By Shanika Sriyananda
She walked carefully on the floor fearing that her weight may deepen those cracks on the walls of her house. A larger crack which appeared recently from the wall is now running through her garden, dividing the land into two. She has put a wooden plank to bridge the two sides.
“Even when we are walking in the house, a sound comes from inside the floors. The cracks around the house are getting wider daily. We live in our own houses fearing that the buildings will collapse at any time,” said R.M. Anulawathi (54), who had built her house from her hard-earned savings as a housemaid in the Middle East.
Being a resident of Weheragalathanna village that boarders the Uma Oya Multipurpose Development project in Bandarawela, she said that the project is a curse for them.
With empty wells and abandoned paddy cultivations, over 500 families including Anulawathi’s family in Weheragalathanna are still living in the same badly damaged houses which are labelled as ‘dangerous to live’ by the authorities.
Construction work of the Uma Oya project, already completed one-third including the tunnel, has created social, economical, ecological and geological issues in 10 villages in Bandarawela.
Due to the ad hoc development project, people in these villages have become ‘development refugees’.
A growing number of complaints on the damages to houses and drying up wells and springs in the Veheragalathanna and Ella AG divisions have made the Government cease construction of the Rs.76.3 billion Uma Oya project temporarily as of now.
Villagers and environmentalists claim that the present disastrous situation is created due to the ad hoc decisions by the short sighted politicians. They are demanding a permanent shutdown of the project.
The villagers claim that their lives are in danger due to an impending disaster and request the Government to take immediate action to save their lives and properties, secure their livelihoods and also to compensate the losses.
Bodipala Hettiarachchi, the President of the newly-formed group called ‘People’s Front of the Affected Families of the Uma Oya Project’ said there are over 1,200 families whose houses are badly or partly damaged due to the project’s construction work.
“The number of houses which are getting damaged is increasing daily. People belong to 10 villages in the two AG divisions are suffering due to damages to their houses and there is a severe shortage of water with wells running dry. They lack drinking water and are compelled to depend on water distribution by the AG’s office,” he told the Daily FT.
Hettiarachchi has built his house obtaining a bank loan and he still pays an interest of nearly Rs. 40,000 for the housing loan. But he said that his house is also on the brink of collapsing with large cracks on the walls that have run up to the foundation.
“The well in the house ran dry since last December and two springs that I used to cultivate my one-and-a-half-acre land have also dried. I am compelled to abandon cultivation which I was doing for more than 50 years,” added Hettiarachchi who is in his mid-’70s.
Villagers protesting against the project in Bandarawela town
Over 15,000 people affected
Over 15,000 people have been affected due to the project that carried out underground drilling and dynamiting using heavy machinery and explosives.
“We are still staying in damaged houses as we have nowhere to go. I built my house and two other small houses for my two daughters from my savings as a housemaid. I struggled for 16 years in the Middle East to have a decent living for me and my children. How can I build these houses again?” Anulawathi lamented.
She said they have to wait in long queues to get water for bathing and washing clothes from the only spring in the village. “The water volume of this spring is also reducing daily,” she said, adding that especially women and children suffer a lot due to water shortages.
Villagers in Weheragalathenna, Makul Ella, Egodagama, Palleperuwa, Udaperuwe and Kurudugolla in the Bandarawela AG division and Heel Oya, Boralanda and Krudugolla in the Ella AG division have been affected badly.
SLNG calls for shutdown
Sri Lanka Nature Group (SLNG) has recently visited the affected areas to study the harmful impacts on villagers, losses to paddy cultivations and ground water resources – wells and springs – due to the project.
The team, comprising Prof. K.N.J. Katupotha, Thilak Kariyawasam and S. Visvalingam, has visited the villages Weheragalatenne, Makulella, Puhulpola Tunnel and village, Dyraaba (MahatotilaOya) Tunnel and dam, Pallewela land slide, Karandagolla tunnel, Hunuketiya tunnel, Kosgahawela (AlikotaAra) dam and Bambaragama land slide (top of the Karandagolla Tunnel).
They found that most of the houses in those villages are partly or fully damaged, wells and springs have dried up and swathes of agricultural lands have been abandoned due to there being no water for cultivation.
Emeritus Prof. Jinadasa Katupotha, Department of Geography of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, vehemently opposing the Uma Oya project urged the Government to permanently shut down the project due to its geographical and geological unsuitability apart from social, economical and ecological issues.
“This is one of the most unsuccessful projects in the Sri Lankan history. It is not viable to continue with the project even after addressing the main factor – the tunnel leakage. This tunnel, which starts from Puhuloya and runs up to Karandagolla and also Alikota-ara – is not suitable to be built in the site due to its poor geologic structural conditions,” Prof. Katupotha explained.
According to Prof. Katupotha, the main cause of houses being damaged and wells running dry is the project construction carried out in the unsuitable geographical and geological location. “Now this area appears as geological hazard area due to disorganised human activities. If this projects continues, landslides due to slope failures are inevitable,” he predicted.
