The Sunday Leader

Uma Oya Project To Benefit Or Ruin?

by Ifham Nizam

Plans are afoot under the Uva Province Director of Agriculture to ascertain the losses that the regional farmers incur through the much debated Uma Oya Multi-Purpose project, officials said.

The villagers in and around the Uma Oya Project say they are facing severe water shortages since  June as a result of the tunnelling that led to a `water leak’.

Naturalist Indaka Kamaladasa, a resident of the area, said that a number of brooks and wells have dried up within the last couple of months. He warns that the trend could worsen.

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

When contacted, Uma Oya Project Director Dr. Sunil de Silva said that the project activists are aware of such problems and cautious in carrying out their task. He added that they were taking all possible measures to minimise the impact.

The director said that normally July and August hot weather dries up wells. However, tunnelling Uma Oya continues despite more and 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.


The Supreme Court

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court last week ordered the Director of Agriculture, Uva Province to estimate the loss caused to the farmers as a result of the Uma Oya Multi-Purpose project, and to pay compensation to them. The Court also ordered that water be provided before December 31 to the victims.

A three-member bench comprising Chief Justice K. Sripavan, justices Priyantha Jayawardene, and Eva Wanasundara issued the order after hearing a petition filed by four farmers from the Bandarawela area.

The petition states that the livelihoods of farmers were severely affected when the water source for farmlands of ten villages was lost as a result of the Uma Oya Multi Purpose Project.A leak occurred in December 2014, when a tunnel being constructed as part of the Uma Oya Project cracked open an underground water cable. Even though the leak has now been sealed, and construction of the tunnel has recommenced, the environmental damage it caused has not yet been rectified.

Last year, the governments recommenced the temporarily halted controversial Uma Oya Multipurpose Project, despite agitation and campaigns by environmental groups. The Senior Engineer said: “It is cleared from our side. Now it is up to the Iranian Government”.

A ministry official said that the Ministry has taken all preventive measures to mitigate environmental impact. However, the government cannot stop the progress of the scheme since it was categorised as one of the Ceylon Electricity Board’s (CEB) long term projects.

The official added that these projects could not be simply stopped since nongovernmental organisations with vested interests demand their commcnements.

The project would involve the construction of two reservoirs on tributaries of the Uma Oya River and one tunnel on the river itself to divert water to a powerhouse further downstream, an engineer said.CEB engineers said that the project would generate 90MW of electricity and irrigate 5,000 hectares.

Some officials have pointed out that the project will end up with poor quality products. However, others said that local engineers would look into all the aspects.

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka Nature Forum Director Sajeewa Chamikara alleged that launching a project without a proper plan or a feasibility study or an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) or any sort of permission from any relevant government agencies would set a very bad precedent.

The Sri Lanka Nature Forum, a leading critic of the project conservation, will launch a formal campaign against it, he said.

However, the government went ahead with the project for its irrigation and power generation benefits; others are more cautious and they warn that the Uma Oya Watershed cannot sustain such a large water diversion project.

Water from Uma Oya will be diverted to irrigate agro areas near the Mahaweli River. With the construction of the Uma Oya project, more water would be diverted from the river. After the construction of the reservoirs and the tunnel, the people living upstream of the tunnel are likely to suffer water shortages, environmentalists warn.

Officials say even without the dam, the water level of the Uma Oya River had dropped drastically during the dry season, environmentalists said. After the construction of the dam, the diversion of water from the river during dry season months would drastically reduce the water available for drinking and irrigating the fields. The project would not be able to generate any electricity during the months of December-April, they said.

Siltation is another problem that the project is bound to face, experts say. The Rantembe reservoir in the Uma Oya Watershed has silted up within a very short time and lost much of its generation capacity.The Central Engineering Consultancy Bureau and the Government Valuation Department detailed to carry out a damage assessment to pay compensation to properties affected by the Uma Oya Project, including 1,500 houses, and recommended to pay Rs. 200 million to the project developer.

Mahaweli Development and Environment Ministry Secretary, Engineer, Nihal Rupasinghe said that the initial estimation had come to more than Rs. 150 million and the resettlement process would be completed soon.

The multi-purpose project will involve the construction of two reservoirs on Uma Oya and one of its tributaries to divert water to a power station.

This project will include construction of two rolling compact concrete dams, an underground hydropower plant with 134 MW capacity and about 25 Km underground tunnel.

Under the Uma Oya Hydropower project, water will be diverted to Kirindi Oya basin which will carry water to Hambantota through a 25 km long underground tunnel across mountains in Bandarawela. A dam will be built at Puhulpola in Welimada and a reservoir at Diaraba. Once completed, the project will irrigate 5,000 hectares of agricultural land.

