The Sunday TimesPlus

22nd September 1996



Rain, rain, come again

by Tharuka Dissanaike

Will the power crisis continue next year ? This is the question on people's lips ever since recent media reports pointed out that the country is not in the clear yet. Although recent rainfall eased the power shortage to a point when only weekly single hour power cuts have become necessary, we are not out of the woods yet. The reservoir capacities have filled only 60 percent up to now and electricity generation capacity has not increased at all this year.

According to the Ceylon Electricity Board officials, it is not quite the time to panic, however. What the situation will be next year, it is yet too early to predict, they say. But the fact is that the amount of power that can be generated within our system that is predominantly hydro electric, has not been increased by a single mega watt up to now and again people are left to depend upon the weather gods .

ÒIt all depends on the quantity of rainfall we experience," Acting General Manager, CEB, Channa Amarasinghe said. "If there is sufficient rain on time, to keep the reservoirs full, we may be able to avoid power cuts next year. It is impossible to predict an exact scenario. There is also additional generation capacity being installed on a crash basis- which might help to ease the situation."

According to the Director of the Meteorological Department, Dr. R. Mohottala, there are no indications that the rains will be delayed next year or during the North -East monsoon. "There is no evidence that the pattern of the North East monsoon will deviate from other years, or that there will be less rain in that period." Dr. Mohottala said that we could also expect the normal monsoon patterns next year also, with South Westerly rainfall beginning somewhere in May.

The Meteorological Department has recorded, what they describe as "near normal" rainfall from the South West monsoon. "The monsoon was delayed by a little over one month this year. That is why we are still experiencing monsoon weather. But the amount of rain, quantity wise, is no different from other years." Dr. Mohottala said that even the catchment areas have had sufficient rainfall for this monsoon. This year cannot be regarded as a drought year, the Met. Chief added.

The reservoirs of Victoria, Randenigala and Rantambe are fed by the North Easterly rains, said the Chairman of CEB, Arjun Deraniyagala. "And as we all know, this monsoon is notoriously unpredictable."

He said that this fact was not given due consideration when the Mahaweli complex was constructed. "Therefore with the increased demand, we have to face a risk of not having adequate rains to fill the reservoirs."

'If the reservoir capacity is close to spill level by next January, there will be enough power to take us through the first few months of next year," sources at CEB said. This would depend on the rainfall pattern for the next few months- during the inter monsoon and monsoon months. The lack of capacity to generate the amount of electricity needed for a growing number of consumers has left the power structure bursting at its seams to meet the demand. The non implementation of many projects aimed towards increasing generation capacity is the root cause of the power cuts experienced by the country this year. The loss due to the crisis has not been assessed in economic terms as yet, but is generally regarded to be very high.

The government attempted several measures to soften the impact on the public and industries- especially where export ventures were concerned. Duty concessions for generator importers was one such concession. Save for the importing of some 85 MW on short term, emergency supply basis, no additional power supply came into the national grid. A part of this power was later installed at the water pumping station at Ambatale to ensure a smooth water supply through the power crisis. Therefore the 1400 million units ( 85 percent of which is produced through hydro ) which was the capacity of our system last January will be the same next January also. Meanwhile very rough estimates point out that the demand for electricity grows by 10 percent every year.

"There is still a crisis situation," authoritative CEB sources said. Ò There is danger in the first three months of next year if the rains delay. There could be small power cuts like one hour daily if the situation is bad."

But the Electricity Board has not been completely idle, as one would think. Many power projects are already in the pipeline, scheduled to be commissioned in the next few years. Ò There is a thermal project, and gas turbine and diesel generators that will come into operation soon. All these will have a combined capacity of 155 MW." Deraniyagala said. The gas turbine is expected to be commissioned in mid August and the diesel generators around May next year."

