from the northern flanks of the Sinharaja rain forest reserve in southern Sri Lanka. Sinharaja is a world heritage site, and the country’s last viable area of primary tropical rainforest. More than 60% of the trees are endemic and many of them are considered rare. There is much endemic wildlife, especially birds, but the reserve is also home to over 50% of Sri Lanka’s endemic species of mammals and butterflies, as well as many kinds of insects, reptiles and rare amphibians.

forest reserve.tiff

source Google sites

Athwelthota is a paradise for freshwater fish, with a number of species discovered in this unique habitat. The CEJ and the Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle (WCSG) have published a poster showing the indigenous fish that could be endangered by the proposed mini-hydro project in Pilithudu ella, Morapitiya-Athwelthota.

If a mini hydro plant is built, some believe that  the change in flow will be a death sentence for many species living in this micro-habitat,

  • Different fish need different micro-habitats, . For example, the gal padiya or sucker fish lives deep in fast-flowing water; some fish species live in relatively calm water while others prefer fast-flowing water.
  • But if part of a stream is diverted the habitat downstream changes and fish will be affected even though a percentage of water might be allowed to flow freely.
  • With flow changes the PH value of water too could change and very sensitive species could become affected.
  • Some fish migrate upstream to breed and when the stream is blocked this movement is disrupted,

In Athwelthota, 39 freshwater species have been recorded, 20 of them endemic to Sri Lanka.

Most of the mini-hydro projects are being constructed in the biodiversity rich wet zone, so the damage they cause is actually worse than with the large dams,  Not only the fish but other animals such as amphibians and freshwater crabs too are affected.

Athwelthota is also home to Sri Lanka’s only aquatic orchid. Near a waterfall lies a special “spray zone” full of water vapour and this special habitat could be totally lost,

Overall 37 projects are under consideration/construction; many in or on the boundaries of the Sinharaja Rain Forest Reserve.

Construction is being carried out in the Northern Sinharaja Rainforest buffer zone at Kosgulana, approximately 4km east from the Kudawa main entrance. A dam is being built blocking the Kosgulana river in Sinharaja buffer zone and several acres of rainforest have been cleared and concrete laid along the once pristine and protected riverbank. Large trucks and machinery used for construction have driven a wide track through what was once a small footpath in the Sinharaja buffer zone, between Kudawa and Kosgulana,

Another project in the rain forest where 2.5km of concrete penstock has been constructed in the Dellawa district is also said to be “causing massive environmental destruction to the stream, the wildlife and the forest The mini-hydro project will destroy a total 6.5 km stretch of the Anda Dola as water is being diverted from the weir to the powerhouse, several kilometres away. This will result in the local extinction of many endemic and endangered fish species recorded in the Anda Dola.

and what impact might this have on tourism going forward.. not everyone wants to dump themselves on a beach for two weeks…

Final thought

Sri Lanka as a country is changing. With the new government there is a greater concern for the environment and a growing resistance on the part of environmentalists to the power of local politicians and businessmen who have been allowed to ignore the environmental laws of the country. It will be interesting to see how successful they are going forward.

In any case micro hydro schemes are not the answer to Sari Lanka’s growing energy problem. Put together they will not generate the additional power needed. Neither can the island continue to afford to import large amounts of oil to generate power.

Maybe that does mean going ahead with the Sampur coal fired power station in spite of all the objections. Or maybe the government and its foreign funding partners should be looking much more seriously at wind power and solar power as alternatives rather than dumping outmoded and dirty technology on an unsuspecting population.

Acknowledgement: I am grateful, as ever, to Malaka Rodrigo for allowing me to take much of the above from his excellent article: Mini hydros; clean energy comes at a high cost to nature featured in his blog: Window to Nature

You should also read his latest blog which is a follow u on the first one at

http://www.sundaytimes.lk/160828/news/flawed-approvals-of-mini-hydro-projects-spell-river-land-destruction-206573.html

 

Dengue count Sri Lanka: 2017; in the grip of an epidemic

Stop Press:  Dengue Cases 2017: January – September: 154,311  ( figures update monthly)

Total dengue cases 2016:  54,945 (2015: 29,777)

Note: This article has been substantially re-written

Sri Lanka recently announced it has eradicated Malaria from the island; no mean feat. So why not Dengue fever? Both are viral infections carried by mosquitoes.
Sri Lanka has ambitious investment plans to develop its economic base and to establish the Western Province (based around Colombo) as a major business hub for South Asia; see The Megapolis plan elsewhere on Geosrilanka (click here). But, has the government got its spending priorities round the wrong way. Shouldn’t improving public health come first? The cost to the country of treating dengue in Western province alone is enormous for a country struggling with financial issues. The cost of hospitalisation in the Colombo district alone in 2012 was estimated to be US$ 2.25million equal to around US$. 12.2 million for the country as a whole. The figures are large and for an emerging economy, unsustainable.

Eradicating the mosquito breeding sites should surely be a priority but it doesn’t seem to be. Instead:

  • there is no organised garbage collection, (a major source of mosquito breeding sites), and what there is, is privatised; reportedly irregular and unreliable
  • fly tipping of garbage is commonplace
  • there is an almost complete lack of regulation of buildings, companies and individuals who seem to be able to flout what laws there are re: mosquito breeding site control
  • there is not enough investment in dengue protection and prevention

Maybe what it really needs is for several high profile politicians to contract dengue or worse still dengue heamhoraggic fever (DHF) ( a killer) before the government acts.

Make no mistake, the more cases of dengue there are overall the more potentially fatal cases of DHF (more than 300 this year and counting) .. that’s just basic mathematics!

