By Mahinda Rajapaksa –
The Uma Oya project has come in for much criticism in recent times. A few days ago it was reported in the media that the Kirindi Oya tributary which flows past Bandarawela had suddenly gone dry as a result of this project. The leader of the JVP stated in Parliament some weeks ago that as a result of ground water seeping into a tunnel being constructed as part of the Uma Oya project, 2,333 wells, streams and springs in the Bandarawela area had run dry, and cracks had appeared in 4,625 houses, six temples, one mosque and three schools in the area due to the change in ground conditions, and further that thousands of acres of agricultural land have been affected. After things started going wrong, members of the JVP, ministers in the yahapalana government and various NGO activists have been making statements aimed at laying the blame for all this on me and my government.
One minister said that this situation had come about because I had wanted to divert water to Hambantota to irrigate land in my village. The President also stated that this project had been carried out due to ‘political requirements’. The Uma Oya project consists of constructing a dam and reservoir across the Uma Oya at Puhulpola from where water would be diverted via a 4 km tunnel to another dam and reservoir constructed across the Mahatotilla Oya in Dyraaba. Water from this second reservoir would be channeled through a 15.3 km tunnel to a hydroelectricity powerhouse. The outflow from the powerhouse is to be diverted via a 4 km tunnel into the Kirindi Oya, to provide water to parts of the Moneragala and Hambantota districts. The diversion of the Uma Oya has been under discussion for well over sixty years.
The idea was first mooted in 1959 in a study carried out by the United States Operations Mission and the Canadian Hunting Survey Corporation. It also featured in the United Nations Development Programme/Food and Agriculture Organisation Master Plan (1968-1969) for the Mahaweli project. Studies regarding the Uma Oya diversion project were also carried out by the Lahmeyer International Company of Germany in 1989, by the Central Engineering Consultancy Bureau (CECB) in 1991 and by SNC Lavalin Inc of Canada in collaboration with the CECB in 2000. During the UNP led government of 2001-2004, at inter-ministerial meetings held in December 2003 and February 2004, chaired by the then ministers of power and energy and irrigation Karu Jayasuriya and Jayawickrema Perera with the participation of all the ministers and MPs of the Uva province, it was decided to implement the proposed Uma Oya scheme as a high priority project. On 26 January 2005, under the Chandrika Kumaratunga government, Cabinet approval was granted to proceed with the Uma Oya project, based on a cabinet paper submitted by the then Minister of Agriculture, Livestock, Land and Irrigation, Anura Kumara Dissanayake. The Deputy Minister of this ministry at that time, was Bimal Ratnayake. The JVP Minister’s Cabinet Paper bearing No: 05/0036/039/002 dated 4 January 2005 stated the following:
“For the development of the South East Dry Zone in Sri Lanka, (particularly Hambantota and Moneragala districts) there is no other alternative unless water is diverted from Uma Oya to the South East Dry Zone.”
“Strategy for economic development of both Hambantota and Moneragala districts changed during the recent past and diversion of Uma Oya to Kirindi Oya is now seen in the perspective of recently conceived Ruhunupura development. The infrastructure of Ruhunupura development consists of the development of the Hambantota harbour into one of the modern harbours in the region, international airport in the Moneragala district, and an oil refinery. It is expected that the Hambantota harbour will attract a large number of ships sailing in the Indian ocean. Also a large number of industrial activities are expected to take place in and around Hambantota including tourism. For all these new developments, projected water requirement has been estimated as 100 MCM in the year 2030. In the absence of a reliable source of water in the area, water from Uma Oya is seen as the only alternative to supplement this requirement.”
“Therefore high priority should be given for this project.”
It was only after all of the above had taken place under previous governments that the Uma Oya project appeared in my 2005 presidential election manifesto as a priority project. The JVP supported my candidacy at the 2005 presidential elections and Uma Oya was made a priority project of my government. From winning the war against terrorism to building highways, harbours and power plants, my government did many things that previous governments had only been able to dream about, but never implement. Uma Oya was one such project. On 27 November 2007, consequent to consultations held earlier that year by the then Minister for Enterprises Development Sarath Amunugama and the then Minister for Power and Energy John Seneviratne with the Export Development Board of Iran (EDBI) and Farab Company of Iran, an MOU was signed with the Iranian government under the terms of which the EDBI would finance the project and Farab Company, would prepare the detailed engineering design and carry out the physical construction.
The contractor Farab Company is owned by the Iranian government and a team of engineers from the Irrigation Ministry, CEB and CECB had checked the credentials of this company and its experience in handling similar projects. In 2008 a Cabinet Appointed Negotiating Committee got the contract price fixed at USD 514 million. Though the contract was signed in 2008, construction did not commence until 29 November 2011 until the Central Environmental Authority gave it clearance and a full feasibility report acceptable to the engineers of the Irrigation Ministry, Ceylon Electricity Board and the Central Engineering Consultancy Bureau had been received. Ground water seepage is inevitable when drilling tunnels and measures have to be taken to prevent it. According to information available to me, the water seepage has taken place because the German manufactured drilling machine did not have the additional components to fully seal the tunnel as it moved forward.
This was apparently due to the project consultants failing to provide the correct advice. The first seepage of water had taken place only in late December 2014 just days before the present government came into power. The environmental harm it has caused could have been averted if remedial measures had been taken in time. However the new government took no action because they were too busy persecuting the opposition. The JVP was also too busy persecuting the Rajapaksas and helping the UNP to run the FCID to make representations to the government to rectify a problem that had arisen in the only major project ever initiated by a JVP Minister. I now learn that the necessary equipment has been obtained from Germany.
Whenever a large scale infrastructure project is implemented, there will be communities that are adversely affected. When the accelerated Mahaweli project was implemented, the entire Maskeliya town had to be shifted to make way for the Maussakele reservoir and the Teldeniya town had to be shifted to make way for the Victoria reservoir. The extent of water seepage during the drilling of the Uma Oya tunnel, may not have been anticipated. But in projects of this magnitude, even unanticipated contingencies have to be provided for. Many large projects were implemented during the nine year tenure of my government, and some displacement of people did take place, but there was no public unrest because problems were identified early on, and compensation packages provided to the satisfaction of those affected.
Such alertness and efficiency is however lacking under the present government. Today, the situation is such that if a citizen loses his house in a landslide or flood or some man-made disaster, he will be living in a tent or a school until the next government comes into power. There is now agitation over issues that have emerged in the construction of the Central Highway which have not been resolved by the government. Those affected by the unforeseen problems that have emerged in the implementation of the Uma Oya project have had to endure the consequences of the inherent inefficiency of the present government.