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.
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:
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.
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?
Scarcity, prices, hoarding and queuing
We live in a scarcity economy and will do so well into 2024, past the next Presidential elections if it comes then; it may not. (The new minister may open bets.) All economies are scarcity economies; otherwise, there would be no prices. We also live in plentiful economies; look at the streets of Tokyo, Shanghai, Singapore, Paris or San Francisco during day or night. Scarcity is a relative term, as most terms are. A scarcity economy is one where prices rise relentlessly, where cigarettes are more expensive in the evening than they were the same morning. Scarcity economies will have two or more sets of prices: one official, others in markets in varying shades of grey until black. Scarcity economies are where everyone (producers, traders, households) hoards commodities, hoards everything that can be hoarded, at reasonable cost. Scarcity economy is one where productivity is lower than it was earlier, where both labour and capital idle. Scarcity itself may push down productivity. Observe thousands of people standing in queues to buy all kinds of things whilst producing nothing. That is labour idling. Others hang on to dear life in crowded trains arriving in office late to leave early, to get to ill lit homes where to cook each evening they repeat what their ancestors did millions of years ago to light a fire. Money is one commodity that can be hoarded at little cost, if there was no inflation. The million rupees you had in your savings account in 2019 is now worth a mere 500,000, because prices have risen. That is how a government taxes you outside the law: debase the currency. In an inflation afflicted economy, hoarding money is a fool’s game.
The smart game to play is to borrow to the limit, a kind of dishoarding (- negative hoarding) money. You borrow ten million now and five years later you pay 500 million because the value of money has fallen. US dollars are scarce in this economy. It is hoarded where it can wait until its price in Sri Lanka rises. Some politicians who seem to have been schooled in corruption to perfection have them stored elsewhere, as we have learnt from revelations in the international press. Electricity is not hoarded in large quantities because it is expensive to hoard. Petrol is not hoarded very much in households because it evaporates fast and is highly flammable. That does not prevent vehicle owners from keeping their tanks full in contrast to the earlier practice when they had kept tanks half empty (full). Consequently, drivers now hoard twice as much fuel in their tanks as earlier. Until drivers feel relaxed as to when they get the next fill, there will be queues. That should also answer the conundrum of the minister for energy who daily sent out more bowser loads out than earlier, but queues did not shorten.
As an aside, it is necessary to note that the scarcity economy, which has been brought about by stupid policies 2019-2022, and massive thieving from 2005 is partly a consequence of the fall in total output (GDP) in the economy. Workers in queues do not produce. The capital they normally use in production (e.g. motor cars, machines that they would otherwise would have worked at) lie idle. Both capital and labour idle and deny their usual contribution to GDP. Agriculture, industries, wholesale and retail trade, public administration, manufacturing and construction all of which have been adversely affected in various ways contribute more than 75% of total GDP. Maha (winter crop) 2021-22, Yala (spring crop) 2022 and Maha 2022-23 and fishing are all likely to have yielded (and yield) poor harvests. Manufacturing including construction are victims of severe shortages in energy and imported inputs. Wholesale and retail trade which depend directly on imports of commodities have been hit by the sharp drop in imports. Tourism, which is more significant in providing employment and foreign exchange, collapsed dreadfully since late 2019 and has not recovered yet. About 16 percent of our labour force work in the public sector. They have failed to contribute to GDP because they did not engage in productive work due to variegated reasons. Teachers were on strike for two months in 2021. In 2022, so far government employees have worked off and on. Wages of government employees are counted as contributions to GDP, by those that make GDP estimates. However, here is an instance where labour was paid but there was no output equal to the value of those wages. Such payments are rightly counted as transfers and do not count to GDP. For these reasons estimates of GDP for 2021 must be well below the 2020 level. The 3.6 growth in official estimates is unlikely. The likely drop in 2022 will be roughly of the same magnitude as in 2021. These declines are not dissonant with misery one sees in towns and the countryside: empty supermarket shelves, scant supplies of produce in country fares, scarce fish supplies, buses idling in parks and roads empty of traffic. There have been warnings from our paediatricians as well as from international organisations of wasting and probable higher rates of child mortality. It is this sort of sharp fall in wellbeing that engenders the desperation driving young and ambitious people to obtain passports to seek a living overseas. You can see those from mezzo-America amassed on the southern border of US. Will our young men and women end up beyond the wall of China?
Of this lowered supply of goods and services, this society is expected to pay a massive accumulated foreign debt. (Remember the reparation payments in the Versailles Treaty). In real terms it will mean that we forego a part of our lower incomes. Do not miss this reality behind veils of jargon woven by financial analysts. It is not something that we have a choice about. That is where international help may kick in. Gotabaya Rajapaksa government after much senseless dilly dallying has started negotiations with the IMF. There is nobody compelling our government to seek support from IMF. They are free go elsewhere as some who recently were in their government still urge. Examine alternatives and hit upon an arrangement not because it permits the family grows richer but because it will make life for the average person a little less unbearable.
