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Water spillage from reservoirs: Is CEB to blame?

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Let us examine the facts

By Chris Ratnayake

‘The pen is mightier than the sword’ is an old adage. However, it has gained new currency in today’s world where mass communication, in the form of press and other media, greatly influences public opinion. Consequently, this valuable tool can become lethal in the hands of some who lack professional competence to understand what they write about, are unable to comprehend the relevant issues or analyse relevant data of a complex technical problem. Such an issue has arisen with respect to the water spillage that occurred last month in our hydroelectric reservoirs.

I refer to three articles in The Island recently by Dr. Vidhura Ralapanawe, G. A. D. Sirimal, and Ifham Nizam, alleging mismanagement and even corruption simply because water was spilling, and thermal plants were operating simultaneously. No additional data or analysis was presented. As a professional engineer, with 23 years of experience at the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB), focusing on power system planning, and some 30 years’ experience as a Senior Power Engineer at the World Bank, reviewing power sector operations in about 17 developing countries, I could well see the fallacy of these accusations. However, I soon realised that the general public appears to accept the validity of these accusations at face value. Public officials are fair game, any article alleging inefficiency or dishonesty is readily believed without any examination of the merits of these articles. I therefore decided to research the relevant facts and submit the findings in the hope of correcting the grave misinformation propagated.

Facts

Any professionally competent article, addressing the subject, to determine whether there was any inefficiency or miscarriage of duty should have considered the following:

1. Responsibility for water level management:

The articles place the sole blame for spillage on the CEB’s system control centre (SCC) engineers. They seem to be unaware that water level management of the main reservoirs (namely the Mahaweli complex) is the responsibility of the Water Management Secretariat (WMS), not the CEB. WMS has representation from the CEB, Water Board, Irrigation, Mahaweli, and more. The release policy, every week from every reservoir, is issued by the WMS and the CEB cannot store or release water through a unilateral decision. So, the accusation on the CEB is misplaced!

2. Drawdown curves:

These are optimum water level charts, developed based on years of past experience and specialised computer programmes designed to optimise the often-competing demands of agriculture and power, which guide system operators in the management of reservoir water levels. To determine any possible mismanagement, one has to prove that, for sustained periods, the drawdown did not correspond to these curves, subject, of course, to the current rainfall expectations and plant capacities available for dispatch. This is a complex exercise that the writers of these articles appear to be ignorant of.

3. Optimal dam design envisages some spilling:

Occasional spillage in a few years is no indication of mismanagement. Reservoirs are designed and constructed to optimise the competing demands of costs and benefits. In fact, if water never spills, it is a sure indication of bad design and excessive investment on taller dams, inundating larger areas of land than necessary! The articles never examined whether such spillage was a regular occurrence or a one-off after many years.

4. Reservoir heights deviated from optimum:

It may be noted that in some instances the reservoir heights were reduced due to complaints of inundation of affectees, making spillage unavoidable. Clear examples are Kukule (2002) and Upper Kotmale (2012), pruned down to mere ‘ponds’ and not storage reservoirs owing to public protests. Expert hydrologists and the CEB engineers said, at that time, that if Kukule was allowed to be built as a full capacity reservoir, frequent flooding of Kalawana and Baduraliya, sometimes with severe loss of life, would have been avoided. Raising the Kotmale dam for greater storage has been suspended due to protests. We can’t have it both ways: Avoid spillage but refuse to allow the required dam height!

5. Difference between operational ponds and storage reservoirs:

Cascading hydropower systems have both storage reservoirs and operational ponds. The latter are built to enable a power plant to operate with some water storage for a short time period and function by the discharges from upstream plants, secondary inflows in the locality or releases from the main storage reservoirs. The levels of these small capacity reservoirs are not readily controllable and often spillage cannot be avoided.

6. Historical performance:

To do justice to the issue, I obtained historical data of reservoir performance from 2011 to 2020 which the CEB publishes with respect to each reservoir, and computed the extent of spillage as a percentage of annual inflows. It is observed that the spillage that has occurred is extremely minimal and as expected. The results of the 10-year study are as follows:

Laxapana complex:

0.044% in 2013, 0.029% in 2014, 0.002% in 2015, 2.741% in 2018, 0.327% in 2019. All other years zero spill.

Mahaweli complex: Spilling occurred only in 2016: 0.663% and 2018: 5.807%

Samanalawewa: Spilling occurred only in 2019: 3.333%

7. Maximum hydro capability vs system demand:

The mere fact that private thermal power plants operate during spillage, the sole basis of these articles, is absolutely no indication of mismanagement. Our maximum hydroelectricity capability is 1450 MW vs a peak power demand of about 2700 MW. The balance must necessarily come from other sources, mainly thermal power. Consequently, thermal power may be used even when spillage is occurring.

