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Sri Lanka’s deputy minister for power and renewable energy, Ajith Perera, saying that the plant had been built with “outdated” technologies and substandard materials.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.


reprinted with permission by Malaka Rodrigo


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.


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



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?


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

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 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


  • 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.


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.


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

Sri Lanka Tourism: Paradise Lost?

Tourism hot spot? Maybe not

A quick search though google shows up that, right now Sri Lanka was not in the hottest destinations lists anywhere for 2014. Yet wasn’t Sri Lanka the big new thing a few years ago? So what has happened and should the Sri Lankan tourist industry be worried?

Facts and Figures

  • Tourist arrivals to Sri Lanka are on the up; more than 1.5 million in 2014 and growth is predicted to continue through the decade.
  • Overall tourism contributes around $800 billion to the economy, or about 9% of GDP.
  • It is reckoned that more than 700,000 jobs are linked directly or indirectly to the tourist sector.
  • The majority of visits (84%) are leisure based; only 16%  of tourism is business tourism
  •  India supplies the largest number of tourists at 134,000 in 2014 (January to July)
  • about 25% of tourists are come from Western Europe, North America and Australasia
  • Tourists from Eastern Europe and China for the fastest growing group of tourists

Rethink Due?

Speaking at a tourism conference in Singapore David Keen CEO of “QUO” a marketing organisation embedded in the global tourism industry said:

“Sri Lanka tourism should completely rethink its tourism branding strategy to leverage its culture, in order to entice the new age traveller who seeks uniqueness in diversity,” 

Now, leaving aside the marketing speak  he has a point. (see Daily Mirror June 2nd: His argument, is that Sri Lanka may well be going down the wrong path in terms of its overall tourism strategy.

Paradise lost?

The previous regime took the view that:

“It is important that the country moves away from the low cost tourism and focuses on high end tourism. A product that is appealing to the high spenders”

But has it done that? What that seems to have led to in reality however, is the growth of mass tourism aimed at the younger age group; mainly Europeans, which to my eyes doesn’t look dissimilar to any where else in the world. Already, arguably Hikkaduwa and Unawatuna have become seaside resorts not too dissimilar to Spain or Majorca, as the photo above shows:

and now Mirissa is following the same path

At the same time there have been hotel developments on the East Coast for example at Pasikuda, along the South Coast isolated beach resorts like Ranna 212 and now major developments planned for Kalpitiya around Dutch Bay see; all of which cater for a limited section of the tourist market and one which is highly volatile.

Reading down the list of proposals for this latter development makes for depressing reading; it is a full works version of everything that is probably unsustainable in the longer run: high end hotels, golf course, water park, high speed boat safaris, theme parks etc. True it will make money for the property developers and in the short run for the major hotel chains who will build there but at what cost to the environment and local communities in the longer term?

You may want to have a look at the report from NAFSO


credit; Sri Lankan Tourist Development Board

Mass Tourism Cycle

History shows that mass tourism has a limited shelf life in any one location. The Butler diagram is found in most text books and still applies today, and will I suspect apply to Sri Lanka if the strategy remains to focus on seaside / hotel tourism for the masses. What has happened all around the Mediterranean and in parts of South East Asia will happen in parts of Sri Lanka


The Butler Model

Mass tourism based on the 2 week stay by the sea in an hotel expands to begin with but as the numbers increase the environment becomes increasingly damaged, the beaches fill up, become increasingly noisy and polluted, more and more hotels are built and the location loses its attraction.

For those who know Sri Lanka well,  just try to remember what Unawatuna used to look like and look at it now..a noisy crowded mess; and this used to be one of the world’s top ten beaches.

And now Mirissa which was arguably more idyllic than Unawatuna has seen a rapid growth in hotels, guest houses and beachfront cafes; I counted close to 20 on a recent visit.

The beach area shows the same congestion as Unawatuna


author’s photograph

The Mass Tourist

In the early days places like Unawatuna and Mirissa were largely unknown to all but a few pioneers.

  1. These pioneers had very little impact and simply used the existing facilities.Their impact overall was quite low you suspect; these visitors were educated, culturally quite aware; yes they came for the sea and the beach but to hang out, snorkel, surf; that kind of thing
  2. As the word spread improvers arrived; independent travellers. They brought with them spending power and a demand for improved facilities.. hot water showers, better food, and service, a/c in the rooms and eventually the capability of booking online. Savvy guest house owners put web sites together and got themselves on the net; this was probably the state of play around 2006/7 although the 2004 tsunami had slowed things down on the coast. However, the island was getting a place on the tourist map.These visitors were also interested in the culture of the country. They would have visited the hill country the cultural triangle (ancient archaeological sites in the centre of the country).
  3. Recently the mass tourists have arrived; they only seem to be after sun, sea, sand and booze.Their demands are few their collective spending power, however, is large. But, that is all they bring. They seem to have no real interest in moving outside of their immediate environs. The local economy away from the beach gets very little of their custom. The characteristics of this group on observation seem to be:
  • predominantly 20-35 age group
  • mainly “western/european + some chinese
  • limited ambitions re travel and exploration
  • stay on or close to the beach most of the time; sunbathe swim and sleep
  • select their tours (if they take them) from beachfront
  • very little interaction with locals except to haggle over prices in shops
  • culturally unaware; some might say illiterate
  • inappropriate (possibly) dress; especially females; thongs, topless sunbathing;

So what you have is invasion and succession at work. As the improvers arrive the pioneers move off to find somewhere unspoiled. As the mass tourists arrive so the improvers are put off. In Spain the resorts slid down market in time and my concern is that the same will happen here.

