Learning Vallibel Lessons The Hard Way
By Nirmala Kannangara
The Department of Forest Conservation has come under severe criticism for approving a mini hydropower project within the Dellawa Forest Reserve in the Neluwa Divisional Secretariat in the Galle District which is expected to have a disastrous impact on the ecology. Approval for this project had been granted in 2014 and questions have been raised as to whether the Forest Department was forced to extend its approval as the project proponent is the Joint Chief Executive Officer of Vallibel Power Erathna PLC which is owned by none other than Dhammika Perera, close associate of former President and current Kurunegala District MP Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Anda Dola, a tributary of Gin Ganga, is the latest victim of rapidly spreading mini hydropower projects in the country. Environmentalists are querying as to how the Department of Forest Conservation as the project approving authority gave their approval to Easa Hydro Technologies (Pvt) Limited to start a hydropower project within a forest reserve.
The Chief Executive Officer of Easa Hydro Technologies (Pvt) Ltd, Russel de Silva, had submitted an application in 2013 seeking approval to start the Anda Dola mini hydropower project to supply electricity to the national grid. An Initial Environment Examination (IEE) had been done in 2014 which is said to have been carried out by vested parties without even visiting the sites and most of the environmental impacts have not been stated in the report.
“Neither the Forest Department nor the Irrigation Department can now claim that the IEE report submitted by the project proponent is irregular as they have to check whether the IEE had been carried out unbiased and whether it had been done according to their guidelines and whether the ‘experts’ who conducted the examination visited the sites,” an environmentalist said on condition of anonymity.
Be that as it may, questions have now been raised as to why the project proponent Russel de Silva gave the official address of Easa Hydro Technologies as No 4, Narahenpita Road, Nawala which has turned out to be a bogus address.
According to the Irrigation Department, all letters sent to the Nawala address had been returned. An investigation carried out by this newspaper revealed that Russel de Silva is the joint CEO of Vallibel Power Erathna PLC which is owned by the former Secretary Transport Ministry and one-time Chairman, Board of Investment (BOI), Dhammika Perera, and De Silva’s reachable address is not the Nawala address but 27-2, East Tower, World Trade Centre, Colombo 1, which is the official address of Vallibel Finance.
All attempts to contact Russel de Silva to find out why a fake address was provided in his application and why an irregular IEE report was submitted to the Forest and Irrigation Departments and why most of the conditions stipulated by the Forest and Irrigation Departments were ignored by him when constructions were carried out, failed and none of this reporter’s calls were returned.
The Sunday Leader visited Vallibel Power Erathna PLC, 27-2, East Tower, World Trade Centre on Wednesday, February 24 to meet Russel de Silva who was in his office at the time, but De Silva refused to meet the representative of the newspaper claiming he was at a meeting. Although all contact details of this reporter were sent to him, De Silva failed to contact the newspaper to make any comment. When a call was made the following day, De Silva was still at meetings and did not want to spare even a few seconds to answer the call.
When contacted, Director Irrigation (Galle and Matara), Engineer Deepika Priyani Thrimahavithana confirmed to The Sunday Leader that the IEE report was irregular.
In a letter dated January 18, 2016, Thrimahavithana had informed Director General Irrigation how the environment had been adversely affected due to this project although 75 per cent of the construction of the weir had been completed.
According to the letter, the fish ladder suggested by the Irrigation and Forest Departments had not been placed and the number of trees that had been felled for construction work had exceeded the number stated in the IEE report and the loss of vegetation on the slopes of the mountains had resulted in soil erosion. The letter further explains how the Dellawa River banks had faced erosion due to illegal removal of sand by the contractors at night time to be used for the power project construction work.
Meanwhile, Thrimahavithana said how the IEE report had deliberately failed to state that more than 200 families in Anda Dola, Dellawa, Upper Panangala and Miyenawathura villages use the Anda Dola river for their daily needs and the given details of the water flow were misleading.
