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Renewable energy: Some issues



At the outset, I must confess, it is with the expectation of severe criticism from those interested that I broach this subject. It is known that wind is interconnected with the sun. Firstly, let me start with the basics, which some experts seem to overlook, and hence fail to explain, as the sun unevenly heats the surface of the earth, air rises and sinks resulting in high and low regions of air pressure, and in the surrounding area air moves in to replace it, causing wind. The more pressure changes over a given distance, usually the faster the wind will be.

Solar Power

When calculating the land area needed for a solar power plant installation, one must look at things that will consume space in the facility. Two main items that consume space are the solar panels and the structural components. It is said that a one-megawatt (MW) plant requires approximately four acres when using crystallised technology. When using thin-film technology, a 1 MW plant will require four to five acres of land. In other terms, each kilowatt (kW) of solar panel requires 100 square feet of space. Considering that the extent of land in Sri Lanka is 65,610 km2, and the population over 21 million, can such a large area be allocated? Apart from the large extent of land, it would mean deforestation, destroying indigenous vegetation to the point of extinction, and also wildlife.

The other serious aspect is, as plants and trees do not grow under these large panels, oxygen and carbon dioxide produced by the vegetation will be reduced, and will not enter the atmosphere. I need not stress the importance of how essential oxygen is for all living beings; animals and plants, to exist on this planet. Isn’t reducing this vital requirement suicidal?

There is also a proposal to have floating solar panels over hydropower reservoirs and lakes. Have they considered the impact on aquatic life; water plants and fish? In this respect, George L. Clark of Biological Laboratories, Howard University writes, “Light is a limiting factor for aquatic plants and animals. Every schoolboy knows that light is required for the growth of green plants and that all animals, including ourselves, depend directly or indirectly upon the plants for their food supply. It is not so obvious, however, that exactly the same situation is encountered in the aquatic habitat. The ultimate source of energy for all the multifarious life in the sea and in every body of freshwater is sunlight. Furthermore, most fish and many types of animals need enough illumination to see – at least part of the time – to catch their food, to avoid being caught themselves. But light does not penetrate into the water indefinitely; it is absorbed by the water itself and further reduced by sediment and by stains. The aquatic biologist is thus concerned to know how much light exists at various depths in rivers, ponds, lakes, and in the ocean itself, and what are the maximum depths at which the fish can see and at which the all-important green plants make a living.”

Apart from aquatic life, there are other aspects to be given serious thought, such as inland freshwater fishing, water sports such as boat racing, which is a tourist attraction and also landing of amphibious planes. The only advantage cited by those who advocate floating solar panels is the saving of 20 percent of water, through the prevention of evaporation, which will help farmers and hydropower generation. Another factor that should be given due consideration is that with vaporized water not rising from the reservoirs, will the rainfall in these areas be affected, streams and rivers in catchment areas go dry and will the weather patterns be subject to change? If so, what is gained by saving 20 percent of water in reservoirs which will be lost if the rains fail in these areas, or are reduced? Under the circumstances, in this Island of ours, it is best to concentrate on and promote local companies and individuals to install rooftop solar panels in houses, hotels, garment factories and other similar business organizations, granting certain tax concessions for the import of necessary components, which will, in turn, allow the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) to purchase power at a lower rate.

Wind Farms

Although wind farms take a lot of land space, it does not require clearing of vegetation around it, as cultivation could go on as usual. However, it makes it difficult to predict exactly how much electricity it can generate over time if the wind speed is too low at any given time. Another problem is noise. As wind turbines are built on elevated platforms, they can mar scenic beauty and also harm birds and other creatures that fly.


