Curse of Uma Oya:
Once Self-Sufficient Sri Lankans, Now Made Destitute By Hydro Project
Locals displaced by the controversial Um Oya hydropower project have new homes in southern Sri Lanka. But, they say, their lives are far worse than before.
Once they were relatively self-sufficient, living off vegetables they grew themselves and water from village springs. But now villagers who were resettled to make way for the Uma Oya development project, the aim of which is to develop hydropower, as well as irrigate the less developed south-eastern part of Sri Lanka, say their lives have changed for the worse.
The drawbacks of Uma Oya have been well documented in local media. It’s been noted that construction and the resulting geological changes have caused hundreds of buildings to become unstable, hundreds of wells to dry up leading to severe hardship for locals, and the water table and limestone soil structure to become irreparably damaged; although the Sri Lankan government is talking about suspending the project, these may not be able to be repaired.
Four to five people worked for me. But we lost those lands and now I have to work on other people’s lands.
Some of the affected areas previously provided vegetable and rice for the entire country. But thanks to the Uma Oya project, the residents have had to give up their fertile lands. Eighty-nine of these families are now living in the Uma Nadi New Village in Welimada, Uva province.
Their stories are similar, of lost lives and missed opportunities.
“I came to this village after being displaced by the Uma Oya project,” says one of them, R.M. Sunil. “I used to cultivate farmland and four to five people worked for me. But we lost those lands when we moved and now I have to work on other people’s lands.”
Sunil has three children and no real income. Back in his old hometown, he says the family only really needed money to pay the power bill.
“We drank water from the fountains and we didn’t buy fruits and vegetables because we grew them ourselves,” he explains. “Now we only get water twice and a week and it is chlorinated. We live on top of a mountain and we are destitute.”
The legalities of some of the enforced displacements are also troubling.
Rupawathie Jayasekara’s story is typical. Her family had a lot of land and a five-room house, property that had been inherited over generations.
“But we did not have an official deed for the land,” Jayasekara says. “I grew tomatoes there and we were able to earn thousands of rupees there. But we only had a permit to be on the land. So we were only given SLR280,000 (€1,500) for what was called development value.”
“We came here after being displaced by the Uma Oya project,” J. H. M. Pushpakanthie tells. “We didn’t realise the project would cause so much injustice. We didn’t even get enough money to build a new house when we came here. We had to go into debt to build a new home. And there are not even any jobs in this village.”
“We used to be farmers,” adds B. M. Nayana, another new resident. “But our lands were submerged by the Uma Oya project. So we came here – and now my husband has to travel to Colombo to do odd jobs.”
Samantha Vidyaratne, a member of the Uva Provincial Council and the head of the Peoples Front against the Uma Oya Project, believes that locals’ constitutional rights have been violated.
“They have no water to drink,” he says. “They have no homes and no livelihood after losing their agricultural lands. Democracy is not just about putting a cross on a piece of paper. If a project such as this one is planned, the people need to be consulted. That did not happen. Those in power made all the decisions without caring a jot for the ordinary people.”
The Uma Oya project has been fraught for a long time but as the decisions about it look worse and worse, the Sri Lankan government is also looking into the situation of those who are suffering because of the project that was supposed to help them.
A cabinet subcommittee inquiring into the controversial project had already found problems with it, says Mahinda Amaraweera, an MP and member of the subcommittee. “It has been found that a proper evaluation was not done. It has also been found that engineers were opposed to the project,” Amaraweera concludes, adding that foreign experts were now being brought in to investigate further.