The Sunday Leader

Uma Oya Project Throws Up Fresh Challenges

by Ifham Nizam

Uma Oya Project has caused sorruounding land unstable

Villagers in and around the ongoing Uma Oya Project say they are facing severe water shortages due to the tunnelling that led to a `water leak’ a few days back.

Naturalist Indaka Kamaladasa, a resident of the area, told The Sunday Leader that a number of brooks and wells have dried up within the last 10 days. He warns that the trend could worsen.

“We are experiencing a similar situation that occurred when the project was commenced in January 2014. We fear that if the right measures are not taken immediately, the situation will worsen,” he stressed.

When contacted, Oma Oya Project Director Dr. Sunil de Silva said they were aware of such problems but considering the socio-environmental issues, they were cautious in carrying out their task. He added that they were taking all possible measures to minimise the impact.

He said that usually between July and August, wells dry up because of the hot weather conditions.

Tunnelling in Uma Oya continues despite more wells turning dry in the Heel Oya area in Bandarawela. The report submitted to the Supreme Court shows that original ingress of water (450 L/s) was reduced to 60/70 L/s before sealing and after sealing it reduced to 47 L/s. However, when the drilling operation continued, it has increased to 110 to 125 L/s. This proves that they are tunnelling through the shallow water aquifer, says Hemantha Withanage, the Executive Director, the Centre for Environmental Justice and Director Friends of Earth (FoE), Sri Lanka

“It is evident that since restarting the tunnelling in January 2016, more than 20 wells along the tunnel have dried up. This is a serious ecosystem damage that should be immediately stopped and the tunnel needs to be redesigned. If not this mountain ecosystem will be seriously damaged. This is clear ignorance of the monitoring bodies including the Central Environment Authority (CEA), Withanage added.

The Uma Oya tunnel is being constructed to bring Uma Oya water to ‘Ali Kota Ara’ in the Kirindi Oya river basin. It was designed to drill about 300 meters underground to have approximately 600 m head to generate maximum electricity, he said.

The tunnel collapsed in the Heel Oya area in December 2014 and more than 2500 houses got damaged, while 17 of these are not conducive for living in anymore.

“Hundreds of drinking water wells dried up in a few hours. Since then people were provided with a limited amount of water. No compensation has been paid so far,” Withanage added.

He noted that the ecosystem damage is far more serious than the damage to the people. The tunnelling has resulted in breaking the limestone soil structure. It has damaged the water aquifers in the area. Even if the tunnel is completely sealed, it will not repair this soil structure.

He also pointed out that some officers assure people that the water table will be regenerated. Even if the sealing is done, it does not ensure that the water table can be regenerated, as there may be many internal changes of the aquifer. The new document claims that sealing has fixed things where the confining layer was pierced. However, that may not last long if any cracks develop in the material.

The majority in the affected areas are farmers. Even the others who are engaged in employments used to cultivate vegetables to earn an extra income and to consume, he says.

Drying up of water springs, streams and other natural water sources resulted in the farmers having difficulties in cultivating in the last four seasons from December 26, 2014. It is unfortunate that the government turns a blind eye to the issue which is a life and death situation for the villagers.

CEA officials said that the project contractors had not properly followed the conditions in the final EIA approval.

“They have not followed environmental standards that the EIA mentions,” they said, adding that the project contractors had violated a main condition of drilling and blasting in the presence of the officials from the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau (GSMB).

Referring to the earlier problems and the repetition, they said that this unexpected disaster – cracking of houses, and wells and springs running dry – occurred as they had not followed the conditions given in the EIA.

Project Director Dr. De Silva said that the initial study was carried out by Lahmeyer International from Germany in 1987 and another study was done by a German consultancy firm in 1989.

Dr. De Silva said that after the final report was submitted, the public was given time to lodge their comments. “The CEA received over 110 public comments from many environment, farmer community organisations and villagers. The CEA studied all those and approved the EIA in 2011. Accordingly, three years was given to the project to get proceed. The members of the CEA’s monitoring committee visited the project site and gave another three years till 2017 and recommended to implement some conditions in July 2014,” he said.