Burning biomass produces similar greenhouse gases to burning of fossil fuels, such as coal. Greenhouse gases contribute to rising global temperature. Burning biomass also releases other pollutants into the atmosphere. These pollutants include particulate matter and nitrogen oxide. Biomass generated electricity can also have an impact on the environment in other ways. For example, cutting down trees can lead to deforestation. Growing plants to use as biomass can have an impact on soil quality and water usage. Indigenous vegetation will be lost, as mentioned earlier and valuable species will be lost forever. With this, the question arises, whether biomass is worse than coal. In my opinion, biomass is the infancy stage of coal. Coal is formed when dead plant matter decays into peat and is converted into coal by the heat and pressure of deep burial over millions of years.

Surfing the internet, I came across another article titled ‘Carbon Emission from Burning Biomass for Energy’ under the strapline ‘Is Biomass worse than Coal? Yes, if you are interested in reducing carbon dioxide emission any time in the next 40 years.’ It is claimed that Biomass is a ‘low carbon’ or ‘carbon neutral’ fuel, meaning the carbon emitted by biomass burning won’t contribute to climate change. But biomass-burning power plants emit ‘150 percent the CO2 of coal and 300 to 400 percent the CO2 of natural gas, per unit energy produced’. The other disadvantage is the large acreage required to plant any quick-growing trees for use as biomass. Can an Island like ours allocate such an extent of land in the face of a growing population? It was reported that a biomass plant at Walapane in Nuwara-Eliya District had to close down due to difficulties in collecting plants from villagers from their home gardens and transporting them at much cost.

I must confess the contents of this essay have been obtained by surfing the internet for the benefit of those interested, both foreign and local.

In conclusion, the question arises as to whether we are headed in the correct direction in solving energy needs. Certainly not. What we are attempting is the destruction and vandalism of natural endowments and assets, to feed an ever-rising population. It is this factor of overpopulation, which should be tackled, and solutions found for sustainable development and healthy living. The answer is stemming the population explosion by educating the masses in birth control methods, to alleviate poverty and improve health care in addition. Unfortunately, the efforts of the World Health Organisation (WHO) have failed due to religious, national, racial and caste-based battles for supremacy, to beat the other by having a larger community. It will be interesting for readers to know what researcher and novelist, Dan Brown, has written in his book Inferno, “‘Did you know that if you live another 19 years, until the age of 80, you will witness the population triple in your lifetime. One lifetime—a tripling. Think of the implications. As you know, your World Health Organisation has again increased its forecasts, predicting there will be some nine billion people on earth before the midpoint of this century. Animal species are going extinct at a precipitously accelerated rate. The demand for dwindling natural resources is skyrocketing. Clean water is harder and harder to come by. By any biological gauge, our species has exceeded our sustainable numbers.

And in the face of this disaster, the World Health Organisation—the gatekeeper of the planet’s health—is investing in things like curing diabetes, filling blood banks, battling cancer.’ He paused, staring directly at her. ‘And so I brought you here to ask you directly why the hell the World Health Organization does not have the guts to deal with this issue head-on?’ Elizabeth was seething now. ‘Whoever you are, you know damned well the WHO takes overpopulation very seriously. Recently we spent millions of dollars sending doctors into Africa to deliver free condoms and educate people about birth control.’

‘Ah, yes!’ the lanky man derided. ‘And an even bigger army of Catholic missionaries marched in on your heels and told the Africans that if they used the condoms, they’d all go to hell. Africa has a new environmental issue now—landfills overflowing with unused condoms.’”

What we should do is concentrate on stemming the ever-increasing population growth rate, by educating and convincing the people of the harm to the environment and also poverty. This should be done either by enacting laws to promote small families and as said earlier by educating the masses. One example is China, which has vast areas of uninhabited land, yet they curtailed population growth through the one-child policy. The result is that today China is a world power, in terms of science, technology and economy.

It is time for a course correction lest it should be suicidal. Or, we can opt for the much-hyped sustainable development, which also includes population explosion.



