Weliweriya: Another point of view

Wednesday, 14 August 2013 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

A good deal of publicity was given and discussions were held during the past few weeks over the incidents around Weliweriya, where there people were killed and several injured due to gunfire. Public protests escalated on 25 July when people of the neighbourhood of Weliweriya gathered at the main junction to protest and to obstruct the New Kandy Road (connecting Kaduwela with Colombo-Kandy Road). The demonstrators were protesting against the contamination of drinking water in their wells. They demanded clean water on tap instead of acid water in their wells. The demonstrators, numbering around 2,000, rejected Police orders to disperse and open the road to traffic. But the Police managed to divert traffic into other roads. The villagers were rallying for several days, refusing to halt their protests without a solution. Demonstrations spread to the obstruction of traffic on Colombo-Kandy Road at Belummahara. The closure of the Colombo-Kandy Road, brought all traffic to a standstill, but the Police was unable to disperse the crowd. For some unknown reasons Police did not use water cannons or tear gas at their disposal, but called the Army for removal of protesters. The Army action on unarmed men, women and children ended with three people dead and scores of persons in hospital. Villagers’ demands The villagers claim that they informed the authorities for months regarding the poor quality water in their wells; they claimed that the contamination was due to discharged effluent from a nearby factory producing rubber gloves entering their wells. They demanded the factory contaminating their water be closed down and they be provided with free water. They claimed villages around Weliweriya as well as villages several kilometres away as Belummahara, Godagedara and Miriswatta were affected by the discharged effluent from the factory. The protesting villagers complained that local drinking water was contaminated by the effluent discharged by Vinogros Dipped Products, a rubber-glove manufacturing plant, owned by the Hayleys Group. Preliminary action The villagers claim some of their wells were inspected by authorities, the water was tested and were found to be acidic with pH less than 6.5 and in some varying from 4-5, were marked as ‘Unsuitable for Drinking’. The pH value The pH scale measures how acidic or alkaline a solution and ranges from 0 to 14. A pH of 7 is neutral, less than 7 is acidic, and a pH greater than 7 is alkaline. Each whole pH value below 7 is 10 times more acidic than the next higher value. For example, a pH of 4 is ten times more acidic than a pH of 5 and 100 times (10 times 10) more acidic than a pH of 6. The same holds true for pH values above 7, each of which is 10 times more alkaline than the next lower whole value. Pure water is neutral, with a pH of 7.0. When chemicals are mixed with water, the mixture can become either acidic or alkaline. Vinegar and lemon juice are acidic, while laundry detergents and ammonia are alkaline. Discussions to defuse the issue While the protests were in progress, discussions were held by local authorities between villagers, local politicians and representatives of the factory. The villagers alleged that the glove maker, the Hayleys Group Company Dipped Products, was disposing of chemical waste and contaminating the ground water. However, the company has strongly denied that it is responsible for the water quality. Meanwhile, the Defence Secretary has instructed the factory be closed down until investigations and a committee looks into the allegations. Professionals in the National Water Supply and Drainage Board, Environmental Authority, Water Resources Board, Geological and Mining Bureau and academic experts of the Moratuwa and Peradeniya Universities are included in the Committee. Statement from the factory Dipped Products Chief Mahesha Ranasoma in a statement in respect of allegations blaming the factory for low pH levels, informed that historic records of tests by Sri Lanka’s National Building and Research Organization showed that treated water released by the factory had pH levels between 6.5 and 8.2. “This shows that the treated water released from the factory is well within the accepted standards and does not in any way harm the environment.” “Our effluent water quality is regularly tested by the National Building and Research Organisation and our facility operates with a valid Environmental Protection License. Reasons for such low pH occurrence could be the dissolved carbon dioxide as well as iron oxide predominantly present in the Rathupaswala area neighbouring Nedungamuwa. Therefore accusing us of being responsible for creating this situation is false and invalid when it is known that a river basin therein has naturally occurring low pH shallow water