the white elephant chase the birds away?
The construction of an international airport at
Weerawila has raised environmental concerns. The conflict between
the preservation of the environment and economic development imperatives
has been at the core of development debates in the last few decades.
Ecologists tend to emphasise the need to preserve the environment,
while economists (and politicians) consider the needs of development
as superseding environmental concerns.
A man points to the proposed site for
the controversial airport
It is for this reason that the world community
came up with the concept of sustainable development, the notion
that it was the responsibility of the current generation to pass
on the environment to future generations in much the same state
as at present, while undertaking development projects. The concept
of sustainable development has this core principle in mind.
The concerns in global warming and fears that the
sea would rise and gobble up some parts of inhabited countries and
that atmospheric pollution would affect the health of human beings,
are among some of the many specific issues that have become concerns
in recent years. Equally important has been the need to ensure that
animal species survive, that the beauty of waterfalls remain, that
tropical forests and other diminishing environmental assets be preserved.
Among them is the preservation of bird life. It is also due to the
recognition of the importance of environmental preservation that
all development projects in the country, even the setting up of
a single industrial plant, requires the clearance of the Central
Environmental Authority. An environment assessment is of much significance
when an economic project is a major one affecting an entire area
of a country.
In this context the question that is asked is
whether the Weerawila International Airport project has had an environmental
assessment. From all available information there has been no such
assessment on the one hand, and on the other, environmentalists
have pointed out clearly that it would drive away birds from one
of the country's richest areas of bird life and a bird sanctuary.
There is another counter issue as well that appears to have not
been considered. That birds could be a threat to air planes were
they to get in the way of aircraft on take off and landing. The
crash of planes owing to bird intrusions is quite well known.
What are the hazards to the environment in the
area? Will the bird sanctuary in close proximity in the region be
affected? What are the ecological impacts on the low lying areas
in the region and on paddy and other crop cultivation? Has an environmental
impact assessment been undertaken? Has the Central Environmental
Authority given its approval? How come an important national project
has by-passed the regulation of requiring a clearance from the Central
Environmental authority? This is the ecological aspect of the issue.
The economic aspects also seem to have been considered.
Last week we touched briefly on the salient economic issues. Once
again we bring out the issue of whether the airport would be financially
viable. Were there studies to determine whether the cost of the
project would be offset by the benefits, direct and indirect? Was
the Department of National Planning consulted? What was their report?
What were the views of the Central Bank that is the official Economic
Adviser to the government? Was a feasibility study undertaken to
determine the benefits. Were airlines consulted as to whether they
are likely to fly into Weerawila say from London or Frankfurt or
Singapore or Hong Kong or Tokyo? Would SriLankan Airlines find it
profitable to commence international flights from Weerawila?
In short, was a feasibility study undertaken and
a cost: benefit analysis done? The environmental concerns could
have been incorporated in what economists call an Extended Cost:
Benefit Analysis that internalises both the environmental benefits
and environmental damage.
The other important issue is the question raised
last week about the prioritisation of expenditure. The government
has rightly placed an emphasis on infrastructure development that
is a clear bottleneck to economic growth in the country. Within
this prioritisation is the expenditure on an international airport,
whose benefits are uncertain, justified? Apart from the development
of highways, there is a crying need to modernise and even extend
the railway network. Why should this large expenditure of US$ 1500
million not be spent on the development of the railways? This would
have made a serious impact on transport of people and reduced the
congestion on roads and in due course reduced expenditure on fuel.
Why was this option not thought out? Once again what are the views
of the Planning Ministry, Central Bank and the Institute of Policy
Studies, on this project?
The vast expenditure on this airport is likely
to exceed the amount mentioned today and an unjustified expenditure
in the context of the country's dismal fiscal situation of a high
budget deficit, huge public debt and increasing expenditure on the
war. Such an expenditure channelled for the improvement of the country's
railways would have made a positive impact on the economy, much
greater than the construction of an airport that is likely to be
hardly used by international airlines. Yet there is very little
public criticism of the project. Instead mostly praise from sycophants
and political stooges. Commonsense suggests that the WIA is likely
to be a white elephant whether or not it drives the birds away.