Photos courtesy Prof. Sampath Seneviratne

Mannar is one of the oldest cities in Sri Lanka dating back to the maritime Silk Road and the trade routes between India and Sri Lanka. It also has some of the most important wintering wetlands for migratory birds.

Sri Lanka is a signatory nation for the United Nations Convention of Migratory Species. Hence, we have a global responsibility to protect about 15 million birds of 250 species visiting Sri Lanka from over 30 countries. Mannar alone gets about a million birds representing 150 species. It is among the four richest migratory bird regions in Sri Lanka owing to its large number of wintering waterbirds, including 20 globally threatened species, that reach up to about one million birds.

Mannar is considered a critical wintering site of the Central Asian Flyway by Wetlands International and Birdlife International and recognised as a wetland of international importance by the Ramsar Convention. The Central Asian Flyway covers 30 countries of Asia and Europe and the southernmost point of it is Sri Lanka. It also provides breeding habitats for eight species of seabirds, many of which are listed as critically endangered in the National Red List of Threatened Species.

The Central Asian Flyway-Sri Lanka Waterbird Tracking Project conducted by the University of Colombo has underscored the strategic role that Mannar plays within this global flyway; waterbirds tagged in Mannar have travelled to nine countries of Asia and Europe. The tagged birds have revealed the heavy connectivity of key wetlands in the Mannar Island. The birds fly from west to east and vice versa across the island daily. They connect Rama’s Bridge and Urumalei mudflat, Korakulam tank, Erukkalampiddy lagoon, Vankalei Sanctuary and Vidataltivu Nature Reserve in Mannar. All these are critical wetlands recognised internationally and nationally by the Department of Wildlife Conservation.

As the proposed 250 MW wind farm covers the entire northern half of Mannar island, it can severely affect the movements of the birds.

The Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) on the proposed project grossly devalues the importance of Mannar. Although the EIA report proposed a narrow bird corridor at the interior of the island, GPS-tagged birds in Mannar Island show a wide use of the northern coast while moving between the protected areas in Mannar.

Some of the main reasons for the EIA to miss this important movement corridor along the north coast are:

  1. Wrong timing – the bird observations were done by observers walking in the forest on foot during the daytime from 6 am to 6 pm while the majority of the movement between protected areas happens between 6 pm to 6 am.
  2. Wrong season – the EIA did not cover the critical migratory period of birds during this study. Therefore, the observers failed to see the movement of large numbers of birds, as resident birds typically do not move in large flocks in Mannar.
  3. The globally accepted technologies for the study of bird movement that are available in Mannar were not used to map the movement tracks.
  4. It is surprising that the Central Asian Flyway and the Convention of Migratory Species of the United Nations were not stressed in the report.
  5. Although the EIA report states that a thorough review of information is done, the publicly available and widely circulated information on movement patterns of critical species of the Central Asian Flyway in Mannar was not referred to and seems ignored. These satellite-tagged birds fly through the proposed wind farm.
  6. The proposed narrow movement corridor for millions of migratory birds seems highly arbitrary and lacks support from currently available information in the EIA report on migratory birds in Mannar. The corridor is proposed conveniently away from the proposed wind farm based on no study and no data, as stated in the report itself.

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. Some of these forest birds continue their migration and fly to key wildlife tourism destinations such as Nuwara Eliya, Hakgala, Ella and Sinharaja forests. Therefore, disturbance to Mannar can affect bird tourism across the country. These forests are also home to resident species of birds, mammals and reptiles of Mannar and act as the green buffer for the critical wetlands on either side. Removal of birds, forests and other wildlife from Mannar will severely impact Mannar’s economy and the potential for wildlife-based tourism that is planned by the Tourism Development Authority and Northern Development framework.

There are alternative sites on mainland Sri Lanka with high wind energy potential and less ecological damage. The windfarms can go there to provide vital energy demand while not compromising the ecological and economic benefits in Mannar Island.