Tamil Diplomat

A call for Environmental Justice for Tamils in Jaffna

Every human being has a right to clean water and clean air, and nobody has a right or should be allowed to degrade and destroy the environment and Mother Nature.

Environmental justice has been defined as the pursuit of equal justice and equal protection under the law for all environmental statutes and regulations without discrimination based on race, ethnicity, and /or socioeconomic status.1 This concept applies to governmental actions at all levels — local, state and federal — as well as private industry activities. Providing environmental justice also includes a guarantee of equal access to relief and meaningful community participation with government and industry decision-makers.

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A disaster waiting to happen in the Jaffna Peninsula leading to structural genocide of the Tamil People

Equally Tamils living in the North and East of the Island of Sri Lanka have a right to environmental justice. However, their right to clean water is hugely violated by the Sinhala State by allowing dumping oil and chemical waste from the Chunnakam Oil Plant into the Chunnakam water. For that there were as many as 12 holes drilled up to 150 feet to send the oil waste down in to the ground. The Jaffna Peninsula has been always depended on the water stored in the underground Miocene limestone and sand aquifers as drinking water and irrigation to agricultural lands. In recent future the Jaffna peninsula will suffer from severe water shortage due to high usage of water and pollution. The Tamils living in that area will not be able to sustain their livelihood and will face systematic environmental destruction due to an imbalanced ecosystem which will ultimately lead to structural genocide of the Tamil People.

Background to Chunnakam Oil Plant

The Chunnakam Oil Plant is owned by a company called Northern Power which reported that it made LKR 232.8 million and profit after tax of LKR 93.3 million on revenue of LKR 1,588.3 million. From 2012 onwards the National Water Supply & Drainage Board (NWSDB) observed that the water intake site of Chunnakam smelled of fuel. Subsequently water quality tests were carried out in the intake and suburbs which are located nearby the Chunnakam Fossil Fuel Power Station. It was found that the water contained residues of oil and grease. The oil and grease contamination was observed within 1.5 km surrounding of the power station.

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Attempts were made to stop the pollution by the responsible public authority and the NWSDB. Meetings were held with all relevant institutions on 29 August 2012. The issue was also reported back to the Managing Director of the Northern Power Company on 7 November 2012; however, no favourable action was taken from their side. Eventually there was a meeting set up with the ministry for power and energy and all stakeholders on 3 June 2013 after which the General Manager (CEB) strictly instructed their contractors to stop the improper dumping and keep the CEA standards on the site.

The public became aware of the huge environmental problem around May/June 2014. The Consultant Physicians of the Teaching hospital Jaffna were informed on this pollution issue on 7 May 2014. Many people in many areas such as in Vallikamam North are affected by the dirty water. The NWSDB analysed around 150 wells around the Chunnakam Power Plant area and found that 109 (73%) wells have shown the higher oil level than the standard while 07 (4%) wells were under the limit and 34 wells (23%) were not contaminated with oil and grease and that the Oil spreading pattern was observed towards north, up to 1.50 to 2.0 km. Oil contaminants were spread further in North compared to the other direction which have a spread of less than 1.5 km.

It is now known that people who came in contact with the polluted water have high levels of lead and arsenic in their blood system. Moreover, the pollution has already entered into the ecosystem. And it is well known that particularly water pollution has a tremendous effect on an ecosystem. There is the food chain where each organism is in a producer, consumer, predator, and prey relationship; there is the oxygen cycle and the water cycle that sustains the organisms. Therefore natural balance in the system is disturbed when an ecosystem gets polluted.

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Current Situation

Instead of taking any actions to stop the dangerous water pollution the government evicts people from the affected areas. Clearly, the argument is that people should leave the area for safety reasons, however, this this line of argument is from an environmental and socio-political view not convincing. It rather makes the impression that the Government of Sri Lanka welcomes the issues around the Chunnakam Power Plant to decrease the number of Tamils living the core heart of the Tamil Homeland. Moreover, the problem of environmental justice remains. As initially mentioned nobody has the right to destroy the environment. Allowing the water to be polluted will still have effect on the ecosystem and sooner or later there will be no fish, no animals or crops to feed on for the Tamil People living in the Tamil Homeland. It is the duty of the State to protect all people equally under environmental laws, however, in the case of Chunnakam Power Plant it can be evidently argued that the State is taking less care as the people affected are Tamils and not Singhalese. Secondly, it falls well into the settlement and disfranchisement policies of the Sinhala Governments with regards to Tamils. Yet, not only is the Sri Lankan Government to blame for inaction but also the elected Members and attached administration to the Northern Provincial Council do not seem to have understood the utmost importance to prevent a disaster waiting to happen. Despite the fact that the Sri Lankan constitution allows the Provincial Councils to make use of their power for environmental issues, neither the Provincial Minister nor other administrative bodies took any form of meaningful action. Everyone in a responsible person taking no action makes themselves complicit in the environmentally based structural genocide of Tamils and has the duty to call for environmental justice for the Tamil people.

We do not want to see another Chernobyl, Fukushima or Bhopal Disaster on the Jaffna Peninsula as the people of the North and East of the Island of Sri Lanka already have been suffering tremendously due to the civil war, the post-war situation, the heavy militarisation and connected landgrab, the tsunami and other natural disasters.

Ms Sowjeya Joseph

Ms Sowjeya Joseph is a lawyer qualified and admitted to the Bar in Germany, holds a Masters from Sheffield University, UK in International & European Law and is a Human Rights Activist based in London.

1 http://www.epa.gov/environmentaljustice/