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The Energy Crisis hits the Kitchen

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By Parakrama Jayasinghe

Past President Bio Energy Association of Sri Lanka

Close on the heels of the grave hit on the wallet of consumers due to the hefty hike in the LPG prices, a new crisis by way of safety of use of even the expensive gas has created an even greater problem. As recently as August 2021, I published an article titled. “Wallowing in the Fossil Fuel Trap” in The Island, where I dealt with the entire spectrum of energy,

While the impact on areas like electricity and transport fuels by this over-dependence on imported fossil fuels are kept under wraps by the authorities by high levels of subsidies, which keep the consumers in a state of false euphoria and leading them to believe that their interests are looked after and thus live in a fool’s paradise. But the present safety issue cannot be swept under the carpet.

For example, to cover the continuing losses by the CEB, running close to a hundred billion rupees in some years, even the consumers at the lowest consumption levels are paying an extra Rs. 5.00 or more per unit without it being reflected in the monthly bill. Perhaps, with one of the suppliers of LPG being a private company, the current LPG prices may not include any subsidies. Instead, the consumers are now in a worse situation when the very safety of use is in doubt.

The advent of LPG as a cooking fuel goes back to the 1970 decade when the LPG from our refinery was being flared off without any productive use. Limited to that level of availability and use, there can be no objection to this decision. The fault lies in expanding and promoting the use of LPG way beyond the local production possible from our refinery and resorting to imports over which we have absolutely no control.

This may have been an attractive commercial opportunity opening the way even for international petroleum giant, Shell, to move in. Let us not delve into the background and the later events which occurred. The fact remains that yet another import was promoted blindly with total lack of vision on the possible future impacts on many fronts. Our problems of shortage of foreign exchange was present even those days although not as critical as now.

The original price of LPG was Rs. 35.00 for a 13.5 kg cylinder has now ballooned up to Rs 2,850.00 for a 12.5 kg cylinder, an 88-fold increase.

Typical of the mindset of the Sri Lankan consumers, every time there is a price hike there will be protests and many high-level discussions and news reports, which fizzle out in a few weeks at most. The media shift their focus to the next crisis and the protesters would lose their audience and attention of the authorities. This is how the price of LPG has continually risen with the equally stupid occasional price reductions by the government trying to score a point, which are more than overridden by the next price hike.

Concentrating only on the present crisis on LPG, what is our alternative?

On some such occasions in the past in about year 2002 with a price hike, the NERD Centre embarked on a research project to develop a suitable wood fired cooking stove in an effort to entice the people to go back to the use of fuel wood. Several successful models were developed and licenses were issued to a number of companies to manufacture the units for the market. It was heartening to see those stoves being offered for reasonable prices in many hardware shops. The pictures below illustrate these models. (See figure 1)

However, as regrettably happens in Sri Lanka, this effort too fizzled out primarily due to Lack of development of a suitable supply mechanism for the fuel wood needed, particularly in the urban areas which could have gained the most from the adoption of the stoves.

Aggressive marketing of LPG was carried out even in the rural areas where the householders could have got all the fuelwood from their own backyard. We have calculated that the fuel wood needs of a family for the year could be generated continually from two rows of Gliricidia planted on the fence of a 10-perch block of land

Also on the background were the concerted efforts to downgrade and dissuade the use of biomass for cooking with references to widely cited academic theories and publications. The message being conveyed was that the use of biomass could lead to health hazards due to smoke and unburnt firewood, etc. We in Sri Lanka have used firewood and other biomass for cooking since time immemorial without any proven evidence of such health hazards. These problems may be true for some countries where cooking is done in poorly ventilated confined spaces. But not so for our traditional kitchens most of which also boast fireplaces with a chimney as part and parcel of the kitchen. The use of firewood in the traditional way could, of course, be problematic in the modern highrise apartments.

The vendors of LPG were quick to pounce upon these, and I remember a public seminar where some foreign agencies even offered the LPG cookers free of charge. They would not answer my question as to who will pay for the gas already on a rising price trend.

