Be ready for more Weliweriyas: Inherent dangers

Rajan Philips

Weliweriya exposed the ruthlessness of the Rajapaksa regime and the incompetence of the Sri Lankan government. Weliweriya was the first to experience and expose this double whammy, but it won’t be the last. The regime is shocked, but it is not sorry. The teflon President has expressed nothing except the painted smile. The apologists, commissioned and freelance, have invented evidence of provocation from the protesters that in turn provoked the apparently endangered soldiers to open fire in self-defence. One resourcefully creative commentator has suggested that the army did what it had to do to end the traffic stoppage on the Colombo-Kandy road caused by the wild protest! Wow!!

The usual critics have lambasted the regime’s usual heavy handedness. Even friendly critics have spoken the politically unfriendly: the family, rather the brothers have let the President down; the war has been brought from the north to the south; and the regime has seriously undermined its professed innocence over war crimes allegations. The UNP, which should seriously think of changing its name to "United International Party", has gone out on a limb and called for an "international investigation." What are they smoking in Sri Kotha nowadays?

Taking on the UNP is Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the Defence Secretary (DS), who, apart from being in charge of defence, is also very ‘defensive’. He has trained his guns on the UNP, reportedly "irate … that the Opposition was working overtime to compare the Weliweriya incident with the final battle against the LTTE on the banks of the Nanthikadal in May 2009." The DS apparently felt constrained to stress that there was no similarity between the two events, or between Weliweriya in 2013 and Mavil-Aru in 2006. Who is turning water, not into wine, but into politics here?

Lost in this crossfire of the post-mortem of military action is the no less troublesome pattern of government inaction to protect the sources of drinking water in Weliweriya and everywhere else. The regime may be reluctant to deploy the army so cavalierly again anytime soon especially with CHOGM expected in November. But the problem about water and a host of other issues are more than likely to remain unaddressed and unresolved. Not just water, even milk products have become suspect.

The handling of the controversy over imported milk products from New Zealand being contaminated with dicyandiamide (DCD) – a chemical sprayed on grazed pastures to control nitrates from cow urine patches leaching into waterways and contributing to greenhouse gas emissions –also shows all round ineptitude and confusion inside the government. The business of food is a serious health business now because the genealogy of food has been over-complicated by globalization. Not long ago, our basic food came from a few places or people whom we knew. Not anymore, and for this reason the task of tracking the food chain and checking for quality, or against contamination, has become an important government function. How competent is the Sri Lankan government in discharging this function? The evidence of incompetence is compounded by allegations of corruption. This toxic combination is at the root of the politics of drinking water, and of imported milk product.

Who monitors industrial water use?

Two corporate biggies are implicated in the water controversy in Weliweriya, and the kerfuffle over imported milk products. The Hayleys Group, one of whose factories producing latex gloves is located in the area where well water acidity has been detected, is one of the largest Sri Lankan multinational business conglomerates. With a 135 year old history and sustained records of achievement, Hayleys possesses, one might dare say, a far greater reputation and tradition to protect than the present generation of the Sri Lankan government and its upstarts. In an ironic coincidence, days after voluntarily closing down the factory until investigations into the source of water contamination are completed, the Group released its first quarterly report justifiably boasting a pre-tax profit exceeding one billion rupees with a third each of the total profit coming from the Purification Sector and the Hand Protection Sector.

The corporate giant involved in the milk product controversy is the New Zealand company Fonterra, a co-operative federation of New Zealand dairy farmers and the world’s largest exporter of dairy products. Fonterra faced a DCD controversy last September but the company with the help of the New Zealand government was able to reassure consumers that its milk was DCD free and safe. However, just last week it got mired in an infant formula contamination scandal leading to the recall of its products in seven countries. The company has publicly apologised, and both Fonterra and the New Zealand government have promptly launched internal and independent inquiries to identify and address production quality control failures. The infant formula scandal is a far bigger issue to Fonterra (and even the New Zealand government given the importance of dairy exports to the national economy) than DCD contamination because both China and Russia were about to ban the import of infant formula products. What emerged in Colombo over the DCD issue is the dysfunctional nature of the government’s response and the lack of a regulatory system for monitoring and responding to quality control issues.

The government’s response at Weliweriya was worse than dysfunctional and the lack of a regulatory system is even more disturbing. According to the public statement issued by Dr. Mahesha Ranasoma, Managing Director of Dipped Products (the Hayleys group company that runs the factory producing latex gloves), the factory effluent water quality is regularly tested by the National Building and Research Organization and the effluent pH value is consistently higher than 6.5 (i.e. the effluent is alkaline, with pH of pure water being 7), whereas the pH level in shallow water in the Weliweriya area could be lower than 6.5 (i.e. acidic) due to other reasons. The wells in the area are now being tested for their acidity and its source by five different organizations – Industrial Technology Institute, National Water Supply and Drainage Board, Geological Survey and Mines Bureau, University of Moratuwa and the University of Kelaniya. It is not known who is coordinating the investigation and who will finalize its findings and recommendations. As Dr. Parakrama Waidyantha warned in his letter to the Island, with so many organizations involved in the investigation there could be "contradictory analytical reports", as indeed was the case with the milk product investigation. He also raised the pertinent question as to "why the institutions responsible for monitoring pollution has been ‘sleeping’ until it happened."

But who is responsible for regulating and monitoring? The protesters reportedly came from 10 villages and there are 14 factories among them. This is a fair concentration of factories in an area. It is fair to ask these questions: What is the source of water for these factories? Is licensing required if large quantities of water are to be used? If the source is ground water, could water extraction be a factor in increasing the concentration of naturally occurring chemicals in the water? What level of effluent treatment does each factory have? Is the effluent discharged into a watercourse, a drainage pond, or just on open ground? How many factories have internal arrangements for effluent testing at regular intervals based on proper sampling? Who is the public authority at the local level in charge of regulating and monitoring the full cycle of industrial water use from intake to effluent?

Given the size and density of Lanka’s population, and more importantly the persistent and mostly haphazard penetration of industry and tourism into every corner of the land, there is no village (in the jungle) that can be left to its rural devices without urban infrastructure – especially drinking water, sanitary and solid waste (garbage) management. And there is no village that has any urban infrastructure. Weliweriya is a tragic local example of the national infrastructure deficit. Worse, the local people cannot even trust the water in their wells.

The only way to address the urban infrastructure deficit, protect our water resources and prevent more Weliweriyas is to integrate the servicing needs (water, sanitary and solid waste management) and their provision for industry (factories) and tourism (hotels) with those of the surrounding local population. The City of Colombo got its urban services by piggybacking on the provision of the same services to the Colombo harbour. The same model could be extended throughout the country. But such a model has no place in the regime’s lopsided and inappropriate infrastructure priorities. The people are crying for ‘basic bread’- water, sanitary and solid waste management, but the government is forcing on them ‘fancy cakes’ – condos, hotels, casinos, harbours, highways and airports. If the people ask for immediate attention from the government, they get the army let loose on them by the regime.

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