Two recent contrasting discussions on Destruction of Sri Lanka’s Ancient Economic Water Heritage
Posted on July 7th, 2014

by Eng. D L O Mendis

It is generally well known that Sri Lanka’s ancient irrigation systems have been studied and documented over the years by scholars like R L Brohier and others. D S Senanayake as Minister of Agriculture under the Donoughmore reforms commissioned publication of Brohier’s classic Ancient Irrigation Works in Ceylon in three volumes in 1934.

These were re-published later in 1980 in a single volume by the Mahaweli Development Board when Gamini Dissanayake was Minister. Anyone reading these publications must appreciate how an enormous economic surplus was generated that facilitated construction of a vast inter-connected system of reservoirs and channels in ancient Rajarata, and stupendous Buddhist structures in all parts of the country. The better informed reader will know that these have been referred to in notable judgments by erudite judges in the World court in The Hague, and in the Supreme court of Sri Lanka. These judgments are, the much cited Separate Opinion in the Danube dam case, by the renowned Vice President of the World Court, Judge Dr C G Weeramantry, and the landmark judgment in the Eppawala Fundamental Rights case, by the late Dr A R B Amerasinghe, one of the most learned judges in the Supreme court in recent times.

Discussions relevant to all this took place at two well attended conferences in Colombo recently. Monday June 30, 2014, a well attended meeting was held in the Central Bank’s Centre for Banking Studies at Rajagiriya, organized jointly by Movement for National Land and Agricultural Reform (MONLAR) and the Centre for Environment and Nature Studies (CENS). The conference hall was beautifully and tastefully decorated, and included a wheelbarrow loaded with local produce, fruits, yams and vegetables. After the introductory formalities by Linus Jayatilleke of MONLAR, the Chief Guest, renowned Indian activist Vandana Shiva held the audience spellbound for more than an hour, with her discourse on the machinations of the MNCs – multinational corporations in India and other parts of the world. She described in dramatic detail how organised public resistance in India, had stopped attempts by MNCs to patent seeds and living things, and explained in vivid detail the difference between money and wealth. She went on to explain the shortcomings in the so-called economic indicators like GDP that are used to virtually mislead people who are victims of global exploitation, and described the introduction of an alternative Happiness Index in Bhutan. There was strange irony in the fact that all this was taking place in the auditorium of the Centre for Banking Studies of theCentral Bank of our country! Vandana Shiva answered a few questions, but had to leave early to get to the airport for a flight at 2.00 pm. This writer was reminded of an old joke that there are clones of this amazing, highly qualified nuclear physicist turned friend of the poor and exploited all over the world, who can appear in different parts of the world in quick succession, (if not simultaneously)!. Sarath Fernando of MONLAR gave a brief Vote of Thanks.

A prominent participant at the head table at this meeting was Ven. Mahamankadawala Piyaratana Mahanayake Thera of Eppawala Purana vihare. He was the chief defender of the Eppawala phosphate rock deposit which was to have been traded for exploitation to exhaustion in a transaction with a MNC that had been negotiated behind the backs of local people. Ven. Piyaratana had been supported by a group of concerned citizens led by the famous photographer Nihal Fernando some years ago. Nihal was not present at Vandana’s lecture, due to poor health, but the organizers in MONLAR and CENS remembered him with affection in informal discussions that day after the conference. Ven. Piyaratana expressed a wish to meet Judge Weeramantry, and he was kind enough to make time for a brief meeting in the midst of his busy schedules.

The second meeting was held on Tuesday, July 1, 2014, at the Ministry for Disaster Management auditorium, organized by the Ministry for Water Supply and Sanitation. Minister Dinesh Gunawardena had taken this initiative to bring together professionals concerned with the management of water resources, and a representative group of politicians from the north whose interest is Water for Jaffna. In this connection, the project known as A River for Jaffna, first discussed in a news item in the Observer in October 1954 nearly sixty years ago, by Eng. S. Arumugam, now called the Arumugam Plan was one of the highlights. Eng. Arumugam passed away in 2000 in London, aged 95 years; his son Eng. Thiru Arumugam being knowledgeable about the project, was invited by the Ministry of Water Supply and Sanitation, to attend this conference in Sri Lanka, from Sydney where he now lives. He had arrived on June 29 morning and faced a crowded program including a visit to Jaffna, before flying to Australia on July 5 night. This writer was also invited to visit Jaffna but could not go due to personal reasons. A suggestion for Engineer M. Rathinam who co-authored a relevant book on Community based Water Conservation and Development to go, was not agreed to by the organizers.

Proceedings opened with a power point presentation by Eng. Thiru Arumugam, that began with a statement by a Dutch engineer Hendrile van Reede, Captain to the Dutch Governor of Ceylon, Rijckloff van Goens,from A Report of the journey from Colombo to Manaar, Jaffnapatnam and its subordinate posts and forts, 01 December 1665, which begins: A dike to contain the sea at Condemanaer and Navacolli, with sluices to drain the rain water and a canal to the salt pans at Nieweli would create more useful arable land.” This was the first statement made, appropriately by a Dutch engineer 350 years ago, to convert the Vadamaarachchi lagoon and the Uppuaru lagoon to fresh water by keeping out sea water intrusion by means of barrages at Thondamannar and Ariyalai respectively.