But don’t think this is a health issue. Part of the economy is built on the revenue from tourism. The warning signs re tourism are beginning to go up. Just check out travel advisories. At the moment there are quite low key but they will ramp up and tourists will go elsewhere. Right now, health wise Colombo is not a great place to be at least to a potential tourist. Will foreign businesses really want to locate new offices in a country which seems incapable of dealing with this threat? Anyone who has contracted dengue will tell you; it is a very nasty disease; not just a cough/cold..and then there are related viral infections like chickungunya..

So instead of sitting on their hands is it time for the authorities to step up to the plate?

It is not any good hiding behind the fatalist statements like; dengue is endemic in the tropical world; we have to live with it; after all it isnt a killer. Sri Lanka is doing far worse than its neighbours in South East Asia; check this out:

I found these figures on a world Health Organisation Sheet; Dengue Update listing reported cases: (data up to end July 2017)

Cambodia:      535                         Lao PR:      2138                       Singapore;      1149

China :          107                        Malaysia:    43,807                      India:              18700

In an earlier article I asked the question; Is Sri Lanka winning the war against dengue? Well the place to go to get the answers is the Ministry of Health Epidemiology Unit. The answer would seem to be “absolutely not”.. take a look.

2016 was a very bad year, in fact until now the worst year on record. What made it so disappointing was that in 2015 the number of cases island wide was down to under 30,000 so there was hope that a  corner had been turned in the battle against dengue fever; but it hadn’t. The number of cases almost doubled.

Worryingly 2017 has been even worse. So far in 2017 ( up to end June ) there have been over 145,000 reported cases; already more than what was a record year in 2016. Things are getting much much worse! What it also points to is that this year (2017) the figure will most likely top 200,000 cases ; but could it top a quarter of a million?

Sri Lanka is in the grip of a dengue epidemic

Up until 2017 an analysis of the data  shows is that the number of reported cases used go up and down; one year up the next down,see below; figures are for all Sri Lanka 2010 – 2016.

Even so, as you can see the overall trend line is up! But now in 2017, there isn’t even the respite of a dip in cases.

So where will this go if it remains unchecked: 250,000 in 2018 .. higher? Right now around 1 in 150 Sri Lankans have been infected this year. What if 250,000 cases were to be reported next year? That would be less than 1 in 100!

Dengue Hotspots
  • Colombo          30,282
  • Gampaha         27,727
  • Kandy              11,027
  • Ratnapura         9,979
  • Kurunegala       9,391
  • Kalutara            9049
  • Kegalle             8,390
  • Galle                 5,306
  • Trincomalee      4,624
  • Batticaloa         4,579
  • Jaffna                3,868 (until 2009 dengue fever was virtually absent)

Thankfully the number of new cases has started to decline. So far, as we head into September, there have been less than 3500 new cases reported. However, for Western Province the October/November inter-monsoon season is still to come; and that could see a secondary peak in the wetter parts of the island. Plus the North East Monsoon will arrive in the North and North East in November and decemberand it remains to be seen whether this will ramp up the cases for jaffna, Trincomalee Batticaloa and Hambantota.

  1. Western Province is by far the worst affected; 44% of all reported cases have occurred in Colombo Gampaha and Kalutara. A standout feature of the data is the massive increase in the number of cases in Gampaha; In 2016 there were 7173 cases; this year alone that figure is 26511 to end August!
  2. Kandy is having a bad year. Already this year the number of cases is more than double 2016
  3. And now Jaffna is becoming a hotspot; the last 3 years have shown significant increases! (only I peak here to coincide with the North-East Monsoon otherwise pretty low during the dry season when the mosquitos are less likely to be breeding.)
  • 2014       1839
  • 2015       2016
  • 2016       2468 a net % increase of 34% on 2015
  • 2017       3868 to mid September

nb; * in 2011 there were only 400 recorded cases all year;

If we assume that the number of dengue cases May to December matches 2016 then we can expect another 1400 cases. 2017 could see 5000 cases registered in Jaffna; that is a massive increase once again.

So why is the number of cases increasing so fast in Jaffna? It seems likely that dengue has been “imported” in to Jaffna. Prior to 2009 movement in and out of Jaffna was probably quite tightly restricted  first by the Tamil Tigers and then by the Sri Lankan government; but now Jaffna is opening up. Now more and more people are visiting including a number from Colombo, and they are most likely bringing the virus with them.

Plus there is an increased amount of construction activity in the town; and construction sites are havens for breeding mosquitos.

4.  Galle is also showing an uptrend

  • 2014       1224
  • 2015       1030
  • 2016       5306 to mid September

nb; there were just 879 recorded cases in 2011

the disease incidence  follows the pattern of Colombo: two peaks June and January. So although the figures for Galle are lower overall, the increases over the past 4 years are worrying.

Speaking with a researcher working in the Galle area, recently,  she suggested that one of the reasons could be that the villages in the Galle area are becoming quite urbanised. Maybe it is also the case that the highway has increased the number of visitors coming from and going to Colombo

The Yo Yo effect

If you look at the number of recorded cases up to 2015 although the trend is generally upwards there was an up and down effect; a bad year followed by a slight decline next year and then an increase in cases the following year. Why would that be?

