Certain academics attached to the Department of Zoology and Environment Sciences of the University of Colombo have come under fire from wildlife related organizations such as the Ceylon Bird Club (CBC) and the Young Zoologists Association of Sri Lanka, and lawyers specializing in environmental law such as Jagath Gunawardena for a collaborative environmental impact assessment (EIA) report they had produced for allegedly giving the green light concerning the environment related aspects for the proposed ‘Villi’ Manner windmill project/Mannar Island Wind Farm.
The CBC informed that the academics in question included Professor in Zoology at the University of Colombo, Prof. Devaka K. Weerakoon and Senior Lecturer in Zoology at the Faculty of Science of the University of Colombo, Dr. S. Sampath Seneviratne.
Joint Secretary of the CBC, Attorney-at-Law Kithsiri Gunawardena said that the said biased report regarding the project, which is one that is funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), had suppressed the truth and altered the actual facts by way of making sweeping inaccurate statements.
During the winter season, all types of migrant birds including rare ones fly in to Sri Lanka from far off places such as Siberia, China and the Arctic Tundra, on a pre-identified migration route. Sri Lanka, due to the climatic zones and geographic locality it is in therefore is a sensitive location as far as these birds, which include shorebirds and forest birds, are concerned. The said birds come from Jaffna and along the landfall along the Adam’s Bridge and the Adam’s Bridge Marine National Park and enter from Urumale and Talaimannar through the coast and the causeway of Mannar to the main island of Mannar. Migrant birds are protected by the International Convention for the Protection of Birds. Sri Lanka is party to the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance Especially as Waterfowl Habitat (Ramsar) and the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS). Mannar has four major eco zones and systems. One of these includes the Wankaley mudflats which is a Ramsar site, which can be entered from the Mannar causeway after the Thalladi camp. This is a feeding ground for over one million birds including a large number of migrant birds. The Wankaley Sanctuary near the island of Mannar is an internationally protected wetland thanks to being a Ramsar site. Then there are the sandy islands and a forest made up of sand dunes of the Adam’s Bridge where 11 species of birds breed. There is also the Orakulam wetland freshwater system which is the only freshwater body for the horses, donkeys, spotted dear and wild pigs in the area. This has yet to be declared as a protected area. The sand dune forest from Nadukuda to Talaimannar is also yet to be declared as a protected area and is illegally occupied by multiple persons and companies.
It is at the doorway or right at the point of the entry where these exhausted birds come into the country that the said project which through the windmills will generate massively high speeds of up to 300 to 400 kilometres per hour is to come up, he noted, adding that the project could be put up in Silawathura, Arippu and Nanattar in the outer glades below Mannar to avoid the impending ecological disaster that would result if the project goes ahead.
Apart from this, the electricity transmission line to take electricity from the project will be going through the Wankaley Sanctuary and this is illegal, he highlighted.
“The research done for the EIA is totally inadequate. Elsewhere, the Young Zoologists Association of Sri Lanka also charged that this was not the first time that Prof. Weerakoon had produced such a problematic report. Birds migrate at night and their movements can be tracked through radio-tracking,” he said.
“Birds play a role in ecology as cleansers. Their role helps maintain the necessary balance. We are in favour of harnessing wind energy which is a clean, eco-friendly energy. It is however not as if there are no alternative locations. The procedure to be followed is that proper approval must be obtained from the Department of Wildlife Conservation. We call for an independent study to be done,” he explained.
Prof. Weerakoon was not available for a comment.
Dr. Seneviratne said that while his name was not in the report, which had been commissioned by the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB), and was presently being reviewed by them, he was involved in the study as an expert of fauna.
He added that even though he was strongly against a wind farm coming up in the area, the dilemma he faced was that the research data did not conclusively show much of a clear, significant pattern concerning the significant movement of birds in the area.
The real issue affecting the matter is deforestation while the matter concerning the birds is a secondary one, he highlighted.
He called for the remaining patches of forest in the central or middle part of the island of Mannar to be declared as protected and conserved.
The CEB after reviewing the report must hand it over for review by the Department of Coast Conservation, the Forest Department and the Department of Wildlife Conservation as this is the formal process to be followed aside to the public hearings that too must be conducted by the relevant Government authorities, he pointed out.
“The report states that the data is inconclusive. We cannot say that a mass scale killing of birds will take place. I have included as much information as possible about the birds in the area in the report. We did not falsify data. There is a miscommunication,” he remarked.
“Although, we can see the movement of the birds at night, there is a chance that the birds may not be using the area in the manner in which the CBC thinks that they do. The CBC is very biased in the way the data is collected. Most of the data comes from me. The unfortunate reality is that we do not have data on the migration paths in the area,” he observed.
“People who do not like wind farms coming up force me to say that birds are affected. As scientists who work based on data we have limitations when it comes to presenting such a view when the data is inconclusive. This position of mine probably may make the people who want this view to come to the fore angry. I am all for an impartial study and it would be good if the CBC can show that this is the case through extensive sampling. The ADB will fund once the Government approves the master plan,” Dr. Seneviratne mentioned.