One project- a BOO (Build, Own and Operate) done by a private contractor which was scheduled to be commissioned in February has now been delayed to April, since problems were encountered in the process of construction. The generators brought down by this company are still in port, expected shortly to be transported by barge down the Kelani river to Sapugaskanda.

In addition to all these the CEB has arranged some short term power generators to come into operation "within the first few months" of next year, to supplement existing emergency measures. These small generators, contracted for 2 or 4 years, will have a combined capacity over 100 MW. "If the rains fail, we will have this power as a back up supply. But yet, next March , April and May could well be difficult months," CEB officials said. But this power supply is indeed an expensive one - "If our expenditure rises sharply because of these emergency measures, we will have to consider a tariff increase- I'm sure the public would agree," Deraniyagala said. But he said that such an increase was not on the cards yet.

Meanwhile the Ministry of Power and Energy was scheduled to meet with the CEB to take a decision on completely lifting the power cut hours. The present weekly power cut can be eased because of sufficient rainfall in the catchment, Deraniyagala said.

"Good rainfall from now up to the end of this year is critical to keep reservoirs at a safe level for next year," the CEB chairman said. So there is no need for the public to worry, just as yet. "We will do everything to avert power cuts again, especially for the sake of industrialists.

In the words of a CEB engineer- "Once again it will be up to the rain gods. We are safe as long as the weather gods are kind."

The day-to-day reality of De Soysa Hospital for Women

is shockingly tragic

DSHW: Dirty, Stinking Hospital for Women

By Rajika Jayatilake

To have and hold her baby is a woman's dearest dream. And in Sri Lanka, specially, the right to motherhood is given high priority among women's rights, although few really spare a thought for a woman's right to privacy in achieving motherhood. Yet, one would expect the country's leading maternity hospital to set an example.

The De Soysa Hospital for Women (DSHW) in Colombo, founded in 1879, is Sri Lanka's premier and the oldest maternity hospital, the first donated hospital in the country and the second oldest maternity hospital in entire Asia. Thus it is looked up to as the leader to set standards and trends for service and training in Maternity and Gynaecology.

Against this backdrop, the day-to-day reality at DSHW is shockingly tragic. The 117 year old hospital with its time worn buildings, some perished with age, and its worn out furnishings and fittings, is really geared to handle only a quarter of its present workload. However, the hospital handles about 14,000 births per year and is also the major centre for complications like medical disorders of pregnancy and infertility. In fact, all complicated and high-risk pregnancies all over the country are attended to at DSHW. Only the staff at the hospital know how much of effort goes to manage such difficult patients.

The difficulties very often become too much to cope with in a situation where the hospital which is expected to provide such tremendous service is accorded step motherly treatment, hospital sources say.

The laboratory of the hospital is hardly on par with a lab in a major hospital in the country and needs substantial upgrading with more sophisticated equipment, more staff and much more training to cope with the workload and to handle the kind of sophisticated tests it should be doing.

Yet, by far the biggest problem at DSHW is the total overcrowding within.

The hospital has 10 wards, two of them under the professorial unit. The number of beds in a ward varies between 15 and 45. The number of patients in a ward could be around three times or more the number of beds. So women about to deliver or those who already have, can be seen two to a bed. Others have to sleep on the floor. During the day they can be seen seated here and there for want of space for their own. As it automatically will be, toilet facilities are hardly sufficient for the number of patients at any given time.

Then there is a poky clinic room for outpatients which handles around 400 patients in the morning and 200 - 300 patients in the afternoon everyday. The hospital also struggles to provide special baby care and at any given time there are said to be 22 - 25 very sick babies at DSHW, and they are transferred to Lady Ridgeway Hospital and Sri Jayawardenapura Hospital.

The obvious lack of space for patients is aggravated several-fold by thoughtless visitors who flock in during visiting hours as many as 20 per patient, bringing with them all types of germs, rendering ineffective the sterile environment the overworked hospital staff are struggling to maintain.