  • Studies in Singapore link  dengue outbreaks to particular temperature regimes.  As temperatures rise beyond 25deg the incubation period for the mosquito shortens.. populations grow rapidly and the feeding rate increases.  Currently the Singapore authorities use an ambient temperature of 27.8 degrees as a baseline and issue warnings when it goes above this figure..so possibly the same applies to Colombo. Relatively minor changes in ambient temperature may help to explain the variation at least in part. Research is needed to substantiate this, however.
  • Heavy rain affects the survival rate of the larvae.. they get flushed out of their breeding areas.. especially if it is continuous and prolonged. It is actually the period after the rains when there is still standing water around that the mosquitos can breed rapidly.. so an in depth analysis of rainfall patterns and  disease outbreak patterns is probably needed ( bear in mind that there is a 1 to 2 month time lag between peak rainfall and the upsurge in cases )
  • the virus itself seems to change; two serotypes in particular, of the virus appear to alternate; some years it is S1 and then after a period S1 seems to decline in impact to be replaced by S2
Since 2015, however, there has been no respite in the increase in the spread of this virus. The question is why?
Of real interest however is the report of the re-emergence of the S2 strain of the virus
The emergence of a new serotype

note: a serotype is is a distinct variation within a species of bacteria or virus

There are 4 serotypes of the dengue virus; types 1,2,3 and 4. As I understand it over time populations can develop some degree of immunity to any one strain. But, immunity to say type 1 does not give immunity to the other three types. So if a new strain or serotype of the virus emerges it is likely that the population doesn’t have an immnunity and so the number of cases surges upwards.

I found this on the facebook page of the Centre for Dengue Research based at Sri Jayawardenepura University

The sudden rise in 2009 was (the) emergence of dengue 1, the current increase is because of (the) emergence of serotype 2 which was not around for 6-7 years. (The) Question is why do serotypes suddenly appear and then disappear? The $64000 question perhaps!

Understanding the way the virus works seems to be a long way off. That makes it doubly important to control the mosquito vector by destroying it’s breeding sites.

So why isn’t this happening?

The main reasons given are all too familiar:

  • a lack of co-ordination between local authorities; between the ministries for health, environment and education; problems in enforcing anti-mosquito breeding action;
  • a lack of dengue-awareness raising programme
  • poor or non existent garbage collection and disposal
  • under-staffing of public health departments
  • general indifference on the part of the government, politicians and the public.
The Special Case of Colombo

Western Province is a major hotspot with over half of all dengue cases. Colombo  Gampaha and Kalutara now account for 44% of all cases; rising from less than 25% in 2010. There are a number of reasons why this might be; below is the graph for Colombo.

colombo-dengue

(Note: the curve for Colombo is different.. less of a yo-yo effect)

  1.  Colombo Gampaha and Kalutara  are in the Wet Zone; hot wet and humid all year the region provides the ideal climate for mosquitos to breed.
  2. The Western Province is the most densely populated and most urbanised region in the country.
  3. The aedes egypptii mosquito that carries dengue is well adapted to urban areas and thrives where there are:
  • piles of garbage left uncollected in the street
  • coconut husks and old tyres left lying around
  • well watered gardens and water pots
  • rubbish clogged canals
  • broken or poorly maintained drainage pipes and storm drain outlets
  • building sites where there is standing water, piles of rubbish and no real regulation to ensure monitoring of potential mosquito breeding sites
  • small tracts of undeveloped land which quickly become breeding sites for mosquitoes
  • untended rubbish
  • standing water
  • lack of pest control
  • a large number of nooks and crevices

3.  large areas of Colombo are high density; especially the under-served settlements. So it is quite easy for dengue to spread once it takes hold in an area.

4.  overcrowded hospitals: according to  studies carried out by the Centre for Dengue Research, hospitals have become a major source of infection; this seems crazy but the fact is that if you wanted to catch dengue fever (unlikely) hospitals are a good place to go. Why? Well they are overcrowded and dengue patients have not been routinely  isolated from the rest of the hospital. Quite often dengue patients are not even covered by a mosquito net! So a mosquito can bite an infected patient then buzz around biting doctors, nurses, visitors and other patients.

source; credit Sunday Times Sri Lanka

5.  high levels of construction activity; this is new but since 2009 when the civil war was brought to an end the  rate of new construction has increased exponentially, and construction sites provide ideal sites for mosquitos to breed especially when they are largely unregulated and where senior management of the construction companies remain either oblivious of the threat or are simply not interested in doing anything about it:

6.  Last year’s flooding would not have helped, especially as the clean up operation was slow and haphazard.

There may well be a correlation between flooding and an increase in dengue fever in specific locations; A look at the most recent map of flood affected regions may throw some light on the issue,

Much of Western Province and areas as far down as Galle suffered badly from flooding. Ratnapura for example was badly affected and its dengue figures have spiked ( already double 2016).

There are allegations that local governments and municipal councils are directly responsible for causing many of the largest mosquito breeding areas. There have been frequent protests against the creation of large uncovered garbage dumps near residential areas and the failure to clean stagnant canals, sewerage sites and other pits and potholes filled with polluted water.

Dengue Control: a critique of governance

Dengue control and prevention is a duty of the local authority. How well is that duty being carried out?

  1.  According to Dr. Pradeep Kariyawasam Former Chief Medical Officer of Health, Colombo ( “The Island” newspaper: May 2nd), the Public Health Department of the Colombo Municipal Council  should have around
  • 55 Public Health Inspectors,
  • 150 Midwives,
  • 185 Health instructors,
  • 55 Mosquito control Field Assistants, who could have been used to inspect all the premises and land parcels in the city which number around 80,000.

Unfortunately, instead of these 450 Field Officers, there are only around 180 to do this work.

He adds that in the past there was an organised control programme of fogging and spraying potential mosquito nesting sites but this programme has lapsed  “due to some unknown reason.”

“Only the interiors of houses are sprayed, when 95 % of the breeding takes place outside the four walls. The PHIs in the suburbs also have copied Colombo’s above idea, and this may be one reason why we have so many dengue mosquitoes and patients today. Even the inspections have been done only when Mosquito control weeks have been announced by the Ministry of Health”.

He goes on to explain that one of the problems was that control programs could not be started at the proper time. “The dengue mosquito’s flying range is only 100-200 metres. So if we could start our control and education programs early it would be easy to reduce casualties.”

