Navy’s peacetime war against insidious killer

(Courtesy of The Island)

If someone asked me what the senior appointment I really loved most was, my answer would be Chief of Staff of the Sri Lanka Navy (Second-in-Command of the Navy) – CoS. The CoS has all the perks—an official bungalow in Colombo 7, vehicles and staff—that the Commander is entitled to, but does not have the same responsibilities as the Commander. He has all the freedom to travel the length and breadth of the country on inspections of major bases, ships and craft. He does not have to attend all important meetings with VVIPs. Actually, the CoS runs the Navy at the ground level. So, you can work according to your own schedule, of course, with the Commander’s approval.

I served under Admiral Jayantha Perera as his CoS for more than one year. He was happy about my frequent travel to the North and the East and looking into issues at the ground level and in situation.

As the CoS, I attended the funerals of close relatives (child, wife, father or mother) of our officers and sailors. I observed at funerals in North Central Province, where large number of naval personnel come from, parents of most of our young sailors from that part of the country died of kidney failures. A large number of them were middle-aged or in their early 50s. The disease is known as the Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD). It was sad to see the farmers who feed the country contract CKD at a relatively young age, suffer for years and die. The reason is contaminated water they use for drinking and cooking. Scientists and medical experts have cited various reasons—excessive use of fertilizer/pesticides, the contamination of groundwater and tank water—but the real cause is still not known.

The only way to prevent the disease is to make clean water available for drinking and cooking for the people in areas with a high CKD burden. Upon inquiry from Senior Health Ministry officials in 2015, we came to know that there were 30,500 CKD patients in the North Central province alone and the number was on the rise. All the patients had to undergo dialysis regularly.

As the CoS, I discussed the issue with Navy Commander Admiral Perera, and on his instructions, tasked the outstanding Marine Engineering Officer, then Commander MCP Dissanayake (Dissa) with manufacturing a low-cost water purification plant. Dissa was well known for his research and development projects he headed during the war; they were very effective and helped save many lives. He was the Command Engineering Officer in North Central Naval Command, based in Poonawa, Medawachchiya at that time. He proposed the manufacture of an RO plant (Reverse Osmosis water purification plant). The Navy has been using imported RO plants in its large ships for decades and our engineers are adept at repairing them.

The cost of an imported RO plant with a 10-ton (10,000 litres) output a day is approximately Rs. 3.8 million. The installation of an imported plant costs approximately Rs. 5 million. Dissa’s plant cost only Rs 950,000 and the total cost including installation was Rs. 1.4 million.

The problem was funding. Every officer and every sailor contributes Rs. 30 from his/her pay every month to the ‘Social Responsibility Fund’ of the SLN. With approximately 55,000 personnel, the collection is about Rs 1,650,000 a month. We could produce one RO plant per month! Work started immediately. On 11th July 2015, Admiral Perera retired and I was appointed as 20th Commander of the Navy by then President Maithripala Sirisena.

One of my tasks during my visit to North Central Naval Command was to declare open the Navy’s first RO plant on 22nd December 2015 at Kadawath Rabewa, the village of Leading Marine Engineering Mechanic Premaratne. This small village alone had 250 CKD patients.

From that day, I made use of all the fora I attended, both here and abroad, to raise funds for this worthy cause. Funds poured in, from foreigners, Sri Lankans, here and overseas and the business community and we could manufacture at least two plants a month.

Then, President Sirisena ordered the Presidential Task Force on CKD to provide sufficient funds for the Navy’s project. We started a production line in our R and D Project Factory in Welisara under the able guidance of Dissa.

In 2016, we manufactured 344 plants and installed them in various places, especially in schools, temples and churches. 344 plants were manned by 344 trained sailors. Every plant is capable of producing 10,000 litres (10 tons) of clean drinking water daily, and the quality of this water is better than bottled water you drink. That came to 3.44 million litres of clean drinking water per day to public free of charge. Three mobile service teams with vehicles were formed.

I opened the RO plant at the Kebithigollewa Madya Maha Vidyalaya on 16 June 2016, exactly 10 years after LTTE claymore mine attack that killed 60 civilians, who travelled in a bus in Kebithigollewa. Addressing the children, who gathered in the hall, where the victims’ bodies had been kept, I said, “Our armed forces will ensure your safety. What happened 10 years back will not occur in the future. You’ll have a great responsibility to study hard now without any fear. We will fight this deadly disease of CKD with the help of our expertise. Dear children, please bring empty bottles when you come to school. Drink and carry home safe drinking water from the RO plant we have installed. Give this water to your siblings, parents, relatives and friends”. I saw tears of happiness, especially in the eyes of GCE Advanced Level students.

The schoolchildren usually carry drinking water from home to school, but the children in the North Central Province carry safe drinking water home from school! Bravo to Navy’s research engineers. Bravo Zulu, Dissa.

I am happy that the safe drinking water project I initiated has continued under successive Navy Commanders who have evinced a keen interest in it. We have installed more than 760 RO plants in the North and North Central Provinces. I thank the Navy and all those who have contributed to this worthy cause. The project is on, and many more people will benefit from it.

An expert in CKD/CKDu treatment process, Dr Asanga Waruna Ranasinghe, in his research article, The Incidence, prevalence and trends of Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD) and Chronic Kidney Disease of uncertain aetiology (CKDu) in North Central Province of Sri Lanka : an analysis of 30,566 patients’ on page six, refers to a decrease in the number of CKD patients. He says it is probably due to the availability of safe drinking water.

Do not forget the Navy is a silent force. No one notice what they do. Today, more than 760 plants produce 7.6 million litres of safe drinking water free to the public. The Navy went a few steps further, manufacturing two medical RO plants required for dialysis machines in Colombo and Kandy General Hospitals.

The Navy also manufactured mobile RO plant installed in a truck fur use in disaster situations.

As a result, the spreading of CKD has been controlled and most of North Central Province children want to join the Navy Engineering branch.

Some history teachers in the North Central Province have compared the Navy to King Mahasen’s Army. King Mahasen, who ruled Sri Lanka from 277 to 304 AD, constructed 16 large tanks or wewas. He was deified following the construction of the Minneriya tank and for giving water to needy people.

If our Navy is compared to King Mahasen’s Army for providing more than 7.6 million litres of clean drinking water to people daily, I compare our Engineering Officer, Captain (E) MCP Dissanayake as Commander Meghavannabaya, King’s main advisor and Chief Engineer.

By Admiral Ravindra C Wijegunaratne

(Retired from Sri Lanka Navy)

Former Chief of Defence Staff



5 Viewers