Awakening the glorious tank culture | Sunday Observer

Awakening the glorious tank culture

17 October, 2021
Yalabowa tunnel construction
Yalabowa tunnel construction

There is an awakening in the field of irrigation in the country. The Government has embarked on a program for renovating around 30,000 tanks under the “Irrigation Prosperity” project at a cost of Rs 12.5 billion. Ancient kings treated rainwater as a precious nature’s gift and constructed thousands of tanks and anicuts for storing every drop of rain water for irrigational, agricultural and drinking purposes. This concept converted the North Central Province into the Kingdom of Tanks or Wew Bendhi Rajjaya. In the Anuradhapura District alone, there are around 3,000 large, medium and small-scale tanks.

The greatness of the irrigation systems in Sri Lanka is a result of the remarkable hydrological engineering skills and marvellous workmanship of our great ancestors. The country retains a significant place in the world owing to its irrigation history of over 2500 years. The construction of reservoirs to preserve rainwater is a tradition unique to us. A marvellous feature identical to Sri Lanka with the cascade system added to it, which is now declared as a world heritage.

New reservoirs

After centuries, the Irrigation Department succeeded in the construction of a range of new reservoirs following the role of ancient royals. Among them are Udawalawa, Muruthawela, Nalanda dam, Norton, Inginimitiya Polpitiya lunugamwehera, Mavuara, Moussakele and Rajangane. Under the Mahaweli Project, new reservoirs such as Kotmale, Randenigala, Rantambe and Victoria were constructed, which revived the past irrigation glory and splendour. According to the National Water Resources Plan issued by the Irrigation Department in 1958, the construction of reservoirs and other water sources is a victory to the country.

According to Irrigation Departmental statistics, there are 73 major tanks, 170 medium tanks, 98 anicut schemes 10 drainages, three lift irrigation schemes, under which the cultivated extent is around 756,000 acres. The native irrigation works which continue to date from the fifth century B.C are able to store 3982 million cubic metres of water in 75 major and 167 medium tanks which come under the Irrigation Department. Another 3,157 cubic metres of water could be stored in the reservoirs belong to the Mahaweli Authority. In addition, a considerable quantity of water is preserved in minor irrigation tanks, the majority of them are in the Dry Zone.

There are reports that irrigation officials find it difficult to attend to duties as per the construction, renovation, rehabilitation, restoration and modernisation of tanks, reservoirs and anicuts under the existing irrigational laws and regulations such as governing water resource development and improvements, irrigational water management and in commencing new irrigation projects.

The Irrigation officials while planning construction and management of irrigation systems confront inconveniences and complexities due to ambiguities in the irrigation legislation, especially with regard to the designation of authoritative powers from top to bottom.

Irrigation Minister Chamal Rajapaksa on the instructions of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has requested the top officials in the managerial level of the Irrigation Department to take fruitful action to accelerate new irrigation constructions following the learnt lessons from several mega schemes such as the Yan Oya reservoir project where although the reservoir head work (149,000 acre feet) was completed two years ago, there are lapses in land acquisition, land alienation, payment of compensation and irrigational water supply, which has resulted in delaying the inauguration of the Rs. 36,000 million project.

Another eye opening incident is the commencement of the lower Malwathu oya reservoir head construction after an unwarranted delay of around 60 years, having underestimated the irrigational, agricultural and social and economic value of the project which would have boosted reconciliation among Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim communities in Mannar, Vavvniya and Anuradhapura.

Under these circumstances, in addition to ‘’Wari Saubhagya” program, there are several other nationally important irrigational projects under construction, as indicated below.


Total expenditure - Rs 80,833 million.

Total project landscape – 57,401 hectares

Under the Uma Oya Development Project, construction work is going on following structures.

Construction of Alikota Ara reservoir (6.5 MCM)

Construction of Kuda Oya reservoir (22 MCM)

Increasing of the capacity of the Handapanagala Tank (7.5 MCM up to 14 MCM)

Construction of transfer canal Alikota Ara to the Buduruwagala Tank (12 km)

Construction of transfer canal Buduruwagala to the Kuda Oya reservoir (12 Km)

Construction of Kuda Oya main canal, Kuda Oya to the Sinhalayagama tank (30 Km)

Construction of Handapanagala LB main Canal (11 Km)

Rehabilitation of 110 minor tanks

Land acquisition and resettlement

A tank renovation program in seven districts under the Wew Gam Pubuduwa project is in rapid progress. Initially funded by the Green Climate Fund jointly with the Mahaweli Development and Environment Ministry and at present under the Irrigation Ministry, the Wew Gam Pubuduwa has undertaken to modernise 325 tanks in Malwathu Oya Mi Oya and Yan Oya river basins extending to Anuradhapura, Kurunegala, Vavuniya, Puttlam, Trincomalee, Mannar and Polonnaruwa Districts at a cost of Rs 3,113 million. The Wew Gam Pubuduwa project initiated in 2017 will continue until 2024 benefitting a population of 770,500 living in the three river basin proximities.

There are 103 major rivers in Sri Lanka. The greatness of the irrigation systems in the country is a consequence of the great engineering skills exhibited by ancient kings and hydraulic engineers.

The progressive building up of a huge and complex system of interrelated dams, canals and tanks and cascade systems for mingling the water of these rivers following in different directions are notable achievements in water management in the history as being reflected in the recent past by the Yan Oya reservoir, Moragahakanda reservoir, ongoing lower Malwathu Oya and Uma Oya reservoir projects, reawakening the glorious ancient tank culture.

Preparing a national program for seeking sustainable solutions for water issues we might have to face in the near future, drawing attention to factors such as protecting water sources as a whole, development and management of water resources and establishing water security are essential and vital priorities for us. The irrigation experts of the country are shouldering the task of effecting a massive sustainable irrigation development with objectives such as establishing new reservoir systems and increasing the storage capacity being held by the tanks network along with the rehabilitation of minor irrigation systems for gaining irrigation prosperity.