Disrupted lives of families who sacrificed for Uma Oya project | Sunday Observer

Disrupted lives of families who sacrificed for Uma Oya project

“I was a prosperous farmer cultivating my farmland, able to even lease and cultivate other’s farmland at Kotawara, before the village was acquired for the Uma Oya project. I was quite well off ,that I even hired manual labour to assist me in my fields, but today, I have to toil in other people’s fields to earn a living” lamented Sunil Rathnayake, 53, now residing in Uma Nadi New Village in Welimada. Rathnayaka’s is one of the households acquired in Puhulpola, Ihala Kotawara, Pahala Kotawara and Divithotawara in the Welimada GN divisions, and Uva-Paranagama divisional Secretary’s divisions initially. A total of 256 families have been relocated from the above areas, the dam site, and tank bed area, due to the Welimada – Bandarawela road diversion.

Rathnayaka, with 88 other families have been relocated on a 35 acre land acquired from the Moragolla Estate in Welimada. They have been compensated, and allocated plots of land ranging 10 to 40 perches, in the scheme named, ‘Uma Nadi New Village’. It is situated atop a hill overlooking the town, and the soil is gravel, unlike the fertile land they owned in the Welimada basin, with no flowing or pipe borne water. Water is provided by bowser, but drinking water is obtained from a tube well at the foot of the scheme. Another 442 families have been partly affected by the acquisition of farming land. With over 62% of the youth never getting through Grade 10 and being simple farmers, they were ignorant of what action to take to safeguard their homesteads or livelihood, when government officials enlightened them of the mega development project and glorified its benefits, before obtaining their signatures on some documents.

The villagers of Kotawara are ancestors of refugees from the 1848 Matale Rebellion. It was in the village Kotawara that Sunil Rathnayaka’s forefathers took refuge after the Matale Rebellion. From that day on for almost 167 years, every generation of the Rathnayakas prospered by farming the land in Kotawara, in the fertile Welimada basin. The soil was so fertile that it is cultivated three times a year, twice with vegetable and once with paddy. “Water was abundant, and by farming a mere quarter acre I earned a profit of over Rs 600,000 per year. Even my forefathers were known to be wealthy. One season I was able to purchase a three wheeler with the profit I made growing tomatoes” reminisced Rathnayake. His two sons or daughter will not take up farming as they don’t own sufficient land and are compelled to seek other occupations.

It was in 1959 that Uma Oya was first analyzed for the potential development of hydro power by the United States Operating Mission(USOM) and Canadian Hunting Survey Corporation (CHSC) and again in1987 – 1989 by Lahmeyer (Germany) and by Central Engineering Consultancy Bureau (CECB) in 1989 as the “South East Dry Zone Development - Preliminary Project Proposals”. A pre-feasibility study was done by CECB in 1991 on a scheme comprising two reservoirs on Uma Oya and Mahatotilla Oya and a 19 km long tunnel transferring water to Kirindi Oya was envisaged. The Asian Development Bank refused to fund the project as it violated the water rights of the people.The project was reopened by CECB with Lovell Inc (Canada) in 1991 as the ‘Uma Oya trans basin project’ to divert water to the south while the Government of Iran agreed to fund the project costing USD529,059,197 through the Export Development Bank of Iran, on condition,that Faraab Company be given the contract. Foundation stone was,laid on April 29, 2008 while the EIA was performed by the University of Sri Jayawardenapura and approved on April 12 2011.

Expected benefits

The Uma Oya Multipurpose Project, was expected to divert 145 million cubic metres of water to the Kirindi Oya annually by the construction of a 30-metre and a 40-metre high dam across the Dalgolla Oya and the Mahatotila Oya, two main tributaries of the Uma Oya at Puhulpola and Dyraaba, together with a link tunnel, 4km long between the two reservoirs. From Dyraaba near Welimada a 3.29-metre wide and 24-km long trans basin tunnel is being constructed to an underground power station at Randeniya, close to Wellawaya on the right bank of the Kirindi Oya. It is envisaged that the 120Mw hydro power house at Randeniya (AlikotaAra) will add 231 GWh of electricity to the National Grid annually.

