Samanalawewa was doomed from the start

| by Pearl Thevanayagam

(December 14, 2013 – London - Sri Lanka Guardian) Camelia Nathaniel has re-opened the can of worms afflicting our country’s foolhardy dam projects. While Chogm and war crimes hit the headlines in the last few weeks she wrote an investigative story on the Samanalawewa Dam in the Sunday Leader recently which was obfuscated by politicians and their shenanigans.

Her reporting is a matter of fact and no fluff journalism. “Dam in Danger” she wrote did not attract the attention it deserved although it is of national importance and a serious cause for our environmental concern.

Sri Lanka has already lost two of its landmark waterfalls, Devon and St Clairs, thanks to the then Power and Energy Minister, Anududdha Ratwatte, who believed these natural beauties should be forfeited for small scale hydro-electric power projects. It is heart-breaking to watch these breath-taking waterfalls in all its natural splendour – St Clairs flowing like seven bridal veils and Devon cascading in full strength in the Hatton area - disappear.

Victoria Dam commissioned by Britain with the Queen gracing its opening displaced thousands of farmers whose very sustenance depended on the rivers which provided them with agriculture and its produce to sustain them. Their wails were described in her book Paddy Birds , written by Lalitha Withanachchi, a senior journalist at the Daily News in the nineties. Mahaweli diversion during JRJ’s tenure with Israel’s contribution deprived Kandyan farmers of their livelihood and dispersed them to the East where they became strangers and exposed to unfamiliar territory they never envisaged.

Kandy went under water during the construction of Victoria Dam and we are about to see another flood disaster through the myopic vision of a government whose sight is set on short term profits to the detriment of villagers who co-existed in their simple farming way; close to nature and close to earning their rightful living. While they farmed several acres and were self-sufficient, the then Mahaweli Minister Gamini Dissanayake compensated them with 1.5 acres of degraded tea land. Unlike rice and vegetable, tea cannot be grown on a small scale, and its yields do not bring immediate profits. These were neither planters not speculators who could grow tea but down-to-earth paddy and vegetable farmers and dirt-poor.

Victoria Dam was also a cunning showpiece to procure international funding for purposes other than agriculture. It was only a façade for JRJ to procure arms to quell JVP and LTTE rebellion. Victor Ostrovsky, a former MOSSAD (Israeli secret service) agent, revealed in his book –By way of Deception – co-authored by Clare Hoy - that Israel with the connivance of US provided World Bank and IMF funding ostensibly to support Mahaweli Project but in fact diverted the funds to arm Sri Lanka with weapons to fight the rising insurgency.

President Premadasa set up the Mossad Commission in 1991 with seven eminent judges presiding to inquire into Ostrovsky at the BMICH who branded Sri Lankan soldiers sent to train in Haifa along with Tamil insurgents as apes and that they believed the industrial vacuum cleaners exhibited were weapons. Premadasa took umbrage Sri Lankans were compared to apes and not that Ostrovsky revealed Israelis trained both government soldiers and Tamil militant groups side by side without each other knowing they were from the same country. Presidential commissions have come and gone with nary a report in sight to this day despite several lakhs of rupees spent on the proceedings which were held daily for nigh on 12 months.

As a child, I spent most of my holidays at Stellenberg and Loolecondera estates in Pupuressa and Gampola respectively. They were in stark contrast to Jaffna’s arid climate and we enjoyed the waterfalls, bathing in the cool rivers, visiting tea factories and plucking tea along with the plantation workers there. Jaffna and the upcountry were two different worlds and Kandy made us forget the horrible nuns in the convent we were forced to return to after a blissful holiday. I also remember feeling sorry for the tea-pluckers who supplied my dad’s uncle, a medical practitioner, with fresh vegetables while they subsisted on left over cabbages, leeks and carrots living in line rooms with the whole extended family and farmyard animals sharing their dwellings. At the age of 12, I felt coolies by which term the British branded them was grossly unfair since they were also our brethren and Tamils. By God did they enjoy life. During those holidays I only saw festivals with singing and dancing.

Reminiscing aside, way back in 1992, Samanalawewa was breaching its bunds through an off-sight of the contractors who disregarded warnings from expert engineers. Built in 1987 with a six billion rupee (US$ 16 million) loan from the Japanese Government, the dam was intended to supply more than one-third of the country’s electricity needs. In September 1992, the dam sprang a leak. State media played it down calling it a `trickle’. The `trickle’ happened to be a 7000 litre per second gush from the right side of the dam. Foreign consultants hired to conduct feasibility studies had consistently ignored warnings from local scientists that the Udawalawe Region’s soft, porous calcium deposits made it unfit for a massive three-mile long structure. The dam holds a tank designed to generate a maximum of 120megawatts of electricity. The leak put paid to that euphoria and it failed to produce a single micro-watt of power.

The rest is history repeating itself with short-sighted policies of ill-informed politicians hiring ill-advised foreigners who are bent on making a fast buck bribing them. Dams are damp squids not unlike the re-awakening of the Hambantota electorate with its port and airport not making any profit but draining the country of its funds all because the President hails from this outback and he desperately wants to etch his name there in double-quick time. 

(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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