The recently initiated ‘Uma Oya Multi Purpose Project’ appears to be another risky project which could eventually result severe impacts to the central hill zone. Although there are abundant examples of the damage caused by the consecution of reservoirs are available, the government is eagerly looking forward of implementing the project due to the interest in funds despite the possibility of putting the environment, agriculture, people and the next generations to danger and making them debtors. Pre-publicity, foundation laying and commencement of the project was carried out expending a significant amount of money. However, laying the foundation for the project without a proper plan, a feasibility study or an environmental impact assessment or any sort of permission from any relevant government agencies can be is a serious precedence for the society.
Ministry of Irrigation and Water Management is acting as the executing agency in implementing the project. It is a disappointing situation to observe that this government agency has been giving publicity and implementing the project violating the law of environment and this undermining of environmental law and providing wrong example to the society. The present government has been continuously providing such incorrect precedence undermining the environmental law and implementing various projects to fulfill their own aspirations. The voice of the people or the intellectuals is not being considered. This situation was seen not only in this occasion, but also during the issue of the International Airport Project in Weerawila. People had to take legal action and go to the courts against the violation of environmental law and fundamental rights.
It was first planned to lay the foundation atone in Puhulpola area in Welimada, which is the place where the project starts. However, due to the strong opposition of the people in that area who were aware of the harmful impacts, the government had to shift the foundation laying ceremony to Alikota area in Wellawaya, where the power house is planned to be built.
The Project Scope
The total cost of the Uma Oya Multi Purpose Project is Rs. 15,000 millions. It is expected to irrigate 25,000 acres of paddy lands both in Uva Wellassa and Ruhuna Yala and Maha seasons. It is planned to cultivate 12,000 acre new land with paddy. It is further expected that this project could provide water to the Hambantota Port, Weerawila International Airport and Hambantota Industrial zone. The entire project aims to solve the drinking water problems in Uva, Wellassa and Ruhuna and also to supply sufficient water for the Lunugamwehera Reservoir. Another major objective of the project is to construct a 100MW power house which can be connected to the national grid.
With all these objectives, the government has recognized this project as the largest ever project to be implemented in Sri Lanka after the Mahaweli Development Project.
However, it is vital to examine thoroughly whether the project can achieve the expected results or whether it will be another project which will devastate the environment and make the next generation debtors.
Two reservoirs will be constructed by building two dams across Puhulpola Oya and Mahatotilla Oya, two tributaries of Uma Oya. The water accumulated in these reservoirs will be diverted in to Southern Province. Puhulpola Oya, which is also known as Delgolla Oya, flows from Horton Plains, Hakgala and Bomuru Ella and it will be dammed at Puhulpola area building a 25-acre reservoir. Mahatotilla Oya, which flows from areas such as Balagala, Dambetenna and Haputale, will be dammed at Dyraba area and a 10 acre reservoir will be built there. These two reservoirs are to be built about 2-3 km ahead of the place where the two streams unite to Uma Oya. The two reservoirs will be used not to store up water, but to divert water to Southern Province. In other words, these two proposed reservoirs of 25 and 10 acre size are not capable of storing a large quantity of water.
The water diverted from these two reservoirs is directed towards Wellawaya area through a 23-kilometre long tunnel which has a diameter of 3.29 metres. The powerhouse is proposed to be established in Alikota Ara area above the town of Wellawaya. Water released from the power house is released to Alokota Ara, a tributary of Kirindi Oya. This water will be diverted by Handpanagala Anicut to Handapanagala Wewa and to Lunugamwehera Reservoir. It is proposed to develop a 5,000 hectare land stretch as new paddy land along the left bank of Kirindi Oya in the areas between Handapanagala Anicut and Lunugamwehera Reservoir.
Will Uma Oya Project be a Successful Project?
At present, water of Uma Oya has been accumulated to Rantembe reservoir and diverted to Mahaweli C and Mahaweli B zones including Aralaganwila according to Mahaweli Master Plan. Hence, a further diversion of water to South could result a serious water shortage in Mahaweli C and B zones. This project could endanger an already developed area in the aim of solving the water crisis of another area. It will then be essential to provide water to meet the demand of water in Mahaweli C and B zones by implementing another irrigation project expending huge amounts of funds. It is regrettable to see that this type of plans is prepared by planners who are yes-men of politicians.
Both the southern region and the watershed of Uma Oya receive water during the same monsoon rains, the North-East monsoon. During these rains both Handapanagala tank and Lunugamwehera Reservoir normally overflow after receiving water of Kirindi Oya. Apart from this, Weheragala Project, which diverts water of Menik Ganga to Lunugamwehera Reservoir, is almost completed.