8. Contractual issues with respect to private (thermal) power:

The private power contracts are made with capacity charges payable, irrespective of output, when they are contracted (periods of 10 or 20 years are typical). Once contracted, the capacity charge must be paid, whether it is ordered to operate or not. Private power plants with active agreements and the CEB power plants are scheduled or ‘committed’, generally on the basis of monthly or weekly dispatch plans. The principal in scheduling is to achieve the lowest operating cost of the generating system as a whole, subject to meeting (i) water release schedules (ii) reliability of the transmission network, (iii) purchasing all electricity from renewable energy, whatever the price. Once ordered to operate, additional (variable) charges payable to private oil power plants are based on actual energy discharged and these are determined on the basis of agreed plant efficiencies (specified in the contracts) and CPC-announced current fuel prices. Hence situations may arise where it may even be more profitable to dispatch private power in preference to CEB’s own plants, as the efficiencies of some private thermal plants may be superior to the CEB’s own plants.

9. Contractual issues with respect to private renewable energy:

Since 1996, lucrative contracts were provided to private renewable energy on must-take contracts. Consequently, many situations may arise when private renewable energy power plants, including rooftop solar power, are dispatched and paid for while water is overflowing at the reservoirs. None of the renewable energy plants have any long-term storage capacities and must be discharged when available. The average rates for renewable energy plants for 2020 were: Rs 15.47 (mini-hydro), 16.79 (wind), 22.36 (solar), 22.39 (biomass), and 36.20 (Waste to energy) while the variable cost of the CEB’s own plants vary from Rs 6.78 for coal and 17.26 for diesel plants (Ref: ‘dispatch and fuel cost data’ published by the CEB). During the whole of October-November, one generator at Norochcholai was shut down due to very good rainfall. Financially, the implication is to stop producing at Rs 6.78 from coal (2021 prices are a bit higher) and purchase from private mini-hydros and other such sources at Rs 15.47 or more. So, the CEB reports losses; private mini-hydros report profits! While this may be acceptable due to environmental considerations, the financial impacts may be noted.

10. Exigency situations: The sudden rains last November in Sri Lanka was quite unprecedented.

Many areas, not adversely affected under normal circumstances, were flooded or subject to landslides. Tens of thousands were affected and many lost their lives. We know that such catastrophic weather patterns have occurred recently and are still happening in many countries around the world as a result of global warming. In all such instances the usual operating patterns have been disrupted. Even these considerations have escaped the imagination of the writers of these articles.

Have any of the above issues been analysed in these articles? The answer is a clear ‘no’ and clearly displays the absurdity of the accusations.

Responsible journalism

In the international press we often see articles written by journalists on highly technical subjects. This is acceptable to create a platform for healthy public opinion. However, such reputed journalists carry out extensive research and consult experts as well as the hands-on operators or practitioners. These are usually cited in the articles and give credibility to their contents. However, this is unfortunately not the case in Sri Lanka. Many journalists rush to print sensational stories without even bothering to corroborate basic information, as the above analysis clearly shows. None of the key pertinent facts have been checked or verified. To add insult to injury they also impute fraud and corruption! They also add catchy journalistic innuendos, leading the public completely astray. One article refers to ‘opening a pandora box’, an innuendo that lets the reader imagine massive corruption occurring within the CEB. Instead of imagining a ‘pandora’s box’ he should have studied the generation and water inflow/releases published in the CEB website and done the required analysis. Is this responsible journalism?

I may also add that it is not only such journalists who lose their way handling a complex engineering problem. Sometime ago The Island carried an article by an experienced engineer, who specialises in another field, unrelated to electrical engineering, who recommended pumped storage plants using water released for agriculture in the Mahaweli complex. In reality, this is an impossibility as (a) all pumped storage plants need to collect the water discharged in a storage pond immediately at the outlet and (b) water released for agriculture is widely spread out and can never be collected and pumped back to the head pond. This example further illustrates that complex engineering problems are best left to subject specialists and any laymen’s attempt to address such issues would require understanding and analysis of data and extensive consultation with experts, not simply a reflex action to what appears on the surface.

To right the grave misinformation propagated, I have placed the pertinent facts related to the issue for public scrutiny. It is left for the reader to judge: Is there any evidence that the CEB acted inefficiently or fraudulently, or are the accusations due to the lack of understanding in the subject, not attempting any analysis of the wealth of information available publicly in the CEB’s website, and the need for sensationalism?