“According to the IEE, the water flow near the weir is 580 litres per second which is absolutely incorrect. The water flow is merely 150 litres per second and how could the power project obtain water for their purpose when the normal flow is lesser than what they have stated in the IEE report? Their plan is to divert the river and release a few litres of water into the stream and use the remaining to generate power. In such a backdrop, what will happen to the ecology?” Thrimahavithana said.
“According to the application submitted, the project is to generate 770kw for the national grid, but when one considers the accurate water flow per second, it is questionable as to how Easa Hydro Technologies is going to generate this electricity given the large differences in water levels.
“The water flow given in the IEE is not accurate and although it says that they will release enough water to the stream from the weir, their secret plan is to divert the entire water flow to the powerhouse without releasing any water downstream,” Thrimahavithana alleged.
According to her, once the water flow downstream is reduced, it will badly affect the villagers who will have to suffer without water for their daily needs including for agricultural purposes.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Environmental Foundation (Guarantee) Limited said that a reduction in water flow through the weir to the spot where Anda Dola meets Dellawa Ela is expected if the project is allowed to go ahead.
“Once the water flow is reduced from the weir, it will adversely affect the aquatic flora and fauna and terrestrial fauna that depend on the stream. The ecology of the area and its importance as a habitat of fauna and flora, some of which are considered endemic or endangered, has not been highlighted in the IEE. The construction of the penstock line (concrete channel) is a disturbance to the species living in the forest. Although the Irrigation Department has specifically laid down a condition that neither the people nor the environment should be affected by the diversion of water, it is now clear that there will be a long-term impact once the water flow is reduced. The Forest Department had clearly stated how the waste should be disposed but concrete and other debris were seen all over the stream hindering the quality of the water and fish habitats and their breeding sites amongst the impact to the environment,” sources alleged.
The sources further said the negligence of the project proponent was the main cause of the massive environment destruction and added that a 6.5 km stretch of Anda Dola would become completely dry once the power generation begins and the entire water flow is diverted to the powerhouse through the weir. He further noted that some of the trees that had been cut down are endemic to the region and are listed in the IUCN red-list of endangered species.
“The massive trench that had been dug through a hill has compromised the steadiness of the soil quantity which may soon result in a severe landslide. Since this project is within a protected forest reserve, why did the Forest Department fail to ask the project proponent to get an unbiased Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) which had to be open for 30 working days for public comments to see what the negative side of this project could be? Therefore, it is evident that the Forest Department was forced to give their approval to this disastrous project by the Rajapaksa administration since Dhammika Perera was working behind the scenes,” the sources alleged.
Meanwhile, highly reliable sources from the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) accused the Sustainable Energy Authority of promoting destructive mini hydropower projects which produce inferior quality electricity for the national grid.
Higher interest rate
“Quality electricity could be generated through coal power, large scale hydropower and thermal power projects but not from mini hydropower projects. In regard to the Anda Dola power project, they have stated that they obtained a Rs.210 million loan from Vallibel Finance at 7 per cent interest. When we purchase electricity from such projects, we have to pay a higher rate until the loan is settled and a lower rate is paid once the loan is settled. According to expertise CEB knowledge, the Anda Dola project could have easily been done with Rs.100 million. The reason behind estimating the cost at Rs.210 million is to get a higher rate for the electricity they generate until the loan is settled. This is a trick. The Sustainable Energy Authority should have a proper mechanism to find out whether or not the project proponent is misleading them. By not doing so, the country is losing money,” the CEB sources said.
According to the sources, the CEB has to purchase electricity once the Sustainable Energy Authority recommends it. The sources further said that if the CEB has a method to check the quality of the electricity that is generated through mini hydropower projects, the number of such projects could reduce drastically.
“The electricity produced by thermal and coal maintains a good standard but not the mini hydropower generation. If the quality is not good, the CEB doesn’t purchase electricity from them. So it is a loss to those who produce low quality electricity. Either they will improve their quality or stop producing electricity,” sources said.
According to the sources, once electricity is generated and sold to the CEB, Easa Hydro Technologies will receive around two hundred thousand rupees per day.