Interview + Samantha Vidyaratna:
Even Sri Lanka’s President Knows This Project Is A Disaster
Local politician Samantha Vidyaratna talks to The Catamaran about the disastrous Uma Oya hydro project and what can be done to stop it causing more damage today.
Before the much maligned Uma Oya project even began, politician Samantha Vidyaratna was one of its most vocal critics. Since work started on the project, the aim of which was to develop hydropower, as well as irrigate the less developed south-eastern part of Sri Lanka, there have been many problems.
The drawbacks of the project 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; these may not be able to be repaired.
Despite all this, work on the Uma Oya project continues. And Vidyaratna, a former MP in the Sri Lankan Parliament, also continues his fight against it.
The Catamaran: Why are you so opposed to the Um Oya project? After all, you have described the multi-purpose project as the multi-destruction project.
Samantha Vidyaratna: I liken it to a sickle. If you happened to swallow a sickle you would never be able to pull it back out. If you tried to, it would get stuck and you would eventually die. This project is also a sickle in many ways – but it is not being swallowed by a human, it is being swallowed by the central hill country. Flora, fauna, humans, waterways – all of them are being destroyed by this project. That is why we warned people about this project. But we were ignored.
The Catamaran: The Um Oya tunnel is going to reach the outer limits of Bandarawela town soon.
Vidyaratna: The tunnel is 15.2 kilometres long so far. Construction work has stopped near Bandarawela [the second largest town in the Badulla district] because of the main road going between Colombo and Badulla. But work will probably start again in the rainy season. At that stage the lives of people living in this area will be affected for the worse. The tunnel has already pierced one underground water basin and as it proceeds downhill it is going to hit two more. People will pay dearly for this. I don’t understand how this can be described as a development project!
The Catamaran: Part of the Uma Oya plans involves diverting a tributary in the Uma Oya valley. Currently that tributary runs through the Viyaluwa district before joining the Mahaweli River. What kind of impact will this have?
Vidyaratna: At the moment the local media’s attention is on the wells that are drying up and the walls of houses that are cracking. But in fact, this issue is far more serious. Diverting water from one valley to another could impact on the whole Uma Oya catchment area as well as the Mahaweli River, which provides water for one third of all of Sri Lanka’s cultivated lands. Some of the areas that the river irrigates are already experiencing drought-like conditions. If the situation is this bad before the Uma Oya diversion, can you imagine what it will be like afterwards? It will be disastrous.
The Catamaran: In your opinion, why is this project going ahead, especially given all the criticism and the widely publicized damage?
Vidyaratna: According to Sri Lankan law, this project should have undergone an environmental impact study. But on April 29, 2008, the project was inaugurated anyway, without any such study. We protested and we asked why. We were ready to take legal action. But then an environmental impact study was prepared very quickly. There are many problems with this report. It seems that rather than the local people benefitting from this project, it will be the local authorities. Some say they were bribed. When local people demonstrate their anger about the project now, they are given trivial compensation that temporarily consoles them. But it seems a permanent solution will never happen.
The Catamaran: In the meantime, of course, the government has changed.
Vidyaratna: Only the politicians have changed. The projects are still the same. In fact, we met with President Maithripala Sirisena, together with local residents and experts, to discuss the situation. He even accepted that the project was misguided. But the situation keeps getting worse. A school has collapsed, a mosque and a temple are falling apart. The people here find it very hard to deal with.
The Catamaran: So what do you think should happen next? Is there any way to resolve this situation?
Vidyaratna: We have given the responsible authorities a lot of advice but they have not listened to us. We have told them that they need to stop the work temporarily and evaluate the situation, to find out what needs to be done to avoid further problems. We need experts to undertake a realistic assessment and after that we can move on. The politicians should make decisions for the future of this project after having listened to the expert opinions.
Look at it this way. The mosque that is damaged is a three-storey building and the walls are cracking. The beams are splitting. The rainy season starts soon which will make things worse. If that building collapses while 400 or 500 people are inside praying, who will be held responsible?