In such a situation, Handapanagala Tank and Lunugamwehera reservoir do not have the capacity to store water diverted under the proposed Uma Oya project. As both the reservoirs to be build under the project are smaller reservoirs, these could not store a large amount of water. Water level of Uma Oya drops during the dry zone and it will be impossible to provide water for Handapanagala Tank and Lunugamwehera Reservoir. Diversion of Uma Oya water in such a situation will be a grave injustice for the people who are cultivating in the lower regions of Uma Oya. As the forests of the watershed of Uma Oya are already cleared and under clearing for cultivation water level of Uma Oya drops sharply at the onset of the dry season. In that case the amount of hydro power expected to generate by the new power house and provide to the national grid will be minimum during the dry season. Hence this highly expended project could not be able to deliver the expected outcomes.
Watershed of Uma Oya is an area where high soil erosion is taking place. Due to the loosening of soil for cultivation of vegetables in areas such as Nuwara Eliya and Welimada result this severe erosion during the rainy season. The high amount of silt has accumulated in Rantembe reservoir and 60% of the capacity has already got filled. In such a situation the small reservoirs built in Uma Oya will get filled with silt in a very short period of time. This will make the project not capable to achieve its expected outcomes. Although a project was implemented to conserve the upper watershed area of Uma Oya under the Upper Watershed Management Project implemented by the Ministry of Environment, it was unproductive. Therefore building reservoirs in Uma Oya without conserving the upper watershed areas of the Uma Oya will not yield any expected results as well as vest the damage to Handapanagala Tank and Lunugamwehera Reservoir.
Further to that, this project will result the accumulation of chemical residues in Handapanagala Tank and Lunugamwehera Reservoir. The water with high chemical levels originates from the excessive use of chemicals in vegetable plantations in Nuwara eliya and Welimada areas. This could result kidney disorders and other health disorders caused by agrochemicals, of which the people in some of the Mahaweli areas suffer at present. Based on these facts, it is obvious that if the project is implemented without a proper feasibility study that consider the above mentioned issues in depth could result a waste of huge amounts of funds and make the future generation debtors.
The Impact of the Project
The impacts of the project will be suffered by people in three areas. It includes the people who are directly displaced; people who live in the downstream of Uma Oya who will suffer water shortages and the people who are living in the areas where the earth will be made unstable due to the tunneling process.
The areas which will be submerged from the Puhulpola and Dyaraba reservoirs include villages such as Kotawra Udagama and Pahalagama, Puhulpola, Hagiliella, Kebilladowa, Pahala Mirahawatta, Matetilla and Malitta. These villages are situated in an area where steep slopes are situated and paddy cultivation is conducted according to terraced cultivation. Existence of a thin layer of soil is an outstanding character in this area and it results the occurrence of landslides during the rainy seasons. Landslides are being observed by us even in the areas selected to construct the reservoirs. After the construction of the reservoirs, the soils from landslides will be accumulated to the reservoirs. This trend could further increase due to the unstabilised nature of soil layers caused by the boring and blasting carried out during the dam building and tunnel making process. This situation directly affects the capacity of these reservoirs. Building dams in Welimada area without thinking about these impacts could be a waste of money.
There is a serious shortage of drinking water and a shortage of irrigation water in the areas associated with Puhulpola Oya and Matetilla Oya and Uma Oya. People of the area suffer from these water problems for a long time and they were expecting politicians to implement various water projects. However, none of these problems have been solved yet. In such a situation, diversion of water to Southern Province is a violation of fundamental rights of the people of Uma Oya area. The majority of the people in the area oppose the Uma Oya project. Some people support the project as they will be able to obtain a job in the project and to earn their living as they do not have sufficient water for agriculture. This was the reason for a large number of people from Welimada participated in this year’s May Day rally organized by the government held in Dehiattakandiya. Applications for jobs in Uma Oya Project are available for sale in shops in Welimada and surrounding villages. Social problems in the area are the key cause for this situation. Instead of solving their problems, any effort taken to divert water to other areas could cause the residents further suppression.
People believe that the proposed drinking water project in Matetilla Oya area could also be affected by the Uma Oya Multi Purpose Project. There will be limited amounts of water available for the downstream areas of Uma Oya after the damming of Uma Oya in Puhulpola and Dyaraba areas. Specially areas such as Udaperuwa, Hawelagama, Galpaditenna, Weliarawa, Diyakole, Pahaminitota, Horatota, Deegalla Pallegama, Panakanniya, Mahakumbura, Mdeipokuna, Bamgarapana, Hatkinda, Maswatta, Wetalawa, Galaniha, Yalagamuwa, Beramada, Mudagamuwa, and Bathmedilla will be affected. This will have a serious effect on the groundwater level of the areas on left and right banks of Uma Oya. This could negatively affect the drinking and irrigation water supplies of the areas. Specially, irrigation projects such as Matetilla Oya Project, Bakmedilla Project and Minipe Project could suffer a water shortage due to diversion of Uma Oya water to the Southern region.