Kariyawasam added: “The biggest problem we face is a lack of manpower as a result of not recruiting people for 10 to 15 years. We do not have a single entomological assistant. We need at least 50 public health inspectors but we have only 23 now. We have only 22 field assistants to cover the work of 75. We employ only 70 health instructors though we need 150.

“Our budget does not allow us to communicate our educative messages in the electronic media and press. TV companies charge 20,000 rupees per 15 seconds. A one-page newspaper advertisement costs 100,000 rupees. Even in the state-owned media we do not get a chance.”

2.  The situation has worsened as council services have been privatised. A resident in the Sri Jayawardanapura municipal council area told the WSWS:

“After the cleaning services were privatised, the number of sanitary workers has been further reduced and we have to keep our garbage for several days until someone comes. The spraying of insecticides for mosquitoes has been halted or curtailed. I have not seen any spraying for several months.”

3.  In a recent Daily Mirror article the paper criticised local government for not organising a  more effective clean up campaign but they also pointed out;

a.  poor management of construction sites (the Colombo Municipal Office  has issued 70 red notices  closing down building sites in contravention of mosquito control laws)

b.  workplace and school place locations have seen a noticeable increase in breeding sites

this comment from the paper: “The situation cannot be a surprise considering the deterioration of cleanliness in major towns in the recent past for which even President Maithripala Sirisena had reprimanded the relevant minister last year.”

and they add:

“The health authorities who always rightly advise the general public to remove their garbage in a regular manner do not seem to have taken note of the lethargic attitude of the local authorities who are mainly responsible for garbage disposal.”

4.  What made the whole situation worse for Colombo last year. were the floods which inundated large areas around the Kelani river in May They left behind a mess of mud, garbage and standing water which went uncleared for a significant period and which would have provided ideal breeding grounds for the mosquito to thrive.

Urgent Action Needed ( suggestions from Dr. Pradeep Kariyawasam )

1) Employ dedicated staff (2 officers with at least 2 volunteers)  for around 50-75 premises in a street, who will meet the residents, create awareness and check these same premises and lands throughout the year. They will know exactly where to look for mosquito breeding in their allocated area, as it is difficult to find the larvae which could breed in one teaspoon full of water. . This is far better than sending officers to unknown terrain to look for breeding spots which will be fruitless.

2) All vacancies for PHIs, Midwives, Health Instructors and Field Assistants should be filled immediately.

3) The stopped chemical/BTI spraying programmes should be re-started. The internal spraying should be stopped as that strategy is used in Malaria control where the mosquitoes rest inside the houses. This internal spraying will cause more harm than good as the residents will be breathing the chemicals and that could create respiratory diseases, and also the food could be contaminated.

4) The shramadana programmes of yesteryear should be re started as soon as the waste dumping issue is settled in the country. This is very important in slum and shanty areas in the city, where 60% of the city’s population live.

5) All yards and bus stands, where public transport vehicles are parked, should be fumigated and kept clear of mosquito breeding places.

Data Source

The Epidemiology unit is an excellent source of current and past data on dengue fever; you can find it at http://epid.gov.lk/web/index.php?option=com_casesanddeaths&Itemid=448&lang=en#

It isn’t so much that Sri Lanka has turned the corner in the fight against dengue.. far from it. The question really is; have the authorities even joined the fight? There are 2 articles from The Sunday Times which are quite damning of the current situation and are well worth a read.

  1.  Dengue sites need to be cleared with ‘military precision’  this one starts with this sentence; says it all “Official lethargy and public indifference are the two major obstacles in the way of checking the spread of dengue fever around the country, health officials say as dengue continues to rise ”

    2.  Authorities despair at public unconcern over dengue

Vaccine Trials

The Sunday Times in Sri Lanka 01/05/16 has reported that Sri Lanka has agreed to take part in field trials for a vaccine that has the potential to provide protection against all 4 strains of the dengue virus; great news which provides some hope for the future at last but clinical trials have recently begun and although early results are promising a vaccination could be years down the line. In there meantime….

Dengue fever is nasty. Just because it doesn’t kill that many people is no reason to ignore it or take a fatalistic view. People get sick, spend time off work, lose income and some plain die. It seems crazy that people have to be taken to court and fined before they will take simple steps to keep the mosquito at bay.

and one last thought; if a new vaccine becomes available will people stop taking the precautions, that some now ignore, altogether? Viruses typically mutate over time..

If Malaria can be effectively contained why not dengue?

Headline Image; credit: Ellen Forsyth

 

Saving mangrove forests; Sri Lanka takes a lead role

 

“It is the responsibility and the necessity of all…to be united to protect the mangrove ecosystem.” – President Sirisena

How refreshing it is to see that Sri Lanka is leading the world in the conservation of its mangrove forests.

Two N.G.O.’s Seacology and Sudeesa (formerly known as Small Fishers Federation of Lanka) alongside the government of Sri Lanka have just announced a US$ 3.4 million project set to run until 2020 aimed at

  • protecting all 8,815 ha of Sri Lanka’s existing mangrove forests.
  • replanting an additional 9,600 acres (3,885 ha) in areas where mangroves have been cut down.
  • establishing three mangrove nurseries to promote replanting efforts.
Where are the mangrove forests?

mangrove-4-638

There are three main areas of mangrove forest:

  1. The west coast; between Kalpitiya and Colombo
  2. The South coast especially between Kalutara and Galle
  3. The East coast from Batticaloa all the way along towards Jaffna
Threats

74% of mangrove forests have been lost in Sri Lanka since the 19th century.  30 years ago there were over 40,000 ha. of mangrove, now there are just 8000…most of it  been destroyed due to commercial exploitation and firewood use.as well as the impacts of the war that raged from 1983 to 2009.  It seems that most of the damage is in the past and was due to:

  1. prawn farming
  2. collateral damage from the civil war
  3. poor communities particularly along the East coast relied on mangrove  forest as a source of firewood

Today those threats remain plus:

  • clearance for tourist developments and hotel complexes

bulldozing.mangroves

  • coastal urban development more generally
  • pollution from agricultural chemicals
Why protect the mangroves?