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Features

UK support for govt.’s pragmatic reconciliation process

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Lord Ahmad with GL

By Jehan Perera

The government would be relieved by the non-critical assessment by visiting UK Minister for South Asia, United Nations and the Commonwealth, Lord Tariq Ahmad of his visit to Sri Lanka. He has commended the progress Sri Lanka had made in human rights and in other areas as well, such as environmental protection. He has pledged UK support to the country. According to the President’s Media Division “Lord Tariq Ahmad further stated that Sri Lanka will be able to resolve all issues pertaining to human rights by moving forward with a pragmatic approach.” The Minister, who had visited the north and east of the country and met with war-affected persons tweeted that he “emphasised the need for GoSL to make progress on human rights, reconciliation, and justice and accountability.”

Prior to the Minister’s visit, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had announced in Parliament that his government had not violated nor would support “any form of human rights violations.” This was clearly an aspirational statement as the evidence on the ground belies the words. Significantly he also added that “We reject racism. The present government wants to safeguard the dignity and rights of every citizen in this country in a uniform manner. Therefore I urge those politicians who continue to incite people against each other for narrow political gains to stop doing so.” This would be welcome given the past history especially at election time.

The timing of Lord Ahmad’s visit and the statements made regarding human rights suggest that the forthcoming session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, commencing on February 28, loomed large in the background. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights will be presenting a written report on that occasion. A plethora of issues will up for review, including progress on accountability for crimes, missing persons, bringing the Prevention of Terrorism Act in line with international standards, protecting civil society space and treating all people and religions without discrimination.

The UK government has consistently taken a strong position on human rights issues especially in relation to the ethnic conflict and the war which led to large scale human rights violations. The UK has a large Tamil Diaspora who are active in lobbying politicians in that country. As a result some of the UK parliamentarians have taken very critical positions on Sri Lanka. Lord Ahmad’s approach, however, appears to be more on the lines of supporting the government to do the needful with regard to human rights, rather than to condemn it. This would be gratifying to the architects of the government’s international relations and reconciliation process, led by Foreign Minister Prof G L Peiris.

REACHING OUT

In the coming week the government will be launching a series of events in the North of the country with a plethora of institutions that broadly correspond to the plethora of issues that the UNHRC resolution has identified. War victims and those adversely affected by the post war conditions in the North and livelihood issues that arise from the under-developed conditions in those areas will be provided with an opportunity to access government services through on-the-spot services through mobile clinics. The programme coordinated by the Ministry of Justice called “Adhikaranabhimani” is meant to provide “ameliorated access to justice for people of the Northern Province.”

Beginning with Kilinochchi and Jaffna there will be two-day mobile clinics in which the participating government institutions will be the Legal Aid Commission, Office for National Unity and Reconciliation, Office for Reparations, Office on Missing Persons, Department of Debt Conciliation Board and the Vocational Training Authority to mention some of them. Whether it is by revising 60 laws simultaneously and setting up participatory committees of lawyers and state officials or in now launching the “Adhikaranabhimani” Justice Minister Ali Sabry has shown skill at large scale mobilisation that needs to be sustained. It is to be hoped that rather than treating them as passive recipients, the governmental service providers will make efforts to fulfill their need for justice, which means that the needs of victims and their expectations are heard and acknowledged.

It will also be important for the government to ensure that these activities continue in the longer term. They need to take place not only before the Geneva sessions in March but also continue after them. The conducting of two-day mobile clinics, although it will send a message of responsiveness, will only be able to reach a few of the needy population. The need is for infusing an ethic of responsiveness into the entirety of the government’s administrative machinery in dealing with those problems that reaches all levels, encompassing villages, divisions, districts and provinces, not to mention the heart of government at the central level.

The government’s activities now planned at the local level will draw on civil society and NGO participation which is already happening. Government officials are permitting their subordinate officials to participate in inter-ethnic and inter religious initiatives. It is in their interest to do so as they would not wish to have inter-community conflicts escalate in their areas which, in the past, have led to destruction of property and life. They also have an interest in strengthening their own capacities to understand the underlying issues and developing the capacity to handle tensions that may arise through non-coercive methods.

BUILDING PEACE

Many of the institutions that the government has on display and which are going to the North to provide mobile services were established during the period of the previous government. However, they were not operationalized in the manner envisaged due to political opposition. Given the potency of nationalism in the country, especially where it concerns the ethnic conflict, it will be necessary for the government to seek to develop a wide consensus on the reconciliation process. The new constitution that is being developed may deal with these issues and heed the aspirations of the minorities, but till that time the provincial council system needs to be reactivated through elections.

