Moragahakanda Project for north-south reconciliation

Wednesday, 11 February 2015 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

President Maithripala Sirisena on an inspection tour of the Moragahakanda Irrigation Project recently – Pic by Sudath Silva     Rainfall in the central highlands of Sri Lanka has been flowing down the Mahaweli River into the Indian Ocean at Trincomalee from ancient times. Soon after Independence, ways of utilising the Mahaweli for providing water to the dry northern areas was investigated. According to the Mahaweli Master Plan of 1958, the development of Mahaweli was to be implemented as three projects; (a) Polgolla Diversion during 1969-’73; (b) Victoria-Minipe Diversion during 1973-1977; and (c) Moragahakanda Multi-Purpose Reservoir during 1977-’80, to provide irrigation facilities to North and North-Central Provinces. Project C was estimated to cost Rs. 5,583 million (US$ = Rs. 5.95). The implementation of Polgolla Diversion including Ukuwela and Bowatenna was completed during 1973-’77, when Maithripala Senanayake was the Minister for Irrigation in the Sirimavo Bandaranaike Government. This Minister, whose origins were from Medawachchiya, and who had studied and married from Jaffna, was very much interested in Project C. With the change of government in 1977, the project scope was completely modified as the Accelerated Mahaweli Scheme (AMS) and completed within six years. Moragahakanda was not considered under the AMS. Soon afterwards, the J.R. Jayewardene Government negotiated funding for Moragahakanda with the Japanese; but communal violence in 1983 resulted in the project being postponed. The Moragahakanda Project was thereafter discussed on a number of occasions and the Japanese was willing to provide funding for it, even during a period when all other countries had boycotted Sri Lanka. The understanding amongst the political rulers was to leave Moragahakanda as part of the negotiations with Tamil parties for a final settlement of the ethnic problem. The waters of Moragahakanda would be a gift to people in the north from the Sinhala people for settling the ethnic issue.     Moragahakanda Project The Moragahakanda dam is being constructed on Amban Ganga, a major tributary of the Mahaweli which collects waters from Matale and Kurunegala (part) districts and carries a heavy volume of water. The Moragahakanda Reservoir when completed would be the second largest reservoir in the country after Victoria. The original plan was to divert Mahaweli waters to the north, carried over a 100 km long trans-basin canal (NCP Canal) over the central ridge of the country northwards and terminating at Iranamadu Tank near Kilinochchi. The waters were to satisfy the needs of the driest region of the country, especially during the Yala season (May-June), when the Northern Province gets hardly any rain.   Resurgence of Moragahakanda After nearly 50 years, in January 2007, work on the Moragahakanda-Kalu Ganga Multi-purpose Development Project was launched, and was the biggest multi-purpose development venture undertaken by the Rajapaksa Government. The total cost of the project was estimated at Rs. 6.5 billion and funding for the project is sourced through China, Kuwait and Saudi Arabian Governments as well as from ADB.     Revised Moragahakanda The Rajapaksa Government revised the scope of the project as follows: Stage 1 – Construction of Moragahakanda reservoir which includes a 62m high by 404m length rock-filled main dam plus two saddle dams. Saddle dam 1 is 51.5m high and 370m in length to be constructed with roller compact concrete. Saddle dam 2 is a 21.5m high, 275 m long earth dam which has already been completed by local engineers. The construction of the main dam and saddle dam 1 was awarded to Sinohydro Corporation of China in June 2012, including a 20 MW hydro-power plant with Chinese funds and is expected to be completed by July 2016. The total development cost for both sites totals to Rs. 48.1 billion ($ 370 million). Stage 2 – Kaluganga reservoir located nearly 10 km from Moragahakanda, the dam and other canal works to be carried out under funding from the Kuwait fund for Arab Economic Development, OPEC and Saudi Arabia. Stage 3 – The link tunnel between Moragahakanda reservoir and the Kaluganga reservoir, to be constructed under funding from the ADB. Stage 4 – The construction of the NCP canal for taking water to North Central and Northern Province, terminating at Iranamadu Tank.     Modifications The original Moragahakanda scheme was meant to transfer water along a concrete-lined NCP canal to satisfy the requirement of farmers north of Medawachchiya all the way to the Iranamadu Tank. Now, the original proposal had been modified to accommodate requests from different sections of people supported by local politicians; this includes feeding nearly 1,000 minor tanks in the North Central Province. A sub-project of the canal is expected to feed Padaviya, Wahalkada and Pavattakulam scheme, domestic and industrial water supply to Anuradhapura, Trincomalee, Polonnaruwa and Matale districts, where people are suffering from kidney diseases due to contaminated water. Satisfying everyone’s demands mean, though, that only a small fraction of water will reach the final target.   Progress of Moragahakanda The project commenced in January 2007 with much fanfare, but progress during the early years was mostly on preparatory works such as survey, identification of properties needed for construction, construction of access roads and culverts, a new bridge across Amban Ganga, settlement of evicted persons in new villages and infrastructure for the Mahaweli Authority officials. A notable feature was the proper settlement of evicted persons, including construction of small irrigation tanks for their cultivation. The contract for Moragahakanda main dam and saddle dam 1 was awarded in 2012. For Kaluganga Reservoir the initial works have been carried out and the affected persons have been resettled; however, the contract has not been awarded. The financial allocation for 2013 was Rs. 9,535 million of which Rs. 2,725 million was released from Treasury by August and was disbursed on Moragahakanda saddle dam 2, preliminary works on Kaluganga, infrastructure development and resettlement of affected families. The construction work of saddle dam No. 2 was completed by local engineers.     Statement by Maithripala Sirisena During the campaign for elections, presidential candidate Maithripala Sirisena provided an explanation for the current situation. According to him, when the President inaugurated the Moragahakanda in 2007, he was the Minister for Mahaweli Development. Soon afterwards the President wished to transfer the Ministry to his brother Basil; the transfer was dropped due to protest by MS, but funds were denied to the project and work stalled. In 2010, MS was given the Health Ministry and work on the project recommenced. Physical progress at the site confirms the statement.     