If prices are expected to rise people will seek resources to hoard: money to buy commodities, space and facilities to hoard, security services to protect the property and much more. Rice producers cannot hoard their product because animals large as elephants and small as rodents eat them up. Because of the unequal distribution of resources to hoard, the poor cannot hoard. In a scarcity economy, the poor cannot hoard and famines usually victimise the poor, first and most. If prices are expected to fall, stocks are dishoarded to the market and prices fall faster and deeper. In either direction, the rate at which prices change and the height/depth of the rise/fall depends on the speed at which expectations of change in prices take place. A largescale rice miller claims he can control the price of rice at a level that the government cannot. His success/failure will tell us the extent of his monopoly power.
When commodities are scarce, in the absence of a sensible system of coupons to regulate the distribution, consumers will form queues. A queue is rarely a straight here, nor a dog’s tail (queue, in French, is a dog’s tail which most often crooked). Assembled consumers stagnate, make puddles and sometimes spread out like the Ganges, with Meghna, disgorges itself to the Bay of Bengal. They sometimes swirl and make whirlpools and then there is trouble, occasionally serious. There is order in a queue that people make automatically. To break that order is somehow iniquitous in the human mind. That is why breaking the order in a queue is enraging. For a queue to be disobeyed by anyone is infuriating, and for a politician to do so now in this country is dangerously injurious to his physical wellbeing.
The first cause of rising prices, hoarding and queues is the scarcity of goods and services in relation to the income and savings in the hands of the people.
Terror figuring increasingly in Russian invasion of Ukraine
In yet another mind-numbing manifestation of the sheer savagery marking the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a shopping mall in Ukraine’s eastern city of Kremenchuk was razed to the ground recently in a Russian missile strike. Reportedly more than a hundred civilian lives were lost in the chilling attack.
If the unconscionable killing of civilians is a definition of terrorism, then the above attack is unalloyed terrorism and should be forthrightly condemned by all sections that consider themselves civilized. Will these sections condemn this most recent instance of blood-curdling barbarism by the Putin regime in the Ukrainian theatre and thereby provide proof that the collective moral conscience of the world continues to tick? Could progressive opinion be reassured on this score without further delay or prevarication?
These issues need to be addressed with the utmost urgency by the world community. May be, the UN General Assembly could meet in emergency session for the purpose and speak out loud and clear in one voice against such wanton brutality by the Putin regime which seems to be spilling the blood of Ukrainian civilians as a matter of habit. The majority of UNGA members did well to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine close on the heels of it occurring a few months back but the Putin regime seems to be continuing the civilian bloodletting in Ukraine with a degree of impunity that signals to the international community that the latter could no longer remain passive in the face of the aggravating tragedy in Ukraine.
The deafening silence, on this question, on the part of those sections the world over that very rightly condemn terror, from whichever quarter it may emanate, is itself most intriguing. There cannot be double standards on this problem. If the claiming of the lives of civilians by militant organizations fighting governments is terror, so are the Putin regime’s targeted actions in Ukraine which result in the wanton spilling of civilian blood. The international community needs to break free of its inner paralysis.
While most Western democracies are bound to decry the Russian-inspired atrocities in Ukraine, more or less unambiguously, the same does not go for the remaining democracies of the South. Increasing economic pressures, stemming from high energy and oil prices in particular, are likely to render them tongue-tied.
Such is the case with Sri Lanka, today reduced to absolute beggary. These states could be expected ‘to look the other way’, lest they be penalized on the economic front by Russia. One wonders what those quarters in Sri Lanka that have been projecting themselves as ‘progressives’ over the years have to say to the increasing atrocities against civilians in Ukraine. Aren’t these excesses instances of state terror that call for condemnation?
However, ignoring the Putin regime’s terror acts is tantamount to condoning them. Among other things, the failure on the part of the world community to condemn the Putin government’s commissioning of war crimes sends out the message that the international community is gladly accommodative of these violations of International Law. An eventual result from such international complacency could be the further aggravation of world disorder and lawlessness.
The Putin regime’s latest civilian atrocities in Ukraine are being seen by the Western media in particular as the Russian strongman’s answer to the further closing of ranks among the G7 states to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the issues growing out of it. There is a considerable amount of truth in this position but the brazen unleashing of civilian atrocities by the Russian state also points to mounting impatience on the part of the latter for more positive results from its invasion.
Right now, the invasion could be described as having reached a stalemate for Russia. Having been beaten back by the robust and spirited Ukrainian resistance in Kyiv, the Russian forces are directing their fire power at present on Eastern Ukraine. Their intentions have narrowed down to carving out the Donbas region from the rest of Ukraine; the aim being to establish the region as a Russian sphere of influence and buffer state against perceived NATO encirclement.