areas,” he said. It is not clear whether the disposal of treated effluent at the factory was by discharging into the paddy field or into the underground storage. The surface disposal, although unsightly, gets diluted and becomes safer, whereas underground storage would remain in the location and get into the water table, which can reappear in deep wells. But all depends on the extent of treatment used. What is good drinking water? From freedrinkingwater.com: “While the ideal pH level of drinking water should be between 6-8.5, the human body maintains pH equilibrium on a constant basis and will not be affected by water consumption. For example, our stomachs have a naturally low pH level of 2 which is a beneficial acidity that helps us with food digestion.” Topography of Weliweriya area The Weliweriya area has a generally rolling terrain devoid of any mountains. Small hillocks are surrounded by paddy fields. The ground is covered with a thin layer of top soil with cabook underneath. As cabook is hard at top, softening leads to reddish soil. The village Rathupaswala, rathu-pas-wala meaning ‘red-soil-pit,’ gives a general description of the area. Cabook is hard and contains high quantities of iron oxide, the layer could be up to five feet thick, can be cut into large bricks (used for house construction) and restricts rain water penetration. Thus the region is poor in ground water, wells are deep (30 to 50 feet) and the water yield is poor. The wells are few and generally shared by number of households. As such most houses use well water for cooking and washing and use a public well near a paddy field for bathing. In the area even public wells are few and far. The region gets less rain than Colombo, worsening the water supply situation. The land does not lend itself to agriculture, and is used mostly for coconut (although yields are poor) and pineapple is common as shown by the numbers of road-side vendors. The paddy fields are not marshy and water flows into an irrigation canal controlled by number of sluices with gates creating water pools, where locals bathe. The abundant presence of cabook (with high content of iron), low rainfall, poor seepage of rain water into the soil, made water scarce, increased the soil acidity, thereby reducing pH levels. Decades ago, the writer visiting relatives in the area remembers bathing in the ‘Hal Linda,’ a popular bathing well, as well as in a water pool by an irrigation sluice. Location of the factory The glove factory is located over 500 m from New Kandy Road (connecting Kaduwela with Colombo-Kandy Road at Belummahara) turning north-east at Rathupaswala junction). Google map and affected villages When the location of the factory is observed on the Google map, the following facts emerge. Any liquid discharged from the factory will flow into the paddy field located to the north of the factory. The water from the minor paddy field flows north-east, joins the irrigation canal which flows north-westwards and crosses the Colombo-Kandy road few hundred meters north of Belummahara junction. The protesters originated from villages of Siviralumulla, Weliweriya, Pilikuttuwa, Kinigama, Maharagama, Galloluwa, Nadungamuwa, Rathupaswela, Uruwela, Katuruwatta, Kirikiththa, Ambaraluwa and villages kilometres away from the factory as Belummahara, Godagedara and Miriswatta. As shown in the Google map, Weliweriya is located to the south east of the factory and separated by a paddy-field, therefore factory water could not have reached the area. Similarly Nedungamuwa, Siviralumulla and Pilikuttuwa are located NE upstream of the factory and water could not have reached them either. When considering the possible flow of water from the factory, Kinigama lies to the north and separated by the paddy field separated by the irrigation canal and could not have been affected. Villages as Belummahara, Godagedara and Miriswatta lie on either side of the canal, but are over several km away. Some villages are not shown on the Google map. Thus if the factory actually released harmful effluents they would have affected a few wells near the factory and the paddy fields nearby. When the effluents reached the irrigation canal, the effluent gets diluted and could only be shown in analysis of water; it would not affect household wells, but could affect bathers in the irrigation canal. The glove factory and neighbours The glove factory is not the only factory in the area, with several other factories and four industrial zones. Can the glove factory be the only culprit for pollution? Another serious issue is the water requirements of the factories and their workers. With no public water supply to the region, each factory’s water requirement needs to be obtained from the ground, most likely with deep tube wells, which in turn will consume underground water, thereby depleting water resources and leading to higher pH values in