Don Gunasena Athukorala – an icon of modern civil engineering | Sunday Observer

Don Gunasena Athukorala – an icon of modern civil engineering

3 January, 2021
Don Gunasena Athukorala
Don Gunasena Athukorala

Don Gunasena Athukorala has made a notable contribution to the civil engineering profession in Sri Lanka and was among the first to introduce modern engineering techniques during the industrialisation programs of the early part of the post-colonial period and the Accelerated Mahaweli River Development Program.

He was Chairman of the State Engineering Corporation and founding Director, Headworks of the Mahaweli Authority of Sri Lanka. Don Gunasena is an Honorary Life Fellow of the Institution of Engineers of Sri Lanka.

At 96, this veteran engineer lives in retirement with his wife, Irangani, in Sydney, Australia.

This is a tribute to Don Gunasena’s contribution to the engineering profession that began in the early 1950s and spanned nearly forty five years.

Early life and education

Upon completion of his schooling, his family wanted him to join the family business but he preferred to study further. He convinced his parents that he wanted to study engineering and joined Ceylon Technical College, the premier institution of higher education for engineering studies in Sri Lanka at that time, prior to the founding of the University of Ceylon.

He said, “During the war years, there were only two engineering disciplines – Military Engineering and Civil Engineering. Military Engineering trained students towards a career in the military to build temporary structures such as a bridge made of timber, for example, for troops to cross a river. They were not built to last. I was more interested in permanent structures like public works such as roads, bridges, dams, and buildings, etc and wanted a career in non-military fields. Those days, electrical and mechanical engineering fell within the wider umbrella of civil engineering. Nowadays electrical engineering and mechanical engineering are separate specialisations.”

As part of the course requirements, he continued further formal engineering training in London and obtained his Bachelor of Science (Engineering) in November 1950. He gained practical training in engineering at Willment Brothers in Middlesex that was followed by a period of two years at Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick & Partners in London and obtained his Membership of the Institute of Civil Engineers, the professional engineering body of the UK in June 1955. Upon his return to Sri Lanka in 1955, he joined the Department of Industries as an Assistant Engineer and worked there until he joined the State Engineering Corporation in 1962.

State Engineering Corporation

The setting up of the State Engineering Corporation in 1962 was a key milestone in Sri Lanka’s Civil Engineering history.

Don GunasenaAthukorala said, “I was one of the original staff to join the State Engineering Corporation upon formation in January 1962. We had a small team at the start and some of the other engineers who joined with me were Titus Gunasekera, Basil Chitty, Tony White and Neville Ladduwahetti. The founding Chairman and General Manager of the Corporation was A.N.S. Kulasinghe, and after a few years I was made Deputy General Manager reporting directly to him. In this role, I was responsible for construction, planning, research and a few other divisions. In 1970, I was made a Director of the Corporation in addition to my duties as DGM.”

“I also remember Kulasinghe’s design of the Planetarium and its construction to showcase our local engineering prowess at the Ceylon Industrial Exhibition in 1965 and the design of the Kalutara Chaitya, the first thin hemispherical shell structure in the country. Some of the notable public works the SEC was responsible for during the rapid industrialisation programs included the construction of the Ceylon Steel Corporation, Ceylon Tyre Corporation, Thulhiriya Textile Mills and the Ceylon Sugar Corporation factories.”

Teaming up with the other engineers, Kulasinghe and Athukorala duo were able to transform the SEC from a modest corporation to the dominant heavy engineering construction concern in the country. The SEC introduced many modern technologies in the 1960s in Sri Lanka. One of these technologies was pre-cast concrete technology.

To improve productivity, concrete was produced in re-usable moulds at off-site pre-cast yards in Ekala and Narahenpita and then transported to construction sites throughout the country for assembly. This was in contrast to the slower standard concrete processes that was poured at each separate construction site. Precast technologies enhanced the speed of the construction. Don Gunasena visited the Soviet Union and France to study the pre-cast technologies.

With the change of government in 1970, the Minister of Housing and Construction, Peter Keuneman, required that leadership roles of all corporations within his ministry be given to members of the Communist Party. That marked the beginning of a brain-drain that set off a series of permanent departures of senior engineering talent to foreign countries and to the private sector. Don Gunasena left for the UK and worked for Williams Brothers in London and for Esso Petroleum in Libya.

After a year’s stint at the Mahaweli Development Board as a Deputy General Manager, Don Gunasena returned to the SEC, this time as Chairman in August 1977. During this period, the SEC undertook the construction of several public works for the new Accelerated Mahaweli River Development Program and major public housing complexes. One of the projects that was handled by the SEC during this time was the construction of the Polgolla Dam, the first of many large projects under the Accelerated Mahaweli River Diversion Program. The dam diverted the Mahaweliriver at Polgolla.

The project was planned by the Mahaweli Development Board and the construction was handled by the SEC. Other large irrigation works included the construction of the Bowetenne tunnel and the Ukuwela dam.

Mahaweli Headworks Division

Don Gunasena joined the Headworks Division as the founding Director of the Division. This Division was responsible for the maintenance, operations and the administration of work of all completed dams, tunnels and projects.

Partner, Team Four Consulting and Consultant to the World Bank and the ADB, ShanthaJayasundara said, “The Mahaweli was looking for an experienced person to run their newly formed division for the maintenance of major structures. The Mahaweli scheme had several dams and irrigation systems with mechanical, electrical, and electronic supported technologies and needed an experienced and competent engineer to manage. Don Gunasena was chosen for this task.

“If a major structure like a dam shows any movement due to an unstable condition, you need to take measurements, look for water leaks and take immediate action to rectify the situation. He installed proper systems to check, record, report, and to help formulate remedial solutions. Sometimes controlling gates might corrode. So, before it becomes a major disaster it must be reported, repaired, or replaced.

“There have been several failed dams in the world that have caused serious damage including in countries like the US. Despite large earthworks in preparation for construction, heavy rains and landslides, no modern structures in Sri Lanka have failed thus far and this was due to the solid maintenance work carried out by Don Gunasena and his able successors such as S. Karunaratne,” he said.

Retired life

Don Gunasena retired from the Mahaweli Authority in 1995. In 2012, at the age of 88, he published a book about his understanding of PaticcaSamuppada titled “Buddha’s Principle of Relativity”.