The agricultural losses and benefits stated in the final report published November 2010 says: ‘The Uma Oya and Kirindi Oya basins which comprise the proposed Uma Oya project contribute immensely to national food production in Sri Lanka .The main livelihood of people living at the proposed dam sites is farming. Their income from farming is almost 100%. They have gained sound technical and practical knowledge on farming through generations.The paddy fields to be acquired are being intensively cultivated with three crops per year achieving the annual cropping intensity of around 300%. Paddy, potato and vegetable are the annual cropping sequence. The Puhulpola and Dyraaba reservoirs will inundate about 18.5 ha and 13.85ha of paddy fields, respectively The production of agricultural commodities and wellbeing of the farmers will be adversely affected by the project.

The Kirindi Oya basin in Zone 2 and 3 of the project is located in the Moneragala and Hambantota Districts. The climatic and soil conditions are suitable mainly for cultivation of paddy and Other Field Crops (OFC). The Moneragala and Hambantota districts significantly contribute towards paddy, fruits, vegetables and milk production in the country. It is anticipated to develop about 4,500 ha of lands under the Uma Oya project in Zone 2 area in the Moneragala district.These new areas will be developed receiving irrigation water from Alikota Ara, Kuda Oya, R.B. Ussella anicut, Handapanagala anicut, and the Handapanagala LB and RB main canals. The cultivated area of OFC and the area of high value crops under high technology will be increased by 4,000 ha and 500 ha, respectively. The existing irrigable area under the Lunugamwehera scheme will also benefit, receiving more irrigation water from the Kirindi Oya as a result of the project. The total irrigable area under the Lunugamwehera project could be cultivated both in Yala and Maha seasons enhancing the agricultural production of the country.

H M Sumanasekera (69) said, he has been a farmer all his life and had prospered cultivating over an acre of fertile land in Kotawara.“All I know is to cultivate and can’t find any other employment here to make ends meet.” If I knew this was going to be my plight I would never have agreed to leave the village” he added.


J H M Pushpakanthi (38), a mother of two is the most vociferous among the new settlers of Uma Nadi Village. Her husband was disabled while serving in the Army. “I used to lease out other people’s land and cultivate as an additional income. Now, we don’t have sufficient income and life is hard. It is I who speak out most on behalf of the community. The authorities attempted to silence me, but I still speak out for the community” she said. Nayana, 28, a mother of two girls aged seven and three used to cultivate half an acre of leased out land with the help of her husband Asanka Sampath. The money they earned was sufficient for them to manage their family. Today, Asanka has been forced to find casual employment in Colombo to complete their half built house and keep the home fires burning.

Pushpawathy Jayasekera (52) “I had 180 perches of land for which I was allocated 40 perches, and drinking water is an issue”. They were provided chlorinated water for washing and had to fetch drinking water from a tube well a considerable distance away. “The authorities promised us many things including a new township, employment opportunities, etc. but today we are suffering without a livelihood or even water to drink” Anura Herath, 42, and his ancestors have been farmers for generations. “Unknowingly, we had given our consent to the government to acquire our lands. When we realized the impact of the project it was too late. We regret not being able to obtain a better compensation for our loss” he lamented. “Fundamental Rights and Fundamental Duties of Sri Lankans are violated by decision makers who profit from commissions doled out for disastrous projects like the Uma Oya,” said Samantha Widyarathna a former MP and the present member of the Uva Provincial Council, and Convener of the People’s Protesting Front of Disastrous Uma Oya Project.

“The Uma Oya project has violated the right to existence. Even though the Constitution states the duty of every Sri Lankan is to protect nature and conserve its riches, decision makers are not concerned. As a result of the Uma Oya project over 3,112 wells and waterways have dried up. The people are given 500 litres of water every seven or eight days, but what about the other creatures in the environment? Administrators who get elected don’t care about human life or the environment, they only crave for power, money and wealth. We have made representations in Parliament, and every time reforms were to be brought to safeguard our terrain, ground water and natural resources. It is still not too late to scrap Uma Oya and save ourselves and the future generations.,” Widyarathna added.

“A National Evaluation Policy will end politicians from implementing disastrous projects like Uma Oya” emphasized Matara District Member of Parliament, Buddika Pathirana, when asked how citizens can stall environmental unfriendly development projects in the future. “The Uma Oya disaster has to be managed and expert opinion sought on ways and means of achieving some benefit for the money spent on the project” he added.