The tourists aren’t the whole problem, but mass tourism is. Tourists come because they have been sold a vision of idyllic tropical beaches. What they get is a little different. What they do perhaps unknowingly is they impose their culture and their demands on the tourist destination and the industry feeds those demands in order to maximise short term profit.

Increasingly driven by the entrance of package tour companies the numbers will grow and with it the global spread of western night club culture. Already Unawatuna and Mirissa have a major night time noise problem from the beach bars pumping out maximum decibel dance music, a problem that no-one seems to be able to control. The high numbers mean that the bars and cafes can’t keep up; service is slow and poor; and in Mirissa there have been reports of friction between local people and tourists including harassment of women.

So what happens is that this kind of mass tourism destroys the very thing that the tourists come to enjoy. Sri Lanka becomes a land like every other; David Lee was right on that score.

When that happens, eventually tourist numbers start to decline; The tourists come once but don’t return because the vision they were sold doesn’t exist. They simply look for somewhere else to go. The tourism industry willingly obliges and the cycle starts all over again in a new location. You are left with half empty hotels, underused infrastructure and people out of a job.

And where is Sri Lanka right now? it is arguably somewhere around stage 3/4 on the Butler model

It isn’t just that this type of tourism is doomed to be unsustainable. This kind of tourism imposes its values and behaviour on the host community, and it exploits the host economy. You can bet that a large percentage of the investment in hotels will be made by foreign companies. Most of the profit will leak out of the Sri Lankan economy, many of the top jobs in these hotels will not be filled by local people, they will get the menial lowly paid jobs instead. There is no guarantee that food will be sourced locally either.

Alternative strategies

Where David Keen has it right is in suggesting that Sri Lanka should be looking at promoting an alternative strategy for tourism; an alternative experience. He argues for a strategy which promotes the people and culture of Sri Lanka rather than the climate and the beaches. ( which they can find anywhere in South and South East Asia).

He also suggests that Sri Lanka should recognise a new type of traveller; he calls them the “new age” travellers and that future strategies should be developed to attract this emerging group.

Now I am not sure what he means by “new age” but what I understand that to be is a tourist that doesn’t buy a package tour , is not especially interested in staying in an over the odds expensive hotel, who plans the holiday themselves and wants to experience the country and its culture, not hide out in some artificial enclave.

Not one type of tourist but many

Investing in tourism is like investing on the stock market in a way. Most wise investors spread risk by having a broad portfolio of stocks and shares rather than being dependant upon one thing. The same could be said of Sri Lanka’s tourist potential.

So far as Sri Lanka is concerned, there isn’t one type of tourist but many; sport (cricket), outdoor activities (rafting, hiking, surfing), wildlife, birds, culture, health (ayurvedic resorts for example) sea fishing, hiking, educational, business and conferences; and yes the traditional sunseekers.

So there should be a range of strategies aimed at encouraging as diverse a client base as possible. In that way you spread the risk.

Sri Lanka is an incredibly beautiful and diverse country and Sri Lankan people are wonderful hosts. The country has a rich history and cultural heritage, an amazing variety of wildlife, and great food. Above all it can offer a wide range of experiences and it is this diversity which should be promoted.

Around one in four tourists comes from Western Europe the USA and Australasia. They include a sizeable number of what David Keen terms the “new age travellers”, the people who are looking for this diversity of experience. These are the people Sri Lanka could be targeting. They are probably the future of tourism in the country.

However, cutting back on mass tourism comes at a short term cost. During the current phase of development there is a lot of money to be made by those in a position to exploit a tourism boom at all levels from the property developer to the guy who owns a beach shack. They want to make as much money as they can while they can. Cutting back on mass tourism and promoting a wider range of experience will not go down well with them.

So a choice is going to have to be made; short term loss for long term gain or the other way around?

There is nothing wrong with retaining some of the traditional tourist trade. Long term, however,  the country needs to move away from its reliance on mass tourism, because, like it or not, the boom will be short lived. More support and promotion could be given to guest houses as an alternative to the impersonal nature of the larger hotels. Smaller travel and tour companies like the Ecoteam for example or Little Adventures should be encouraged to develop.

More also needs to be done to safeguard the environment and place more controls on the kind of development that has ruined Unawatuna and will ruin Mirissa, so that people will still want to visit Sri Lanka 20 years from now.

This is perhaps where the government and the private sector could work together to promote a different view of tourism and to offer a more diverse range of experience.

In its 2010 strategy document the Sri Lanka Tourist Development Board included the following:

“Tourism products will be diversified with special emphasis on eco-tourism. Adventure tours (safaris, jungle tours, mountain trekking) will be provided…tapping the tourism potential of the natural topography and the ecological values of the country. Community based tourism and tourist villages are also to be promoted to increase value change in tourism based activities linking with rural economy, harvesting seasons, wild life, farming practices, art, culture and religions.”

How much of any of this has happened so far?