By Ratnam Nadarajah –
Who ever dreamt of this multi-purpose project has a lot to answer for. I am sure their intentions were very honourable. But the executing authorities seems to have not done their homework, prior to the commencement and execution phases of the project. For starters, what and why on earth one wants to deplete Uma oya, one of the main feeder tributaries of Mahawali Ganga. Were they thinking that diversion would somehow by magical means double up the capacity, no in fact a diminution of the net volume is inevitable and it is not rocket science? Natural Law of diminishing returns prevails. Or is it a question of robbing Peter to pay Paul. In Sri-Lankan context Robbing Banda to pay Appuhamy may be the case.
When the project was initially consumed by the powers, Asian Development Bank (ADB) had refused to fund same. The reason they had quoted was that the fundamental water rights of the communities that would be affected, if the scheme was implemented. This is the tip of the iceberg. There are numerous other issues including technical, ethical, social, economic, and environmental to quote a few matters associated with this concept. Prudently I am avoiding the political implication for the time being, otherwise we would be stirring up a hornet’s nest and the focus of the issue at hand would be lost.
Did the authorities obtain an independent Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report from a competent body, specialising in the geographical and geological aspects of the project sites and the tunnel terrain. This should have been done prior to commitment of funds and resources. We hear, yes some sort EIA was done, but in my opinion the fundamental aspects of the project scope has not been addressed in detail. If a proper cost benefit – analysis/assessment had been carried out, in no way, in my considered view, any funding agency worth its salt would have, firstly approved the project and secondly fund it. ADB are no fools!
The total length of tunnels (7) amounts to 27 km, the longest is around 16km, which is lot of boring by any standards. How about the Environmental Clearance Certificate that was issued with conditions attached to it. Did the prime contractor abide by the stipulation? We understand through the grape wine that apparently this has not been carried out to any satisfaction.
Among the proposed multipurpose objectives of this project are , power generation, irrigation, provision of water to Hambanthota district including the International Airport in Hambanthota, and other Industrial projects/units in the wider Hambanthotha district. To the untrained eye and mind the project basically means to divert the Umo oya water to Humbanthota for multi-purposes and in the process generate some 120 Mega Watts of electricity up stream to feed the national grid. On the face of it looks good. But if you analyse the recent trend on some of the Hydro power generation schemes in Sri-Lanka , are based on where the expended water from unit upstream feeds another downstream thus adding output .This method maximises the harnessed Hydro-electric generation capacity which profits the nation.
But by diverting Uma Oya you are throttling down and starving the Mahawali and associated generating capacity other existing schemes. Thus reducing the overall Hydro power output to the national grid. As the saying goes “you cannot produce something out of nothing”. And not to mention the impact on irrigation and livelihood of communities in the affected areas and the greater “Mahawali diversion schemes .It is no secret that the seepage into the underground tunnels, have brought about severe structural damages to numerous private dwellings and public buildings around a wider area of the dam and tunnel complex.
Dried up wells, reduction of water level in others, polluted water, to quote some of apparent damages caused as a result of this scheme. Landslides including the Meriabetha tragedy can be attributed to tunnelling operations, the vibration causing movement in the very vulnerable strata and increasing the permeability of the already unstable soil. All this is even without a single watt of electricity being generated! Is this the price one had to pay for the perceived progress? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder
The seepage in the tunnel is a major issue. Yes they can repair the leak temporarily, how about in the long term. How about recurrent leaks, additional new ingress, do we have the expertise on this matter and how about the additional costs. Is this factored into the original contract? Water by nature will find its way out to reach its natural level. Eventually when the tunnel is opened for business (if and when) the volume and colossal forces associated with the water flow would exacerbate the water ingress and further damage(s) would be unsurmountable and inevitable. It won’t be a bolt from the blue. Do the authorities have the knowhow and the resources to handle any such eventuality? One would like to know the answers.
We understand that the project has been temporarily stopped. Also promise of new houses for those affected. It is a fact, that a large part of the allocated funds have been already spent on the project. It is a question of damage limitation. May be part of the remaining funds and resources could be used in building large reservoirs (tanks) to harness and store the monsoon flood waters. The irony is that the monsoon season prevails at the same period in both the diversion zone and diverted zone, with inherent flooding and devastation.
Our fore fathers have harnessed this efficiently centuries ago and some of them are still in use in Polanuwa, Vavaniya, Tissa and other districts. Even now these type of water preservations are widely exploited all over the world. Water is the most precious commodity in the world. There are major disputes in water sharing and water rights is a major issue all over the world. Wars could be fought over waters. I believe there is an expert “Water man of India” (Mr. Singh) in India who offers his services, building check dams and the likes to conserve water. For power generation Solar and Wind farms would be ideally suited, especially for our sun baked arid zones.
As it is farmers and villagers have water shortage in the Uma Oya catchment area, in the dry season and when monsoon rain fails. Welimada and the surrounding areas are considered to be the bread basket (for vegetables) of the nation. Subsistence level farmers have invested heavily both in labour and scarce resources. With the diversion the whole region would be affected adversely. This will no doubt create social, cultural and economic issues among communities who had lived in harmony.
Bandarawela always had a serious drinking and household water shortage problems and this scheme will make matters only worst. Bandarawela being one of the preferred tourist destination due to the unique climate, will stand to lose its share of the tourist trade. Lot of people’s livelihood would be affected. No wonder the inhabitants are up in arms. The planners need to revisit the project and come up with tangible solutions so that some semblance is reached.