The wells in Chunnakam don’t stare back at you with clear water and silvery surface. Instead, what one would see is an oily surface. This can be a sign that something is not right with the groundwater of the area.
Slightly over 13km from Jaffna Town, Chunnakam is a town that came to the spotlight recently due to the groundwater contamination which is believed to have poisoned many. While a number of residents were admitted to hospitals due to being poisoned, concerns over the groundwater contamination grew.
Lal Perera was quick to explain that the oil lake was covered in 2012, and construction work began over the covered oil lake. “The oil vanished and it could have got into the wells,” Perera said
While residents say the water contamination has reduced and while some even said they don’t ‘taste’ anything wrong with the water, a water bowser continues to supply water to the residents of the area. People could be seen with water bottles, ready to collect water for consumption.
Through conversation with residents, The Nation learnt that while well-water is used in mills and for washing, residents don’t drink it.
“We are now getting drinking water through bowsers. The issue is that we don’t know where this water is taken from. We are not paying for this service. But we heard that we would have to pay from next month,” said Karthikesu Soundarrajan.
The water from the bowser is poured into a common water tank so all villagers can make use of it for drinking purposes.
“I am a diabetic patient, plus, there are children who do not know the consequences of drinking well water. Some have gotten sick and there could be long term issues as well,” he said.
According to Soundarrajan, the issue of water contamination had been there in Chunnakam for years and had aggravated after the oil spread to wells in other parts of the region. “No one actually took this seriously until the oil spread to other areas,” he said.
While speaking to the residents of the area, The Nation learnt that many remain ignorant of the dangers of using contaminated water. While the water isn’t used for consumption, it is still used for bathing and washing clothes and cutlery. It is one thing to use contaminated water on one’s skin out of having no other choice; after all, the water bowser is for drinking water. However, to be using the water for bathing because one doesn’t see how it could be harmful is a story in itself.
The well (in the pictures) can be located few meters away from Soundarrajan’s home. A thick layer of dark oily substance can be observed on the surface of the water apart from the calcium deposits in the inner wall of the well, closer to the water surface. Calcium deposits in wells or other water storage systems are considered common, up to an extent.
People in the neighborhood use the water pumped from this well for their daily use other than drinking.
A similar layer of oily substance could also be seen at another well located in a private property in the same area. Landlady of the home said that they also use the water from the bowser for drinking. Yet, they use water from their well for the other chores including washing clothes and cutlery. When she was asked whether they aren’t afraid to use the water to wash the plates which they use to have their meals she said, “It’s the only water available. Anyway, we never thought this is harmful.”
Fear is the most powerful emotion in play in the Chunnakam groundwater issue. The Nation team was shown an abandoned house whose owners had supposedly left the area due to the water contamination.
Further, while speaking to the staff of Rasam Rice Mill, it was evident that while some don’t find the water to taste different, they avoid consumption out of fear.
“One of the staff members has to go a long way to the main road to get drinking water from the bowser. It’s not an easy job,” the manager, S. Senathiraja said. “There have been instances where we drank water from the well since we couldn’t send anyone to get a refill,” he further said, adding that the water didn’t taste different nor did anyone fall sick.
Government officials have been to the Rice Mill twice during this year to test the water in the well, which they use to boil rice at the mill. “They assured that the water is safe to be used for milling processes,” he said. Since they have received the approval they continue to use the water from the well located at the rice mill. However, water, taken from a well, where the Rice Mills are situated, didn’t look clear compared to the public well found few meters away from the Rasam Rice Mill.
Northern Power Plant
One reason for the groundwater contamination in Chunnakam and surrounding areas is believed to be the Northern Power Company, which, ‘provides the nation with power during this challenging period of socioeconomic development’.
The Northern Power Plant is one of the projects of MTD Walkers.“We have appealed against the Magistrate and Jaffna Provincial Court’s decision,” MTD Walkers Head of Operations, ODN Lal Perera said about the current situation regarding the power plant. He further added that staff have been allowed to occupy the plant, but only for maintenance work. However, Perera is confident that operations will recommence soon, once the Industrial Technical Institute (ITI) report on the issue is approved by the Central Environmental Authority and the Courts.
According to Lal Perera, independent investigations have been done by several teams, including an expert committee appointed by the Northern Provincial Council, and the results have been negative of well-water pollution.
MTD Walkers has continued to stand against allegations and have claimed that it isn’t there fault.
“We are not in any way responsible,” Perera said. He added that mischief makers were pointing fingers at the Northern Power Plant.
When questioned about their waste disposal system, Lal Perera’s response was that the Northern Power Plant has nothing to discharge to the ground.
He also commented that despite not being an expert on the issue, there are other factors, not related to the Northern Power Plant. For instance, an oil lake in proximity to the area which is believed to have been created during the armed conflict is also considered the culprit. Lal Perera was quick to explain that the oil lake was covered in 2012, and construction work began over the covered oil lake. “The oil vanished and it could have got into the wells,” Perera said.
Making use of the opportunity to share his insights about the environmental issues in Chunnakam and the Northern Province, Perera said, there were many issues that were ignored by people and the media. “If you go to servicing shed in the area, you will see lakes of oil behind them,” he said. He added that, however, no one seems to be questioning the waste management system of these servicing sheds.
The people of the Northern Province face many environmental issues and water contamination is merely one of them. However, Government bodies and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) seem more involved in beautification projects in the Northern Province. Addressing the issue of water contamination though, seems a far more urgent matter. Raising awareness about the issue is also important as it will contribute greatly towards minimizing the fear that continues to loom over the population.