Mangroves are trees and shrubs that grow in brackish and saline water along tropical and sub- tropical shorelines. Mangroves’ stilted roots are anchored in underwater sediment and extend above the surface.

Mangroves

They are biologically rich ecosystems  and are hauntingly beautiful but their value goes way beyond the aesthetic.

Mangroves are very productive ecosystems  (on a par with tropical rain forest) with an economic value globally estimated to be more than US$ 186 million annually (according to the World Wildlife Fund. Why?

  • Fisheries: Mangrove forests are not only home to a large variety of fish, crab, shrimp, and mollusc species, which form an essential source of food for thousands of coastal communities around the world. They are also nurseries for many fish species, including coral reef fish.  This makes mangrove forests vitally important to  commercial fisheries as well.
  • Timber and plant products: Mangrove wood is resistant to rot and insects, making it extremely valuable. Many coastal  communities rely on this wood for construction material as well as for fuel. These communities also collect medicinal plants from mangrove ecosystems and use mangrove leaves as animal fodder. Recently, the forests have also been commercially harvested for pulp, wood chip, and charcoal production.
  • Coastal protection: The dense root systems of mangrove forests trap sediments flowing down rivers and off the land. This helps stabilizes the coastline and prevents erosion from waves and storms. In areas where mangroves have been cleared, coastal damage from hurricanes and typhoons is much more severe. When the 2004 Tsunami hit Sri Lanka the mangroves played an important role in slowing down the waves and giving people time to escape to safer ground. By filtering out sediments, the forests also protect coral reefs and seagrass meadows from being smothered in sediment.
  • Tourism: The huge diversity of species is becoming increasingly attractive to tourists who are looking for more than just sun sea and sand based holidays
  • Carbon Sink: It is now estimated that the mangrove forests play an important role in absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (carbon sequestration) . This is not just because of the large biomass of the forests. The forests are very efficient and transferring carbon to the soil.

“the .. implication of this is that the long term sequestration of carbon by 1kmsq of mangrove is equivalent to that occurring in 50kmsq of tropical forest”

Dr Emily Pidgeon: Conservation International

So if countries are serious about limiting carbon emissions the last thing they should be thinking of is removing their mangrove forests.

Sri Lanka leads the way

The Sri Lanka Mangrove Conservation project is being run by California based NGO Seacology alongside SUDEESA (formerly known as Small Fishers Federation of Lanka) and the government of Sri Lanka.

The $3.4million project aims to:

  • Protect all 21,782 acres (8,815 ha) of Sri Lanka’s existing mangrove forests.
  • Replant an additional 9,600 acres (3,885 ha) in areas where mangroves have been cut down.
  • Establish three mangrove nurseries to promote replanting efforts.

sri-lanka-wetland-plants

The way it works is that if a village agrees to create or enforce a forest or marine reserve, Seacology will fund a key community need, such as a school or health clinic.

Putting women in charge is at the heart of the scheme. They will protect mangroves by ensuring no one in their communities, or from outside, cuts down the trees. If persuasion does not work they will be able to alert the authorities who are providing legislative support.

“We have discovered that if you want a project to succeed, have the women of the community run it,” said Anuradha Wickramasinghe, chairman of the Sri Lankan NGO Sudeesa. “Other conservation organisations have found the same thing.”

Where local communities agree to participate, the project will provide alternative job training and microloans to 15,000 poor women and their families, who live in 1,500 small communities adjacent to this nation’s mangrove forests.  In exchange for receiving these microloans to start up small businesses, all 1,500 communities will be responsible for protecting an average of 21 acres of mangrove forest. A first-of-its kind mangrove museum to educate the public about the importance of preserving this resource will also be constructed as part of this project.

Dual benefits

It is significant that the focus will be on women and the belief is that empowering women within the communities living close to the mangrove forests will have a major impact in raising living standards.

Sri Lanka’s emerging tourist industry can also benefit. Mangroves offer a new wildlife alternative for tourists; maybe to take some of the pressure off the heavily visited (over visited) national parks such as Yala

For too long mangroves have been seen simply as a wasteland to be cut down or removed to make way for commercial development but there is emerging a new more enlightened view and with it the hope that Sri Lanka’s existing mangrove forest can be protected and enhanced for future generations.

references and links:

local community involvement

https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/gallery/2016/jul/26/mangroves-and-incomes-flourish-as-sri-lankas-women-promote-conservation-in-pictures

https://www.seacology.org/project/sri-lanka-mangrove-conservation-project/

Sampoor Power Station; dead in the water? environmental impact case study

The Ministry of Power and Renewable Energy has decided not to go ahead with the construction of the Sampur Coal Power plant, see Daily Mirror report 14/09 in what many will see as a victory for environmentalists. 

In November 2015 The Sunday Times also reported that the new power plant earmarked for Sampur near Trincomalee was a non starter. The main reasons given were that:

  • the plant has failed to meet the Environmental Impact Assessment criteria laid down
  • Sampur has been earmarked for 800 returning IDP Tamil families (internally displaced persons) who do not wish to see a large power station built on land so close to them.

On the face of it you can see why.

The Sampur plant

The proposal is to build a 500 megawatt coal fired power station on the east coast at Sampur across the bay from Trincomalee.

