Megapolis, Port City,
expressways, coal power plants, steel plant, artificial harbours: a
common thread that binds all these intended or, recently initiated,
projects for this country's 'development', is the challenge they pose to
the natural environment of our beautiful island. Indeed, it is not only
a challenge to the natural environment, but it is also a challenge to
the human habitat on this island and, to human productive success and
Perhaps the longest debated ecological threat by a 'development
project' in recent times has been the multiple risks posed by coal-fired
power generation. The Norochcholai coal power plant finally took off
after more than a decade of public debate over the ecological and
livelihood risks arising from coal power plants. A location for this
power plant was only decided on after years of quibbling and dithering
over the threats to habitat and livelihood.
That the country now has a coal power plant - albeit one that barely
functions - bodes well for our intermediate term energy needs. The whole
nation owes it to those small fisher communities in Puttalam for their
accommodation (not without protest) of the imposition of a massive,
polluting, power station in their once pristine locality.
However, whether even the single coal-fired thermal power plant in
Norochcholai is sustainable in the long term, either financially - given
the costs of coal imports - or, in terms of the damaging ecological
fall-out, remains to be seen. Whether, given all these costs and risks,
the country can afford a second coal-fired power plant - currently
proposed for Sampoor - is a question that many experts and social
activists are raising. The local communities in Sampoor have also been
agitating on this issue for some time, just as the people of
Norochcholai and Puttalam did some years back.
The fact is that while even a single coal-fired plant does
substantial damage, the operation of two such production units in a
small geographical area such as our island home could mean a scale of
damage that could affect the whole country. Hence the big question over
coal, especially, Sampoor.
Reports that the proposed coal-fired plant in Sampoor may give way to
a steel manufacturing plant in the same region only begs the question of
double standards. After all, steel manufacture contributes its own
specific effluent and gases to the environment, emissions that are as
damaging ecologically as that of coal.
The reality is that the country needs to assess not only its evolving
long term energy and fuel needs, but it also must re-assess the current
'development' trajectory. This is something that needs to be done in
consonance with global trends in re-assessing models of economic
As the Club of Rome warned, as early as 1972, in its now-famous
'Limits to Growth' report, the current global model of 'development'
that is dependent on a continuous, market-based, expansion of
consumption and production, is not sustainable in the long term. The
very definition of 'development', especially some of its markers, needs
to be re-considered. People will need, in the long term, to re-define
the level of consumption and accumulation of goods that is currently the
marker of 'development' and 'prosperity'. In short, we will all have to
learn to consume less rather than more if our 'development' is going to
be genuine and not wastefully destructive.
The prophetic nature of the Club of Rome's pronouncements can be seen
today as the entire world reels under record heatwaves and unseasonal
droughts, weather symptoms that indicate strongly the impact of global
To its credit, the current government has re-examined a number of
major projects and proposed projects for their impact on the environment
and human habitat and, has generally displayed the political will to
re-consider and re-plan projects where necessary in order that they meet
various ecology and health standards, leave aside standards of financial
The Colombo Port City project is one such re-examined project.
Despite its huge cost and geo-political implications, this government
has had the courage to not only begin adjusting the Port City plan to
reduce negative impacts as far as possible, but it has also,
successfully, negotiated these adjustments with the Chinese firm
implementing the project.
Perhaps the biggest success of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's
visit to Beijing last week was the winning over of the Chinese
government to the revisions in the Port City project with some
amelioration of the costs to be incurred in the retracting of some
original provisions of this expensive project. The understanding shown
by Beijing is also to be appreciated as an act of solidarity with Sri
Lanka, being one of its oldest friends in the region.
Similarly, experts have also raised warning signals about the
potential risks of the equally massive proposed Megapolis project.
Experts are stressing the need for more meticulous planning so that
every aspect is studied prior to implementation in order not only to
avoid ecological and social damage but also to ensure that the various
components of the project do genuinely meet actual social and economic
needs and do so efficiently.
The country certainly does not need any more 'white elephants' of the
scale of the Mattala airport, the massive artificial harbour in
Hambantota, the cricket stadium near Surya Weva, and other misplaced
infrastructure, including international conference centres and highways
built far from population centres that could make use of them.