Uma Oya: Legacy of showpiece governance | Sunday Observer

Uma Oya: Legacy of showpiece governance

When unjust and wrong things are done on a country-wide scale, repercussions are country-wide, as people have learnt throughout human history. Sadly, the citizens of a country place their trust in governance in the hands of those they elect, only to find that, however patriotic they may sound, those elected leaders are actually mismanaging the country for their own purposes.

The uproar over the alarming ecological fall-out from the construction of the Uma Oya power and irrigation development project is but the latest over a ‘show-piece’ project begun by the previous government. Costing an overall US$ 529 million, the Uma Oya Multi-Purpose Development Project is another multi-billion rupee, loan-based, project that was criticized even at planning stage in the mid-2000s.

Typically, the critics were disregarded and branded as ‘unpatriotic’ and ‘foreign agents’ and their criticisms buried in the swirl and euphoria over victorious military counter-insurgency offensives. When the project was launched with a heavy input of Iranian aid in 2008, those criticisms persisted, but, a news media cowed by governmental authoritarianism downplayed those voices.

What were those criticisms? The criticisms were, and are, on two planes. Firstly, the actual cost-benefit viability of the project itself is questioned by some experts – i.e. whether the power generated and irrigation provided are worth the investment and long term sustainability.

Secondly, the entirety of the environmental impact had not been properly assessed – as legally required – and, indeed, some of the tentative assessments by concerned experts and ecology activists pointed to dire environmental consequences.

Concerned experts and activist non-governmental organisations had warned that on the one hand, the geology of the project region was such that the water table could be drained. Subsiding terrain could also result in earthslips and unstable surface, endangering buildings, bridges, roads, telecommunications, water channels and, a host of other ecological and human impacts.

Today, long before project completion, indeed, even as the head works are yet under construction, the environmental impact is already a disaster. The warnings of concerned NGOs and experts are now coming true.

Today, the citizens of the project region in the verdant southern hill country are suffering the consequences of a rapidly draining ground water table. A whole region faces a form of desertification unless additional new steps are taken to reverse current drainage and offset the drainage with alternate supplies of water.

Thousands of people have already begun suffering from this immediate impact on ground water. The loss of water has caused a huge drinking water problem currently managed in some areas only by water supplied daily by road transport at an enormous additional cost.

Livelihoods that rely on water supply, like cultivation, are endangered, if not already lost forever. At the same time, certain areas are experiencing ground subsidence making some whole villages unlivable, while in other areas damage to roads and power lines has made disrupted communications.

The current government has had to respond to the Uma Oya project impact not in terms of anticipatory measures to pre-empt potential disasters. Rather, it has had to respond to an on-going disaster even before the project is completed.

Readers may find all these reported repercussions of an on-going show-piece ‘development project’ familiar. After all, the current government has been already busy responding to similar negative repercussions of even bigger show-piece projects of the ‘patriotic’ Rajapaksa regime.

Today, the Minister currently responsible for the Uma Oya Project, has had the courage to confess that this project has gone too far to be completely halted in its tracks. The damage done already needs additional supplementary investments to remedy. Thus, what is needed, today, is additional engineering and, land and water management works to off-set current impacts and pre-empt future impacts. Human re-settlement may also be required.

The Project now needs the best minds (not the most ‘patriotic’ minds) to innovate remedies to the on-going local disaster while creatively revamping or substantially re-designing the entire project to avoid worsening current impacts and future impacts.

All this is familiar to citizens. The multi-billion dollar Port City project, which is mauling the beautiful Western Province seaboard, is too far gone to be stopped in its tracks. The costs of stopping are far greater and even more burdensome than of continuing - even though current loan repayments are crippling.

And what about the Hambantota artificial harbour project, yet digging deep into the Ruhuna’s hinterland? And, the almost-deserted ‘International Airport’ nearby? Both these cannot be just ‘stopped’.

Even as the enormous credit lines for project implementation must be paid back, at the same time, the economic and human costs of the immediate negative outcomes of these mega-blunders have to be addressed – with additional financial costs.

That some of these giant projects bear the name of their self-declared initiator only betrays the personalised interests of those political leaders. How much of this personal interest is simply self-aggrandisement and how much is political and financial gain, must be found out and exposed. This will reveal the real betrayal of the nation.

That is how citizens will learn the true extent of the perfidy of their elected representatives on the one hand, and, on the other, their own errors of judgement when electing people thought suitable to govern.

Even as the enormous credit lines for project implementation must be paid back, at the same time, the economic and human costs of the immediate negative outcomes of these mega-blunders have to be addressed - with additional financial costs. The government has, therefore, laboured over careful redesign and complex negotiations before these projects were resumed. 

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