Adani wind power project sparks concern in Sri Lanka’s Mannar district

Locals flag wind farm’s possible impact on their environment and livelihoods, and point to lack of consultation

March 15, 2024 07:45 pm | Updated March 16, 2024 09:05 am IST - COLOMBO

Gautam Adani met Sri Lanka President Ranil Wickremesinghe in July 2023 regarding  the Adani Group’s projects in Sri Lanka.

Gautam Adani met Sri Lanka President Ranil Wickremesinghe in July 2023 regarding  the Adani Group’s projects in Sri Lanka. | Photo Credit: Twitter

A wind power project being executed by Adani Green Energy in northern Sri Lanka has run into controversy, with locals and environmentalists raising concern over its possible impact on the coastal region and livelihoods.

In February last year, Sri Lanka’s Board of Investment cleared the company’s $ 442-million project at two wind energy-rich sites in the island’s Northern Province. “The project expects to add 250 MW in Mannar and 234 MW in Pooneryn to the national grid,” Sri Lanka’s Minister for Power and Energy Kanchana Wijesekara said on social media platform ‘X’ on March 14, following a discussion with Adani Green’s Executive Director Sagar Adani on a power purchasing agreement that is yet to be finalised.

  

The Sri Lankan government aims to meet the country’s growing energy demands with 70% renewable energy by 2030. The ambitious target will require investment totalling over $ 11.5 billion, according to official estimates. India has pledged close cooperation with Sri Lanka in the field of renewable energy and the first meeting of a Joint Working Group (JWG) on Renewable Energy — constituted under an agreement signed by the two governments last year — was held in Colombo on March 11, 2024. India has also provided a $ 11 million grant to Sri Lanka to build hybrid renewable energy systems” in Delft or Neduntheevu, Nainativu and Analaitivu islands off Jaffna peninsula in the island’s north, displacing a Chinese project.  

In December 2023, Sri Lanka roped in Australia-based United Solar Group to invest US$ 1.73 billion in a 700 MW solar plant in the northern Kilinochchi district.

Meanwhile, environmentalists and residents of Mannar fear that the Adani wind energy project could spell danger to the biodiversity of the area and impact people’s livelihoods that are tied to the coastal environment. Scores of families in the island’s Tamil-majority north and east, are still struggling to rebuild their lives, with successive governments’ economic revival programmes proving futile for them 15 years since the civil war ended.

According to ornithologists, Mannar is part of the Central Asian Flyway, an important migration route for many waterbird species around the world. Every winter, thousands of flamingos arrive at wetlands in the district, drawing scores of birdwatchers and tourists. In a recent commentary on the wind project, Prof. Sampath S. Seneviratne from the Department of Zoology and Environment Sciences, University of Colombo, called it a “death trap” for migratory birds. “The proposed wind farm is located in the best forest areas in central Mannar island, which serve as vital stopover and refuelling sites for birds approaching Sri Lanka,” he wrote.

Around 50 wind turbines, each with a capacity of 5.2MW, are to be installed as part of the project. Such an installation would usually entail a rapid clearing of the canopy, according to Marynathan Edison, an environmentalist from Mannar. “No matter how much they talk about restoration and reforestation, it will not be the same,” he told The Hindu. While activists like him welcome Sri Lanka’s push for renewable energy, the move’s likely environmental impact could outweigh its benefits in the absence of careful planning and wider consultation, they contend.

“Preserving the bird corridor and the biodiversity is very important, but we should not forget the social environment and the impact such projects may have on that,” Mr. Edison further noted.

The project’s impact on local livelihoods is a serious concern for residents, said Dilani Croos, a former member of Mannar’s local council, that is now defunct as Sri Lanka postponed local government elections last year. “We are a coastal district and most of our people’s livelihoods are linked to the sea. Fishermen worry that changes in the coastal landscape may affect marine biodiversity and therefore their catch,” she said. Sri Lanka’s northern fishermen are already enduring a major setback to their post-war economic recovery, owing to relentless bottom-trawling fishing by Indian fishermen along their coastline. “You can’t blame the fishermen for raising concern. Policy makers and authorities have not held any consultation at the local level for them to know or better understand what this wind power project is about,” Ms. Croos said.

Sri Lanka’s Central Environmental Authority, which is tasked with integrating environmental considerations into the government’s development agenda, published an Environmental Impact Assessment report on the Adani wind power project, and invited public comments earlier this year. “We have received several representations and a lot of feedback,” a senior official told The Hindu. “All stakeholders are being consulted,” he said.

This is not the first time the Adani wind project has drawn flak in Sri Lanka. The country’s political opposition and a senior bureaucrat have in the past questioned the company’s entry into the island’s energy space, alleging there was pressure from India and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The Sri Lankan government has denied the allegations.

When The Hindu contacted Adani Green for comment on recent concerns, a spokesperson of the Group said there appears to be a “vicious campaign being run by vested interests” against the proposed wind power project in Mannar. “The project location was chosen after careful consideration and no turbines will be set up along the critical migratory pathways or sensitive habitats,” the spokesperson said in a written response.

The Environmental Impact Assessment, including birds & bats studies, was carried out by the Sri Lanka Sustainable Energy Authority (SLSEA), with leading subject experts guiding the process, the company said, adding: “The Adani Group firmly believes that the Mannar project is beneficial for Sri Lanka, providing competitively priced green energy and aiding the nation’s commitment of generating 100% of its energy requirement through renewables by 2050.” 

However, local groups and activists said they are unaware of the consultative meetings, and remain wary of the Adani project. The Mannar Citizens’ Committee, a prominent civil society group, has repeatedly emphasised the need to involve the local community in decision making. Citing the apparent impact of the 30 turbines already installed in the district as part of the ‘Thambapavani Power Plant’ — the Ceylon Electricity Board’s largest wind power project in the island, inaugurated in 2020 — they have questioned the need for another wind farm in Mannar.

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