By Kithmee Mediwake

Since the early 2000s, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) has emphasised the importance of keeping up with the changing needs of Developing and Least-Developed Countries (LDCs), taking into account the effects of climate change. In 2006, as a result of the Hong Kong Ministerial Conference in December 2005, the WTO introduced ‘Aid for Trade‘ – an initiative which recognised the role of trade in economic development, influencing donors to provide financial assistance to LDCs. Hence, as recently noted by Xiangchen Zhang, the WTO Deputy Director-General, at an Aid for Trade event, “adapting to climate change by reducing climate-related risks and vulnerability is a key economic strategy”.

Reducing the effects of climate change is primarily linked to reducing a country’s carbon emissions. One aspect of ensuring countries have a low-carbon economy is to transform their energy sources to renewable energy substantively. Hydropower is energy derived from falling water, thereby being a renewable resource. Currently, there are 21 hydroelectric power stations and around 100 mini hydropower projects in Sri Lanka. Hydropower is a key energy source used for electricity generation in the country, which provided almost all the electricity until the early 1990s. A large share of the hydropower potential has already been developed, delivering valuable low-cost electricity to the country. Hydropower stations are currently operated to supply peaking and base electricity generation requirements. A substantial number of small hydropower plants which perform under the Standardized Power Purchase Agreement (SPPA) and more are expected to join the fleet during the next few years. In this context, it is also worth noting that the Upper Kotmale Hydro Power Project in Sri Lanka was implemented using funds from the USD 158.6 million the Government of Japan disbursed. Additionally, the Renewable Energy for Rural Economic Development Project was one initiative carried out using the World Bank disbursed amount of USD 107.6 million.

While the said disbursements occurred prior to 2007,  many of the upcoming renewable projects would be made a reality with the financial assistance provided by the World Bank and other forms of foreign aid. Although the WTO-led Aid in Trade initiative does not and has not influenced hydroelectricity investments, in this blog, I use the Victoria Dam in Sri Lanka, which is driven by hydropower, to assess whether hydropower is, in fact, a sustainable mode of energy generation that contributes to economic development.

Hydropower in a Nutshell 

Figure 1: Cumulative Hydro Capacity Addition 2019

Source: Sri Lanka Energy Balance 2019

The basic principle of hydropower is using water to drive turbines. Hydropower plants consist of two basic configurations, either with dams and reservoirs or without. Hydropower dams with large reservoirs can store water over short or long periods to meet peak demand. The facilities can also be divided into smaller dams for different purposes, such as night or day use, seasonal storage, or pumped-storage reversible plants for pumping and electricity generation.

The Climate Fact Checks (CFC) team visited the Victoria Power Plant, the tallest dam in Sri Lanka, which supports a 210 MW power station, the largest hydroelectric power station in the country. The organisation interviewed Mr Udith Ekanayake, a civil engineer at Mahaweli Authority of Sri Lanka, about the possible environmental impacts of this massive dam. This blog will refer to a few of his insights in the following sections.  

Climate Change Risks on the Victoria Power Plant

Sri Lanka is a country that is highly vulnerable to extreme climate events. The climate in the central highlands, the area under discussion, varies significantly from the lowland peneplain. The main climate drivers of this region are monsoonal rains that create comparatively drier and wetter conditions and temperature lapse rates along contour lines. 

Mr. Ekanayake mentioned that climate is a primary factor considered when selecting the location and the shape of dams. Accordingly, the double arch design was chosen for Victoria. However, he added that the climate has drastically changed over the last couple of decades.

On being questioned whether climate change poses a risk to the Victoria Dam, Mr. Ekanayake stated that currently, due to the increase in temperature, the water levels have drastically gone down. Hence, the dam is not under threat, yet there is a possibility for anomalous rainfall patterns in the future, which might be of risk.

Find the Climate Change risk profile for the Mountain Region in Sri Lanka here for more information.