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Daring siege of the Cultural Ministry



The University of Colombo, Sri Lanka was established in 1979 in accordance with the provisions of the Universities Act No. 18 of 1978. The university was given all the land from the road joining Bauddhaloka Mawatha and Reid Avenue (later named Prof. Stanley Wijesundera Mawatha) right up to the Thummulla junction.

There were the court premises set up to try the insurgents of 1971, the Curriculum Development Centre (CDC), the Queen’s Club, an unauthorized temple which had everything else like car wash, canteen, night life, etc, except what should be found in a temple.

Of these the university was able to get rid of the bogus temple. The request to get the CDC premises did not materialize as the then Secretary of Education turned it down. Later these buildings were taken over to house the Ministry of Cultural Affairs.

One day in the early 1990s just prior to closing time the Senior Assistant Registrar in charge of Student Affairs came into my office and told me that the Students Union is planning to take over the Buildings of the Ministry of Cultural Affairs. Their plan was to wait till dusk and get in surreptitiously two by two. I told the Senior Assistant Registrar not to divulge this to anybody else and to wait till the following morning to see the outcome.

When we reported for work the following morning, I asked the Senior Assistant Registrar as to what had happened. He said the mission had been successfully accomplished and now the students were occupying the buildings. It seemed that what the university had been trying to get for a long time, the students had successfully achieved in one night!

On the second day the students who were occupying the buildings were a little agitated, telephoned me and asked whether the Special Task Force (STF) was planning to surround the building with a view to oust them as the STF personnel were occupying vantage points on buildings in the vicinity . I telephoned and inquired from the OIC of Cinnamon Gardens Police station, and he told me that there was no such plan and that they were only watching the situation. I conveyed this to the students and allayed their fears.

A meeting was convened at the Ministry of Higher Education to see how the problem could be sorted out. At the meeting a student showed a copy of a Cabinet decision where agreement had been reached to hand over the CDC buildings to the University of Colombo. The Minister of Cultural Affairs at that time, Mr. Lakshman Jayakody, was surprised and asked the student as to how he got the copy of the decision as even he had not seen it. The student stated that he did not want to divulge the source.

The Minister stated that his immediate need was to get the pay sheet and cheque book as the employees had to be paid their salaries. The students were adamant not to surrender, and they stated that this was done as they needed hostels. Hence the decision to lay siege to the buildings. Mr. Jayakody agreed to vacate the buildings so that the university could make use of them.

That ended the saga of the famous siege of a Ministry building by a few daring undergraduates. The buildings were used to house the newly established Faculty of Management and Finance. The undergraduates were accommodated in other buildings in Muttiah Road and Thelawala, which were handed over to the university to be used as hostels.



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Professor Dayantha Wijeyesekera



Professor Dayantha Wijeyesekera who passed away a few days ago was a dynamic personality who headed not one but two national universities in Sri Lanka. It was as the Vice-Chancellor of the Open University of Sri Lanka (OUSL) that I first encountered him, an encounter that highlighted Professor Wijeyesekera’s powers of perseverance and persuasion. During the late 1980s, I was happily ensconced at the University of Colombo when I started receiving messages from Professor Wijeyesekera to ask me to consider moving over to the OUSL. The proposition did not seem very viable to me at the time and I ignored his calls But for almost two years, he persisted until I finally gave in and shifted my academic career to Nawala- a move never regretted.

OUSL at that time was in the throes of changes and innovation, most of which were spearheaded by Professor Wijeyesekera who had taken over the leadership of OUSL in 1985 at a most controversial time. Perceptions of the OUSL were negative and the authorities were even considering closing it down. With his characteristic vigour, Dayantha Wijeyesekera set about putting things right bringing in changes, some of which were most controversial and even considered detrimental to OUSL.

In spite of opposition, he stuck to his vision and it is testimony to his persistence that a number of changes have lasted to this day – Faculties headed by Deans instead of Boards of Study headed by Directors, Departments of Study and not Units, a two-tier administrative system akin to the conventional university system of Council and Senate. To help support students who needed to come to Nawala for workshops and laboratory classes, he established student hostels-another move deemed by his critics as undermining the concept of Distance Education. The hostels still stand and have even been expanded.

