River for Jaffna A Dream Come True
Posted on August 2nd, 2018

Senaka A. Samarasinghe – (Retired) Mahaweli Authority of Sri Lanka, Winnipeg, Canada –

June 18th, 2018

God made the earth, but the Dutch made Holland” This famous proverb express the nature of the country. In Dutch language

Netherlands means low country. Out of total land area (41,568 sq. km.) about half of the country is less than one meter above the sea level. Currently more than 2,400 km of dikes are protecting the country. During the period of 1500 and 1800, in Netherlands there was a rapid population growth and large scale enhancement of hydraulic engineering for land reclamation (desalination). They pumped saline water by using windmills as low-cost energy.

Rijcklof van Goens (1619 – 1682) was the Dutch Governor of Ceylon appointed Captain Hendrick van Rheede (1636 – 1691) as the Dutch Commander for Jaffna. Rheede was very much interested in natural history and wrote classic books on the subject. With this background the historian Dr. M. Gunasingam found that Rheede was the first Dutch ruler who started constructing dykes to converts Vadamarachchi (dyke at Thondamanar) and Upparu (dyke at Nieweli) lagoons into fresh water ponds to create new arable land for the use of Jaffna farming community.

The total area (including inland water) of Jaffna peninsula is 1030 sq. km. The terrain of the region is almost flat. The central part of the western region around Tellippalai the height is about 10.5 m above sea level. From there gently slope towards the south and south east, where as to the north the elevation suddenly dropped.

Before establishing Irrigation Department (ID) in 1900 Central Irrigation Board undertook restoration of Giant Tank in Mannar District during the period of Sir Arthur Havelock (late 1890s). One of the main objectives of establishing ID was to restoration of Dry Zone irrigation systems.

During this year (1900) population of the country was 3.5 million and 5.6 million tons of rice were imported. This is one of the main reason British colonial rulers decided to establish ID. This era renowned pioneers namely Dr. John Davy (1812), Sir Emmerson Tennent (1845) and R.L. Brohier (1933) in irrigation sector identified ancient sluices and other old structures in various parts of the island. The new department was assigned to restore and construct all irrigation works and maintain large irrigation schemes. Maintenance of minor irrigation works came under the control of the Government Agent in each District. In the 1930s ID focused its functions into on- farm water management, flood protection, construct saltwater intrusion structures in the Wet Zone. ID was not a revenue earning Department but spend money for construct and maintain tanks and canal system.

The Gal Oya Scheme, the first river basin development, was started during 1948. Gal Oya Multipurpose Development Project was started in 1948 which was modelled on the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in the US. This concept was not only to develop irrigation but also consider other activities such as power generationandindustries.TVAconcepttakenupafterthe World War II. The Gal Oya Development Board (GODB) established to manage this project. GODB was the first statutory body to set up in independent Ceylon. Construction of the dam began in 1949, completed within four years in late 1953. The project was completed and paid for within our own resources.

In 1969 with the creation of Uda Walawa Reservoir the second river basin development started. Instead of GODB new statutory organisation named as River Valley Development Board (RVDB) established to manage multipurpose second river basin development scheme.

In 1961, UNDP/FAO recommended for 30 year 13 river system development project based on Mahaweli river and inter-basin river diversions. Recommended to implement over a period of 30 years for 13 river systems marked as A to M. This programme included to irrigate 365,000 ha and generate 470 MW hydro power. The phase one was completed in 1978. Project implementing agency was Mahaweli Development Board (MDB). With the establisment of MDB, GODB was liquidated.

In 1978 the Government decdied to implement Accelerated Mahaweli Development Programme. For this Mahaweli Authiruty of Sri Lanka (MASL) eatblished to realize above objective. MASL is still functionng as a river basin developemnt agency.

In 1954 Eng. S. Arumugam (1905-2000) published River for Jaffna illustrating of a new concept for the peninsula which is almost flat and no rivers. This model is faraway from ancient river-based irrigated hydraulic system. The underlying limestone aquifer recharge by annual rainfall of 1270 mm which is more than 80 per cent from North-East monsoon in October to November. Eng. S. Armugam’s son Eng. Thiru Arumugam is carrying out this idea up-to-date to supply fresh water facility for the comminity in Jaffna peninsula.

It is intersting to note River for Jaffna conscept upraised in two occations. This proposal submitted to the Presdent J. R. Jayewardene. In May 1983 President called for a meeting for a discussion. During this period due to the trouble situation in the country unable to proceed with the proposal. Minister for Irrigation and Water Management, Mr Gamini Jayawickrerna Perera visited Jaffan. In July 2003 Minister submitted a Cabint Paper to obtain approval for implemention. Due to change of Goverement the project was shelved.