Thondamannar and Ariyalai barrages were built eventually in the 1960’s but fell into disrepair during the war years. They were completely restored in 2008, despite danger of sniper fire, land mines and even suicide bombs, but Elephant Pass lagoon the first item in the River for Jaffna project was still under LTTE control and could not be restored. Today due to uninvited intervention by a non-career diplomat, restoration of Elephant Pass lagoon scheme has been put on hold.

The reader should be made aware that there are two major lines of legislative and executive authority to manage water resources, in Sri Lanka, namely the Ministry of Irrigation and Agriculture, and the Ministry of Water Supply and Sanitation. Iranaimadu reservoir in the northern mainland of the Jaffna district was built by the British in 1923, under the former Ministry, the Minister in charge after the Donoughmore reforms in 1930, being none other than D.S. Senanayake.

A proposal called Water Supply and Sanitation for Jaffna had been formulated by the Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation (SMEC) Australia, in collaboration with Northern Province authorities. The proposal came under the National Water Supply and Drainage Board NWS&DB in the Ministry of Water Supply and Sanitation, the assumption being that water would come from Iranaimadu reservoir storage. Iranaimadu being in another ministry there was a contradiction as to how this would be managed? Next, Iranaimadu farmers led by their M.P, Anandasangaree, protested that they did not have enough water for cultivation of their fields and could not allow any water to be transferred to Jaffna. This issue was resolved by SMEC in an interesting way. They proposed an amended proposal called Water Supply and Sanitation for Killinochchi and Jaffna, and allegedly got the consent of Iranaimadu farmers. They also proposed to raise the spill level of Iranaimadu reservoir, and effect repairs to the bund with additional costs added to the original proposal. Underlying this is a political issue of devolution or decentralisation that is not even mentioned. The Director-General of Irrigation in Colombo four years ago informed this writer that all the documentation for the River for Jaffna project had been transferred to the Director of Irrigation, Jaffna.

The River for Jaffna does not depend on water from storage in Iranaimadu reservoir. Rather it depends on spill water when Iranaimadu fills to overflowing, statistically speaking on an average of once in five or six years. In modern terms it is a stable and sustainable water and soil conservation ecosystem, to use the language used by Judge Dr C G Weeramantry in his Separate Opinion in the Danube dam case.

Returning to the conference at the Disaster Management auditorium on Tuesday July 1: Much time was given to presentations from the Irrigation ministry on proposals for massive developments extending diversion of water from Mahaweli basin that began with the Accelerated Mahaweli Development Project, AMDP. The primary source of storage isthe Moragahakande reservoir and primary diversion is by the North Central Province (NCP) Canal. Here was a text book example of Destruction of Sri Lanka’s Economic Water Heritage.  Members of the audience may not have known that the AMDP has been criticised from the time it was started with the proposal to wipe out all the small village tanks (wevas) in System H area. This was resisted by local farmers but a large number of small village wevas were demolished. This was a prelude to the proposal to exploit the non-renewable Eppawala phosphate deposit to exhaustion that was resisted by the efforts of Eppawala Hamudurowo, Nihal Fernando, and others.

The engineers who proudly presented their slides for new channels and reservoirs in the Vanni areas should have been asked what they proposed to do with the remaining ancient water and soil conservation ecosystems? If Vandana Shiva had been present at the time she would have stopped the proceedings with her brilliant analysis of the MNC’s who are so obviously behind this proposed alleged irrigation development that was displayed that day. For example, it made no mention of the available information in R L Brohier’s 1937 Royal Asiatic Society publication on the Inter-relation of Groups    of Reservoirs and Channels in Rajarata”. Worse still there was no mention of Dr R I Batalin’s blunders described when under construction by Brohier in his Tamankaduwa District and Elahera Minneriya canal. It was obvious that the wishes of MNC were lurking in the background, ready to add Desalination plants, Reverse Osmosis plants and water treatment plants, and pumping stations to their packages.

The voice of the above mentioned non-career diplomat was also lurking in the background. He has condemned the River for Jaffna alleging that it was not a river but a cut canal, and it was obvious that he was mixing it up with the NCP Canal.

In conclusion, a quotation from a presentation in Parliament on May 7, 2002, by this writer that did not have any worthwhile effect in the face of the so-called funding agencies in the background, is as follows:

It needs to be mentioned that there is an unspoken belief that Moragahakande will transfer Mahaweli water to the northern areas, even up to Jaffna peninsula. Consequently, anyone who opposes this project is suspected of not wanting ‘good Sinhala water to go to Tamil areas’ as a former diplomat phrased it. But, it should be realized that this would create a totally unnecessary and unmanageable situation of sharing water in the northern areas.

That is one very good reason why the River for Jaffna proposal should be taken up and implemented as early as possible. As Eng. V Tharumaratnam and others have correctly remarked, there is sufficient water in every locality in Sri Lanka provided rainfall is conserved and used without waste. Massive transfer of water by river diversions had been achieved in ancient times, only on a water and soil conservation ecosystems basis. The present tendency to ‘play god’ by diverting rivers on a purely hydraulic engineering basis (Table I) will inevitably lead to unmitigated environmental disaster, followed by socio-political chaos. The lessons of Lunuganvehera in particular have to be learned, and such blunders never repeated.