He said that no in-depth geological investigation has been carried out by drilling to check the suitability of the bedrock conditions for the tunnel construction before commencing the project.
“The authorities said that the reason for tunnel leakage was due to limestone veins at Ambagasthanna but I ask them why they didn’t identify it prior to the project approval and why they are highlighting it only now. This clearly shows that the project was hurriedly commenced without proper studies and essential testing which should be done to get approval for such mega projects,” he claimed.
Prof. Katupotha also warned the Government not to proceed with the ill-fated project as it will cause a major calamity if the project is completed.
“The tunnel can only be repaired temporary. I say with responsibility that there are no such engineering experts in Sri Lanka who have experience in tunnel repairing. No world-recognised structural engineers have been consulted so far. Sri Lanka doesn’t have proper experience of a tunnel leakage and restoration of damaged tunnels. Due to high pressure in the upper layer of the tunnel, this can’t be restored,” he cautioned.
He said that some authorities have proposed at the meeting with the President to carry out drilling to harness ground water to solve the water shortage in the area, but it will result in extracting the remaining ground water volume. “This is not a viable solution as all remaining wells will also run dry by drilling,” he said.
Prof. Katupotha proposed that the Government save the unused allocation of Rs. 55 billion of the project fund and invest that money to build some viable surface water storage projects in the Southern Province similar to the ancient reservoirs like Thisawewa, Nuwarawewa, Kalawewa, Parakarama Samudraya, Kavudulla and Minneriya.
“The Government should come up with such projects in the Southern Province to store water during the rainy season instead of proceeding with the project,” he said.
More damage than benefits
He also urged the Government not to proceed with the politically-implemented project as there would be more damages than benefits if the project were to be fully completed.
“Sri Lanka can’t face such a high magnitude disaster in future,” he said, requesting the Government to carry out genuine in-depth studies to look into geographical, geomorphological (surface relief, drainage network etc.), geological (structure of the selected region, surface drilling system, existing ground water system), climatological (distribution of rainfall and seasonal patterns), fauna and flora of the area, socio and economic conditions of the people when approving future mega and macro projects.
Thilak Kariyawasam of the SLNG said according to their assessment considering the ecological, economical and social damages, the project should be stopped permanently.
“According to the Project Director, 47% of the funding has been spent and 30% of the project has already been completed. Five km of the 25 km long tunnel has also been completed. The project completed so far has caused great damage to the environment and people in Bandarawela. Can you imagine the massive disaster waiting to strike when the entire project is completed?” he queried.
Kariyawasam said that Uma Oya project was one of the projects after the Upper Kotmale project that received the highest number of public comments but the authorities had neglected their views when implementing the project.
“Traditional water users of the Bathmadilla and Soranathota schemes, who are mainly dependent on Uma Oya water for irrigation, suffer due to the severe water shortages and they have abandoned their agricultural lands. The vegetable cultivators in Puhulpola downstream have already been affected due to the water shortage,” he said, adding that over 1,200 farmers and 3,000 water users from Welimada to Rantambe have been affected due to the severe water shortages.
Kariyawasam accused the previous Government of having a political agenda in implementing the project. “People in Welimada have to sacrifice their lives to supply water to the development projects – Mattala Airport, Port, International Conference Hall, Hambantota Drinking Water Project in Hambantota. This is a huge white elephant,” he said.
He said this is a failed project from its inception with the first feasibility study done by the CECB in 1991 being rejected by the ADB, stating that the project was not cost effective.
During a visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2008, Iran signed the agreement to provide financial and technical assistance to the project.
It is funded by the Export Development Bank of Iran and the foundation stone of the UOMD Project was laid in Wellawaya, Alikota-ara (Oya).
“No other reputed funding agencies came up to fund the project but at last it was hurriedly signed during Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s visit to Sri Lanka. Iranians are not recognised as funders but they agreed to implement the project without going into details of any studies,” he added.
Athula Priyantha, an agricultural and environmental specialist, called people in the Moneragala and Hambantota Districts to rally against the project as they would become victims of Chronic Kidney Disease (CDK) if they were to drink water supplies from the chemical-contaminated water in Uma Oya.
“Some studies have shown that high prevalence of CDK is due to drinking water that contains a high percentage of agro chemicals. Uma Oya has been highly contaminated with agro chemicals used in paddy and vegetable cultivation in the Badulla District. These chemical components in water can’t be purified through the water treatment process. There is a danger of CDK spreading in Hambantota if drinking water is supplied by diverting water from Uma Oya to Hambantota once this project is completed,” he explained.
Explaining about agricultural losses incurred due to the project, he said over 600 farmers in Bathmadilla in Kandaketiya have abandoned paddy cultivation due to drying up water resources in Yala season.
“Farmers in other areas in the district too are facing the same water shortage for irrigation. But the previous Government in its desire to go ahead with its ambitious Uma Oya project, misled the poor traditional farmers in Bathmadilla saying the Government would construct a separate small reservoir for them to get water for irrigation. But this still remains a broken promise,” he said.
