Poison in Your Water

By Shanuka Kadupitiyage | Published: 2:00 AM Oct 23 2021
Echo Poison in Your Water

By Shanuka Kadupitiyage 

You may remember of the incident when earlier this year when the leader of Sri Lanka’s indigenous people Uruwarige Wannila Aththo and the Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) filed a petition seeking a court order to halt the clearing of lands near the Pollebadda area in Rambakan Oya. The petitioners argued that not only was the clearing of these forest lands done in violation of existing laws of the country, that it would also mark the beginning of a major ecological disaster to the entire Ramabakan Oya area. 

In the project, thousands of acres of land are to be cleared for cultivation of maize and corn under the Mahaweli Authority. As much as this situation was brought to attention to people through the media and environmental activists, very little attention to their cries were given by authorities, with massive ecological destruction resulting in the process. 

The Rambakan Oya 

If you didn’t know already, the Rambakan Oya Dam is an embankment dam in Maha Oya and currently functions under the direction of the Ministry of Irrigation and Water Resources Management. Multiple irrigation projects rely on this body of water not only for agriculture, but also for providing drinking water. In fact, the Rambukkan Oya which is located bordering the Badulla, Moneragala, and Ampara districts provides water for around 3,500 acres of farmland during the Yala and Maha seasons. 

The water from the Rambukkan Oya is accumulated from the foothills of the forests surrounding the area, which contain a high level of valuable plant diversity for the region. Today, the warnings of the CEJ have come true. The Rambakan Oya which provided clean drinking water to many thousands of people across multiple districts is now polluted to the point that is no longer fit for drinking nor use for household purposes. 

On 18 October, the CEJ held a special briefing via Zoom to inform the media regarding the current situation of the Rambakan Oya. Prof. Pathmalal Manage from the University of Sri Jayawardenapura’s Department of Zoology who has had close to 35 years of experience conducting research about the effect of Cyanobacteria and algae growth in water bodies both locally and internationally joined the discussion as well as the National Water Supply and Drainage Board’s (NWSDB) Lead Engineer of the Rambakan Oya area, Kapila Perera. 

The current situation 

The first to address the gathering was the Senior Advisor of the CEJ, Hemantha Withanage, who updated the audience on the current progress of the overall situation. He shared that because of the attention drawn towards the ecological disaster, some of those who had cleared the forest and began planting maize have abandoned their planting efforts, leaving the land desolate. Experts mainly considered the ecological disaster caused by the rampant deforestation, but as a result of this, Withanage shared that the quality of water in the Rambakan Oya has made a turn for the worse. 

Withanage shared the discovery of a massive bloom in Cyanobacteria and other microbes such as algae in the Rambukkan Oya’s water, which is the reason behind the current high levels of pollution. A team of experts which included the CEJ, Prof. Manage and experts from the National Water Supply and Drainage Board visited the body of water and conducted multiple tests, of which the results were to be presented at the gathering. 

What are Cyanobacteria? 

If you didn’t know, Cyanobacteria’s name is a dead giveaway to what it is. These are bacteria with the ability to produce their own food using photosynthesis (the same as plants). Because of the chlorophyll that exist within their cells for this process to happen, these microbes are usually green in colour. You and I wouldn’t usually see that because of how miniscule these creatures are. 

But if there exists a large enough number of these microbes, the green tinge would soon appear in the water to the naked eye. Cyanobacteria have existed for millions of years on this planet, adapting and evolving. These microbes have existed when the Earth was a newly formed planet and have thrived ever since because of their ability to survive even the harshest of conditions. Green algae are different from Cyanobacteria, but are also able to use photosynthesis and reduce the quality of the water. 

Prof. Manage explained that when testing for the quality of water, having relatively low numbers of these microbes will not be a problem, but if there is a significant rise, the water would no longer be fit for use. “For example, the water in the Beira Lake is no longer usable because of these microbes, and the result is no longer reversible,” he said. Prof. Manage also informed that the main reason behind such a phenomenon occurring is usually because of a spike in the level of phosphates and nitrates in the water. 

Water poisoned 

“There are some species of Cyanobacteria such as Microcystis aeruginosa, Microcystis wesenbergi that produce harmful toxins known as cyanotoxins,” he shared. “It’s vitally important that the water we drink is free from cyanotoxins because these are carcinogenic, meaning that they can cause cancer in people. Not only that, laboratory tests have proven a link between cyanotoxins and Sri Lanka’s prevailing Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD).” The danger of cyanotoxins is the fact that they have no distinct colour or taste, and can only be detected using specific laboratory tests, meaning you and I would have no idea if the water we drink is poisoned or not. 

