Friday, March 7, 2008

Oil Mafia - disguised in environmental protection


A reply to Dr.T. Siyambalapitiya —
Electricity Crisis and the Environmental Foundation

By Ravi Algama,
Chairman, Environmental Foundation Ltd
Dr. Tilak Siyambalapitiya has, through a number of articles, accused Environmental Foundation Ltd. (EFL), of causing the blockage of most power projects in this country. According to him it is at our dictates that these projects are halted. He credits us with such power. How easy it would be for environmentalists, if things were that simple. His favourite example is the Upper Kotmale Hydropower Project (UKHP). What Dr. Siyambalapitiya conveniently omits to mention in all his one-sided articles is the fact that this project was THRICE REJECTED by the government authorities themselves, as upon evaluation it was found that its disadvantages far outweighed the benefits.

Furthermore, it is interesting that Dr. Siyambalapitiya keeps increasing the capacity of UKHP with each new article. Perhaps if he keeps energetically at his writing, UKHP will be able to provide electricity to the whole island!

It is true that EFL made various submissions against the UKHP (Readers may be aware that the thrice rejected UKHP was finally approved through an appeal made by the CEB to the Secretary to the Ministry of Environment). In this debate EFL represented the interest of the VOICELESS PUBLIC. Many people in Sri Lanka as well as foreign tourists were concerned about this project because they want to continue to view the beauty of the waterfalls and to save these natural assets for the benefit of future generations. Tourism brings in (or used to, at the time) a large percentage of foreign exchange to the country.

We would like to address the other concerns of Dr. Siyambalapitiya who unfortunately seems to see every thing in Rupees, Cents and Giga watt-hours. We would suggest that engineers like Dr S. should learn to respect social values, not merely in terms of money. He is so caught up in this web of profit and loss that he actually suggests that we block power projects for "whatever benefits to us". He should know that while EFL as a public interest institution has nothing to lose or gain, yet the people of Sri Lanka will soon lose forever, the beauty of waterfalls such as Devon and St. Clair’s. The future generations including the children of the CEB engineers and former C.E.B. engineers such as Dr Siyambalapitiya will never know such beauty.

We believe that the present generation cannot be denied the right to this beauty. This is especially unfair when this beauty is to be sacrificed for a relatively ineffective project, which definitely would not solve the power crisis in Sri Lanka.

EFL is happy about our efforts to protect our waterfalls. Although Dr S. does not accept EFL’s protests, the project proponents have made several changes to the project as a direct result of our intervention. Originally it was supposed to destroy 7 waterfalls but now there will be a water release. Originally there was no hydrological plan and resettlement plan; this has now changed. That EFL has been invited to the Monitoring committee is another achievement of the public. The Ceylon Tourist Board too has started showing their interest in keeping the beauty of the waterfalls. This is a good intervention and we believe that many other agencies should join them.

Also there will be a monitoring plan and the funding agencies, approval agencies, construction companies and also the public became very concerned about the project due to the intervention of the EFL. Therefore, we would dismiss Dr Siyambalapitiya’s baseless allegations against EFL as just a spiteful outpouring of pent-up feelings.

Despite the foregoing, Dr Siyambalapitiya still maintains that we have not gained anything. That would mean all the promises in this process which were given during the hearing and in the order of the Appeal and in the monitoring committee (the Readers’ attention is also invited to the article written by Shavindranath Fernando of the CEB "Japanese tax money to save Sri Lanka’s Heritage" in the Island of 26th February 2001) seem to be lies of the CEB. We believe that the CEB should inform the public of their plans to protect the beauty of the waterfalls because they assured that they will not harm the beauty of the waterfalls in power generation. This was the main reason for EFL’s participation on the monitoring committee.

