The Sunday Leader

Disaster In Retrospect: 25 Years After The Kantale Dam Breach

  • Has Sri Lanka learned her lessons?

By Abdul H. Azeez

Still image from the documentary ‘Kantale Dam Breach Revisited’ and S. Karunaratne Photo by Ranmalee Gamage for LIRNEasia

The Kantale dam is situated in tranquil country, paddy fields stretch as far as the eye can see and greenery abounds on mountaintop and plain alike. Idyllic country like this rarely sees a lot of excitement, you may think. But you would be wrong.
The Kantale dam, shoring a up a huge mass of water and having a massive bund 50 feet high and 14,000 feet long, was breached one dark day in April 1986. The ensuing torrent of water gave fleeing villagers little warning before it slammed into their homes and lives, killing 176 people and causing untold damage to their possessions, houses and livelihoods. It cost Rs 186 million to rebuild the dam and an additional Rs 63 million was given as aid.
But if villagers’ testimonies are to be believed, the aid that was given was hardly sufficient. This is evidenced in a documentary made by Davikar Goswamy titled Kantale Dam Breach Revisited, released in 2005. The actual reasons for the breach were attributed to bad weather, poor maintenance and an ominous engineering mishap that left the ancient dam wall extremely vulnerable.

25 years on

25 years on from Kantale, what has Sri Lanka learnt? Has the country managed to implement sufficient measures to ensure that such a disaster never happens again? With 12,000 small dams and 350 medium to large dams dotting the country, one would think this a matter to be taken seriously. Yet almost 200 small dams were breached in the successive floods of 2010/11 and it took a gargantuan effort by emergency workers to ensure the same did not happen to the larger dams.
With this in mind, the 25th anniversary of the Kantale dam disaster was marked by LIRNEasia, a regional Information Communication Technology (ICT) policy and regulation think tank, with a lecture and panel discussion on ‘disaster risk reduction’.
The panel featured prominent academics and representatives from key government authorities including S. Karunaratne, Chairman of the Dam Safety Review Panel and Dr Kamal Laksiri, head of the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB).

New Rs 50bn plan for dam repair

‘Sri Lanka appears to be primarily lacking in the maintenance and upkeep department,’ Karunaratne said.
The lack of funding for maintenance and the lack of expert personnel have contributed to the problem. ‘Most of our engineers have migrated out of the country, and we have a real need for proper expertise,’ he added.
Karunaratne went on to detail a Rs. 50 billion project to assure the safety of dams and to increase operational efficiency which has been implemented by the Dam Safety and Water Resources Planning Project. He said that 32 key dams have been selected based on frequent use for various purposes like agriculture, cultural reasons and power generation.
‘We hope that at the end of this project the dams will last for another 30 years without problems,’ he said adding that a key challenge was how to handle the infrastructure of Sri Lanka’s ancient dams of which they had little or no information.

Bureaucrats vs Technocrats

Karunaratne said that funds for maintenance have shown a serious dip in the years immediately after the Mahaweli project was completed. ‘After the Victoria dam was built we received plenty of funding from the government due to there being several foreign dignitaries constantly visiting. Then, around 10 years later funding started diminishing and interest in maintenance and upkeep of our dam system waned.’
He added that delays in maintenance have cost the country dearly. Relating one incident he said that ‘some years ago we requested Rs 38 million for urgent repairs in the Udawalawe dam. The Cabinet refused and laughed at us. They had to finally fix it four years later spending a sum of Rs 400 million. This was a massive waste and against the public interest’.

Threat of water is constant

Earlier, an expert on dam safety policies in Netherlands, Dr. Aad Correlje headed off the discussion with some insights into cutting edge thinking in the area. ‘The threat of water and flooding is continuous, it cannot be put away or put on hold,’ declared Correlje. But, he added, disasters can be largely prevented with the ‘correct ensemble’ of institutional, ideological, technical and economical factors. The Netherlands, having a large vulnerability to flooding and flood damage, has had long experience in dealing with water based disaster, Correlje said.
He emphasized on the key interlinking between elements of flood protection. To properly govern flooding risk; crisis management, infrastructure maintenance, preparedness and flooding control must all come together synergistically. He also emphasized the importance of regional water boards in dam management, calling them the ‘spider(s) in the web’.

2 Comments for “Disaster In Retrospect: 25 Years After The Kantale Dam Breach”

  1. Tamil circle

    Had our leaders since independence used their power and energy to forge national unity and upliftment of the entire nation instead of competing to come to power by preaching communal hatred we could have been a successful nation, they may have achavied their aims. But the nation is defeated. Of what use were the communal riots have been and money spent on war? Life and asset lost by both sides of the ethnic divide, 60 years of development lost. The extreme elements have may have been pleased temporarily. Immediately after independence we were able to built a massive irrigation project like Igniyagalle without foreign aid, unfortunately we are not in a position even to maintain a village tank today, let alone the suffering poor. But today we stand accused of serious crimes by the international community apart from whether it is a just or unjust accusation,as a majority Buddhist country what has happened to non violence advocated in the doctrine of Lord Buddha. It is now time to confess our faults and reconciliation. Let the Nation Win.

  2. P.L.J.B.Palipana

    Mr.Karunaratne’s observations are very correct. The routine maintenance of the dams & canals system is very important to the NATION as our entire history is made up with the Irrigation Infrastructure. I personally visited the Kantale site in 1986.

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