Sooner rather than later, the government needs to deal with the core issue of inter-ethnic power sharing. The war arose because Sinhalese politicians and administrators took decisions that led to disadvantaging of minorities on the ground. There will be no getting away from the need to reestablish the elected provincial council system in which the elected representatives of the people in each province are provided with the necessary powers to take decisions regarding the province. In particular, the provincial administrations of the Northern and Eastern provinces, where the ethnic and religious minorities form provincial majorities, need to be reflective of those populations.

At the present time, the elected provincial councils are not operational and so the provincial administration is headed by central appointees who are less likely to be representative of the sentiments and priorities of the people of those provinces. In the east for instance, when Sinhalese encroach on state land the authorities show a blind eye, but when Tamils or Muslims do it they are arrested or evicted from the land. This has caused a lot of bitterness in the east, which appears to have evaded the attention of the visiting UK minister as he made no mention of such causes for concern in his public utterances. His emphasis on pragmatism may stem from the observation that words need to be converted to deeds.

A video put out by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office confirms a positive approach with regard to engaging with the Sri Lankan government. In it Lord Ahmad says “the last three days illustrated to me that we can come together and we can build a constructive relationship beyond what are today with Sri Lanka. We can discuss the issues of difference and challenge in a candid but constructive fashion.” Lord Ahmad’s aspiration for UK-Sri Lankan relations needs to be replicated nationally in government-opposition relations, including the minority parties, which is the missing dimension at the present time.

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Yohani…teaming up with Rajiv and The Clan

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I know many of you, on reading this headline, would say ‘What?’

Relax. Yohani, of ‘Manike Mage Hithe’ fame, is very much a part of the group Lunu.

But…in February, she will be doing things, differently, and that is where Rajiv and the Clan come into the scene.

Rajiv and his band will be embarking on a foreign assignment that will take them to Dubai and Oman, and Yohani, as well as Falan, will be a part of the setup – as guest artistes.

The Dubai scene is not new to Yohani – she has performed twice before, in that part of the world, with her band Lunu – but this would be her first trip, to Oman, as a performer.

However, it will be the very first time that Yohani will be doing her thing with Rajiv and The Clan – live on stage.

In the not too distant past, Rajiv worked on a track for Yohani that also became a big hit. Remember ‘Haal Massa?’

“She has never been a part of our scene, performing as a guest artiste, so we are all looking forward to doing, it in a special way, during our three-gig, two-country tour,” says Rajiv.

Their first stop will be Dubai, on February 5th, for a private party, open-air gig, followed by another two open-air, private party gigs, in Oman – on February 10th and 11th.

Another attraction, I’m told, will be Satheeshan, the original rapper of ‘Manike Mage Hithe.’

He will also be a part of this tour (his first overseas outing) and that certainly would create a lot of excitement, and add that extra sparkle, especially when he comes into the scene for ‘Manike Mage Hithe.’

Yohani and her band, Lunu, last performed in Dubai, a couple of months back, and Satheeshan, they say, was the missing link when she did her mega internet hit song – live, on stage.

There was a crowd to catch her in action but it wasn’t a mind-blowing experience – according to reports coming our way.

A live performance, on stage, is a totally different setup to what one sees on social media, YouTube, etc.

I guess music lovers, here, would also welcome a truly live performance by Yohani de Silva.

In the meanwhile, I’m also told that Rajiv Sebastian plans to release some songs of the late Desmond de Silva which he and Desmond have worked on, over the years.

According to Rajiv, at this point in time, there is material for four albums!

He also mentioned that he and his band have quite a few interesting overseas assignments, lined up, over the next few months, but they have got to keep their fingers crossed…hoping that the Omicron virus wouldn’t spike further.

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Multi-talented, indeed…

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Thamesha Herath (back row – centre) and her disciples (students)

We all know Trishelle as the female vocalist of Sohan & The X-Periments, so, obviously it came to me as a surprise when it was mentioned that she is a highly qualified Bharatanatyam dancer, as well.

What’s more, she has been learning the skills of Bharatanatyam, since her kid days!

And, to prove that she is no novice, where this highly technical dance form is concerned, Trishelle, and the disciples (students) of State Dance Award winning Bhartanatyam Guru, Nritya Visharad Bhashini, Thamesha Herath, will be seen in action, on January 29th, at 4.00 pm, at the Ave Maria Auditorium, Negombo.

Said to be the biggest event in Bharatanatyam, this Arangethram Kalaeli concert will bring into the spotlight Avindu, Sithija, Mishaami, Nakshani, Venushi, Veenadi, Amanda, Sakuni, Kawisha, Tishaani, Thrishala (Trishelle), Sarithya, Hewani, Senuri, Deanne and Wasana.

In addition to her singing, and dancing skills, Trishelle has two other qualifications – Bachelor in Biomedical Science, and Master in Counselling Psychology.

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