What are the alternatives available for us in the present context and how fast can they be adopted? I look at these in reference to the affordability and degree of sophistication that the consumer expects and is willing to pay for. Starting from the high end these can be listed as

1. Go electric – Before there are howls of protests, let me qualify this to say that this option is for those who already have their roof top solar PV systems of adequate capacity. As such, there would not be an additional burden on the national grid and the consumer would enjoy all the benefits of cooking with electricity while not feeling the financial pinch. Those who are aspiring to join the Surya Bala Sangraamya are well-advised to factor this in their assessment of capacity of the systems to be installed.

2. The NERD design of the wood stove, particularly the model with the electric fan performs satisfactorily and reliably. However, there are hardly any in the market while I understand that some licensees have re-commenced production. Also, the earlier problem of a reliable and sustainable supply of properly dried and processed fuelwood must be addressed along with the urgent action to accelerate the production of stoves. More players can join the manufacturing with the very likely rapid expansion of the demand.

3. The most convenient and immediately available option particularly for households in less urbanised areas, who were led astray by the authorities and the LPG vendors, is to adopt the much-improved covered clay stoves called the ‘Anagi Lipa’. As the name suggests it is a wonderful and simple invention which is available even in Colombo for a price of Rs 600.00 It has an efficiency of over three time that of a traditional three stone heath and thereby much reduced fuel wood consumption.

The chart indicates the relative cost of different fuel options. The electricity option is shown only for comparison as it is a zero cost for those who can afford a roof top solar PV system.

The question remains as to the means of ensuring a steady supply of fuel wood. As usual Sri Lanka has a viable indigenous solution for any problem, if only we are ready to appreciate and adopt them. In this case that wonder tree Gliricidia Sepium offers the obvious solution. The Cabinet of Ministers declared Gliricidia as the fourth national plantation crop as far back as June 2005 and promptly ignored all the proposals therein for the development of this valuable resource. Hopefully, they will wake up at least now and take action on those proposals which are even more valid now.

Moreover, the use of this option offers an added means of addressing a most aggravating problem faced by poor women, particularly in the rural areas, that of indebtedness to the micro finance companies and even some shylocks. Let them become the suppliers of the much needed fuel wood using their own Gliricidia trees, both for their own use and for sale to the more affluent housewives who are now unable to use LPG for safety reasons.

Fortunately, many rural families possess at least a quarter acre of land on which an adequate number of Gliricidia trees can be grown to provide them with the surplus wood for sale in addition to the income from creative use of the leaves. Thus, a steady cash income can be guaranteed while solving a national problem. There is no cost in the cultivation and the only investment required is for the purchase of a sharp machete. The chopped and dried wood can be market ready in say three-kilo packets in their spare time. However, the rest of the value chain and the systems to support this market must emerge.

In this light, it is worthwhile to consider the numbers involved. Sri Lanka imported $ 200 million worth of LPG last year. Even if 25 % of this amount can be redirected for the supply of Gliricidia fuelwood, a whopping Rs 10,000 million would flow to the rural economy.

So, it is up to the consumers themselves to make their own choices instead of forever depending on the authorities at all levels. Their willingness to change over is all that is needed to support the fuelwood suppliers.



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Features

Legends of Ceylon…in action again

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Mignonne: At the first event

The first event, held at the Irish Pub, last December, was a success. It was, in fact, a ‘full house,’ they say.

Singer-entertainer Sohan, the leader of the group Sohan & The X-Periments, promised a repeat, and he is doing just that.

‘Legends of Ceylon’ will move into action, again, for the second time, at the Irish Pub, on Wednesday, January 26th, and will bring into the spotlight the stars who have contributed to making the showbiz scene doubly exciting…for decades.

Billed to appear are Mignonne, Dalreen, Geoffrey, Noeline, Sohan and Manilal.

They will perform, accompanied by the group Mirage.