Environmental Impacts of Hydroelectric Power in Sri Lanka

Hydroelectric power in the form of massive dams has been controversial since its inception due to the environmental impacts it holds. Such concerns were raised as early as 1984 in a publication by The Ecologist titled “Dam Destruction – The Case Against Super Dams”. Subsequently, an article titled “The Damnation of Paradise: Sri Lanka’s Mahaweli Scheme ” by L Alexis in 1984 highlights the environmental hardship Sri Lanka will face. Here are a few important points that were made:

  • Due to clearing and timber and fuel wood needs, a substantial portion of the forest will be removed;
  • A large number of animals and plants will be destroyed;
  • The habitat of most wildlife species in the project area will be severely reduced, thus further jeopardising the future of endangered species;
  • High-quality wildlife habitats comprising 5,600 hectares in the Somawathie Sanctuary and about 15,000 hectares in the northern part of the ‘system C resettlement area’ will be eliminated;
  • About 6,400 hectares of additional high-quality wildlife habitat will be lost in the Mahaweli Ganga floodplain. Breeding and feeding grounds for some fish species, waterfowl, and migratory birds will be lost. Livestock grazing areas will also be reduced;
  • The water table will rise considerably, necessitating the provision of drainage channels;
  • Return flows will lead to a deterioration in water quality downstream;
  • Pesticide usage will be increased with subsequent bio magnification throughout the food chain;
  • Organic production and energy cycles in estuarine systems will be altered, with a detrimental effect on aquatic life;
  • The migratory routes of fish will be blocked;
  • More than 25,000 people will have to be resettled since their homes will be flooded by the proposed reservoirs;
  • Crop losses of 10% will occur due to the combined effects of weeds, insects, diseases and rats;
  • Birds and large mammals will also cause crop damage, especially in high-quality habitat areas. Elephants may cause physical harm to settlers or their families.

Research has shown that many of these predictions have come true, and immediate action is required to reverse these impacts.

Eutrophication or algal bloom is currently prevalent in the Victoria reservoir due to pesticide use in the surrounding catchments. Additionally, the water stagnates when Victoria is filled, creating an additional risk of Eutrophication. Read more about the Environmental Impacts of the Accelerated Mahaweli Development Program here, Archived.

The CFC team interviewed a few members of a community that is affected by the Victoria reservoir. They mentioned that as the water fills up, there has been an increase in diseases, plastic waste collects along the banks and that invasive plants take over as the water subsides.

Hydropower vs Fossil Fuels

In the fight between non-renewables and renewables, there is no argument that hydropower is a better energy source. Since 2017, around 9% of Sri Lanka’s energy has been generated using renewable sources. Considering that global final energy consumption from renewables accounts for approximately 16%, Sri Lanka is in a good position. It should be noted, however, that the country hopes to achieve 70% electricity production by renewable sources by 2030 and become a 100% renewable energy source island nation by 2050.  Out of the percentage of renewable energy in Sri Lanka, statistics last updated in 2017 note that hydropower contributed around 20 per cent of total electricity generation, although you can find out the daily electricity generation via the CEB website.

Hydropower is the most efficient way to generate electricity, considering that even the best fossil fuel plants are only about 50% efficient. Modern hydro turbines can convert as much as 90% of the available energy into electricity. Hence, developing hydropower and other renewable energies in the country is essential.

The Best Way Forward for Hydro-Electricity in Sri Lanka

Hydropower without dams and reservoirs means producing at a smaller scale, typically from a facility designed to operate in a river without interfering with its flow. They are also called “run-of-the-river” projects. Many consider small-scale hydro a more environmentally-friendly option. Hence, small-scale micro-hydropower projects can significantly and positively impact communities in remote locations.

Sri Lanka has rich watersheds and streams running, especially in the mountain regions; hence, blocking main rivers for electricity generation is unnecessary. Although most of the harm is already done, it is vital to create awareness and educate the public on these matters to avoid similar dilemmas in the future. In conclusion, it is understood that hydropower is an invaluable renewable resource to power a low-carbon economy for Sri Lanka. However, to ensure that the future of generating electricity is both sustainable and environmentally friendly, as evidenced by the Victoria Dam, a key factor to consider is the prioritization of micro hydropower projects over hydropower projects to prevent the block of the flow of main rivers in the island.

The views and opinions expressed in articles submitted to the Comparative Advantage Blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Moot Court Bench



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