Balancing the Scales: Mini Hydro Development and the Environment

Environmental concerns have come to the forefront of global issues in recent years and the world has begun to move towards more sustainable methods of meeting the energy requirements of the growing population. As an island nation rich in natural resources Sri Lanka has the potential to engage in the generation of power through solar, wind and hydro energy. With the encouragement of the relevant government authorities’ Sri Lanka has seen a rise in the contribution of sustainable energy to the national grid, especially from hydro power. However, we find that this unimpeded development has begun to pose great danger to the natural resources of the country.

Mini hydro power plants have become a common sight around the central regions of the country, which are home to the most valuable forests of Sri Lanka. Due to various reasons the ecological importance of this region has been forgotten in the wake of economic development. Although environmental sustainability was the initial incentive for this it now has the opposite effect. We are faced with a situation that needs to be addressed immediately before the damage becomes irreparable.

Although hydro power is considered sustainable, it is the construction and operation of the power plant that poses a threat to the surrounding environment. The fast flowing water necessary to generate hydro power can most often be found in the initial stages of a river or stream that form in the highlands. These regions are also the life source of the nation. Having a dendritic drainage pattern, the central hills of Sri Lanka are the source of water for the entire country. The interception of these rivers and streams by hydro power plants can reduce or even halt the flow of water downstream for a considerable stretch ranging from few hundred meters to several kilometers.

Furthermore, degraded forests are more vulnerable and less resilient to climate change, which has been the cause of many natural hazards around the country. The loss of forest watersheds and overall disruption of the hydrological flow which regulate the forests and its functions can exacerbate the current climate situation. This could further increase the frequency and intensity of natural hazards in the near future. The forests surrounding the central region are also rich in endemic species of flora and fauna and support a variety of eco systems. The clearance of land for mini hydro power plants causes great damage to the habitats of terrestrial and aquatic organisms. Some people living in these areas are still dependent upon forest products and the clearing of land causes a loss to their livelihoods.

Hydro power is currently one of the largest contributors to the country’s energy supply along with biomass and fossil fuels. Although it should be noted that many of the adverse effects of mini hydro power plants conflict with development goals and commitments of Sri Lanka. The Western Region Megapolis Planning Project is based upon the concept of a clean and healthy environment. Yet, the continued construction of mini hydros is a threat to this concept as the loss of watershed integrity will result in a loss of ecosystem goods and services. The recently launched “BlueGreen Era” project strategy encourages green development under which green energy and green construction are also included. Similarly, the project also aims to achieve the Intended National Determined Contributions (INDC’s) set by Sri Lanka to contribute to reducing Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions. The INDC’s have been subdivided in to sectors.

Under these sectors, some goals are not in correspondence with the current development of hydro energy in the country.  While the energy sector aims to promote mini hydro power, the environmental repercussions of building hydro power plants have not been considered. This in turn conflicts with the Forest Sector’s aim to increase the forest cover to 35%; the Water Sector’s aim to implement Water Safety Management Plans, protect drinking water in catchment areas and minimizing disturbances to the water supply due to extreme weather; and the Biodiversity Sector’s aim to improve management of protected areas and buffer zones and conserve threatened species and ecosystems.

According to the “Sri Lanka Energy Sector Development Plan for a Knowledge-based Economy (2015 – 2025)” by the Ministry of Power and Energy, the technical resource potential for hydro power is 30.46% of which 21.91% has already been developed. Yet while trying to reach the full potential it must be kept in mind that the opportunity cost of sacrificing the nation’s biodiversity is much too high. Sri Lanka has been identified as one of the 35 biodiversity hotspots in the world and the Central and Southern regions hold most of the country’s endangered and endemic species. The cost of the environmental damage and loss of biodiversity is greater than the net benefits of using mini hydros for power generation.

In conclusion, a long term solution must be formulated in order to allow development to take place without compromising the natural environment. Current projects located in ecologically sensitive areas must be stopped and re located to less sensitive areas with the same potential for hydro power. EFL can contribute by mapping such areas and clearly demarcating the ecologically important regions which must be avoided. By doing so the relevant stakeholders and authorities can carry out development activities with less cost to the environment.

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