Eng. D L O Mendis
16, Amerasekera Mawatha
Colombo 5
July 3, 2014
[email protected]


Hydraulic Engineering vs. Water and Soil Conservation Ecosystems


                                                                                      Hydraulic engineering                                                                 Ecosystems perspective –

                                                                                       perspective –                                                                                  (Soft technology)

                                                                                        (Hard technology)


1. Water                                                                          inanimate, active                                                                                  animate, passive

2. Small tanks                                                              inefficient, early stage in                                                                   micro water and soil

evolution and development,                                                               conservation ecosystems

to be submerged by large                                                                   essential component of macro

reservoir built                                                                                reservoirs later water and soil conservation


3. Large reservoir                                                      efficient system in                                                                main item in macro water

combination with channel                                                and soil conservation eco-

distribution irrigation                                                           system, with micro water

system                                                                                                                                                                                  and soil conservation eco-systems in command area


  1.      4. Diversion channelbuilt to augment large                                     earliest stage in irrigated

reservoir – last stage in                                    agriculture and evolution

development of irrigated                                and development of water

agriculture system                                            and soil conservation                                                                                                                      ecosystems


5.   Vetiya                                   abandoned small tank                                    deflection structure –

micro water and soil

conservation ecosystem;

maintains water table

6.     Downstream                    cleared of all vegetation to                              must be designed as a

development area            lay out channel irrigation                               series of micro water and

system                                                                                                                                                                                                                  soil conservation ecosystems, including forest areas


7. Forest areas                    limited to catchment areas                             not only in catchment areas –                                                                                                                                                        should be interspersed with

fields in development areas for better nutrient flows

8. Objective or Focus        Water per se                                                        Water for people and nature


9. Paradigm                       Brohier’s four stage                                           D L O Mendis’ seven stage

hypothesis (1956);                                             hypothesis (1983)

republished by Joseph

Needham (1971)


Table I




5 Responses to “Two recent contrasting discussions on Destruction of Sri Lanka’s Ancient Economic Water Heritage”

  1. aloy Says:

    Eng. Mendis,
    Reading this article I get the impression that you are canvassing for the construction of the River for Jaffna; it is not anything to do with the destruction of ancient wonder of the east (ie. the Rajarata irrigation system). The northerners got every thing from the south. What did we get in return?. Bombs, bullets and destruction and we continue to get panels to investigate war crimes at their request. All the Sinhalese who lived there had been chased out.
    Isn’t it a shameful thing for you to press for a River for Jaffna initiated by a Sinhalese minister married to a tamil (perhaps supported by you at that time) at this point in time?.
    If the Sinhalese are resettled and the Tamils agree to integrate, then it is a different matter.
    Eng. Aloy

  2. Ananda-USA Says:

    Agree with Aloy.

    A river for Jaffna should be constructed ONLY when the Eelamists have ABANDONED their quest for a Separate State, allowed Sinhala people to settle among them in Jaffna and the North with OPEN ARMS, just as Tamils live among us without let or hindrance in the South, so that this water benefits ALL PEOPLE from ALL COMMUNITIES of Sri Lanka.

    Giving a source of precious water to Eelamists now, while they are fighting TOOTH & NAIL to divide and split Sri Lanka asunder is ASININE!

    Let us WAIT until the Eelamists have GIVEN UP, because they have been DENIED their demands and HAVE NO OTHER CHOICE but to integrate into Sri Lankan society.

    Eng. Ananda-USA
    (Yet another battling Engineer! Ha! Ha!)

  3. aloy Says:

    Also we need to keep in mind that once given it will become a birth right of northerners, and any changes to methodology of distribution or stopping will become an iternational issue.

  4. Nanda Says:

    Agree with both Eng Aloy and Eng Ananda.

    Brand new Jaffna Kilinocihci WTP is under construction. No such big WTP for Medawachchiya and Anuradhapura. Enough of “ජිනේ කදරියං දානේන​ ( win the miser by generocity)”. Stop now and develop adjacent Sinhala majority areas and starve the Tamils so that they will come down to these areas and work for Sinhalas.
    A river for Jaffna should be constructed ONLY when the Eelamists have ABANDONED their quest for a Separate State.

    They we can control when to release water and when not to depending on their aspiration changes.

    – Eng Nanda

  5. Lorenzo Says:

    With all due respect to the writer, what a foolish suggestion to have a “river” or “lake” in Jaffna!

    I lived in Jaffna from time to time for 5 years and my parents for decades. Jaffna ground water will ALWAYS be salty. NO ONE can change that. It is a massive WHITE ELEPHANT to waste money on changing it.

    STOP wasting money in the north. ENOUGH!

    At least ASK Jaffna people WHAT they want without assuming what is good for them. You will be surprised to hear what they really want.

    IF Sinhalese are settled in HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS in Jaffna after this river, then and ONLY THEN I will agree to it.

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