First resolve pollution at Chunnakam to sustain peninsula water resources

BUP_DFT_DFT-17-LSanmugam Arumugam (1905 – 2000) a well-known Sri Lankan engineer acknowledged as the authority on the country’s water resources; worked for the Irrigation Department for over 20 years and was the Deputy Director of Irrigation for ten years and was the Chief Engineer and Director of the Water Resources Board until 1972. In 1966–67 was president of the Institution of Engineers Ceylon and president of the engineering section of the Ceylon Association for the Advancement of Science. Arumugam moved to the United Kingdom and died on 6 March 2000. The Arumugam plan, he developed is remembered today as the River for Jaffna project which involved diverting the freshwater discharged by the Kanakarayan Aru in mainland into Vadamarachchi Lagoon in Jaffna peninsula. Whilst parts of the projects were completed in the 1950s and 1960s, the crucial Mulliyan channel linking Chundikkulam Lagoon with Vadamarachchi Lagoon was never built and therefore the project was never completed; attributed to the lack of a holistic National Development Plan considered as the major constraint to the development of the country. The  abandoned ‘River for Jaffna project’ of Sanmugam Arumugam to fill the lagoons needs to be reactivated and should proceed without hindrance with the proposed Desalination Plant at Thalaiyadi, near Maruthankerny, to be part of the WMP to resolve the water problem in the peninsula.

Groundwater is an important source of drinking water in Jaffna Peninsula and is a great hidden resource.  Like the water within a saturated sponge, move slowly through pores and cracks in the earth to be replenished locally.  Although most groundwater supplies are clean, they are, due to human neglect and carelessness, vulnerable and threatened. In Jaffna Peninsula domestic, agricultural and industrial potable water requirements of the people are met by fresh water stored in the underground aquifers. In the past an ecological balance has prevailed in the peninsula, where water drawn is replaced by rain water that seep into the aquifers during the year; this was however disturbed with increase in usage of water by ever increasing population. First due to over extraction of water resulting in intrusion of seawater along the coast, then pollution by chemicals in fertilizers and pesticides due to intensified agricultural practices, that was followed by bacterial pollution due to overcrowding in built-up areas. Final pollution of ground water was caused by dumped industrial waste and one such instance was the Fuel Oil and Grease, “FOG” that halted supply of drinking water to people in Chunnkam town and its neighbourhood the past five years and as a temporary measure the local authority Uduvil Pradeshiya Sabah is supplying drinking water to the thousands of affected people by bowsers. National Water Supply & Drainage Board (NWSDB) responsible for supply of fresh water has done nothing to clear the pollutant, apart from testing samples taken from wells around the area polluted. Water samples taken from 150 wells around the Chunnakam Power Plant area were tested and found that 109 (73%) wells had higher oil level than the standard while 07 (4%) wells were under the limit and 34 wells (23%) were not contaminated with fuel oil and grease and that the oil spreading pattern was observed towards north, up to 1.50 to 2.0 km with time it is bound to disperse to other areas. The collection of oil effluent in a crater called ‘oil-lake’ at the Power Plant site is identified as the pollutant, was a hydrocarbon product is a light non-aqueous phase liquid not soluble in water. Once it infiltrates the underground reservoirs, it will float at the top of the water table as it is less dense than water. The relatively less expensive  solution was to treat the water at source, if necessary with help of specialist from outside and by installing a suitable treatment plant and by feeding the polluted water from the contaminated wells at NWSDB’s water intake site at Chunnakam, that would have properly solved at most in about two years. This should have been done as soon as NWSDB came to know of it, but years have rolled on looking for someone to put the blame for this manmade disaster and the matter has been taken to courts by the affected people in the area; while the local authorities have taken the initiative to supply potable water to the people affected by bowsers as the water around 1.3 Kilometers of the Chunnakam Power Station was found unsuitable for drinking as it contains waste oil.

Legal litigations against the offenders to recover the cost of treating the polluted water and repairing the damages caused to properties is certainly one aspect of the problem that takes time and is best left with the legal paternity. But a permanent solution is needed to rid of the pollutant in ground water and NWSDB could have treated the polluted water in the years that have lapsed by calling in the experts elsewhere in the country or overseas. As this particular pollutant is finite in quantity and located in a defined area it could be removed and earlier it is detached the better; concerned engineers should do better by spending their time and resources to remove the pollutants.

As a long term solution, the NWSDB engineers should put their heads together with the engineers in other relevant authorities and the University of Jaffna (UOJ) to protect and conserve water sources in Jaffna to follow-up with similar actions to remove other pollutants in ground water elsewhere in the peninsula. The Engineering Faculty of UOJ, has even a major role to play by initiating research work on conserving the quality of and preserving ground water, estimate precisely how much groundwater is left and how it is being used; propose means to increase available fresh water underground by introducing recharging facilities; reducing contamination from seawater salt or other chemicals; study on soil subsidence caused by excess depletion of ground water and actions needed to prevent sinking of top ground surface. The agriculture department should introduce new methods to reduce excess use of fertilizers and water by farmers. All this should create a climate to improve, develop and implement the WMP by NWSDB.

Engineers must remember they are builders and not destructors and it is best if all these activities come within the framework of the relevant state authorities be it central or provincial and with the official participation of the concerned authorities in close doors to make it effective. The current practice of organising forums with free lunch and tea breaks, involving non-governmental organisations and individuals with full media exposure does not produce desired results. On the contrary, it only feeds the respective politicians with paper ammunitions to fire at their political opponents that helps to drive a wedge between the center power house and people at the periphery and serve no purpose to anyone and certainly not benefit the people affected.

The concerned engineers at NWSDB, should have grabbed the opportunity presented by this disaster many years ago. But it is still not too late and as a first step, should mobilize all resources necessary to work on a pilot programme to remove the oil contamination from the ground water around the Chunnakam area. Thereafter proceed to remove all groundwater pollutants in other areas one after the other that would draw the support of the people for resolving their water problems. At the same time plan and design the right policies and create legal frameworks needed to come-up with the long felt need of a Water Management Policy (WMP) for Jaffna to conserve the quality and preserve the underground water resources in the peninsula. Taking the earned support of the people to their advantage, should take immediate measures to establish and enforce the WMP. As the need to protect the underground aquifers in the Peninsula is paramount for generations to come; efforts are needed to protect groundwater by reducing over pumping, controlling pollutions and replenish underground aquifers by increasing the collection of flood water in storage ponds throughout the peninsula.