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Sunday, 10 April 2016

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Rationalising development

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 sustainability.

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 development.

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 warming.

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 management.

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.

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