Upper Kothmale

Technically badly done, economically dubious, and environmentally an insult

The Upper Kotmale Hydro Power Project

The other side of St Clairs The other side of the St. Clair Water Fall.

"technically badly done, economically dubious, and environmentally an insult" was the comment made by Phil Williams, engineer and president of International Rivers Network, about the feasibility study of the "Three Gorges Project" on the Yangtze river. Could we say the same thing about the feasibility of the Upper Kotmale Hydropower Project?

Water is to be harnessed from seven tributaries, Devon oya, St. Andrews stream, Kuda oya, Dunsiance oya, Pundal oya, Ramboda Oya and Kotmale oya, on the Western slope of the Nuwara Eliya hills. The diversions would be above the waterfalls. The waterfalls will dry up, for which the CEB has offered to release a little water from time to time! The water is to be collected into a "pond" built at Talawakele, and from there taken by a 13 Km. long tunnel to operate two turbines 75 MW each.

The first EIA for the 150 MW Upper Kotmale Hydro Power (UKHP) project was completed in 1994. Since then there has been many protests, which have been able to delay its commencement.

The major objections which have been raised are:

  • Destruction of waterfalls, mainly St Clair Major, St Clair Minor, Devon and decrease of water to Ramboda, Puna and Pundal waterfalls.
  • Possible earth slides in the region where it is proposed to construct 22 kilometre long tunnels to bring water from Ramboda Oya, Puna Oya, Devon Oya and Pundal Oya.
  • Damage to the lifestyle of the people at Talawakele which will be submerged partially
  • Heavy soil erosion of the area (it is estimated that 15% of the reservoir will be filled annually)
  • Drying up of about a 30 km long downstream stretch of the rivers and its impacts on the fauna and flora and the water users.
  • Design uncertainties such as lack of flash flood area.
  • Lack of proper plan for the relocation of about 600 families.

The government has already spent over US$ 10 million on feasibility studies and trying to promote the project. The total cost of the project was estimated at US$ 260 million, which too would have escalated over the years.

The other side of St Clairs Kothmale in the Evening.

This fund (US$ 251 million) is coming from Japan, through JBIC, as a soft loan, with strings attached because the contractors will be from Japan. This credit has to be paid back by our children and their children, who would never have the opportunity to see these wonderful waterfalls and the breathtaking beauty of the region, and they would be paying for a Hydropower project which probably would not be generating any electricity at the rate we are destroying our forest cover.

As is usual with most foreign credit, Japan would be funding a Project which they would never have approved in their own country, where they hold waterfalls as sacred places and they value their environment more than most other people. But they would not mind destroying waterfalls in another country. The other contradiction is that JBIC also funds afforestation and sustainable environmental management projects in other countries, perhaps they want to grant another loan some day to Sri Lanka to rebuild the environment they are going to destroy through the UKHP.

We should try to negotiate with JBIC to get this funding for the desilting and regaining the maximum generation capacity from the existing projects and for ways and means of power saving and reducing wastage.

"The uncertainty associated with the decision to implement UKHP is too high, given the policy objectives of Sri Lanka of minimizing the adverse effects on the environment in hydropower generation, for a prudent decision maker to approve the proposed UKHP alternative" is how Malik Ranasinghe concludes his paper ‘Risk and uncertainty analysis of natural environmental assets threatened by hydropower projects: case study from Sri Lanka. (the complete article is at http://microhydropower.net/download/esd_hydrorisk.pdf

Most of the hydro power projects in Sri Lanka have failed, including the great Mahaweli, and the worst failure could be the Kotmale and Lunugamvehera Project. There has been no attempt to try to learn from the mistakes made over the years. In addition to the heavy financial burden of repaying all the foreign loans raised for these projects, and the disaster caused to the environment and the forest cover, the human suffering caused by these projects cannot be valued. People who were uprooted from their ancestral homes, where they were earning a reasonable livelihood and contributing to the national economy by their agriculture and animal husbandry, were re-located in arid, desolate, recently cleared jungle land, with a promise of heaven on earth. But all they inherited was a waterless desert, without even the basic facilities of health care transport education or other social services.

Dried up Kothmale The author walking through the dried up Kothamale resovior.

The promised prosperity from increased agriculture has not yet materialized. The production is decreasing, because every year the amount of water stored in the reservoirs keep diminishing. The people in power bragged that Sri Lanka would be exporting electricity to India after the Mahaweli Project is completed, yet a few years ago the people faced 9 hour power cuts, when it was blamed on dependence on Hydro power. The country was informed that the long term solutions to our power needs cannot be found in hydro power but in alternate thermal power. This was when they wanted to promote coal power.

Over 100,000 people have already been displaced by the irrigation and hydro power projects in Sri Lanka. Already 13 000 families were displaced from Kotmale when the Kotmale Project was done. Today, the Kotmale reservoir does not collect sufficient water to generate power even for six months a year. Now the Upper Kotmale Project is to be considered, knowing very well that it would have the same fate. Over the last few decades over 50 million people around the world had been displaced due to construction of dams. Even this is not a new phenomenon, though these people have got a new tag ‘development refugees’, yet they do not get any attention by most NGOs or the international community as they do about ‘war refugees’

Most of the people who would be affected by the UKHP, as in all such development projects around the world, would be the poor, the underprivileged. They are the people who are more dependent on natural resources. When such resources are degraded they suffer the most. Not the affluent and the over privileged, who are the people who promote such projects. The UKHP is needed by only a very small percentage of people in Sri Lanka. A very small percentage of people consume a very large percentage of electricity generated. Those who promote UKHP warn people of power cuts. Power cuts too affect the city people and the most effluent, who cannot survive without their airconditioning, television, music, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, dish washers and every thing else.

The immediate benefits of projects like UKHP will be to the politicians, the contractors and the businessmen, while the long term benefits would be to the over-priveiledged. It would be the poor people who would be paying for it, while suffering all the adverse effects of such projects.

The carrot that is dangled before the public by promoters of hydro power by exploiting our water resources is that even though the initial investment of the project is high, after the completion of the project the power generated is almost free, that there is no more major running costs. What they do not tell the people, and sometimes they themselves do not realize is the cost of maintaining the reservoirs. The cost of desilting is ignored, and desilting is not carried out, which would result in decreasing storage capacity, and the expected return on the investment is reduced year by year. The environment cost of stopping the silt from reaching the sea is also ignored.

Fishing Boat Fishing where there houses used to stand.

In the USA the Hoover dam has caused so much damage to the environment specially the Gulf of Mexico. In China the Laoying reservoir silted up even before the dam was completed, and Sanmenxia dam had to be rebuilt after two years because of silting up. In a place like Upper Kotmale, how long would it take for the ‘ponds’ to be filled with silt, then where are they going to store the water?

When compared to the Three Gorges Project and the destruction it would cause, UKHP appears so small, but the concerns are the same, whether it is the Sardar Sarovar dam on the Narmada, the Three Gorges on the Yangtze, or the Pangue and Ralco projects on the Biobio

We have also ask ourselves why the developed countries, who are offering us funds, technology and free advice about building of dams and major hydropower projects, have almost given up such projects in their own countries, under pressure from environmental groups. The environmental protection laws in the developed countries are very strict, but such laws do not apply to companies in these countries, who bid for projects in the third world. It could be because there is a slump in their own markets that they are pushing their products to poor countries.

Jawaharlal Nehru called the large dams "Shrines of our time". Throughout history they could also be called "monuments to corruption"