“Is the glass half empty or half full?” is a common expression, generally used rhetorically to indicate that a particular situation could be a cause for optimism (half full) or pessimism (half empty); to demonstrate that the situation may be seen in different ways depending on one’s point of view and that there may be opportunity in the situation as well as trouble. In a tropical climatic country Sri Lanka, the authorities expect their people to live with all the weaknesses, without providing facilities needed; on recent man-made disasters in the country that led to loss of lives and heavy damages, following nonstop rains in southern part of the country signaling the start of south west monsoon; while severe drought prevails in northern parts of the island. People with foresight are optimistic that these calamities could have been avoided or minimised with best management practices; while pessimistic authorities want more laws to effectively operate relief to affected persons hit by the disasters.
In Sri Lanka, in the bygone era, temples and villages were built with a great bearing on the environment and was capable of sustaining disasters. There is a definite period for the onset of rains and considering that severe floods were experienced in 2013 and 2016, authorities should have prepared the people properly for the south west monsoons this year; by not preventing activities such as unplanned urbanization, cultivation along mountain slopes, mining and deforestation. Failure of the authorities to protect riverbed aggradation, inadequate sediment accumulation, soil erosion from local relative sea-level rise, sinking and compaction of land, caused heavy flooding and landslides making the non-stop heavy rains into man-made disasters. It is the same with the severe drought experienced by the people in the provinces north of the island that too could have been overcome. Viable only if the authorities follow best management practices at all level in their daily routine utilizing existing rules and regulations in the country; the absence of these practices justifies reporting these disasters as man-made. This attitude did not popup overnight, it was a gradual process of political brainwashing that started in the middle of last century, where decisions were made by the authorities on political grounds, than on good governance to follow the best management practices engraved in guide books of every profession. The Mahaweli Master Plan (MMP) of 1958 discussed below, that got chopped and changed for above reasons best illustrate this Bitter Truth of politics influencing, that has been constraining the development of this island nation and a curse on the people, particularly those marginalized living in the peripheries.
Over 100 rivers originate in the central highlands in the country, that get charged by the rainfall received during the monsoonal weather and rain water run off to the sea all-round the island and many rivers in the process cause surging floods. Not all rivers get flooded and some in the dry zones not perianal which dry up during the hot season causing severe drought and produce unbearable heat. Since records were kept in the country, rivers have overflowed and in the dry season have experienced long spell of droughts. Thus sudden floods and prolonged drought are common occurrences in the country. The largest river in the country, Mahaweli has been flowing down into the Indian Ocean at Trincomalee from ancient times and soon after independence, before political biased decision makings had not taken root properly in the country, ways of utilising the Mahaweli for providing water to the dry northern areas was investigated by honourable men, who were true professionals; accordingly the MMP was conceived in 1958 and as the plan covered a large area and involved costs were high, presented it to the UNP government for implementation as three projects. Unfortunately, political turn of events in the country changed the rulers that delayed the start of the development. Later in 1973, Project A – Polgolla Diversion including Ukuwela and Bowatenna was taken up by the SLFP government for implementation and was completed by 1977. Then the new UNP government with their own political biased thinking took power and completely modified the scope of the second project i.e. Project B – Victoria-Minipe Diversion as the Accelerated Mahaweli Scheme (AMS). All credit to the UNP government, the dams, power plants at Victoria, Randenigala and Rantembe and the Right Bank Channel which delivers water to Maduru Oya were all completed in six years. It must be recorded had they followed best management practices these irrigation facilities would have helped the country to achieve self-sufficiency in rice; thus rice produced from other irrigation facilities in the island would have boosted the country’s foreign earnings.
Unfortunately, the third of utilising the Mahaweli for providing water to the dry northern areas, Project C – Moragahakanda Multi-Purpose Reservoir, to provide irrigation facilities to North and North-Central Provinces was left out of the AMS. The original scheme was to divert Mahaweli waters to the north, carried over a 100 km long trans-basin concrete-lined canal (NCP Canal) over the central ridge of the country northwards to satisfy the requirement of farmers north of Medawachchiya all the way to Kilinochchi and terminating at Iranamadu Tank to satisfy water needs of the driest region of the country, especially during the Yala season (May-June), when the Northern Province hardly gets any rain. This project would have turned the dry river that feeds Irranaimadu Tank, into Perianal River; as this river was bound to go dry and the water stored in the tank insufficient to meet the water requirement of the Kilinochchi farmers, acknowledged by professionals from middle of last century; yet not appreciated by the present authorities, witnessed at the discussions on Jaffna water supply pipeline project.