Asian Development Bank (ADB) approved a loan of 130 million US dollars (in 2010) for providing safe drinking water for 300,000 people in Jaffna Town and surrounding areas and sanitation facilities for 80,000 people in Jaffna Town. The water source was Iranamadu tank in Kilinochchi District. The farmers of Kilinochchi protesetd as they were cultivating only 30 per cent of rice during the Yala (dry) season. If water pumped to Jaffna the farmers in Killinochchi would not be available for Yala cultivation.

In May 2017 tenders have been invited from contractors to Design, Build and Operate (DBO) for 24 million litres per day (Mld) for a sea water desalination plant at Thalaiyadi in Jaffna Peninsula. This will consume about five to six megawatts of electrical power. Further according to National Water Supply and Drainage Board (NWSDB) the cost of water produced by the proposed plant will be more than six times the average cost of water produced by all the other plants.

In the mid 2010s Goveremenet of Sri Lanka (GOSL) requested the Dutch Government to solve the fresh water problems in the Jaffna Peninsula. As a result they sent an expert to Jaffna in January 2017. Based on that in Feb 2018 they sent a team of six experts (Team Leader, SjefIJzermans) to observe the viabilty of the River for Jaffna project to conduct a preliminery study. Tentative findings are as follows:


  • Benefits for lands alongside of lagoons:
  • Less damage by salty inundations o Additional irrigation
  • Recharge of aquifers (limited)
  • Recharge of aquifers could be increased by pumping
  • Infiltration through irrigation to now uncultivated areas
  • Special infiltration canals

GOSL is waiting for the final report with alloction of funds from the Dutch Government to construct and implement the Project.

The present Dutch Ambassador in Colombo, Ms. Joanne Doornewaard has also been briefed how Dutch Colonial admainstration initiated the similer to River for Jaffna project about more than 350 years ago.

During the last few years water resources develpment in Jaffna peninsula was one of the main subjects discussed at the Cabinet Ministers’ level. Prime Minister Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe is working closely with Policy Development Office to introduce a new project for water supply to Jaffna utilizing rainfall into the Vadmarachchi Lagoon. This project was approved by the the Chief Minister of Northern Province and the Cabinet of Ministers in Sept. 2017.

Nortren Provincil Council conducted a three-day seminar 28th-30th Jan 2017 at Jaffna Public Library Auditorum. The theme was Towards Sustainable Water Resources Management and nine research papers were presented during three teachnical sessions. This was inaugarated by Mr. C.V. Wigneswaran Chief Miniister, Norther Provincal Council (NCP) and the Special Guest was Mr. C.V.K. Sivagnanam Chairman NCP. Members of NCP, Secretaries to the NCP Ministries, Heads of Department and staff participated in this event.

During the last several decades river-based irrigation water distribution was the main political theme in other parts of Sri Lanka. At present National and Provincil level political williningness is building up on non-river base water resources developemt in Jaffan peninsula.

This new trend will be helpful to plan and implementation of 350-year old concept of River for Jaffna.


4 Responses to “River for Jaffna A Dream Come True”

  1. Dilrook Says:

    An absolute national disaster!

    Given the severe water stress in South India, a large fresh water body in northern Sri Lanka will attract millions from south India once again (as happened during Dutch time). This will create another war and a severe strain on resources in the island.

    Northern Provincial Council is driven by separatism and racism. Their liking for such a project is understandable.

  2. Hiranthe Says:

    I agree with Dilrook.

    And the other thing is, where is the Ealam now when they are dependent on water and electricity from the rest of the Island?
    These politicians has to first accept the fact that they are a part of Sri lanka, not an Ealam they dream day and night. Their Ealam is already in Tamilnadu.
    We will take care of Jaffna people if they withdraw their claims for self-governance, Tamil homeland, Ealam Tamils and all other bullshits

  3. Dilrook Says:

    Please take a look at India’s water stress map here. Select “Baseline water stress” from left hand side.


    It shows critical water shortage in almost all of Tamil Nadu! Building a fresh water body (by whatever name) in Jaffna is a massive attraction for these people. For them it is a matter of life and death. Already Sri Lanka has a million Indian Tamils. Every year over 100,000 of them illegally come to Sri Lanka and settle down.

    Sri Lanka’s borders must be sacred. Sri Lanka is not a life giver (and must not be) to Tamil Nadu people. Sri Lanka must be for Sri Lankans only. End of story.

    Our professionals are unable to think beyond their functional area. There is absolutely no thinking centred around the national interest. With this type of projects, Sri Lanka is a nation cursed!

  4. aloy Says:

    I remember I wrote in these columns about the scenes around Colombo Kochchikade in 2013. It was Gota in power then and I appealed to him to take action. The place looked like Tamil Nadu. Nothing happened. As Dilrook says about a hundred thousand may be entering every year and choke Colombo. Now Mano calls the shots. Perhaps Gota is expecting their votes.

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