This is not an event where tickets are sold. All you need to do is to make a reservation, turn up on the 26th, and dine and wine while you enjoy the music of the ‘Legends of Ceylon.’

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Another legend bids farewell…

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The pandemic is bad enough, but the past few months have also brought us further shocks.

In September, last year (2021) the death of Sunil Perera, of the Gypsies, shocked the nation, and music lovers, the world over. And, then, last week, it was the demise of another veteran singer-entertainer, Desmond de Silva.

Desmond’s death was equally shocking as he had arrived, from Sydney, in high spirits, for his 31st night gig in Melbourne.

His death, they say, was due to a stroke.

And, this is how many have expressed their feelings…

Mignonne & The Jetliners, and Suyin and Michael:

I was shocked, and deeply saddened, to hear of the passing away of dear Desmond – ‘Des’ to us.

Affable and kind to most, he was a much loved entertainer and singer with whom we, too, shared many successful years of making music together, with my band, Mignonne & The Jetliners, and, on a few occasions, with my kids, Suyin and Michael, at the Taj, in Mumbai.

He was passionate about his performances, be it ballads or bailas, and he truly rocked the stag, both here and abroad, for over four decades.

Always dressed impeccably, he had the audience clamouring for more.

Des has surely carved a name for himself, as a legend, and will be remembered for his contribution as one of our best entertainers in Sri Lanka’s popular music history.

How can I say goodbye to dearest Des! He was one of a kind…and so special, and regrettably gone too soon. We will miss him dearly.

Our love and prayers go out to Phyllis and all his loved ones.

May he rest in the peace of Christ.

*  Brad Stevens (Australia):

I last met Desmond at an Old Joes dance, in Sydney, a few years back.

He had an absolutely brilliant personality; had the art of getting everyone joining him in his act…whether it was at a dance, or whether it was a performance, at a concert. Even a simple phone conversation with him was so good.

I feel bad as I could not accept his invitation to visit him and Phyllis at their home, in Sydney.

And, then, since December 2020, Desmond was a regular on The Brad & Kiara Show. In fact, we had him on our Christmas Edition, just a few weeks back, which might have even been his last voice clip, on radio….

It was nice to hear him always give credit to Phyllis – the love of his life.

Sri Lanka has lost yet another great entertainer, and all of us will miss his superb performances on stage, with his wonderful singing. But, let’s celebrate his amazing life – he would not want it any other way….

He will always live in our hearts. May His Soul Rest In Eternal Peace.

Rob Foenander (Australia):

I wasn’t a close friend of Desmond, but did share the stage with him on a few occasions. He knew Cliff Foenander (‘A Little Bit Of Soap’) very well and always spoke glowingly about Cliff. He also sang one of my songs at a wedding last September.

Yes, Desmond was well respected in the community. No question about that.

He gave himself no titles, just continued to create work for himself, around the world, which, in itself, has to be commended.

Joey Lewis (England):

Desmond was a blue-blooded stage performer, of international standard.

When I joined the Jetliners, I was 17, and Des was about 29. It felt surreal, at that time, to find myself getting such respect, and praise, from this guy who was one of my childhood heroes…(but, that was Des though, always full of encouragement for his fellow musicians). All of us, had a wonderful and crazy time together, on and off the stage.

He was a beautiful artiste, with the incredible ability to be as suave and debonair as Dean Martin one minute, and then as crazy and wild as Ozzy Osborne or Oliver Reed the next. Never a dull moment, there was, when hanging out with him.

I have not heard any crooner sing some ballads like ‘Danny Boy,’ and ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You,’ like he did, and I know now, I will never hear them sung like that again.

I share the deep sadness of my fellow Sri Lankans, all over the world, as we join together to mourn the loss of our greatest singing star, in both scenes, the Western and the Oriental..

