Sri Lanka: Uma Oya —The Tunnel of Tears

People have been becoming refugees of their own lands in several divisional secretariat areas of Uva province including Bandarawela and Wellawaya.

by Kalana Krishantha

(September 10, 2017, Kandy, Sri Lanka Guardian) It was 28th of June 2017. Whole Bandarawela Town situated in Uva Province of Sri Lanka seemed like stuck in one place. All the day to day tasks were interrupted and people were protesting against ongoing, “Uma Oya” project while all the state institutes, private merchant shops, schools and etc., were closed as a part of the protest. This was a very recent public uprising against “Uma Oya” project, which has been controversial topic since the beginning of the project proposal.

What is the Uma Oya project? The Uma Oya Hydropower Complex (also internally called Uma Oya Multipurpose Development Project or UOMDP) is an irrigation and hydroelectric complex currently under construction in the Uva Province of Sri Lanka. History goes back to 1989 when the first evaluation was conducted by the Sri Lanka’s Central Engineering and Consultancy Bureau.

However, since the beginning of estimations from 1989, governments were failed to initiate the project. Because most of the funding resourced bodies like Asian Development Bank rejected to give funds for this project because of sensitive environmental and ethical issues. One of the aims of this project is transferring the water resources of Uva province (Badulla and Monaragala districts) to Hambantota district.

Nonetheless, the Former President Rajapaksa, a native of Hambantota District, along with his Iranian counterpart, former President Mohammad Ahmadinejad, relaunched the project during his official visit to Sri Lanka in 2008. The basic funds were allocated by the Iranian export development bank and Iranian company “Farab” after accepting the irrigation and construction tasks without considering environmental evaluation report. There were serious allegations of taking US$ 553 for this project to repay within 20 years as a debt because at the beginning the cost of the project was estimated at US$ 250.

However, after the inauguration in 2008, there was huge public distresses over this. The related environmental project was created by the University of Sri Jayawardanepura in November 2010 and there were so many weaknesses in the report, at least scholars who created that were unable present alternative proposals at the end of the report. The report was open to public for a one month since 2010 November to December and many farmers associations, civil society organizations, concerned individuals presented amendments and positive proposals for environmental report, but unfortunately what happened was all the amendments were neglected and in April 2012, Central Environmental Authority had to approve the project and its environmental evaluation report as a result of considerable political influences of former government.

After that project was launched and the tragedy began. Rainy seasons of the Uma basin and the Southern Province coincide. Both areas receive rain from the Northeast Monsoon. During the Northeast Monsoon, the reservoirs and tanks of the Southern Province overflow.

Thus, the excess water of the Uma River cannot be stored in these reservoirs as proposed by the Uma Oya-The Tunnel of Tears project. Indubitably, Uma Oya project is a fruitless waste of time, energy and money. So, water conservation for the drought seasons in Hambantota is not a practical thing. However, unfortunately, the project was approved.

Most of the developmental processes of the project were being carried out in the central highlands. Loss of soil stability due to vibration generated during underground mining activities, changes in the course of water springs and many effects to the water streams are some major adverse effects likely to be brought about by this project. This is extremely detrimental to this area since it is already highly susceptible to landslides. Mining activities aggravated the threat of landslides, soil erosion, citation of water bodies, and drop of the water table in the areas involving the underground conduits. A whole project consists of the 25-kilometer-long tunnel system.

However, until now only part of it was completed. But people have been suffering due to it. They are losing their lively hoods. Paddy farming and animal farming have been equally threatened while archaeological sites, schools, religious places have been in a line of fire due to unforeseen landslide threats. The work main tunnel has been interrupted due to heavy water leakages in tunnel while subordinate tunnels were finished. People have been becoming refugees of their own lands in several divisional secretariat areas of Uva province including Bandarawela and Wellawaya. Water resources have been heavily damaged.

Country is suffering due to lack of vegetable production and increasing of vegetable prices. Actually, many vegetable farming areas were totally abandoned due to land gaining process in the development project and it is adversely affecting the environment.

Around 7100 houses were damaged so far as the result of unstable soil and vibrations waves which were generated by under earth drilling or mining process. Around 2300 acres of paddy fields were wasted. Not a single farmer or house owner receives their compensatory payments.

Actually, not only Rajapaksa regime, as well as current government should responsible for Uma Oya tragedy, because they have continued the process despite their election promise of terminating the project.

Meanwhile, a few days later the land mark protest held in Bandarawela by the people in the area, the president seeks the help of foreign advisers in this regard despite irrespective statements of government ministers who are boasting that they are going to continue this project under any circumstances.

As results of President’s effect, Norwegian experts came here, and they investigated the incident and finally submitted a report to the President. Norwegian expert Bent Aagaard who inspected the Uma Oya Project noted that project already caused many disturbances in Bandarawela area. He says that the method used for the Project had not been capable of strengthening properly the tunnel wall and to seal them with strong grout materials.

Mr. Aagaard made these remarks in the interim report submitted to President Sirisena at the presidential residence in Colombo on 4th August. He has further noted that the basic studies had not forecast the probability of large water leakage in the tunnel;

“Excavation must be done by using suitable Uma Oya-The Tunnel of Tears machinery on the tunnel wall and grouting all the leaks in the tunnel to ensure that there will be no seepage in the tunnel in the future,” he observed.

He was in the perception that comprehensive basic study could have avoided the water ingress into the tunnel leading to a severe water dearth in some areas. Meanwhile, President said it was regrettable that a series of troubles had arisen during the project as the past government had hurriedly begun the project without comprehensive study of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).

The President requested the expert to prepare a comprehensive report on how the leakage could be completely stopped and the reasons for not taking into the consideration the water leakage in the previous reports;

“The government plans to obtain expert advice prior to implementation of the next project in which a 22 Km long tunnel is to be constructed,” he stated further.

We are now in the mid of September. Still, there is no obvious solution for this burning issue. Let’s hope things will happen in favour of people and environment of the area instead of fulfilling despicable desires and expectations of politicians.

The writer is an undergraduate of Psychology at Kaatsu International University.

Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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