Walking a tight rope around wewa | Sunday Observer

Walking a tight rope around wewa

5 September, 2021

As the news of daily deaths and more Covid cases dominate the media, health and human security is not the only news that is being reported in this country.

While the teachers’ protest is being contained in Colombo, another protest has erupted in Polonnaruwa against Government plans to build a walking track around the Parakrama Samudra.

Images appeared in the media of the way the tank’s breakwater was being removed to make way for the walking path.

The walking path is planned as an eight-ft wide, 1.7 km stretch from the Divisional Secretary residence to the D. S. Senanayake memorial in the interior section of the banks of the tank. It is estimated to cost Rs. 34 million where the project was planned by the Urban Development Authority.

With the project coming under heavy criticism by the residents and members of the Buddhist clergy in the area, the UDA has temporarily halted the work. However, Polonnaruwa District Development Committee President and MP Amarakeerthi Athukorala said the project will be carried out according to standards and with the blessing of the Buddhist clergy after discussions with them.

King Parakramabahu

The Parakrama Samudra was built by King Parakramabahu the First, who ruled from 1153 AD to 1186 AD. According to Lakpura, the Sea of Parakrama or Parakrama Samudra consisted of five large reservoirs which relieved the pressure on the main dam.

The first reservoir Thopa Wewa already existed in King Parakramabahu’s time having been built in 386 AD. The King had the other large reservoirs included and the entire system expanded.

In addition, many smaller reservoirs were built around the primary reservoirs to feed them water and to take away any excess water, according to Lakpura. It is 14km in length, 12.2m in height and 25 feet deep. It has 116,000 acre-feet of water protected by the breakwater. The tank feeds water to 25,000 acres of paddy fields during the Yala and Maha seasons.

Farmers against this project claim that the construction will inevitably damage the reservoir when the breakwater is disturbed to make way for a walking path. They add that the tank water is held by the breakwater, especially during rainy seasons when the water level rises and wind speeds pick up. In such a situation, the tank water has strong currents which could breach the bund.

The residents added that in the 2013 floods, Parakrama Samudra was threatened and even sandbags were placed to protect the bund. Residents say the walking path is an unnecessary addition that risks the ancient waterways and cultural heritage.

“It is not suitable to have such a construction here. The breakwater should not be removed. It is set up to safeguard the tank. None of the officers are of this area. They do not understand the archaeological value. This tank is our heritage. We don’t want anyone to destroy what our ancient Kings passed down to us.

King Parakramabahu said that every drop of water needs to be made use of. This project is in clear opposition to this statement,” a member of the Buddhist clergy said, adding that the road is also damaged due to the construction.

No harm caused

The Chief Irrigation Engineer in charge of the Parakrama Samudra Asela Udayanga said the project does not cause any harm to the tank or the breakwater.

“There were reports that we were removing the breakwater altogether. This is not true. We have moved the stones five to six feet. There is no damage caused by that. Also, the stones are moved only till the construction is done. Thereafter, they will be placed as before,” he said.

The engineers added that another line of stones will be placed along the bund which will be an additional support to the breakwater.

Udayanga added that they have estimated the height which waters rise during a flood. All constructions are carried out above this level. Therefore, there is no cause for alarm, he said. Constructions such as these are common in the country around small to medium scale tanks, adding aesthetic value and promoting healthier lifestyles.

Polonnaruwa District Secretary W. A. Dharmasiri said the project will not damage the banks of Parakrama Samudra, adding that the Department of Agrarian Services and the Department of Archeology has granted approval.


State Minister of Development of Common Infrastructure Facilities of Settlements and Canals in Mahaweli Zones Siripala Gamlath said that the project is carried out under the strict supervision of engineers.

He reiterated that the stones would not be removed but were temporarily shifted for constructions. The State Minister reassured that the project will proceed with the involvement of the Buddhist clergy, farmer organizations, teachers, principals and other experts

He added that they will ensure further security to the bund without causing any harm to the breakwater.

Due to protests from residents and the Buddhist clergy, construction was temporarily halted. It was decided that 20 metres of the pathway would be constructed initially and shown to the protesters. If they are convinced that no harm is caused, they would continue with the rest of the construction.

With scenes of bhikkhus taking to the streets, it seems like this debate is driven more by nationalistic sentiments rather than by weighing arguments.

This is shown in the language where the narrative is mainly constructed on the protection of culture and heritage. Even though there is expression of fear for engineering miscalculations, this seems only secondary to what is explicitly clear.


The debate here underlines the battle of development vs. conservation which is a common issue faced especially by developing countries.

Many studies have been conducted on whether conservation is a hindrance to development activities and vice versa. However, the two ends need not be in competition but rather needs to complement each other to ensure a holistic life.

According to the research of Moses Wafula Mapesa, Regional Vice Chair, World Commission on Protected Areas, Eastern and Southern Africa, the entire issue needs to be a balancing act, mainly on the part of the leadership.

“Aspects of leadership … is critical for the necessary balancing act that ideally should enable the attainment of both conservation and development goals vital for human wellbeing,” the research states.

Change of attitudes, flexibility and acceptance that change is important for development are necessary qualities in a globalised world.

This is especially true when it comes to development around cultural heritage sites. On the part of the developers, it is vital that they understand culture and manage heritage arguments strategically and intelligently.

The conflict between conservation and development is inevitable. However, proper leadership and patience would see through many obstacles and find ways for the two extremes to see eye to eye.