Not only that, the cyanotoxins in contaminated water cannot be removed by boiling water or simple filtration methods. The only way contaminated water can be made fit for use is by implementing a specific filtration process at the water treatment plant before it is distributed for people to consume. To make matters worse, if this poisoned water is used for irrigation, the food grown (in this case, rice) using the water would also be contaminated. Same can be told of any fish who live in the contaminated water. 

Eating such fish would also introduce these poisons to our bodies, shared Prof. Manage, noting that all this has been proven scientifically and published among intellectual communities internationally. 

The results 

When presenting the test results, Prof. Manage, noted that in decades of experience, massive blooms of Cyanobacteria was not a concern in Sri Lanka’s fresh water before, stating that the concern only arose as largescale irrigation projects continued to be conducted with little consultation of biologists regarding the quality of water. 

It was only later that the importance of Biologists’ expertise for these projects were recognised and were involved in such projects after. As for the Rambakan Oya, dangerously high levels of Cyanobacteria and green algae were discovered in their waters, as well as toxicity. Prof. Manage explained that, “If such levels of toxicity were discovered in a body of water, they would issue public health and safety notices that the water is not to be used for any purpose whatsoever.” 

The effect 

As mentioned before, this would mean that from hence on, rice harvested from the 3,500 acres of farmland relying on the Rambakan Oya would be contaminated with carcinogenic poisons, increasing the risk of cancer for those who consume the rice. Not only that, the filtration system used to produce clean drinking water would suffer constant breakdowns trying to filter out the microbes and resulting sludge. 

Even when filtered, the resulting water would have significantly different pH, dissolved oxygen, organic matter levels as well as different taste, colour and odour to normal, healthy drinking water; meaning a massive additional cost now has to be borne by the Government to clean up the mess they have created to reduce the toxicity of the water distributed to the people. The harm caused by the currently poisoned waters of the Rambakan Oya isn’t limited to humans. 

All aquatic life in the reservoir will suffer major harm because of the high levels of toxicity and low levels of dissolved oxygen. Most fish will suffocate and die, while all species relying on the waters and surrounding environment will suffer major ecological harm. In fact, results showed that if the Rambakan Oya continues as it is, it will reach a eutrophic state much like what we see in the Beira Lake in Colombo Today. 

Saving the water 

This would raise the alarming question whether households that are supplied with water from the Rambakan Oya are at risk of being exposed to cyanotoxin. To answer this, Engineer Kapila Perera revealed that once this information was discovered by the NWSDB, special steps were taken to ensure the safety of the water being distributed to households in the area. “We identified that this situation was something that could happen as a result of the circumstances from around the month of January,” he revealed. 

“And so we took necessary steps to prevent contamination of drinking water being distributed.” This was done by taking many precautionary measures, including sourcing water from depths of the reservoir where water toxicity was at its lowest, and treating water using activated carbon power, which came with a hefty price tag. “We had to bear a massive cost as a result of all this,” he shared. 

“We had to bear more than 10 times the cost it would take to produce drinking water normally, and we are still producing water at that high cost. Additionally, we also had to replace our filtration system to avoid filter blockage, which had to be done at short notice, which also cost us a massive amount of funds.” As a result, Engineer Perera assured that the water supplied by the NWSDB is suitable for drinking and meets all health and safety standards issued by the World Health Organisation (WHO). 

A disgrace on many 

fronts Without a doubt, ensuring the health and safety of the people is a massive achievement by the NWSDB and credit should be given to the mammoth achievement of the engineering team behind this success. However, all taken into account, this was a problem which never should have existed in the first place. Which brings up the question, why did this happen? Well, the answer to that is a mix of two things; unbalancing the balance that existed in the environment because of the deforestation and the irresponsible use of fertiliser, which washed off with the rain and collected in the reservoir. 

Both of these are a result of the decision made earlier this year to clear out the forest to raise corn, many of which were soon abandoned because of increased scrutiny by the public eye. All of which could have been avoided if a proper Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) had been done prior to the decision. Engineer Perera revealed that they identified this to be a possibility long before it was, and if that’s true then this surely could have been recognised through an EIA as well. 

However, the reality is that damage has already been dealt. Remember, the NWSDB has only succeeded in purifying the tap water being used at our homes, not the water being used for agriculture. Even then, the cost borne to produce that water is 10 times higher than it normally would be; a devastating impact to Sri Lanka’s failing economy, when every rupee counts in state funds. 

Not only that, the Rambakan Oya remains poisoned with carcinogens and is losing its ability to sustain life and the ecosystem that relies on it. All this adds up to a manmade-disaster, caused by mismanagement, poor planning, and lack of regard to existing laws and procedures existing to prevent exactly what has happened. A complete waste of time, effort and money, at the cost of a thriving ecosystem.

By Shanuka Kadupitiyage | Published: 2:00 AM Oct 23 2021

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