As Her Excellency the President rightly pointed out during the discussions on the CEB crisis about two months back, these projects bring money from Japan (which is Japanese tax money, which we pay back from our taxes and therefore have all the right to raise our voice when we see it going in the wrong direction) and other sources for the C.E.B. to continue its malpractices and bribes. It is the CEB officers who should get the blame for BANKRUPTING the C.E.B., paving the path for privatisation and for the CEB crisis including increasing of the price of electricity for other consumers whilst not recovering payments from major government users/institutions).

The Electricity Crisis is part and parcel of this CEB crisis. The so-called CEB long-term generation plan is not a practical document at all. That gives only the "dreams" of the CEB Engineers and such documents are baseless since they have no understanding of the real ENERGY CRISIS in the country.

However, contrary to the picture painted by Dr S., the UKHP is not the only project which was delayed in the pipeline of the CEB projects. Two 150 MW power plants, which got the approval in 1996 and 1997, have still not been started due to the problems of TENDER PROCEDURE. Therefore even if the approval was granted in time, there is no guarantee that the power plant will be operated on time.

Even of the CEB had carried out the UKHP (530 GWh) this is not clean energy and not even cheap as Dr Siyambalapitiya believes. Dr Siyambalaptiya does not consider the cost of the land, cost of the beauty, cost of the erosion, cost of upsetting the social structure, cost of re-settling people, but pretends that hydropower is cheap. This is simply not true. Although we do not include these costs into the bills, we will somehow have to pay for them.

We have never advocated establishing the so-called diesel or oil power plants. Those are the decisions of the CEB at the cost of the environment and poor consumers. As Her Excellency the President openly pointed out recently, these projects are involved in bribes and the CEB is reeking with corruption. The project money only allows CEB officials to buy new luxury vehicles, put up luxury holiday bungalows and pay themselves luxury salaries.

It is far better to remove the silt from the lower Kotmale than constructing a new Upper Kotmale. Lower Kotmale has already lost about 40% of the capacity and Victoria about 25% of the capacity. Unfortunately, the CEB has no money for dredging but they have money for new projects such as UKHP as well as for carpeting their luxury office rooms.

Also even if the CEB produces extra electricity using newly introduced diesel generators, that does not contribute to development as that is the energy used by the 10% of the energy consumers in Sri Lanka to maintain their luxury life style. So far the CEB has not provided electricity to 42 % of the households in the country, representing more than the 50% of the population. If we see that generation of more and more power for the consumption of less than half of the population why should the other half suffer from electricity related problems. This points not to lack of power generation but to the inequity of distribution

Although the CEB engineers do not heed our opinions, we have always advocated the increase of efficiency, reduction of transmission and other technical losses (which are more than 25% of the generation) generation of more environmentally sound energy through renewable sources, equitable distribution, and provision of electricity to the people in the rural areas through small renewable power generation units, bio gas, micro hydro etc.

Also we submit that electricity is not the only energy source. The use of biomass is still the major source of energy in Sri Lanka although we do not have such an Agency to look after energy in general. The CEB’s monopoly over energy generation does not mean that electricity is the only source for energy. Unfortunately we have no energy policy in Sri Lanka.

Dr Siyambalapitiya again gives an exaggerated figure on the release of sulphur dioxide to the air but strangely on the other hand, supports coal, which contains very high sulphur levels. If he is very concerned about sulphur he should promote Natural gas and not coal power. But we cannot expect him to do so due to his vested interest, being employed as a Consultant in the coal sector. His allegations against EFL are therefore just to demoralise the organisation and environmentalists in general.

Readers should understand that EFL is not the decision maker in these projects. Any toxic gas emission, delaying or cancellation of projects etc. is the responsibility of the CEB. EFL can only protect the public interest and their rights in the decision making process. That is how the democratic system works. If EFL has fought and won issues on a legal basis, that is because justice was on our side, and not because of any benefit to us, as Dr Siyambalapitiya alleges. On the other hand, it is almost amusing to see how those who have lost such benefits, use the media to give vent to their frustrations.

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