Trincomalee.8

Trincomalee: Location

SM71812

source: Ministry of Power

The power station is proposed to be built on 500 acres of land currently sectioned off as a high security zone by the Sri Lankan Navy but was formerly land belonging to the local Tamil population driven from their lands during the final months of the war which ended in 2009.

It will be a joint venture with the National Thermal Power Company of India using low grade coal imported from India.

The Case against 
  1. Damage to the marine environment of Shell Bay: Shell Bay is home to 56 hard coral species, 160 of coral associated fish species and many other invertebrates including the rare giant clam. The Mahaweli Ganga ( river) also exits to the sea nearby bringing a high nutrient concentration and all these factors contribute to make Trincomalee Bay a unique ecosystem with high biodiversity ranging from tiny organisms to large whales.

1357318175_0!!-!!Hikkaduwa coral reef

Negative impacts will likely include the following:

  • when operational the discharge of cooling water from the power station will raise the water temperature of Shell Bay by 4 degrees celsius; sufficient to result in bleaching of the coral which will then die
  • contamination of the water from sulphur. and mercury as a result of the burning of coal
  • chlorine  will be used to clean the water and if discharged without treating, it can first impact on tiny organisms like planktons and can have a major impact on the food chain

2. Air Pollution

If the plant uses imported Indian coal (coal with a high ash content) then engineers suggest that significant amounts of air pollution will occur locally resulting in:

  • acid rain (from nitrogen oxide and sulphur oxide  carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere)
  • significant amounts of ash/dust particles and unburnt hydro carbons which can cause lung damage
  • ash and sludge which will have to be buried in large landfill sites

3.  Social Issues

The new government have already begun the proceed of resettling tamil families back into the Sampur area and, as the Sunday Times recently pointed out:

“the unfavourable impact of a coal power plant has been a major worry for the people who are waiting to come back to their land in Sampur. They fear their precious agricultural lands are contaminated and the air they breathe would be polluted.” ...

… not without reason you might think.

It is also suggested in some areas that the land set aside for the plant in fact belongs to displaced families and so should not be used for industrial development.

4.  Political Issues

  • The Tamil National Alliance are firmly against the project and see this ( the high security zone) as an a attempt to keep out the Tamil population. They allege:

” a hidden agenda to the project to permanently evict Tamils from the Muttur east region.”

  • The restoration of lands taken from the Tamils features high on the agenda of many external governments,
  • At the same time  Sri Lanka is under pressure from foreign governments to show it is making progress in this aspect of post war reconciliation and in the field of human rights

So for these reasons it was politically expedient to reconsider siting the plant at Sampur.

5.  Power exports

Some of the power would have been sent via a new grid to Southern India; Sri Lanka would not get the full benefit of the new generating capacity although it would suffer all of the disadvantages outlined above.

So you might think the case against is overwhelming. But it is not that simple

The Case For
  1.  Sri Lanka needs power

The Sri Lankan economy is growing at around 7% annually; fairly impressive when compared to the  low growth economies of the developed world. However, continued growth in the manufacturing and business sector is going to drive up energy demand, particularly electricity demand. Some are even predicting that Sri Lanka will be in energy deficit by 2017.

current projections (see page 282) suggest that electricity demand is likely to increase by around 5% per annum but meeting this target may prove difficult and expensive given that the Island is not self sufficient in terms of energy production.

The country has no domestic production of coal, crude oil, or natural gas, and as a result all the fossil fuel demand is met through imports.

At the moment that means oil which now accounts for just over 50% of power generation.

BUT relying on oil-fired power comes at a heavy price pushing up the cost of electricity to the consumer.

(How lucky then that the recent fall in oil prices allowed the government to reduce electricity prices and the cost of petrol.. trouble is it won’t last. Prices will go up again!)

Sri Lanka needs to move from a dependence on imported oil is an urgent issue for Sri Lanka’s power sector to address, but options are limited:

  • hydro electric power is already at close to full capacity
  • nuclear power as an option is not under serious consideration yet and in any case would be way too expensive and take too long to get up and running
  • solar/wind/geothermal/wave power; are all in their infancy

Which means the only viable option for developing large “base line” energy supplies in the short term, is to build new coal fired power stations.

So far one major plant has been built on the west coast at Norochchalai which will generate around 17% of Sri Lanka’s energy.

 

Noracholai_3

The Norochchalai  Power Plant

However it won’t be enough; That is why the Government entered into an agreement with  to build a large 500 mega watt power plant at Sampur near Trincomalee.

2. Cost:

It is argued that the current site incurs the lowest development cost; environmental protection and pollution mitigation measures plus consideration of alternative site would add to the cost already standing at $512 million

3.  Politics

The the Sri Lankan government agreed to partner an Indian company in the development of this power project. It has already “disappointed” the Indian authorities by not co-building the Norochchalai complex with them but going with the Chinese design and build. Reneging on this agreement could further damage relations between the two countries

Something has to happen

The question is: what happens now? Sri Lanka cannot build sustainable economic growth on the back of rising oil imports, nor can it squeeze more energy from existing renewables like HEP.

Nuclear power is not an option either.

That leaves wind and solar as alternatives, unless of course the government simply decide to build a coal fired plant somewhere else (maybe less environmentally sensitive?)

The energy clock is ticking and if the plant is not going to be built in Sampur, energy will have to come from another source; and with major growth projects such as the Megapolis plan for Western Province already under way the decision on how to generate more energy needs to come soon.

 

 

Colombo and its garbage problem: is the Aruwakkalu project a viable solution

I came across this excellent article written by Malaka Rodrigo and with his permission have re-printed pretty much in its entirety. His blog Window to Nature is well worth a read and is a real good source of information for all geographers interested in people and environment issues.

