8 December, 2023


Jaffna Water Supply And Lagoon Projects

By S.Sivathasan



What provides the occasion for this article? A needless debate in recent years replete with tendentious arguments and not without an attempt at derailing one project with the help of the other, gives the answer. The targeted casualty is water supply and the cutting edge invoked is the aura of the time honoured Lagoon Project.

“Much of the money on the water Supply Project can be saved if the River for Jaffna Project is completed as planned”. Saved and spent where?

“A part of these savings may then be transferred to manufacture single superphosphate at Eppawela, and save on imports of fertilizer”. Where will the other part be used?

“Post conflict rehabilitation of people and restoration of water and soil conservation eco systems, including the River for Jaffna”. Where and where? Not clearly spelt out.

“A submission has been made to President Rajapakse”. These statements were made by Mr. DLO Mendis in May 2009.

Cabinet Decision

H E the President was too well versed in politics to be so impolitic as to save in the North and spend that saving in the South. Neither was he unaware in 2011, that Public Debt (PD) would approach Rs.6 trillion in an year or two. Besides, annual incremental growth in PD was reaching Rs.1 trillion.

He publicly announced in May 2011 that the cabinet had approved the Jaffna Water Supply and Sanitation Project at a cost of US $ 164 million. The Agreement was signed in 2011 and the loan was effective from May 2011. Project completion was scheduled for 2017.


Those in governance were sure that the intelligentsia was knowledgeable enough about where to be austere. That the cost of the project at Rs.20 billion was less than a 10th of the International Airport at Mathala was not unknown to it. The intelligentsia also knows that average annual outlay on the Project is Rs. 3 billion, equivalent to 1/16th of a single year’s incremental addition of Rs.50 billion for defense in 2013. Anybody can be challenged to assert that Eppawela was not exploited for 40 years for want of funds. Is it only a project for Jaffna to meet their essential water and health needs that should be pinched from to yield a few billions when the annual budget is a few trillions?

Project Outline

The parameters of the project outlined by the National Water Supply and Drainage Board (NWS&DB) are:

Component I – Official TEC figure is Rs. 20 billion. It is spread over intake at Iranamadu tank, laying of main pipeline 44 km, distribution network 284 km, 4 underground reservoirs and 17 water towers. Water treatment Plant for stage I will handle 27,000 cubic meters. Stage I will benefit 300,000 consumers. Stage II to benefit 366,000 consumers will have a plant for 23,000 cubic meters.

Component II – Treatment Plant and Sewerage Network for Jaffna Sewerage System to benefit the congested areas of Municipal Council and part of Nallur Pradeshya Sabha. Project details and costs are being finalized.

Component III – Some areas of Kilinochchi will be provided with water supply and sanitation facilities. Project details and costs are being finalized.

Negative Sentiments

“Without any reference to River for Jaffna Project, the NWS&DB had prepared a Jaffna Water Supply and Sanitation Feasibility Study”. This is a complaint of DLO Mendis. Was there a need and where was the occasion? The water supply project was never posited on the lagoon scheme. In project planning, rainfall data of Met.Dept. and Hydro data and stream flows from Irrigation Department are certainly studied by officials. To say without any reference, seems a blithe remark.

There were also conjured up detractions from some writers including the above, that Iranamadu farmers will become aggrieved when water is taken to Jaffna and will therefore never agree to such a proposition. Why preempt with untenable arguments even before the needful is done in due course?

MOU Signed

The NWS&DB has officially reported that (1) “An MOU has been entered into between the Board and farmers under Iranamadu, stipulating the conditions to be fulfilled before extracting water. Under component 2 of this project, to strengthen and augment capacity and from the augmented storage to release 1250 ac.ft. monthly to Jaffna Water Supply, without affecting the rights of farmers under Iranamadu.

(2) “An MOU has been signed with the Irrigation Department to extract water from the tank”.

May I add that augmentation is never undertaken without a thorough study of spilling history and the strength of the bund.

Jaffna Lagoon Scheme

Mr. Thiru Arumugam’s articles on ‘River for Jaffna’ provide an authentic and detailed account. What is not intelligible is, why his advocacy of converting saline water into fresh water in the three lagoons collectively designated Jaffna Lagoon, is used by some to scuttle the water supply project. The two projects stand on their own, in conception and for implementation. They are in no way mutually exclusive. By complementing one another they are only mutually reinforcing.