Construction apart from essential works required to prevent the risk by sealing the water ingress in the head race tunnel, have been temporally suspended since February 16 until a decision is made according to the recommendations of the Central Environmental Authority and the Special Intellectual Committee appointed in this regard. The respective reports have now been issued and many measures have been recommended to rectify the problems. Many of the recommendations are to be carried out by the contractor, and the government plans to arrange a post-inspection mechanism to prevent such situations in the future. President Maithripala Sirisena, who is also the Minister of Mahaweli Development and Environment, recently visited the people affected by the project and assured them that the government will address their grievances. He instructed officials to immediately provide a report on the progress of the project, financial situation, and relevant public views. The multi-purpose project involves the construction of two reservoirs on tributaries of the Uma Oya, which flow from the central hills and join the Mahaweli River, and one tunnel of the Uma Oya to divert water to a power generator further downstream.

The water will be diverted to Kirindi Oya basin which will take water to Hambantota through the 25 km long underground tunnel across mountains in Bandarawela by constructing a dam at Puhulpola in Welimada and a reservoir in Diaraba. The proposal that President Sirisena made to rebuild about 600 destructed houses and to continuously provide drinking water for the affected families by the National Water Supply and Drainage Board has received approval from the Cabinet.

Secretary of the Environment and Mahaweli Development Ministry Nihal Rupasinghe said priority had been given to repair the tunnel leakage since it was causing significant damage to water resources. He said there were no immediate plans to relocate villagers, but Rs. 25 million had been released along with instructions to the AG to compensate for the damaged houses.

“We will consider relocation as well,” he said and added that the project authorities had been asked to rectify the damages before they proceed with the project.

“We are waiting for a comprehensive report from the expert panel. Once we received it, we would submit it to the Cabinet sub-committee,” Rupasinghe said.

The report will be prepared by the experts of the CEA, National Building Research Organisation, and GSMB. A team from the University of Peradeniya will also support in this regard.

Sajeewa Chamikara of the Environment Conservation Trust has also urged the government to stop the project since it would cause a huge disaster. He said that the main cause of the present situation is due to the construction of tunnels to carry water from Puhul Oya reservoir to Dyraaba reservoir.

“They have completed 16 per cent of the tunnel. When the 26 km-long tunnel is completed, the hilly areas of the Uva Province will be prone to severe landslides as constructions is carried out,” he warned.

“Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the CEA should be held responsible for putting people in danger by implementing this failed project,” Chamikara stressed.

Civil organisations, environmentalists and people in Bandarawela staged several protests demanding to close the project and urged the government to protect them. They have now decided to continue with their protests until the government take a stern decision on the issue.

Last year, the Central Engineering Consultancy Bureau (CECB) and the Department of Valuation were asked to carry out an assessment of damage in order to compensate for properties including 1,500 houses affected by the Uma Oya project. Accordingly, they have recommended a payment of Rs. 200 million to be made.

Two roller compact concrete dams, an underground 134-MW capacity hydropower plant, and 25-Km underground tunnel.

Once completed, the project would irrigate 5,000 hectares of agricultural land.

The project is estimated to cost USD 529 million. The government will meet 15 per cent of the cost while the Export Development Bank of Iran will grant USD 450 as a loan.

During a visit of the former Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in 2008, an agreement was signed to provide financial and technical assistance to Uma Oya project.

“The contractors have done a lot of damage by not adhering to the environment plan,” Rupasinghe said. He, however, stressed that the project is feasible.

“There is nothing wrong with the project. Similar issues cropped up when other hydro projects like the Victoria Dam was under construction,” he said.

The contractor, FARAB Energy and Water Project Company, an Iranian company, is responsible for carrying out the project.

President Sirisena appointed a five-member Cabinet sub-committee last year to make recommendations. Rs. 300 million has also been allocated to provide reliefs to the affected people. The sub-committee was comprised of Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake, Power and Energy Minister Champika Ranawaka, Internal Transport Minister Ranjith Madduma Bandara, State Minister of Housing and Samurdhi Dilan Perera, and Uva Province Chief Minister Harin Fernando.


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