The Sunday TimesBusiness

1st June 1997



Axe pinus trees - a way to solve water, power crises

By Asiff Hussein

The tall pinus tress that cover vast stretches of mountain ranges, may have to be chopped down. They have already over stayed their welcome, says a development planner.

The plan was to grow pinus for five years as it has water retention and wind-breaking properties. After five years the trees were to be chopped down and the pulp made out of them was to be used in paper industry.

But pinus project did not work that way. Now these tall fast growing trees are adding to our water crisis.

Radical re-forestation and afforestation are inperative if we are to achieve self-sufficiency in water resources, both for irrigation and hydro-power generation says Mr. Rennis N. Fernando.

Mr. Fernando, has come up with a comprehensive plan to alleviate the country's continuing water and electricity crises. The plan, he says, could be successfully implemented within a relatively short period with government co-operation.

Mr. Fernando, a fellow of the National Academy of Sciences and former Secretary to the Ministry of Mahaweli, counts over three decades of involvement in the Mahaweli project. He presented his master plan on 'Water Resources Development' at a recent seminar organised by the National Academy of Sciences of Sri Lanka and the Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science.

Mr. Fernando told the 'Sunday Times' Business that what he advocates is a comprehensive reforestation and afforestation plan in the hills and a dual system of water supply for urban areas, especially Colombo, the combination of which he believes would help alleviate the country's prevailing water and electricity crises.

He believes that there is no need for more massive hydro-electric projects which would affect our environment when viable alternatives of forestation exist.

According to Mr. Fernado, the great afforestation plan undertaken by the Forest Department in the 1960s would have been a tremendous success if it had not been bungled up by interested politicians and bureaucrats for reasons best known to themselves.

This great afforestation plan entailed the planting of fast-growing pine trees in upcountry areas such as Welimada, Haputale, Ambewala, Diyatalava and Bandarawala, which did not receive adequate rain.

The idea here was to plant the pine trees in peripheral areas such as on hill tops, so that they would act as wind-breakers and induce rains to fall.

The choice of peripheral areas was strategic to the plan as sufficient water could be induced to fall into the valleys for cultivation purposes as well as to replenish the existing underground water sources that feed the streams and rivers of the country.

Once sufficient water had been retained in the pine forest, indigenous trees, including those for industrial purposes such as timber, could be allowed to take root.

Once a cultivable area with sufficient water retention and wind breaking properties was established, the fine trees could be gradually thinned down and its wood used for processing paper pulp.

To put it simply, the pine was to be planted only as a preliminary measure for the making of an indigenous forest. The original plan entailed removing all the pine trees within the next three decades.

The plan entailed planting the pine trees at closely-spaced intervals (8-10 feet apart, in rows) so that after five years every other pine tree could be cut down and replaced by indigenous species.

During the implementation stages of the plan, the Forest Department had an understanding with the National Paper Corporation to supply it with pine timber for the manufacture of paper.

However, according to Mr. Fernando, the timber-supply plan never materialized as the Paper Corporation turned overseas for the supply of pulp.

As a result, the alternative trees that were marked for cutting, were allowed to grow unchecked and today we have large pine forest that are using up significent quantitities of water which could have been otherwise used for human benefit.

Mr.Fernando says that the original plan for thinning down the trees is still viable should be undertaken without further delay. However, he is of the view that today we may have to remove two out of every three trees since they have grown so large.

Mr. Fernando asserts that forestation is an urgent need today to increase the base flow supply of the country's rivers.

If it is not undertaken shortly there would be more droughts and floods in the years to come. He explained that this is due to the fact that forestation ensures the retention of water for a steady base flow. On the other hand, lack of forest cover or deforestation in the catchment areas would only serve to facilitate floods as the water from sudden heavy rains would not be retained underground but would flow directly into the waterways causing the rivers to overflow during certain spells of time.

Mr. Fernando advocates planting eucalyptus on an extensive scale in deserted areas as this fast-growing tree, like pine needs the least attention and care and could also serve as a steady supply of timber.

Such a measure, he believes would contribute considerably to reducing the country's timber scarcity.

He also advocates converting low-yielding tea plantations to Kandyan type homestead gardens in areas over 5000 feet elevation, a measure which he believes would also contribute to activating the country's beautiful waterfalls that are today more or less dormant.

"Economical upcountry species of trees such as as kitual, jak and clove could be easily grown in these garden's says Mr. Fernando. He also calls for the reforestation of landslide-prone areas in the upcountry and the resettlement of people in suitable adjacent areas.

