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Water, water everywhere and not a drop of clean water

Whither Nandikadal, Mavilaru and Weliweriya

| by Pearl Thevanayagam

(August 11, 2013, London, Sri Lanka Guardian) Nandikadal is the media’s fashionista cliche hacked to death to bring the spotlight on the war which finished the LTTE. But these days, not many talk about Mavilaru, the river that launched in full force the ethnic war with the closure of its sluice gates by the LTTE which prompted the government to send in troops to take control on August 12, 2006.

Yet again, ironically seven years later this August, another water fight is taking place. Weliveriya and water pollution with effluvia from a rubber gloves factory belonging to Hayleys Group are now hitting headlines and reaching wide international attention from human rights groups. The government stands accused yet again of its street credentials in sending full blown military to quell a storm in a tea-cup.

Management of water in Sri Lanka is so muddled that there are Ministry of Irrigation and Power, National Water Supply and Drainage Board, Envonmental Protection Authority, Ministry of Environment and other foreign commercial ventures vying for the management of our ground water such as IMMI ( International Irrigation Management Institute) now operating under a different nomenclature (this writer stands corrected). None of these institutions have a coherent relationship with one another.

When Panos Institute commissioned this writer to research on ground water and potable water in 1993 it became a nightmare since the many arduous trips to these institutions turned out to be a waste of time and effort. There was no co-ordination among them. Worse still, research on the subject in the North and East was zilch.

As Sri Lanka continues to promote foreign countries such as US, India, China and others to rely on our cheap labour with free trade concessions in manufacturing which entails chemical waste to end up in our waterways, it is turning a blind eye to the long term adverse effects such as pollution and poisoning of drinking water and water for irrigation. Colombo is a stew of effluvia flowing from its hotels and chemical industries dumping their poisons into its waterways and Beira Lake is a case in point. The dwellers by the Beira are dirt-poor and they do not have the gumption or clout to challenge these companies.

On the other hand, the villages of Weliveriya dared to challenge the manufacturers of rubber gloves and ended up with several lives lost thanks to the big arm tactics of the government and its cronies.

Had these shenanigans happened in the US, there would be environmentalists tied to trees and Green Peace ships despatched with the whole world advocates of the environment mobilised to challenge the leadership not unlike the occupy movement which began in Seattle, Washington against WTO (World Trade Organisation).

Today’s Sunday Times editorial could not have put it better when it said that wars were fought over water; the sustenance of life, and Lord Buddha had mediated over villages embroiled in water related conflicts.

Rolling back the years to 2006, Mavilaru irrigated a considerable tract of the district’s agricultural lands in the North-East and the LTTE believed the government had forcibly repatriated 15,000 families who were Sinhala farmers into the North-East. The LTTE would perceive this action as a continuation of Dudley Senanayake’s Mahaweli diversion scheme to historically claim the Granary of East (as the Eastern Province was known since ancient times since it provided rice to the whole of the island) as majority Sinhala land.

They also believed the shutting off the water supply would relieve those Tamil farmlands facing drought through re-diverting its waters.

The ending of war brought dividends to the Rajapaksa government and it is still in an euphoric state of high worse than upper drugs, unleashing terror on dissenters be they fighting for the rights of potable and clean water or university students agitating for their rights. Politicising of the water issue is just the tip of the iceberg. Its abysmal human rights records since annihilating the LTTE does not bode that well. And it is facing international scrutiny on all fronts with the upcoming UNHRC report. Ms Navi Pillai has that much more ammo to bring an end to the Rajapaksa government; CHOGM or no CHOGM.

(The writer has been a journalist for 24 years and worked in national newspapers as sub-editor, news reporter and news editor. She was Colombo Correspondent for Times of India and has contributed to Wall Street Journal where she was on work experience from The Graduate School of Journalism, UC Berkeley, California. Currently residing in UK she is also co-founder of EJN (Exiled Journalists Network) UK in 2005 the membership of which is 200 from 40 countries. She can be reached at pearltheva@hotmail.com)

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