The proposed project aims to build a massive tunnel which is 23km in length and 3.29metres in width to carry water to the powerhouse. This tunnel will be build across several mountain ridges. Number of areas could be affected with landslides and lowered groundwater levels due to the construction of this tunnel. These include Dyaraba, Balatota Ella, Koskanuwela, Dikkapitiya, Malwatta, Malitta, Demodera, Halpe, Kitalella, Rawana Ella, Karandagolla, Ella town and Ambatennegama areas.
Adverse effects such as soil layers being turned unstable and lowering of ground water level could be resulted from the boring and blasting operations during the tunnel making process. The unstable soil layers could cause landslides during the rainy season. This process was observed in areas such as Victoria, Randenigala etc during the recent years. It was obvious that the cause for the situation in those areas were the tunneling carried out. Government plans to build a massive tunnel placing settlements and agricultural lands in serious dangers while previous experiences are available is not an approvable situation. Planning without a correct feasibility study is a step to put the whole hill zone in to danger.
When we consider the above facts it is clear that four Divisional Secretariat divisions are impacted by this project, namely Hali Ela, Uva Paranagama, Bandarawela and Welimada DS divisions. Hence there should be a proper feasibility study carried out to identify the feasibility of implementing the project. Further to that, proper written approval should be gained from environmental authorities after conducting an environmental impact assessment (EIA) which is essential according to the environmental law in Sri Lanka.
Resettling the displaced - where?
The people displaced due to the proposed project are to be re-settled in Handapanagala area. It is proposed to provide highland and paddy land for these people. This is due to the lack of sufficient highland or paddy land in or around Welimada area. This is an awful situation. It could take years to the community to get familiarize with the environmental conditions of that novel area, where the climate is not familiar to them. It will take more time to get familiar with the crop patterns and land preparation techniques and to convert the new area suitable to cultivation in these new areas. This time period could be about 5 to 10 years. These development refugees could suffer from serious problems and setback during this period. It should be thought twice of this type of situation are justifiable.
Violation of environmental law
According to the Gazette bearing the number 772/22 and dated 24th June 1993, a prewritten environmental approval is required after conducting an environmental impact assessment (EIA) report for projects such as river valley development and irrigation projects, construction of powerhouses with a capacity over 50MW and for any type of tunnel constructions. Although Uma Oya Multi Purpose Project contains actions which contains phases which come under these legal provisions, the foundation stone was laid violating all these legal regulations.
Further to this, a large amount of land will be cleared in the area where the people will be resettled in Uva Wellassa areas. Under the above mentioned gazette notification under National Environmental Act, it is essential to obtain approval after an environmental impact assessment (EIA), when a land stretch more than 1 hectare is used for purposes other than forest related and when an area more than 50 hectares is being cleared. A loss of national funds is the result of laying the foundation stone without having a feasibility study and environmental impact assessment in a project of this scale. It is worth to question whether it is justifiable to waste public funds in a situation where there is a need to solve various needs of people including infrastructure development and rising inflation. It is further regrettable to notice the silence of Jathika Hela Urumaya, the political party which is having the Ministry of Environment, who lead towards a Dharma Rajjaya in the present situation where politicians take decisions without considering the laws and regulations, people’s lives and country’s resources.
Central Environmental Authority is the authoritative agency established under the National Environmental act, which has the powers act on these violations of environmental act. It is a grave situation to see that the Authority is unable to act on the violation of environmental law by the Uma Oya Project. Although the Authority is performs under the advice of leading environmental activists, it is in a firm silence in front of the political power. It is doubtful that whether the agency is capable of implementing law in case of violation of environmental law by the private sector.
This project is said to be the largest ever project implemented after the Mahaweli Multi Purpose Project. Government of Iran is providing a loan for this project and an agreement was signed recently. The project is planned to be completed within 4 years and the loan is to be paid back within a 20-year period which includes a 5-year grace period.
Although the Ministry of Irrigation and Water Management said that the services of local engineers will be obtained in planning and construction phases of the project, the government of Iran has vested the power of construction to an Iranian company, named FARAB. This company is the chief contractor. They have agreed to obtain the services of local engineers and draftsmen. This will result a return of a considerable amount of funds of the loan back to Iran through the company. Sri Lankans will be debtors for these funds and will have to pay it. Then what would be the final results of the project? It could be a huge environmental damage and serious social problems. We wish that the politicians, planners and government officials will soon understood the factual situation of the Uma Oya Multi Purpose Project.
Prepared by – Sajeewa Chamikara
Sri Lanka Nature Forum
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