Water requirement of the north The water needs of Northern Province, especially the area north of Kilinochchi, depends on water stored in Iranamadu Tank (which was built by the British), while the Jaffna peninsula depends on rain and ground water. The land in Kilinochchi is sandy, where water is easily absorbed to the ground. Available water in Iranamadu only allows cultivation of 40% of available lands. In the Jaffna peninsula, the uncontrolled drawing of ground water and the resulting sea-water seepage has converted large extents of lands uncultivable. A solution for the water seepage was offered under the ‘River for Jaffna Project,’ which was over 80% completed in the 1950s but got washed off during floods. The project envisages the conversion of Elephant Pass lagoon into a fresh water body by using the discharge of three small rivers from mainland and preventing water exit to the sea via the railway/highway barrier to the west and the landmass to the east. In addition, entry of sea-water into lagoons within the peninsula is to be prevented by barrages which have already been built. Today, the balance work on the project is to cost around Rs. 3,000 million, but the project was not supported by the last regime. If completed, within three to four years the salinity levels of water bodies will reduce progressively and it is expected to be converted to fresh water along with ground water salinity.     Jaffna Water Supply Project The Government has commenced an ambitious project to supply drinking water to the entire Peninsula and some of the surrounding islands with water obtained from Iranamadu tank. The project funded by ADB is expected to cost Rs. 20,000 million. The proposal has caused friction among politicians from mainland vs those from the peninsula. Mainland politicians question how feasible the project is to get water from Iranamadu tank, when local farmers themselves are not given adequate supply.     Future of Moragahakanda water The new Government needs to take an early decision on the direction of usage of water from Moragahakanda. Every politician in North-Central Province has demanded water for their constituencies irrespective of their real needs. Priority No. 1 would be the drinking water problem of NCP where thousands of people have been affected by kidney disease due to pesticide leaking into the water bodies of the region. With regard to additional water for over 1,000 small reservoirs in NCP, Sri Lanka has reached self-sufficiency in rice and the small increase in population numbers could be met with increase in crop output. As such, there is no necessity to increase the acreages of paddy cultivation. Our farmers’ usage of water for paddy cultivation is the highest in the whole world; priority should be in educating the farmers and agriculture officials in the proper and timely usage of water. Some lands distributed to farmers were identified as sandy and were earmarked for subsidiary crops; however, they are currently being cultivated with paddy with the farmers now demanding more water. Therefore, additional water for small reservoirs does not make sense.       NCP Canal The work on the 100km long trans-basin canal has not even started, although the Moragahakanda dam is expected to be completed in July 2016, in less than 18 months. The construction of the 100km long concrete-lined canal traversing the central ridge of the country would be no easy task. The canal would run through hills, valleys and also cross minor streams. Crossing some streams would require dams while releasing waters to current users below the canal; these dams would create reservoirs acting as buffer storage. In some sections the canal would need to be elevated as an aqueduct. The canal runs through wildlife sanctuaries and elephant crossing paths; the needs of the wildlife should be taken care of, while preventing animals falling into the canal. The planners have been concerned about such issues and the related needs have been taken care of. But the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report needs to be prepared and acceptance be obtained prior to commencement of construction.     Water in Iranamadu Although Iranamadu tank does not have sufficient water to satisfy the farmers’ needs, part of their water is planned to be diverted for the Jaffna Peninsula; locals could only protest at the diversion. People in Northern Province have not even requested, nor are they in a position to demand water from Moragahakanda or any other source be sent to them. If water from Moragahakanda were to be diverted to Iranamadu, it would be certainly be a gift from the people of the south. We need to realise that the expenditure of Mahaweli Project and other development works was borne by every citizen in the country as taxes. The mountain of loans the country has taken for so-called development will have to be paid by every citizen in east, west, south and north. It is only fair that the country’s citizens in the north too would get a fair share of the country’s resources for the enrichment of their livelihoods.     Urgency The above shows the urgency of early commencement of the construction of NCP canal to utilise waters that would be collected in Moragahakanda Reservoir in 18 months, which would otherwise go waste. But prior to the construction of the canal, a political decision needs to be taken on the allocation of water to prospective users including the quantum to be released to Iranamadu tank. This will enable engineers to complete designs and documents for tender purposes. If the new Government agrees to fulfil water requirements of the people of the north, there would be no shortage of funding agencies for the project. The canal could be divided into subdivisions and work could be offered to different contractors commencing simultaneously in sections for early completion. The transfer of a substantial amount of water to Iranamadu tank to fulfil the water requirement of the population of Kilinochchi and the drinking water needs of the Jaffna Peninsula, along with funding the completion of the ‘River for Jaffna Project’ would convert salt-water infected wells into fresh water. The gesture would certainly be appreciated by northerners and would be grateful to their southern counterparts, resulting in cordial relations between north and the south. It would certainly be a twist of destiny, if the diversion of Mahaweli waters to the north as proposed by Maithripala Senanayake in the 1960s was to be fulfilled by another Maithripala 50 years later.   (The writer is a Chartered Civil Engineer graduated from Peradeniya University and has been employed in Sri Lanka and abroad. He was General Manager of State Engineering Corporation of Sri Lanka. He can be contacted on

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