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Power plant spells misery for Sri Lankan fisherfolk

Wind power plant in Mannar has negative impacts on local environment and fishing communities, locals and activists say
Priests and nuns join laypeople to protest against the Thambapavani wind power plant in Mannar, in northern Sri Lanka, which is blamed for negative impacts on local environment and fishing communities.

Priests and nuns join laypeople to protest against the Thambapavani wind power plant in Mannar, in northern Sri Lanka, which is blamed for negative impacts on local environment and fishing communities. (Photo supplied)

Published: March 05, 2024 04:10 AM GMT
Updated: March 05, 2024 06:42 AM GMT

Fisherman S.K. Cruz has been facing hard times looking after his four-member family since the government opened a 103.5 megawatts wind power plant on the coast of the Gulf of Mannar in northern Sri Lanka four years ago.

Earlier, he used to take his plastic boat out five nautical miles to sea in the morning and return home with a decent catch by the evening. This is now a thing of the past.

Now, the 58-year-old father of two needs to travel at least 15 nautical miles and spend three times more on fuel to get a decent catch to put food on the table.

He blames the noise from dozens of wind turbines for driving the once-rich fish stocks further away from the coastline, causing misery for thousands of local fishermen like him.

“There’s no fish near the coast anymore,” Cruz told UCA News.

But he cannot go to deeper waters for two reasons. First, he risks trespassing into the Indian territory, and second, he cannot afford more fuel due to massive hikes in fuel prices  amid the island nation's ongoing economic crisis.

Before the plant opened, Cruz made about 40,000 rupees (US$130) per month and had a daily catch weighing 25-40 kilograms depending on the season, which was enough to take care of the family.

He said due to the economic crisis and huge depreciation of the currency, his family now needs at least 120,000 rupees to survive per month.

Cruz, a Catholic, is one of more than 40,000 people — mostly fisherfolk — in Mannar who are up in arms against the Thambapavani power plant commissioned by the state-run Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB).

Before the first phase of the plant was opened in 2020, thousands staged protests opposing it, saying it would jeopardize their livelihoods and local environment.

Now, the authorities have approved construction of the second phase to be built by Adani Power, a company owned by Indian billionaire Gautam Adani.

The company plans to invest US$355 million to generate a total of 234 megawatts. Government officials said the project is expected to complete by December.

Cruz said they are more determined to oppose the second phase as they have already been hit hard by the plant's negative impacts.

“When the initial project was proposed in 2018, we vehemently opposed it considering the impact on fisheries and environmentally sensitive areas of our region. But they went ahead despite our protests but this time we are determined since we have already lost our livelihoods,” Cruz said.

“The fish, prawns, and crabs don’t come near to shore as before due to vibrations from the turbines,” he added, saying that many fishermen have already switched to other jobs such as daily laborers or have migrated abroad in recent months.

As was required the government conducted an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) study before the deal was struck for the second phase of the project.

A copy of the report seen by UCA News acknowledged that there was “a growing concern among some fishermen that noise generated from wind turbines would scare the nearshore fish away and the catch of artisanal fishers would be hampered.”

However, the report dismissed the concerns for not having any scientific grounds.

“However, there is no scientific evidence for such a claim that noise generated in the air would have an impact on fish. The wind turbines will be distant from the coast, and the sound pressure from the turbines will be negligible when reaching the sea to be sensed by the fish. However, wind turbine noise could have some moderate impacts on fishermen, especially at night when ambient noise is low,” the report said.

The report also noted a higher number of bird collision incidents from Sept. 2021 to March last year in the area of the plant with 376 bird carcasses found despite the plant having the latest radar technology to detect flying flocks and shut down the turbines.

The project and the transmission lines pass through the Vankalai Sanctuary, a major bird sanctuary in Mannar. Of total carcasses found 235 were on the transmission lines and 139 carcasses were found at the wind farm, the report said.

Once fully operational, the power plant will be the largest wind energy project in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka depends largely on hydro power for electricity as well as coal and oil. Due to the debt crisis and depletion of dollar reserves, the country has been unable to import fuel for power plants, triggering nationwide power outages.

In a press statement, Adani Green Energy (Sri Lanka) Limited, a subsidiary of Adani Power, said that “this influx of capital [$355 million] is poised to catalyze economic growth, create jobs, and stimulate local businesses, laying the groundwork for a robust and resilient post-economic pandemic recovery.”

Environmental and civil society groups as well as Catholic Church have joined fishing communities in staging mass protests demanding the project be halted. The authorities are determined to move ahead.

Environmentalists have also expressed concerns about the potential impact on natural resources as the second phase is set to be constructed across three protected sites: the Adams Bridge National Park, the Vidataltivu Nature Reserve, and the Vankalai Sanctuary, a protected site recognized under the Ramsar convention. 

At least 52 turbines are to be constructed there with a power generating capacity of 5.2 MW each.

P. Ayngaranesan, an environmentalist and former agriculture, livestock, irrigation and environment minister of the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) told UCA News that any such energy project, be it renewable or fossil fuel ones, cannot be constructed at the expense of the local environment and people's livelihoods.

He noted that NPC, the governing body in the northern province, repeatedly rejected similar mega projects due to concerns over impacts on environment and local communities.

He said that the central government has been issuing permits for such controversial projects arbitrarily in the absence of local government bodies, citing the NPC’s electoral mandate expiring on Oct. 8, 2018, and fresh polls having not yet been held.

The communities in Mannar who suffered heavily during the decades of civil war and are still struggling to make ends meet amid the country's worst economic crisis, are being forced into more misery by the power plant, said Catholic priest S. Marcus, president of the Mannar Citizens Committee, a local advocacy group.

“If this project is implemented, we fear the consequences for the whole of Mannar Island will be disastrous, as this flat land is home to natural sanctuaries and home to seasonal migratory birds from other continents,” Marcus told UCA News.

Bishop Emmanuel Fernando of Mannar issued a pastoral reflection for Lent on Feb. 27 where he also touched upon the power plant.

“It seems that the government will continue pursuing the full implementation of the project, but we will also continue to express our opposition through other avenues as well,” Fernando said.

Hilda Anthony, 62, is among the hundreds of women who make a living by assisting fishing boats and cleaning equipment on the coast. The drop in catches means they also have a reduced income.

“We used to make some money by preparing dry fish by utilizing leftover fish stocks but not anymore. We hardly see a decent catch nowadays,” she said.

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