"Visitors are a big harassment," they say . What is more, they leave behind and unclean environment for the patient and their babies.

And uncleanliness is not the easiest to come by at DSHW with a lack of cleaning staff and facilities. Around one and a half years ago, a controversy raged over the detection of a massive racket by casual labour where only 75 workers out of 270 who had marked attendance were found working within the hospital premises. Hospital sources say Health Minister A.H.M. Fowzie had handled the situation very well. He had held a complete impartial inquiry through the Ministry of Highways and had punished the wrong doers.

Yet reliable sources say that DSHW, which has its own hospital administration in disarray, severely lacks proper backing and support from the Health Ministry which has seriously jeopardised supervision and overall control off services.

For instance, after much effort by medical personnel involved at DSHW, tenders were called for by the Ministry for a new building within DSHW premises. This had been in 1994 during the tenure of former Secretary to the Ministry of Health Dr. Joe Fernando who was also Chairman of the Tender Board. Reliable sources say the Technical Evaluation Committee had advised against awarding the contract to the lowest bidder who had quoted Rs. 35 million which was Rs. 8 million lower than the next lowest bidder and was therefore unrealistic. However, the recommendations of the Technical Evaluation Committee were overruled and the lowest bidder finally got the contract. Today the building is only come up to slab level and the contractor has disappeared. The site is abandoned and hospital sources say the very building may be unsafe with a large chunk of concrete having fallen off the slab.

In another the part of the hospital, labour room was demolished to build a new one after the foundations stone was laid, the contractor disappeared. Now the pregnant women of the ward are in labour out in the open, without a labour room, which seems an insult to the very concept of a maternity hospital.

Health Minister Fowzie says "What can the Ministry do?" He feels that if the lowest bidder had been turned down he would have been complained to the Bribery Commission and accused the Minister of corruption.

"I would have then been hauled before the Commission." He says with the PA government today it could very well happen to him though he once thought not.

According to the Minister the errant contractors' contract has been terminated and now a new contractor has to be found. The State Engineering Corporation is said to be a viable alternative. Mr. Fowzie was to have put up a Cabinet Paper on the issue.

Meantime, the problems at DSWH are compounded as endless overcrowding leads to sepsis. In this year alone over 80 babies have died of infection at the hospital. These were all premature babies of high- risk pregnancies who had a healthy delivery having survived the ordeal of a risky pregnancy. The Premature Baby Unit was under repair for 6 - 7 months with the work getting draped on and on without proper Ministry supervision.

Meanwhile the babies had to be accommodated in a damp room with patches of fungus on the walls. It seemed hardly fit for any baby let alone premature babies.

Acting Medical Director at the Ministry Dr. K. M. Velummylum when contacted said "It is the Hospital's fault keeping the babies in such a room." But, hospital sources day that was the only room available. In the early days of the hospital in the 1880s, there had been no deaths from puerperal sepsis as compared with hospitals in UK at the time.

The hospital is hopelessly short-staffed to top it all yet they work long hours willingly so that precious lives could be saved.

"But what is the use of all our efforts if the babies die?" they ask thoroughly demoralised.

Minister Fowzie says the problem is not unique to DSHW alone. However, he is trying to overcome the problem of overcrowding by developing maternity hospitals in the periphery so only high-risk pregnancies and other complicated cases will need DSHW attention.

Women's Affairs Srimani Athulathmudali sounded shocked when informed of the state of the hospital and agreed it was a woman's right to have privacy in delivering her child. She promised to take it up at Ministerial level also suggesting seeking assistance from organisations like Lions and Rotary Club in getting things done.

While bureaucracy, red tape and corruption rules the day, pregnant mothers with high risk pregnancies suffer hell and somehow deliver healthy babies to watch them die through no fault of their own. The whole issue revolves around the fact that these are poor women and DSHW is a poor women's hospital. The death of a poor baby will not make any waves.

The tragic truth is as stark as that.

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