Fortunes of the lagoon vary every year according to rainfall pattern. Heavy monsoon floods alternate with dry spells thereafter. What is consistent however is annual waterless period in the lagoons. The phenomenon we witness is, when fresh water is needed least there is a spate of stream flows and spill water. It is redundant. When surface water and recharge are needed most, all three lagoons dry up.  They are bone dry for at least three months. The aquifer suffers in quantity and quality. During this period water level goes down, salt water intrudes and salinity   increases. There is no assured availability  from the lagoon to anchor a large supply scheme on.

Penelope’s Web

In my personal visual experience, TB was dysfunctional for more than 2/3 of the time and the other two for more than ½ the time ie in 50 years. Hence my comment on 24/6/13 to the article ‘River for Jaffna’ as ‘Penelope’s Web’, ie weave by day and unweave by night. Salt water exclusion for some years and intrusion for more years.This culture of negligence needs to be factored into a decision on a reliable water source for uninterrupted supply. Apparently this was done.


About water needs and use, adequate studies have been done for half a century and more. Particular areas of study were: the aquifer, recharge measures, overdrawing from 100,000 wells and salt water intrusion. Needs of agriculture, particularly subsidiary food crops were assessed. From the seventies, ground water contamination assumed very serious proportions. Academics have studied it in depth. Inorganic fertilizers, agro chemicals and seepage from soakage pits were among the main pollutants. These were known for, more than 30 years. When several problems got compounded and when the supply and lagoon scheme are proceeding apace, energies are wasted on digression. It appears there is far greater wisdom in the government than outside it.


Like the perfect fit of a sacred cow to the cow dung age, we don’t have to shuffle agriculture into our futuristic thinking. In the articles and comments on the two schemes, there is a pathetic display of an obsession with agriculture as the end use of sweetened water. Can Jaffna do only agriculture till eternity? The lagoon is being freshened up at high cost and potable supply is to be conveyed to households at a fabulous outlay. These are meant to steady availability, deliver the people from grinding chores, safeguard them from health hazards and to evoke the best from the Jaffna man’s potential. Are we as Bharathy asked, to throw away a well-crafted veena into dust?

With an old Jaffna that is dying and a new one struggling to be born, we have to help in the process of delivery. Water availability through a network will remove the constraint to people’s lateral mobility. The first field to move out should be Education particularly Tertiary Education. Peradeniya was envisaged as a template. Jaffna modeling itself on it, should plan out one on a 1000 acre site, to be developed over 20 years. The present one can be converted to an Engineering College. Modern school campuses on 20 acre sites should proliferate together with residential complexes. This is the wrench with the past which will be facilitated by the removal of limitations to land use constrained by earlier water non-availability.

In all my life I have not seen a single greenfield (totally new) High School having been built in the Peninsula. Un remunerative agriculture has to yield its land to the spread of technical education. Institutes of Technology targeting Soft Ware exports should dominate our consciousness. It is not the hard working farmer but the high earning engineer that we have to plan about. Young intelligentsia reaching for new vistas to give expression to their endowments should be assisted in this direction. For the massive outlay in the two complementary schemes – the largest in Jaffna’s history – this will be the recompense to the polity.

Why This Article?

For 7 years in the seventies and for 8 in the eighties the writer had personal involvement in the Jaffna Lagoon Scheme. At the Ministry handling the subjects of Irrigation and Water Supply, he was able to study technical reports inclusive of by Israeli experts, interact with the Secretary Mr. T. Sivagnanam and with senior engineers from both Departments. Accessibility to files from 1950, beginning with a hand written communication from C Vanniasingham MP, about the Lagoon Scheme and sweetening of water to writings by S. Arumugam enabled me to know the history. Of particular relevance was his regular monitoring for some time along with conferences at the Kachcheri chaired by the GA Mr. ND Jayaweera, who too took a keen interest and discussed with us about disastrous portents. This was in the early sixties. At that time contamination was not studied in depth as it had not assumed deadly proportions.

In my spell at Jaffna I came face to face with total neglect of the scheme and pervasive indifference. In 1976-77, I was personally involved in getting the damaged gates of Thondamanaru Barrage (TB) replaced with heavy marutham (kumbuk) planks. Why heavy marutham? To last longer in salt water. Yet I was personal witness to wanton damage and orchestrated salt water intrusion in early eighties. How come? Use of explosives by prawn fisherman to let in salt water.


Without a shadow of doubt, the indispensability of the Water Supply Project can be asserted, reaffirmed and reiterated. The articles periodically warmed up and repetitively published have failed to carry conviction. The officials and those in authority have retained their clarity. The Water Supply and Lagoon Projects have proved to be unhijackable by tall stories of redundancy and savings for the national economy. The government has maintained a steady course.

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