The project is estimated to cost USD 529 million. The government of Sri Lanka will meet 15 per cent of the cost and the Export Development Bank of Iran will grant a loan of USD 450.Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during his visit to Sri Lanka in 2008 signed an agreement to provide financial and technical assistance to Uma Oya Project.

“The project’s contractors have done a lot of damage by not adhering to the environment plan,” Rupasinghe said. However, he stressed that the project was feasible.

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

The responsibility mainly lies with the contractor FARAB Energy and Water Project Company, an Iranian company, which was awarded the contract to design and carry out the project.

Earlier, President Maithripala Sirisena has appointed a five-member Cabinet subcommittee to make recommendations on the Uma Oya Project and allocated Rs. 300 million to provide relief to the affected people.

The subcommittee includes 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.

Rupasinghe said that priority had been given to repair the tunnel leakage as it was causing significant damage to water resources. He said that there were no immediate plans to relocate villages but instructions and allocation of Rs. 25 million had been released to the AG to pay compensation for the damaged houses.

“If there is a need for relocation, we will consider it as a -term remedy,” he said, adding that the project authorities had been asked to rectify the conditions identified as major causes for the damages before they proceed with the project work. “We are waiting for the comprehensive report from the expert panel to submit it to the Cabinet Sub Committee soon,” he noted.

The report was prepared by the experts of the CEA, National Building Research Organisation and GSMB. A team from the University of Peradeniya will also contribute their expertise for the comprehensive report.

Sajeewa Chamikara of the Environment Conservation Trust has also urged the government to stop the project as it would cause a huge disaster if the present construction work being done without following the required conditions, continues.

He said that the construction of tunnels to carry water from Puhul Oya reservoir to Dyraaba reservoir is the the main cause of the present disastrous situation.

“They have completed some one third of the tunnel construction. When the 26 km-long tunnel is completed, the hilly areas of the Uva Province will be prone to severe landslide threats as the constructors carry out works in unstable rocky lands,” he warned.

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

Civil organisations, environmentalists and victims in Bandarawela who have staged several protest campaigns demanding a permanent closure of the project and urging the government to protect their lives, have decided to continue with their protest campaigns until the government takes a stern decision on the project.

“We held a vehicle procession carrying black flags to educate people in the Badulla District last week. Over 20,000 people took part in the campaign to urge the government to take speedy solutions to save their lives. We will continue with our struggle because our lives are in jeopardy now,” a resident said.

Cabinet has approved the recommencement of construction of the USD 529 million Uma Oya Multi-Purpose Project, which had been suspended for more than six months due to a large water leak in the Karandagolla main tunnel in December 2014. The Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment also said that the Finance Ministry had promised to grant the monthly finances required to re-commence construction work on this project, following recommendations made by committees of experts which were appointed to re-examine the project.

Finances were a problem for recommencing construction on the Uma Oya Project, which is being built with Iranian assistance. This was reportedly because of US sanctions imposed on Iran, which resulted in Iran being unable to spend on the project, according to the Secretary.

“The Cabinet approved the re-commencement of construction of the Uma Oya Project on May 27 based on the environmental report submitted by the committee of experts.

Accordingly Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake has agreed to provide the finances required for the project as and when the Treasury has money and until sanctions on Iran are removed. “We have granted 800 million rupees on two occasions for this project. The water leak in the tunnel has now been sealed,” a Finance Ministry official said.

Later, a Cabinet Sub-Committee was appointed to conduct a study on the Uma Oya Project. At the same time, the Secretary to the Ministry appointed a committee of experts led by Dr. Jagath Gunathilake, the Dean of the Geological Science Department of Peradeniya University.

According to the Uma Oya Project Director Dr. Sunil De Silva, Sri Lanka Department of Valuation had expressed willingness to assist the Central Engineering Consultancy Bureau (CECB) to expedite payment of compensation to owners of houses and buildings which were damaged with the project construction.

“The CECB is carrying out assessments in the Divisional Secretariat areas of y in Bandarawela, Ella, Badulla and Welimada ,which have been affected by the project to gauge the losses sustained by the people. A sum of 400 million rupees has been provided to the District Secretary of Badulla by the Ministry of Mahaweli Development for this purpose. However, the people have been calling for compensation for damaged houses to be paid in one single payment. We are trying to do this with the help of the Valuation Department,” Dr. Silva said.

Sources connected with the project said that although 2017 was the targeted year for completion of the project, there would now be a delay as it was halted temporarily for a period of six months due to the water leak.

“If the project is to be completed by 2017 as originally planned, a monthly expense budget of about Rs 1,200 million will be required,” an official said.



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