On the other hand, having failed to the break the back thus far of the Ukraine resistance the Putin regime seems to be intent on demoralizing the resistance by targeting Ukraine civilians and their cities. Right now, most of Eastern Ukraine has been reduced to rubble. The regime’s broad strategy seems to be to capture the region by bombing it out. This strategy was tried out by Western imperialist powers, such as the US and France, in South East Asia some decades back, quite unsuccessfully.
However, by targeting civilians the Putin regime seems to be also banking on the US and its allies committing what could come to be seen as indiscretions, such as, getting more fully militarily and physically involved in the conflict.
To be sure, Russia’s rulers know quite well that it cannot afford to get into a full-blown armed conflict with the West and it also knows that the West would doing its uttermost to avoid an international armed confrontation of this kind that could lead to a Third World War. Both sides could be banked on to be cautious about creating concrete conditions that could lead to another Europe-wide armed conflict, considering its wide-ranging dire consequences.
However, by grossly violating the norms and laws of war in Ukraine Russia could tempt the West into putting more and more of its financial and material resources into strengthening the military capability of the Ukraine resistance and thereby weaken its economies through excessive military expenditure.
That is, the Western military-industrial complex would be further bolstered at the expense of the relevant civilian publics, who would be deprived of much needed welfare expenditure. This is a prospect no Western government could afford to countenance at the present juncture when the West too is beginning to weaken in economic terms. Discontented publics, growing out of shrinking welfare budgets, could only aggravate the worries of Western governments.
Accordingly, Putin’s game plan could very well be to subject the West to a ‘slow death’ through his merciless onslaught on the Ukraine. At the time of writing US President Joe Biden is emphatic about the need for united and firm ‘Transatlantic’ security in the face of the Russian invasion but it is open to question whether Western military muscle could be consistently bolstered amid rising, wide-ranging economic pressures.
At 80, now serving humanity
Thaku Chugani! Does this name ring a bell! It should, for those who are familiar with the local music scene, decades ago.
Thaku, in fact, was involved with the original group X-Periments, as a vocalist.
No, he is not making a comeback to the music scene!
At 80, when Engelbert and Tom Jones are still active, catering to their fans, Thaku is doing it differently. He is now serving humanity.
Says Thaku: “During my tenure as Lion District Governor 2006/2007, Dr Mosun Faderin and I visited the poor of the poorest blind school in Ijebu Ode Ogun state, in Nigeria.
“During our visit, a small boy touched me and called me a white man. I was astonished! How could a blind boy know the colour of my skin? I was then informed that he is cornea blind and his vision could be restored if a cornea could be sourced for him. This was the first time in my life that I heard of a cornea transplant. “
And that incident was the beginning of Thaku’s humanity service – the search to source for corneas to restore the vision of the cornea blind.
It was in 2007, when Dr Mosun and Thaku requested Past International President Lion Rohit Mehta, who was the Chief Guest at MD 404 Nigeria Lions convention, at Illorin, in Nigeria, to assist them in sourcing for corneas as Nigeria was facing a great challenge in getting any eye donation, even though there was an established eye bank.
“We did explain our problems and reasons of not being able to harvest corneas and Lion Rohit Metha promised to look into our plea and assured us that he will try his utmost best to assist in sourcing for corneas.”
Nigeria, at that period of time, had a wait list of over 70 cornea blind children and young adults.
“As assured by PIP Lion Rohit Mehta, we got an email from Gautam Mazumdar, and Dr. Dilip Shah, of Ahmedabad, in India, inviting us for World Blind Day
“Our trip was very fruitful as it was World Blind Day and we had to speak on the blind in Nigeria.”
“We were invited by Gautam Mazumdar to visit his eye bank and he explained the whole process of eye banking.
“We requested for corneas and also informed him about our difficulties in harvesting corneas.
“After a long deliberation, he finally agreed to give us six corneas. It was a historical moment as we were going to restore vision of six cornea blind children. To me, it was a great experience as I was privileged to witness cornea transplant in my life and what a moment it was for these children, when their vision was restored.
“Thus began my journey of sight restoration of the cornea blind, and today I have sourced over 1000 corneas and restored vision of the cornea blind in Nigeria, Kenya and India till date.
“Also, I need to mention that this includes corneas to the armed forces, and their family, all over India.
“On the 12th, August, 2018, the Eye Bank, I work with, had Launched Pre-Cut Corneas, which means with one pair of eyes, donated, four Cornea Blind persons sight will be restored.”
Thaku Chugani, who is based in India, says he is now able to get corneas regularly, but, initially, had to carry them personally – facing huge costs as well as international travel difficulties, etc.
However, he says he is so happy that his humanitarian mission has been a huge success.
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