For any student of geography this is an really good and detailed case study of one of the main (but often overlooked) problems of urban growth and development; and for anyone living in Colombo dealing with the day to day problems of waste disposal I guess it will ring a lot of bells. What it tells us is that for every solution to a major urban problem there are a number of environmental costs. How to balance the human and physical environment; how to develop a sustainable approach to solid waste disposal; these are major questions for Colombo going forward but can be found in most large cities not just in the developing world

So here it is: it is longer than usual but well worth reading through. However, before you read through the report have a read through the following:

Garbage disposal has been a major headache for Colombo which generates as much as 1,200 metric tonnes of rubbish every day. The main dumping site is located in the eastern suburbs of Colombo at Meethotumulla low income residential area. It was opened in 2010 when an existing site in Colombo was closed down but is bursting at the seams. Currently the dump site , which is 90 metres high dominates the area and pollutes the surrounding neighbourhood.

As the situation has deteriorated, a new project to collect the garbage, and transport it by train and dump it in a sanitary landfill site in Puttalam emerged as a solution.  Environmentalists  raised serious concerns over the project. As a result it appears that this scheme has been shelved, at least for the moment.

This has left Colombo Municipal Council and the Government without any kind of plan; and while they procrastinated the dump at Meethotumulla grew in size and became increasingly unstable. This has led to a kind of paralysis in decision making. Were the authorities hoping the problem would go away? It did not, and the result was the partial collapse of the dump killing 28 people and leaving many more homeless. (see below)

note: a large section of the Meethotumulla dump collapsed onto local houses on 14th April; for more information click on the live link below:

https://geosrilanka.wordpress.com/2017/04/17/colombo-garbage-mountain-time-for-the-government-to-act/

Government Paralysis ? or how to pass the buck

Check out this excellent article published in the Daily Mirror (Sri Lanka) on 22/04/17 GONE TO WASTE (live link) says it all; no additional comment needed.

 

 

IMG_1039

The Meethotamulla garbage dump reprinted with permission Malaka Rodrigo

The compacted waste was to be be packed in 20-foot containers and sent by train to the landfill site at Aruwakkalu, just North of Puttalam, about 170 kilometres away from Colombo.

The 30-hectare Aruwakkalu site, leased out to Holcim Cement Company, has many abandoned quarries, from where limestone was extracted by the Cement Corporation some 20 years ago.

The site was designed to absorb up to 4,700,000 cubic metres of garbage for 10 years in 2 phases.

MeethotamullaGraphicnew

reprinted with permission; Malaka Rodrigo

Environmental Nightmare: reasons to challenge the location of this proposed landfill site

To the dismay of environmentalists, the site is within the one mile buffer zone of the Wilpattu National Park – a fact that has been highlighted in the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report.

  • The document points out that the site is frequented by several wild animals, including elephants and warns that once the garbage comes, it can attract more elephants to the area, aggravating the human-elephant conflict, especially in the fishing village near the site.

The EIA report recommends several steps to prevent elephants and other animals from coming to the area. They include erecting an electric fence and closing up the landfill on a daily basis after the garbage has been deposited.

  • The forest adjacent to the landfill site is also home for a critically endangered legume crop, a wild relative of ‘Bu-kollu’ (Rhynchosia velutina) which has so far been spotted only in two places in Sri Lanka.
  • The environmentalists also express concerns over the impact of the project on the Kala Oya/Lunu Oya Estuary which supports the largest, richest, and the most pristine mangrove patch in Sri Lanka and is also just 200 m northeast of the site.

Hemantha Withanage of the Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) says the project is a crime and not worth the cost. He says the solution lies not in dumping garbage at landfill sites but addressing the root cause.

“Go for a zero-waste model promoting recycling. It will be a sustainable solution. Sometimes drastic measures such as banning polythene and plastic might have to be taken – but it will help in the long run,” he said.  Mr. Withanage said the people must also act with responsibility to minimise garbage.

The US$ 107 million landfill site project was approved by the previous government after a cabinet paper was submitted by the then President Mahinda Rajapakse in his capacity as Minister of Urban Development.

Environmentalists fear that just as the previous regime showed scant respect for EIAs and tweaked the findings to do development at ‘any cost’; the present government also could distort the EIA.

Many experts recognise that the solid waste problem requires an urgent solution but it does not mean creating another environmental crisis.

Due to the limestone base and dynamiting, the base of the solid waste pit could be permeable.

The leachate will contaminate the pristine habitats of the Kala Oya. Some experts suggest that to minimise the negative impacts, the solid waste should be dumped in the abandoned Holcim pits which are more towards the interior of Aruwakkalu. But the company is not in favour of this suggestion, environmentalists say.

This is why the present site has been selected for the project even though its negative impacts are apparent. It is also feared that uncontrolled dynamiting could damage the bottom lining of the landfill site, paving the way for leakages.

When contacted, a Holcim spokesperson said the quarry was being blasted with permission from the Geological and Mines Bureau and the company was following standard protocols. They said the landfill was a government project and it had nothing to do with it.

However, the project needs approval not only from the Central Environment Authority (CEA) but also from the North Western Provincial Council and the Wildlife Conservation Department (DWC) as the site is located within the buffer zone of a national park.

 

Wedi Pitiya: 25 million year geological heritage site cannot go under garbage 

Palaeobiologists who explore prehistoric biodiversity have joined environmentalists to oppose the Aruwakkalu project as it is likely to harm South Asia’s prime Miocene fossil site.The quarry that Holcim excavates contains fossils belonging to the Miocene era some 25 million years ago. During this era, this area had been a sea bed and the cement raw material that is being dug is in fact calcified fossilised shells or bony remains of many sea creatures which died millions of years ago.

