Bandarawela is a welknown destination for the tourists from local and foreign community who plan to journey in hill country. Anybody who visit Bandarawela for leisure purposes, have never forgotten to have a bath from waterfalls and streams. The beautiful landscape, cold weather and mild windy atmosphere has made this place a paradise. However, once a magnificent paradise is transformed into a hell due the failed Uma Oya Project. Due to the drilling and constructing a tunnel beneath the mountain area today the water streams have gone dry. Massive public protests errupted and the government had to consult help from outside experts.
Recently, Norwegian experts who inspected the Uma Oya Multipurpose Development Project that had caused many problems in the Bandarawela area have reported that the machinery used for the Project had not been capable of proper strengthening of the tunnel wall and to seal them with strong grout materials. The destruction is done by the unfinished tunnel and a remaining 4.5 kilometer stretch is yet to dug as a part of it is below the residential areas.
The series of problems had arisen during the project as the previous government had hurriedly commenced the project without proper study of the feasibility report and the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). But the present government never wanted to correct the grave errors done by the predecessor since they are following the same footsteps while criticising former regime.
A consequence of the ill-conceived Uma Oya Multipurpose Development Project in the guise of development, it has witnessed first-hand the extent of the harm caused by so-called development on people’s lives and livelihoods. Water streams and underground wells in and around Bandarawela town and surrounding villages have gone dry, numerous sinkholes have appeared causing extensive damage to property, extensive cracks have appeared in houses due to vibration caused by drilling of the underground tunnel, frequent occurrence of minor earth slips with the imminent risk of major earth slips, and falling crop yields has managed to alter the lives of thousands of families living within this area within a matter of few years.
Project of Uma Oya
However, despite this introduction and for the sake of our readers who may not have previously come across the issue of Uma Oya, let us start at the beginning. Uma Oya, which begins its course in Piduruthalagala hilltop and falls onto the Mahaweli River after navigating for a length of 75 kms (Note: for our international readers, the terms “Oya” and “Ara” refers to streams of water). The Uma Oya watershed spans over 720 square kilometres, 65% of its extent occupying the Uva province and rest the Central province. The Uma Oya project is expected to transfer 145 million cubic meters of water annually from Uma Oya to Kirindi Oya, which in turn is expected to feed Handapanagala and Lunugamwehera reservoirs. According to the Ministry of Power and Renewable Energy, the project in its full capacity is expected to irrigate 25,000 acres of paddy lands and is also expected to generate 120 MW hydro-power by the building of two diversion dams across two main tributaries of Uma Oya in Puhulpola Oya (in Welimada) and Matetilla Oya (in Dyraba) and drilling a 3.9 km tunnel to convey water from Puhulpola Oya to Matetilla Oya, and the construction of a 23km long trans-basin diversion tunnel with an underground power station. Electricity generated here will be carried along a 27 km high-tension route to Badulla, 6 km of which passes through the Rawana Falls nature reserve, causing destruction in its wake. Following generation of electricity another tunnel will carry water to the Alikota Ara, a tributary of the Kiridi Oya. From Alikota Ara, a newly constructed 26.8 km canal will convey water to Kuda Oya. Although this latter diversion is claimed to be for agricultural purposes, it truth it was planned to provide water for the development activities on the harbour, airport and the proposed oil refinery in the Hambanthota District all of which are considered to be white elephants. In total, the project will have seven underground tunnels and a number of irrigation canals.
This project was first conceived in 1991 by the Central Engineering Consultancy Bureau before being rejected by the Asian Development Bank because it was found to violate the peoples’ water rights and also due to technical errors, both of which were considered to be fundamental reasons.
However, the project again got underway in 2008 facilitated by a loan provided by Iran Export Development Bank to provide 85% of the estimated cost of USD 529 million. According to sources, its initial cost was estimated to be 250 million and the 20 year loan repayment had come at a high interest rate. The contractor for this project is FARAB Energy and Water Project Company which incidentally has its own insurance company where the project is insured creation a win-win situation for the company. Sources also claim that FARAB Insurance is in turn reinsured in other companies thus providing it with an additional fund channel by mean of settling insurance claims each time disaster hits the Uma Oya project. A fraction of this ill-gotten earnings then crawls into the authorities pockets and buys their loyalty. However the project agreement was signed by the then Heads of both States in April 2008 giving justice to the occasion. The initial Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was carried out by the company itself and two years later another EIA was carried out by a panel of experts although in a questionable manner with little geological input when considering the geological impact of the project. The legal framework for the EIA was also breached having failed to provide ongoing EIA reports throughout the project. Finally in 2011 the Central Environmental Authority gave the project its approval.