Other changes were welcomed such as his indefatigable pursuit of state –of the art technology for OUSL. The OUSL’s centre for Educational Technology was a gift from Japan due to Professor Wijeyesekera’s efforts. And it was in his period of stewardship at OUSL that the first ever language laboratory to be established in a Sri Lankan university was set up in the Department of Language Studies – a gift from KOICA, the South Korean aid agency.

During Professor Wijeyesekera’s tenure as Vice Chancellor, the OUSL experienced growth and expansion in academic sectors too. During the 1980s, the university had only a handful of centres but under Dayantha Wijeyesekera the number rapidly grew- there were Regional Centres in major cities such as Colombo, Kandy and Jaffna. Study centres were set up in towns throughout the island and he was more than supportive when requested permission to establish teaching centres for English in smaller urban conglomerations such as Akkaraipattu .

Academic programmes blossomed. The Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences for example had just one Bachelor’s degree, the LLB, during the 1980s. In Professor Wijeyesekera’s time this grew to include a Bachelor of Management Studies, a Bachelor’s degree in Social Sciences and the first ever Bachelor’s degree in English and English Language Teaching. The first degree programme for nurses in Sri Lanka, the BSc. In Nursing, was established at the Faculty of Science with support from Athabasca University in Canada. In addition there also sprang up a whole cohort of Certificate and Diploma programmes catering to the diverse needs of professionals all over the island.

The growth of the university was reflected in the expansion of facilities. New buildings sprang up on reclaimed land bordering the Narahenpita-Nawala Road – a new Senate House which offered space to all the administrative sections and had a spacious facility for Council and Senate meetings. A three-storey building was provided for the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences and a new Library building took shape near the Media Centre.

In addition Professor Wijeyesekera reached out to international centres of Distance Education and Open Universities across the world. In the early 1990s, he hosted with aplomb the Conference of the Association of Asian Open Universities (AAOU) and OUSL became a respected member of the AAOU as well as of the Commonwealth of Learning.

Dayantha Wijeyesekera began his career at OUSL in 1985 when the fate of the OUSL hung in the balance. Under his stewardship, the university burgeoned into a national university, a leader in Distance Education which others sought to emulate.. When he joined the OU, the student enrolment stood at 8,000. When he left, nine years later, there 20,000 students registered at the university. It was his hard work, his dedication, his commitment to academic progress that helped transform the OUSL.

May his soul rest in peace.
Ryhana Raheem
Emeritus Professor,
Open University of Sri Lanka

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X-Press Pearl disaster



It will be a crying shame if we fail to get the much wanted and much spoken about compensation due to us for the monumental maritime disaster caused in around our shores when the X-Press went down.

Our government and all those departments and ministries responsible had ample time to make a water tight claim to make the compensation 1claim to the right place. The best available brains and talent to deal with this complex problem involving a host of subjects including the ecology, marine biology, shipwrecks, the law of the sea, maritime laws and whatever else should have been organized to fight our case.

The moment the disaster occurred, all concerned should have acted with single minded dedication to make a strong claim for compensation. Much video and other evidence of the damage done is available. All of us are aware of the shoals of fish, turtles and other sea creatures that died and were washed ashore and the plastic and oil pollution of our beaches. Some of those creatures that died live for over 100 years.

What we saw on our shore post-disaster was a heartbreaking sight. I don’t think it’s possible to assess the ecological damage done in monetary terms. The plastic nurdles the ship has been washed as far as Matara and it is said the acid pollution caused will be with us for a century. Fishermen have suffered great hardship by the loss of catch.

The case filed is being heard in Singapore. I hope the verdict will temper justice with mercy. The damage and misery suffered through no fault of ours is untold.

Padmini Nanayakkara, Colombo-3.

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