Remember your humanity

Thursday, 8 September 2011 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

‘Remember your humanity’ is a phrase that was made famous by the Russel Einstein manifesto issued on 9 July 1955. This document is considered as the final major document that Albert Einstein signed before his death in 1955 and is quite a famous statement.

The whole idea of issuing this statement has been to indicate to the world the dangerous issue of nuclear weapons and their proliferation and the world community to think as one.

One of the youngest signatories to that manifesto Joseph Rotblat, at the age of 46, had been a scientist with the US Nuclear Weapons programme at Los Alamos. Rotblat founded the Atomic Scientists’ Association, a forerunner of the Pugwash movement.

Today and from the very beginning, the Pugwash movement stands against nuclear weapons, echoing the last sentiments of Albert Einstein, which was his final message to the world.

With the Cold War over, the emphasis has again come back to nuclear energy as an energy solution to climate change. Again, for some nations, nuclear energy also represents the possibility of becoming a super power and knowing well that you are quite close to the ability of embarking on a weapons programme if desired.

Power options

In this backdrop, Sri Lanka hosted a Pugwash conference on ‘Power Options for Developing Countries’ in Negombo with the participation of scientists from many countries, including the Japanese Atomic Energy Commission from 3-4 September.

With the Fukushima nuclear disaster yet to be completely resolved – and the statements were that it may be another decade before that status really materialises – the whole nuclear energy option is a matter for discussion.

The conference indicated the problems facing some of the developing countries and it was clear that the question on power options is yet to be clearly answered. Considering some of the statistics that were shared, the problems facing the Indian subcontinent were quite stark and worrying, let alone considering the rest of developing economies.

That there is a need for some answers in double quick time was evident. However, another factor that perhaps was elucidated by most of the speakers was that it is simple economics and short-term politics that is going to influence the future choices and selections and the environmental issues are unlikely to be factored in any significant manner into the process.

With energy options being a major contributor to the issue of global warning it is clear that today the entire nuclear energy option is under scrutiny. Winning back public confidence is not an easy matter.

Renewable energies

The issue in front of us is the speed at which we embrace renewable energies. If traditional methods of analysis are not quite helpful, then new ways must come in which understand well the differences and enable implementation.

Moving ahead, we will have to embrace renewables and the speed at which we move on this will ensure a place in history for our planners. Learning from the past is important.

It is indeed sad when we see that at one time we had been engaged in pursuing decentralised energy systems with some vigour. This happened in a remote village in the deep south of Sri Lanka with the support of the United Nations Environmental Programme.

Indeed it is interesting to note that the chief proponent of the scheme came from a Pakistani Nuclear Scientist, Dr. Usmani, who has moved on to UN after becoming disillusioned with nuclear systems in Pakistan.

When the plan to support renewables in a serious way – after the first oil crisis of 1973 –came up, his choice for implementation had been Sri Lanka. Not many documents exist, but UNEP annual reports indicate the pioneering nature of this venture.

Asia’s first rural energy centre

When one makes a visit down south, Netolpitiya is a village that one would pass by near the 126th mile post of the Colombo-Kataragama Road. Historically Netolpitiya is indeed famous for providing one of the legendary 10 ‘great giants’ of King Dutugemunu – Gotabaya.

When one turns from Netolpitiya into the interior, the village Pattiyapola is reached. It is here that Asia’s first rural energy centre was set up in making parts of a village energy sufficient with the objective of realising a multiplier effect upon successful demonstration. Alas, that was not to be though the practicality was well demonstrated as I myself witnessed in 1983 and perhaps triggered and catalysed my interest in biogas systems.

Pattiyapola received electricity long before the CEB grid came through; humble ‘cow dung’ along with solar energy and some wind energy turbines provided electricity to many houses. A battery bank was available to balance supply and demand with storage.

As you approach this village, by the side of the village tank you witness some stone boulders and the locals are quick to point out that these were what the child Gotabaya played with – lifting and throwing these around.

The location had been selected by the UNEP and the Government together considering the absence of electricity, presence of raw materials and favourable climatic parameters as well as the historical nature of the site. History then and making history again, the village should have been a symbol of new age energy. This was however not to be as the scheme vanished after some years of operation and not many appear to remember this exercise of the CEB though it was a regional first.

On 30 October 1994, the Sunday Observer announced the notification by the CEB for the disposal of used items by the rural energy centre. On 10 March 1998, the Divayina newspaper reported that the area had being acquired forcibly by the local school again. The end of a US$ 200,000 exercise in demonstrating to the world on the power of renewables and decentralised energy systems thus came to a close.


The biogas electricity generator – Indian biogas system – was considered as the main showpiece of this centre. Cow dung had been the main fuel. The 40 odd households to which the electricity was supplied were situated in a four sq km area.

The feasibility study had been carried out by University of Oklahoma in USA. Thus biogas to electricity had been demonstrated quite early in Sri Lanka. Later the emphasis had shifted biogas simply to a rural energy source primarily directed to providing cooking energy as an alternative to firewood.

If the start that was taken in 1976-77 were pursued with vigour, ‘electricity for all’ would have been achieved much earlier and perhaps at much lesser cost to the economy. Yes it is not still too late to factor biogas as a major source of energy.

The recent statements from EU place biogas systems as most efficient in providing energy for transportation. Many decentralised biogas systems exist in European countries, providing electricity, thermal energy and soil conditioner.

The residual material which is actually the organic waste input is an ideal soil conditioner and thus adds to the soil fertility when applied. One recorded statement from Pattiyapola states that the centre operations had faced with lack of data collection even at a semi-quantitative level.

We know the famous remark – what you cannot measure you cannot manage. Thus, when efficiencies start to decline after the opening ceremony, the end of any system is in sight.

It is quite important that we Sri Lankans migrate from most of our operations which appear to run in ‘data poor environments’ simply due to our lack of attention for detail to ‘data rich environments’ by systematic planning and attention. The systems indeed deserve that attention. One cannot be happy by simply bringing a system to life. Continuity is of utmost importance.

Lessons from Pattiyapola

Pattiyapola is a story from which we can learn many lessons. Today when we ask questions such as ‘can we get electricity from biogas?’ or ‘how feasible is decentralised off grid electricity?’ and about the benefits of waste-to-energy systems, the answers were given some 30 years ago.

Thirty years was the time Singapore took to transform itself from a third to first world country. Thirty years later within our planning community we still ask the same set of questions and seek the same set of answers.

Yes, ‘remember the humanity’ was a cry for action as one for saving humanity from a looming nuclear war. The crisis today is one of energy availability. Sustainable forms of energy for humanity should be a rallying cry in this day. To arrive at sustainable forms of energy, we need to get off the beaten track. Pattiyapola showed us that, but do we remember?

(Professor Ajith de Alwis is Professor of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka. With an initial BSc Chemical engineering Honours degree from Moratuwa, he proceeded to the University of Cambridge for his PhD. He is a Science Team Leader at the Sri Lanka Nanotechnology Institute. He can be reached via email on [email protected])

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