He suggests that exotic plants such as Eucalyptus which have excellent water extraction properties should be planted landside-prone areas.

Mr. Fernando alleges that instead of forestation, the state has been undertaking sinister de-forestation schemes under the pretext of 'village expansion' ever since the 'village expansion scheme' at Diyatalawa.

He observed that it is an irony that the World Bank today advocates resurrecting the Pelton wheel (a kind of stream-powered wheel used for generating electricity) for industrial purposes when it had been instrumental in seeing to its exit in the 1960s.

He explained that prior to the 1960s electrification scheme in the estate areas, the vast majority of tea and rubber factories employed Pelton wheels.

However, these factories were compelled by the state on the recommendations of the World Bank to dismantle the wheels as it was one of the conditions stipulated for supplying the factories power from the master grid.

He explained that instead of dismatling the wheels, the state should have seen today it that it served as a parallel means for upgrading these industries.

He believes that one means by which by load on the national grid could be reduced is the large-scale use of Pelton wheels by local industry in areas where streams and rivers are available for powering them.

Mr. Fernando is of the view that the priority of the country's multipurpose irrigation cum hudro-power projects should be for irrigation purposes for which they were primarily meant.

He noted that today, hydro-power is generated the whole year through at the expense of the farmer who was supposed to be the primary beneficiary of the schemes.

"At present, water is released throughout the year for power generation and not in the seasons required by the farmer as originally planned. The water requirements of farmers vary at different times, at the sowing, growing and maturing stages, but not at havesting stage."

"Under the present scheme of hydro-power generation, the water is simply going waste without it being utilized by the farmer. This is the primary reason why there are so many crop failures and food shortages in the country today," explained Mr. Fernando.

He believes that even now it is not too late and that a scheme could easily be devised to supply water for hydro-power in accordance with the irrigation needs of the farmer. In such a context, the large-scale use of Pelton wheels, besides coal-generated thermal plants, could countribute to conserving energy for the future, Mr. Fernado said.

Another major easily implementable project Mr. Fernando advocates is a dual system of water supply for urban areas, especially Colombo whose water consumption needs are extremely high.

Such a scheme, he believes, will help save considerable amonts of purified potable water so that is could be supplied to other outlying areas where droughts are a frequent occurence and folk have to depend to bowsers for their water needs.

Basically, what Mr. Fernando advocates is that the household, hotels and other buildings in the Greater Colombo area should have two parallel sources of water supply, one from the usual Municipal supply sources (potable water) for drinking and bathing purposes and the other, from tube wells for activities that do not necessarily require potable water such as watering home gardens and flushing toilets.

Such a scheme is not radicals as it seems, explained Mr. Fernando.

He cited the case of Singapore and Madras which use saline water for sanitation purpose and purified potable water for drinking and bathing purposes.

Mr. Fernando says that if such a dual system were to be adopted, the Municipality would be in a position to save about 50 percent of the potable water, which could then be used to supply areas where it is most needed.

Mr. Fernando's field investigations have shown that about 80 percent of the Greater Colombo area has access to ground water, which although polluted and unsuitable for drinking or bathing, would nevertheless suffice for sanitation and gardening purposes.

Mr. Fernando, who pioneered the introduction of tube wells to the country in 1973 is of the view that low-cost PVC tube wells should be installed in every household in Colombo.

The installation of a PVC tube well with lowhead electric pumps and pipelines would cost anywhere in the region of Rs. 4000-5000. As for slum areas, Mr. Fernando said that the Municipality could easily install low-cost tube wells with hand pumps.

He also advocates that the state should provide suitable subsidies to householders for the installation of tube wells in the metropolis and at the same time increase the water rates, a measure which would not only compel householders to install tube wells, but also cover the subsidy provided by the state.

The Municipality should also include a requirements for dual water supply system in its specifications for new buildings.

Further, in order to enhance the ground water body of the metropolis, he advocates that the Municipality should take measures to direct rainwater runoff from rooftops to seakage pits in Sinagapore so that the ground water required for sanitation and gardening purposes by householders would be constantly recharged this would also reduce the city's drainage problem especially in the event of heavy rains.

Mr. Fernado said and that if not for the stringent recommendations of the World Bank -which provided financial assistance to the country's water supply schemes in the 1950s and 1960s on the condition that the wells in such areas be shut down-there would not have been such a severe water problem today.

He cited the case of his hometown Negombo where a large number of wells were abandoned when the pipe-borne water supply was provided to households isn the 1960s.

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