Severe water shortage
People in Bandarawela are depending on water distribution by the National Water Supply and Drainage Board and the AG’s office. They get drinking water three times a week.
According to Priyantha, both areas – Hambantota and Bandarawela – experience the same rain water pattern and when Uma Oya water is diverted to Hambantota, there would be no water to cater the irrigational and domestic water usage in Bandarawela.
“What we propose to the Government is to stop the Uma Oya project and develop the catchments – Uma Oya and Kirindi Oya – and also to develop tank systems to have a proper water storage in the Kirindi Oya basin,” he pointed out.
He said due to the prevailing severe shortage of water in the upper catchment of Uma Oya, over 60 to 70% of cultivable paddy lands have been abandoned by the farmers.
Priyantha also said that due to the high rate of soil erosion in Uma Oya upper catchment, the two small Puhuloya and Dyraaba, which are under construction now, will be silted within short period. “The Rantambe reservoir has already been silted by 65% due to soil erosion. The project has caused immense damage to Bandarawela. We request the Government to halt this project and utilise the remaining funds to restore the ecological stability of the area, to pay compensation to affected people, and to develop catchment of the Uma Oya. Over Rs. 30 billion has been already spent on the project construction and we urge the Government to use the balance funds effectively to give the benefits for the people,” he said.
Meanwhile, CEA Chairman Prof. Lal Dharmasiri said that the project contractors had not properly followed the conditions laid in the final EIA approval.
“They have not followed the environmental standards mentioned in the EIA,” he said, adding that the project contractors had violated one main condition of drilling and blasting in the presence of the officials from the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau (GSMB).
He said that this unexpected disaster – cracking of houses, wells and springs run dry – occurred as they had not followed the essential conditions mentioned in the EIA.
“However, a comprehensive study is now being carrying out by a team of experts who are looking into all aspects of the project. Once the report is submitted, the Government will decide whether to go ahead or not,” Prof. Dharmasiri said.
Project Director refutes allegations
Project Director Dr. Eng. N.S.K.N. de Silva refuted allegations that the project was commenced without proper studies. “The initial study was carried out by the Lahmeyer International from Germany in 1987 and another study was done by a German Consultancy firm in 1989,” he said.
Dr. de Silva said after the final report was submitted, the public was given time to lodge their comments. “The CEA received over 110 public comments from many environmental, farmer, community organisations and villagers. The CEA studied all those public comments and approved the EIA in 2011. According to the CEA procedure, three years was given to the project to proceed. The members of the CEA’s Monitoring Committee visited the project and gave the green light for another three years till 2017 recommending to implement some conditions in July 2014,” he said.
President meets affected families, assures relief
President Maithripala Sirisena chairing a meeting on Uma Oya project last week
President Maithripala Sirisena who met the affected people, environmentalists, civil society organisations and other stakeholders, promised to appoint a Cabinet Sub-committee to review the plans of the project.
He has also instructed the Secretary of the Ministry of Mahaweli and Environment to provide a report on the present progress of the project, financial situation and public views on the project immediately. The report will be submitted to the Cabinet soon.
“Once the comprehensive report is given, a Sub Committee will be appointed to look into the issues related to the project,” he said.
He assured people that the Government would not proceed with the project if it causes harm to the environment and people.
Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment Secretary Nihal Rupasinghe said priority had been given to repair the tunnel leakage as it was causing significant damage to water resources.
He said there were no immediate plans to relocate villages but instructions and allocation of Rs. 25 million had been released to the AG to pay compensation for the damaged houses. “If there is a need for relocation, we will consider it as a -term remedy,” he said, adding that the project authorities had been asked to rectify the conditions identified as major causes for the damages before they proceed with the project work.
“We are waiting for the comprehensive report from the expert panel to submit it to the Cabinet Sub Committee soon,” Rupasinghe said.
The report will be prepared by the experts of the CEA, National Building Research Organisation and GSMB. A team from the University of Peradeniya will also contribute their expertise for the comprehensive report.
Sajeewa Chamikara of the Environment Conservation Trust has also urged the Government to stop the project as it would cause a huge disaster if the present construction work, which is being done without following the required conditions, continues.
He said that the main cause of the present disastrous situation is due to the construction of tunnels to carry water from Puhul Oya reservoir to Dyraaba reservoir. “They have completed 16% of the tunnel construction. When the 26 km long tunnel is completed, the hilly areas of the Uva Province will be prone to severe landslide threats as the constructors carry out constructions in unstable rocky lands,” he warned.
“Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the CEA should be held responsible for putting people’s lives in danger by implementing this failed project,” Chamikara stressed.
Civil organisations, environmentalists and affected people in Bandarawela who have 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 about the project.
“We had a vehicle possession carrying black flags to educate people in the Badulla District last week. Over 20,000 people took part in the campaign to urge the Government to take speedy solutions to save our lives. We will continue with our struggle as we are living in between life and death,” Hettiarachchi said.