The site known as ‘Wedi Pitiya’ is particularly unique as it is in its vicinity that P.E.P. Deraniyagala documented nearly 40 species of prehistoric invertebrates and marine vertebrates such as Dugongs, dolphins, whales and sea turtles from their bony remains belonging to the Miocene era.

This indicates that ‘Wedi Pitiya’ could in fact be a deeper zone of the sea. The Red Bed which lies above the Miocene Bed also contains stone tools, potsherds, beads and bony remains of prehistoric human habitation dating back to more than 250,000 years.

Considering its place in the history of Sri Lanka and its evolutionary importance to biodiversity in view of possible future finds, the Palaeobiodiversity Conservation Programme under the Biodiversity Secretariat of the Ministry of Environment, in collaboration with the Forest Department (to whom the land belongs) and the Department of Archaeology has identified a 300m x 500m area at ‘wedi pitiya’ along with 3 other sites in Aruwakkalu to be gazzetted as a protected area.

This tiny area will be the only remaining Miocene area in Sri Lanka after the Holcim Company has finished mining Aruwakkalu, but sadly a section of ‘Wedi Pitiya’ has been included in the proposed landfill site.

“Aruwakkalu is a gold mine for palaeobiodiversity studies. The excavation for limestone made visible a large cross section of a wall showing the fossil layers and this could easily attract foreign students studying paleobiodiversity to Sri Lanka,” says Kelum Manamendra-arachchie, who is Sri Lanka’s palaeobiodiversity expert.

“The Aruwakkalu site is the only visible Miocene site in Sri Lanka. Its prehistoric artefacts, the traditional fishing village of ‘Gange Wadiya’ and the legend of Kuveni can be utilised to promote ‘geo tourism’. So it is pity that our heritage is going to be covered by garbage,” Mr. Manamendraarachchie said.

 

“The site is the worst, but concept is good” – Waste Management expert 

The 30-hectare land chosen for the sanitary landfill is the worst possible area in Aruwakkalu, says Solid Waste Management expert Sumith Pilapitiya.

Primarily, the site is too close to Kala Oya, an important water source in the area. Secondly, it is located within the Wilpattu Buffer zone, an ecologically sensitive area.

The site is also close to ‘Gange Wadiya’, the only human settlement in the area and, therefore, the traditional livelihood of the villagers will be disturbed, he explains.

However, unlike many other environmentalists, Dr. Pilapitiya believes that in the absence of a solution to Colombo’ solid waste problem so far, a sanitary landfill at Aruwakkalu could be a good idea only if an alternative suitable site is selected in the same area.

The search for landfill sites within a 50 km radius from Colombo to dump wastes has been going on since 1990 with little or no success amid protests from residents living near the possible sites.

Experts describe this dilemma as typical of the NIMBY syndrome- all want a solution to Colombo’s waste problem, but at the same time they say, “Not in my backyard (NIMBY)”.

This compels the authorities to go for temporary solutions which in turn lead to environmental pollution, the magnitude of which is much bigger than the originally proposed solution. The crisis over the Meethotamulla dump is a classic example.

Aruwakkalu in Puttalam is not a populated area and it has already suffered environmental damage as a result of limestone quarrying by cement companies. Since a suitable landfill site cannot be found closer to Colombo without drawing public protests, this could be a viable option, if the project is properly implemented, Dr. Pilapitiya explains.

To address the concerns raised by some environmentalists, he proposes to select a site further south, more towards new Holcim quarries. “There is about a 15 km stretch of land between the currently selected site and Holcim excavating sites; so there is space for an alternative site,” he says.

Asked about how safe it is to transport solid waste in train wagons, Dr. Pilapitiya says there are specially designed rail rolling stock and containers that will not even let the smell out. He says the authorities should go in for such rolling stock and the cost of buying them could be added to the project.

Considering all these options, Dr. Pilapitiya proposes to make it a National Level project to solve not only Colombo’s solid waste problem but also those of other major cities.

The waste management expert also proposes to sort garbage and compost the perishable waste to minimise pollution and the load to be sent to the sanitary landfill. In this way, the dangerous leachate generated at the landfill site could also be minimised.

People are afraid of sanitary landfills, but if designed and managed properly, a sanitary landfill is good as it will confine pollution within the site, Dr. Pilapitiya says.

Commenting on other solutions proposed for the solid waste crisis, the expert renowned for his waste management work in Sri Lanka and abroad, says some propose incineration that involves the burning of waste material at high temperature as a solution, but garbage in Sri Lanka is largely organic and high in moisture content, and therefore this method is not economically viable.

Another option is plasma gasification – a process in which carbon-based waste is converted into fuel – gas that can be utilised to generate electricity. This has been successfully implemented at small and medium levels to deal with solid waste within a local council area. But Dr. Pilapitiya points to the project’s high human and capital costs and asks whether the authorities could afford it.

“When over 2/3rd of the Pilisaru funded compost plants in the country cannot be operated without odour and flies, I would not advocate sophisticated technology,” he says.

However, if the service provider is from the private sector and has the funds and capacity to sustain a hi-tech project, such an alternative could be explored.

Decision makers should study the waste disposal mechanisms that are being successfully operated in other South Asian countries – this is because the garbage is more or less similar in composition — and take a decision on a proper technology, he advises.

“Under these circumstances, my preference would be for composting the organic portion of the waste and landfilling the residual waste in an engineered, sanitary landfill. If the engineered, sanitary landfill is properly constructed, even if operations slip a little, the pollution can be largely contained,” says Dr. Pilapitiya.

This article is reprinted with minor edits with the permission of its author Malaka Rodrigo. It was also published in the Sunday Times 04.10.2015 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/151004/news/environmentalists-derail-garbage-train-to-aruwakkalu-166659.html

Photo Credit: thepublicsquare.com

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