Rest in Peace Des

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A Good Guide to the Omicron Variant

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By M.C.M. Iqbal, PhD

Despite the WHO adopting a neutral system to name the variants of the coronavirus that keep emerging (using letters of the Greek alphabet), the Omicron variant is associated with South Africa. The last variant of the virus to emerge was the Delta variant, which surfaced in December 2020, in India. There are two more letters between Delta and Omicron in the Greek alphabet that the WHO decided not to use. These are ‘Nu’ and ‘Xie’, which the WHO thought could be confused with ‘new’ while Xie is a common surname in China.

The Omicron variant is spreading in many countries. With the number of infected persons rising and another wave expected, many countries in Europe have imposed the usual methods to arrest the spread, with immediate lockdowns. However, scientists are still collecting data to find out how bad Omicron is, since the data seems to indicate that in South Africa, the disease is not as bad as the Delta variant. At the same time, in Europe, there is no significant change in the number of persons hospitalized. Of immediate concern to health authorities are, is the Omicron variant spreading faster than the earlier variants, does it cause more or less severe disease, and can it bypass the vaccines available?

Discovery

Scientists in South Africa announced on 25 November the discovery of a new variant of the coronavirus. On 26 November, the WHO named it Omicron. Although South Africa has been labeled as the country of origin, the virus was identified in neighbouring Botswana. In addition, there are reports of an earlier detection of this variant in the Netherlands.

PCR tests look for four markers on the virus genome to identify it as the coronavirus. The tests in Botswana showed a reduced sensitivity because one of the four targets was not being detected. These samples were sent to South Africa, where scientists have state-of-the-art facilities to look for changes in the genome of the virus. Changes are found by reading the ‘letters’ of the virus genome (called sequencing) and comparing it to the already available genome of the virus. The new Omicron variant had many more changes than the Delta variant.

Global status

By 14th January, the Omicron variant had spread to 116 countries in all six continents since its discovery on 26 November 2021. The figure below shows the gradual replacement of the presently dominant Delta variant by the Omicron variant; at present global data on the coronavirus, maintained by Nextstrain (https:// nextstrain.org/ncov/open/global) shows a decline of the Delta variant from 88% on 30th October 2021 to 42% on 8th January 2022, while correspondingly the Omicron variant has increased from less than 1% to 56%. Nextstrain is a global database presenting a real-time view of the evolution of the genomes of the coronavirus and other globally important pathogens. The interactive platform provides information to professionals and the public to understand the spread and evolution of pathogens, including information on individual countries.

Distribution of Delta and Omicron variants on 1st January 2022 from Nextstrain. (Please see graph)

What’s unique about Omicron?

Unlike the previous variants of the coronavirus, this variant has over 30 changes (mutations) to its spike (a protein), the characteristic flower-like protrusion on its surface. It was these changes to the spike, one of the four targets of the PCR test that raised alarm bells in Botswana. This spike makes the coronavirus special – it is the key it uses to gain entry into the cells in our throat and lungs. The previous variants, Alpha and Delta also had changes in their spike protein, enabling them to enter cells more efficiently and thus making them more infectious. The vaccines against the virus are based on this spike, and the antibodies produced by our immune system are specific to the spike protein. Thus, any significant changes to the spike means the previous vaccines may not be effective against the newly changed spikes on the Omicron variant.

While the Omicron variant can spread rapidly, it appears to cause milder disease compared to the Alpha and Delta variants. Scientists believe this is because Omicron infects the upper airways or the throat, and not the lungs further down. Based on experiments done on hamsters and mice, scientists found the concentration of the virus was much lower in the lungs than in their throat. The earlier variants of the coronavirus caused severe damage to the lungs of the infected people, with extreme cases needing oxygen. This does not seem to be the case with Omicron. Scientists believe the changes to the spike enables the virus to enter cells in the throat more easily than in the lungs.

It can spread rapidly

The virus is quickly expelled into the air if it infects and multiplies in the throat. Since it causes a milder form of the disease, infected persons may be unaware that they carry the virus. They would be moving about socially and at work, spreading the virus. Thus, the obvious means of slowing or preventing the spread of the virus is to strictly wear the mask at all times, and avoid social gatherings.