Consequences of the Cheaper Plans
On the 29th of October 2014, a few months after the commencement of tunnelling, a massive landslide occurred in Meeriyabedda (in Koslanda) claiming 42 lives. The distance from the tunnel to the location of the disaster was only 4kms and was triggered as a direct result of the tunnelling carried out at the project. Then on the 26th of December 2014 the first water leak of around 500 litres per second occurred in the tunnel, and on the very same day 18 houses only 0.5kms away from the drilling site collapsed. A second major leakage occurred soon after causing water in water springs and wells to seepinto the tunnel which consequently led to the drying up of all the water springs. Since then regular water seepage continued to occur in the tunnel in several places while the project kept on haphazardly sealing these and moving ahead.
By now, some 4,650 houses are already been fully or partially damaged while 2,350 wells and springs have already dried up. Government statistics itself state that 28,000 people are currently living within the danger zone of the affected area. The other adversities faced by the people include severe water scarcity and loss of livelihood due to the effects on agriculture. This fertile land generates a sizable portion of the country’s vegetables, potatoes, tea and dairy production and has already experienced a 35% drop in the vegetable yield in the Bandarawela area since the project began. Another example is where a turpentine plantation in proximity to the project has already begun to perish. This proves the depletion of the water table as Turpentine is known to possess a root system that extends deep into the soil as much as the tree’s upward growth.
The third water leak occurred in April this year and due to this 80 million litres of water per day were leaking by June 2017. Following the leakage, the government brought in a panel of Norwegian experts who confirmed that proper methods had not been used during tunnelling. However even after this revelation, the government merely stated that the project will commence with the proper precautions without halting the project. Their argument was that it has gone too far and cannot be stopped without huge financial loss. It is clear that when calculating this financial loss, they had miserably failed to calculate the incalculable and irreversible loss already inflicted on the society and environment. Oscar Wilde’s statement that a cynic is a man who knows the price of everything but the value on nothing, only reflects the true nature of our ruling class as a group of cynics practising and preaching cynicism to suit the whims of Capital at the expense of everything else.
Development or Destruction?
Millions of litres of precious water from the ground water table and springs that could have been utilized for years has been completely wasted due to the greed and negligence of officials and political authority who constitutionally bound to protect these resources. These springs which were drained did not provide water only to its immediate vicinity, but also provided sustenance for 103 rivers and thousands of small streams originating from the Central Hills of Lanka.
Similar development activities carried out around the world has led to even bigger disasters. The construction of a dam in Vajont, Italy in the mid-20th century caused a massive landslide and flooding killing 2000 people and destroying entire villages. During the construction of the Panama Canal there were 66 recorded instances of landslides from its surrounding hills. The destruction of the Aral Sea has led to toxic sandstorms to have a negative impact on all living things for hundreds of miles. The nuclear power plant explosion in Chernobyl which left the entire area uninhabitable for 200 years and caused thousands of fatal cancers. The Chemical plant leak in Bhopal claiming thousands of lives.
The deep water horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that released 780,000 cubic metres of oil the consequences of which is described as the biggest health crisis in the US. The Baia Mare water cyanide contamination in Romania where 100 tonnes of cyanide eventually wounding up in many of Europe’s rivers, are a few of such other disasters experienced due to human activity in the guise of development. In addition to these, phenomena such as Global Warming is now at a level where it cannot be ignored any longer and proven to be a direct result of greenhouse gas emissions from industrial activities. Thus it is apparent that development within the existing Capitalist socio-economic system where the only consideration is the rate of profit and where the true generators of wealth, the Nature that provides the resources and the Labour that transforms it into various forms to the benefit of society are exploited, any form of real sustainable development is next to impossible.
Path for Solution
Although the leaders throughout the world are bound to protect the environment by the laws that their class itself created, the law and reality stand in contradiction to each other and reflects the inner contradiction of the Capitalist systems. In addition, these laws seem to assert itself upon the working class and deals with it a heavy hand while turning a blind eye to the activities of the privileged class the effects of which overwhelms the formers. The examples are overwhelming and the damage inconceivable. If to change this situation there is this one truth we should learn before its too late, that is we should unite as one to change the existing world order.