Deforestation- another reason for electricity cuts


By Prof. O. A. Illeperuma

All out major reservoirs are running dry due to the prevailing drought. As a result we experience daily power cuts which will continue for several months. We had excessive rain a few months earlier but the forest reservations above the reservoirs do not seem to have the ability to absorb and retain the water for the dry season. It is pertinent to investigate the loss of forest cover in the catchment areas of these reservoirs. The forest cover is fast dwindling owing to agricultural practices where regular encroachment of state lands is taking place unabated. At Nuwara Eliya even the Piduruthalagala forest reserve has been encroached to build houses and hotels. The Hakgala reserve is also getting slowly cleared to make way for vegetable cultivations. March and April are typically dry months and several years ago, reservoirs such as Maussakele and Castlereigh were always nearly full even during the dry season. This is what we witnessed on the way to Sri Pada several years back.

Reforestation of the natural forests in the hill country is also a subject of much controversy. The Forest Department programme involves planting monocultures of Eucalyptus and Pinus. Again, this practice has been widely criticised by Sri Lankan scientists. The criticism for this practice is due to following reasons: Growing pines and Eucalyptus is not really reforestation. It gives only an artificial cover of a monoculture and lacks biological diversity of a natural forest cover consisting of endemic plants and animals. In a pine cultivation, the risk from a fire is greater and its water retention capacity is small. There is hardly any undergrowth in a pine forest which can retain water during the dry season. This defies the main purpose why these forests are cultivated in the first place.

The main problem of regenerating a forest is interference from humans. This is amply illustrated by the Randenigala reservoir. When it was declared a strict natural reserve, people living in the area were moved to other areas and the forest started growing up on its own and in a few years reached its full potential as a full pledged intermediate zone forest. Ironically, it is the wild elephant present in the area which kept the villagers out of encroaching and practicing chena cultivation thereby promoting normal growth of the forest. This amply illustrates that forests will regenerate when they are left alone and this should be an eye opener to those that who promote that growing pinus and eucalyptus is the only way to reforestation.

In the past Nuwara Eliya did not have a flooding problem. However, in 1994 and 2018 there was flash flooding in Nuwar Eliya town even though this was not the first time such heavy rains were experienced in Nuwara Eliya. The Pidurutalagala forest, like a sponge was able to absorb that rain and release it slowly during the dry season. Flash flloding was the result of regular encroachment of this forest reserve by the potato cultivators and house builders for pure economic gains despite the rules and regulations against clearing a strict natural reserve. The boundary of the Pidurutalagala reserve seems to be going up and up in spite of the presence of the forest department officials. Pictures taken around 1980 and 2010 clearly show how the outer skirts of this reserve have moved up. Very often these encroachers with the help of politicians manage to carry out their activities without any hindrance. Thus, government officials who have to enforce the rules and regulations become ineffective in enforcing them. The results are obvious as in the 1994 disaster. Unless discipline is instilled in every aspect of public life, we will be digging our own graves as this example amply illustrates. All that water which falls on this area should be conserved for the dry season and now they simply go to the sea through Mahaweli during the rainy season.

At the time of independence, we had over 50% of the country under forest cover which has now dwindled to a mere 20%. Haphazard and unchecked clearing of the forest cover for cultivating vegetables is a major reason for this pathetic situation. Government should have a long term solution to face this problem since in years to come we will be worse off with droughts. Worse still, if the Mahaweli river dries up, people in Kandy and many areas of the river will not have even water to drink. It is time for authorities to wake up from their slumber and take meaningful steps to plant more natural forests to conserve water and to prevent further encroachment of forests.

Our ancient kings knew the value of conserving water. It was King Parakaramabahu who is supposed to have said that no drop of water should go to the ocean without it being used. Our rulers shame such prophetic proclamations by allowing water to go waste during the wet season to the sea with no use at all.

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