Studies have suggested that the period between exposure to the virus and onset of symptoms has also reduced to three days for Omicron. At the pandemic’s beginning, this was more than five days, and for the Delta variant it was four days.

What is of immediate concern?

Of concern to scientists is the better ability of the Omicron to spread rapidly in the population and its suspected ability to bypass our immune system. Our immune system is our internal defense system, using antibodies and an arsenal of chemicals and cells. The available vaccines are designed on the coronavirus variants circulating in the population. Thus, major changes to the coronavirus can reduce the efficiency of the available vaccines. Both these concerns have been observed in the past month: Omicron can spread more rapidly than the presently dominant Delta variant, and observations on vaccinated people show a reduced ability by the vaccines to prevent infections, compared to the Delta variant. This has called for booster doses for people who have already received the two mandatory doses. In Israel, even a fourth vaccination is being administered.

How could the variant have evolved?

Variants of the coronavirus result from changes to the virus’s genome, called mutations. What is troubling about the Omicron variant is that it has many mutations in its spike. Mutations happen spontaneously as the virus multiplies in our bodies and spreads to others. Thus, the virus gradually accumulates small changes to its advantage. These advantages are infecting us more efficiently, spreading to others more easily, and multiplying more rapidly. Scientists believe that one possibility is that the virus circulated in a small isolated group of people (say a village), piling up the mutations over time, and then escaping into a broader population, and then eventually crossing borders.

Another possibility is that it developed in a single individual and spread to others. This happens when a person has low immunity, resulting in a prolonged infection because the immune system cannot eliminate the virus. This leads to the virus developing changes (mutating) to overcome the mild immune response. Answering this question needs scientists to painstakingly reconstruct the history of the virus, using tools from molecular biology. Unfortunately, locating patient zero is difficult since it is impossible to analyze the virus (or sequence its genome) of all the persons infected with the Omicron variant. What is usually possible is to determine a general area or community and the time of origin.

What can we do about it?

Vaccinate! This is the primary tool we have to prevent the spread of the virus and not give it opportunities to multiply. In addition, we should rigorously follow the simple rules we are familiar with – wear the mask when outside, physically distance ourselves, and follow hygienic practices by washing our hands with soap, and avoiding touching our nose and face with possibly contaminated hands.

The good news

The coronavirus has been with us for over two years. Many were infected and have recovered from the virus during this period, providing natural immunity. Others have acquired immunity through vaccinations. When a new variant infects these people, they will manifest a milder form of the disease. This may explain the reduced hospitalisation of Omicron patients.

A booster dose to those already vaccinated or were naturally infected by the coronavirus, appears to provide reasonable protection against the Omicron variant.

And the bad news

The Omicron variant can evade immunity from previous infections. A recent analysis of surveillance data from South Africa, involving over two million persons, indicated suspected reinfections of those previously infected. This is in contrast to Beta and Delta variants, which did not lead to reinfections on such a scale.

The Future

The coronavirus is here for the long haul. Variants will keep emerging, and it seems unlikely it can be eradicated. The media should help counter vaccine hesitancy and the spread of misinformation. As individuals, we need to understand the biology of the virus to avoid spreading the virus and infecting ourselves and others. Science has to be supported in a broad sense to develop strategies by the health authorities and policymakers.

Further reading

S. Wild. How the Omicron variant got so many scary mutations. Scientific American, 3rd December 2021.

Michael Chan Chi-wai.

G. Vogel and K. Kupferschmidt. Early lab studies hint Omicron may be milder. But most scientists reserve judgment. Science, 20th December 2021.

K. Kupferschmidt and G. Vogel. Omicron threats remain fuzzy as cases explode. Science, 7 January 2022.

(The writer is a scientist in Plant and Environmental Sciences, National Institute of Fundamental Studies, Hanthane Road, Kandy. He can be reached at iqbal.mo@nifs.ac.lk)

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