well water. The factory Vinogros is a part of Dipped Products Ltd., said to be the fourth largest glove maker in the world, producing 5% of the world’s non-medical rubber gloves, with the Weliweriya factory producing 45% of its output. The factory started in 1995 is owned by Dipped Products, a unit of Hayleys Group, a respectable organisation. Hayleys subsidiary Puritas is a leader in sewage treatment in Sri Lanka. Their website claims Puritas specialises in providing customised solutions for sewage treatment and wastewater treatment in Sri Lanka and overseas, with nearly 100 treatment plants constructed to date covering hotels, factories, hospitals, apartment complexes and commercial establishments. An organisation targeting a fair share of the world market for its products needs to be watchful in good environmental practices and cannot be expected to discharge untreated effluent to the environment. Discontinuation of workers It was also alleged that the factory discontinued over 100 workers for participating in an unlawful strike. These workers may have been used by leftist parties to create trouble and explains the targeting of the particular factory. The jobless workers could have been made pawns by the trade union based organisation to create trouble. Water shortage and supplies It is apparent that Weliweriya area had been suffering from an acute shortage of water and their water was contaminated with high iron content due to cabook and due to high consumption by the factories in the region, but the authorities did not respect their requirements. Meanwhile the ‘Kelani Ganga Right Bank Water Treatment Plant’ located on the bank of the Kelani River near Biyagama was ceremonially opened by the President few weeks ago. The water treatment plant with the highest capacity in Sri Lanka did not supply water to any fresh consumers, but gave additional supplies into two pipelines supplying to Colombo and Gampaha Districts. The pipeline to Gampaha passes through Weliweriya, but no proposal had been made to supply pipe-borne water to the Weliweriya region. The people were aware of the situation, but did not openly highlight the issue, possibly not to antagonise the President and Minister Basil Rajapaksa. Proposed water supply schemes It is proposed to construct a new water supply scheme to improve the water supply to Gampaha District and Negombo areas with a dam across Attanagalu Oya. But in a 2011 report, Attanagalu Oya catchment water was noted to have pH reduced levels. This confirms the general pattern in the area due to cabook soil. In a proper treatment plant excessive iron and the reduced pH levels could be corrected, but the Water Board has a very poor record of proper maintenance and running of their plants. Conclusion The happenings in Weliweriya are disturbing; the death of three persons and injuries to several others cannot be justified by any means. It was mentioned that the Police was under political pressure and unable to use force to disperse the protesters to open roads for vehicle traffic. Hence they were forced to call the Army for assistance. The Police, with their newly-acquired anti-riot gear, could have dispersed the crowd with minimum force. The use of gunfire on unarmed civilians and children cannot be condoned. When the villagers complained to authorities with respect of poor quality water in their wells, even when tests confirmed that the pH values were low, no attempt was made for a proper investigation for causes. This may be the result of dividing the administration into large number of ministries, each officer living in their water-tight compartments, without communication and joint efforts. The people on the other hand have learned that the authorities will look into their grievances, only when they resort to demonstrations and road closures, which is encouraged with publicity by radio and TV channels. The discontinued past workers with their animosities against the establishment could easily be manipulated into agitations against their past employer, which was done by political opponents. The villagers had a long standing issue, with the standard of living going up, everyone wished for water on tap. Their wells are deep, needed expensive deep-well pumps, but gave poor quality water. The shortage of water made their land prices low, which were bought to set up factories. The new water supply scheme’s pipes carrying water passed through the neighbourhood without any consideration for them. They had a grouse for revolting; the deprivation of lives and injuries sustained by their neighbours was the price they had to pay for opening the eyes of authorities. (The writer is a Chartered Civil Engineer graduated from Peradeniya University and has been employed in Sri Lanka and abroad. He was General Manager of State Engineering Corporation of Sri Lanka. He can be contacted on tudor@rivendaleresort.com.)