Will the end justify the means on Uma Oya project in Sri Lanka?

20170629_144019Only few Sri Lankans would agree the end justified the means on many major projects handled by the state in the recent past. For it did not matter to the contractors who executed these projects if the means used were correct or incorrect; bad or immoral; as long as they accomplished what was wanted from them. Only the involved politicians clearly believed that the end justified the means, for it is the common believe among the people that these politicians benefited from these projects, that they had allowed the contractors to use all kinds of nefarious means to complete the projects. In all cases the people had to suffer by the impacts and they could not even protest about it not long ago. Under the present government at least people are able to make a protest as demonstrated by the dawn to dusk hartal campaign the other day at Bandarawela to repair leak in the tunnel under construction for the Uwa Oya Multi-purpose Development Project. In reality no project can have zero impact; and there has to be some sense and reason driven into these people to protest and the underlying message was basically objections to developments on environmental issues and therefore it is all about minimizing or taking measures to alleviate the impact and finding a balance between environmental issues and development.

The Uma Oya Multi-Purpose project, involve the construction of two reservoirs on tributaries of the Uma Oya and water will be diverted to Kirindi Oya basin which will carry water to Hambantota through a 25 km long underground tunnel across mountains in Bandarawela. A dam will be built at Puhulpola in Welimada and a reservoir at Diaraba and when completed a powerhouse further downstream would generate 90MW of electricity and irrigate 5,000 hectares of agricultural land. Many cautious environmentalists warned that the Uma Oya watershed cannot sustain such a large water diversion project. Yet the project was categorized by the previous regime as an important project due to loan commitment with the donor Iranian Government, who was providing financial and technical assistance. The government chased with the project for its irrigation and power generation benefits and launched in 2008, without a proper plan or a feasibility study or an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) or any sort of permission from any relevant government agencies setting a very bad precedent. With Contractors not familiar with the geology of the site, there were fears expressed by local experts that the project will end up with poor quality products as the project was flawed by many short-sighted decisions taken; including use of incorrect machinery and tools for the tunneling work and the local engineers were left with to resolve problems that created more environmental and social damage resulting in the project being halted on several occasions.

Normally the hot weather dries up wells; but brooks and wells dried up within months of commencing tunneling works that led to a `water leak’, that caused severe water shortages for villagers in and around the Uma Oya Project. But tunneling continued despite more and more wells turning dry in the Heel Oya area in Bandarawela. Authorities fearing that the trend could get worse took all possible measures to reduce the ingress of water. The drilling operation continued tunneling through shallow water aquifer increased the ingress and the water source for farmlands of ten villages was lost; affecting severely the livelihoods of the Bandarawela area farmers. Work stopped again as tunneling cracked open an underground water line causing a leak; construction of the tunnel recommenced after the leak was sealed. When one third way into the tunnel construction the environmentalists said when the tunnel is completed, the hilly areas of the Uva Province will be prone to severe landslide threats as the works were in unstable rocky lands. They further warned that with the construction of the Uma Oya project, more water would be diverted from the river and the people living nearby were likely to suffer water shortages; because even without the dam, the water level of the Uma Oya River drops drastically during the dry seasons. By constructing the dam and diverting of water from the river during dry months would drastically reduce the water available for drinking and irrigating the fields and that the project would not be able to generate any electricity during the months of December-April. Thus present government inherited yet another poorly planned and uncompleted project and having to settle loan taken for the project by the previous regime. Civil organizations, environmentalists and victims in Bandarawela staged several protest campaigns demanding a permanent closure of the project and urging the government to protect their lives, have decided to continue with their protest campaigns until the government takes a stern decision on the project.

Many mega projects in the recent past have caused direct and more indirect damages most of which are either not made known or ignored by the authorities on the basis of end justified the means. The Upper Kotmale 150 MW plant hydropower project was rejected in 1994 due to possible impacts due to destruction of waterfalls, mainly St Clair Major, St Clair Minor, Devon and decrease of water to Ramboda, Puna and Pundal waterfalls, Possible earth slides in the region where it is proposed to construct 22 kilometre long tunnels to bring water from Ramboda Oya, Puna Oya, Devon Oya and Pundal Oya. Damage to the lifestyle of the people at Talawakele which will be submerged partially, Heavy soil erosion of the area (it is estimated that 15% of the reservoir will be filled annually), Drying up of about a 30 km long downstream stretch of the rivers and its impacts on the fauna and flora and the water users, Design uncertainties such as lack of flash flood area, Lack of proper plan for the relocation of about 600 families. It was very obvious that the construction of Upper Kotmale hydropower project was very risky and a non-viable project, because during a major drought it cannot generate a single Mega Watt of electricity, since this was a Run of the River (ROR) type project and aim of the project will be lost during a drought season. But the Upper-Kotmale Hydro Power project was given approval by the last regime in August 1998.

Early this year, due to poor management the unstable garbage dumped at Meethotamulla site collapsed causing yet another a manmade disaster that killed many, made hundreds of families and caused heavy damage to properties and infrastructure as reported in an earlier posting in Northern Breeze. The dump itself was created during the last regime, with the plan to clean Colombo city when the city garbage was sent daily to be dumped at Meethotamulla.

This was followed by even greater disaster caused by floods and landslides in the southern region with heavy damage and destruction in many districts including the Ratnapura, Kalutara and Galle districts, while the drought continued in the rest of the country. These disasters are made worse by utilization of for unauthorized construction of structures on lands that are reserved for flood water flow. Added to this due to substandard constructions buildings have collapsed in the city and other places due to improper or lack of proper procedures being adopted during construction and resulted debris have blocked the path of flood water.

Northern Province too has had its share of project failures and many were covered in earlier postings of Northern Breeze. These includes the limestone extracted locally for use at the KKS Cement Factory that left large craters with depths below sea-level at KKS in the peninsula that could end up polluting the groundwater by letting seawater to seep. In particular during the period of the last regime, pollution caused by dumping industrial waste and the resulting Fuel Oil and Grease, “FOG” that halted supply of drinking water to people in Chunnakam town and its neighbourhood still left unresolved, all confirming cases of the means not justifying the end.

As the Lunugamwehera reservoir which is in the Southern part of the country was a failure due to the bad siting caused by clearing more lands than the capacity of the reservoir and because the Kirindi Oya does not provide enough water to it. As a remedy the Uma Oya Diversion and Manik Ganga Diversion to meet the water demand was launched in 2008 and the environmental issues were not taken care of by the project’s contractors an Iranian company, which was awarded the contract to design and carry out the project. It is now clear that the under the previous government many politicians involved had turned a blind eye allowing the contractor to use all kinds of nefarious means; perhaps because they with others received benefits from the projects or just clearly believed that the end justified the means. On such large projects if experts were not available in house, should have employed competent consultants to supervise the total project from design stage to construction; if it was done then these consultants have failed in their duties or perhaps an oversight of the part of the involved ministries and it is the ordinary people as always the final underdogs who suffer. The present government has appointed three member sub-committee made up of three cabinet ministers to carry out an investigation on the controversial Uma Oya Multipurpose Project, delayed due to agitation by the people and campaigns by environmental groups.