MMP was a remedy to divert Mahaweli water to make the dry river feeding Irranaimadu Tank into a perianal river to enable the tank to be feed round the year. The professionals then had in addition planned to allow the spilling excess water into Jaffna Lagoon to flush out the seawater in it as part of the River for Jaffna Plan. The professionals anticipated few teething problems, but were confident by adopting best management practices on flushing out the seawater, the fresh water retained in Jaffna Lagoon could be fed to the lagoons in the peninsula via a link channel. Without the completion of the original Mahaweli Plan, the dry river could not supply water round the year to the peninsula lagoons as the slope gradient of the link channel was small and the desired results were not obtained and due to neglect of the project during the 1983 riots the link channel was left to fill with silt and sand; at the same time the eastern bund breached allowing sea water to rush in during stormy north-east monsoons; with no chance of any renovation work taking place the whole plan was abandoned. Understandably, as the civil war intensified UNP government was forced to put on hold the Moragahakanda project.
Now after nearly 60 years, under the present unity government of UNP, SLFP and others the last of the MMP – Moragahakanda-Kalu Ganga Multi-purpose Development Project with revised scope is under construction and when completed would be the second largest reservoir in the country after Victoria. This massive development covers the Northern, North Central, Eastern and North Western provinces by taking water to those areas through the project, and twenty five megawatts of electricity too will be generated and the government will also establish a new development zone of 85,000 hectares. The Moragahakanda reservoir includes a rock-filled main gravity dam plus two saddle dams and includes a 20 MW hydro-power plant is being constructed on Amban Ganga at Elahera, in the Matale District, is a major tributary of the Mahaweli which collects waters from Matale and Kurunegala (part) districts and carries a heavy volume of water. The Kalu Ganga reservoir located nearly 10 km from Moragahakanda, will be linked by a tunnel. The Hurulu Wewa reservoir in the North Central Province will be linked by the Upper Elahera canal; while the NCP canal taking water to North Central and Northern Province will terminate at Iranamadu Tank.
Not surprisingly, the original proposal had been modified to accommodate requests from different sections of people supported by local politicians; this includes feeding nearly 1,000 minor tanks in the North Central Province. A sub-project of the canal is expected to feed Padaviya, Wahalkada and Pavattakulam scheme, domestic and industrial water supply to Anuradhapura, Trincomalee, Polonnaruwa and Matale districts, where people are suffering from kidney diseases due to contaminated water. Satisfying everyone’s demands mean, though, that only a small fraction of water will reach the final target; therefore, the government has now initiated a feasibility study on the diversion of Mahaweli Water to Northern Province planned to be implemented with the completion of the Moragahakanda – Kalu Ganga project. In all this the object of the professionals must be to assist the people to achieve self-sufficiency in water to meet the daily needs and enhance water stored both over and underground in all regions to enable agriculture and related industrial sectors to flourish and increase their productivity to reach export markets and earn much needed revenue for the nation. When it is not feasible in extreme places like the small islands south-west of Jaffna peninsula and elsewhere to supply harvested rain water, consideration must be given to introduce desalination plants as appropriate, taking care of the valuable by product brine waste that is much talked these days by loud mouthed political opponents both in the north and elsewhere as an environmental polluter.
More multi-purpose projects are needed to prevent flooding in wet zones by constructing surge alleviating surface reservoirs with dams at appropriate locations along the rivers to take in them, the excess flood waters that would otherwise cause severe floods. Then release the collected flood water, in a controlled manner to the dry zones and by clearing the paths downstream to enable, any spilled excess water to reach the sea without flooding. At the same time, to overcome droughts in the dry zones, it is necessary to renovate and rebuild or construct new surface reservoirs and artificially charge underground reservoirs at appropriate locations and link them to nearby Perianal Rivers in the regions as similar to the Mahaweli Master Plan (MMP). As most of the rivers in the dry zones are not perianal it will be necessary to enhance the volume of water to them by linking them to the above said newly constructed surge alleviating surface reservoirs on all perianal rivers in the wet zones. By adopting these flood water management practices the authorities could overcome hazard situations caused by droughts and flooding turning them into opportunities to benefit of the people. Possible if the authorities and people get rid of their present “Is the glass half empty or half full?” mind set.