Did an e-mail stop the completion of the River for Jaffna project?
Posted on December 21st, 2013

C. Wijeyawickrema, LL.B., Ph.D.


            If NPCM Wigneswaran and TNA members want to help Jaffna famers there is an unusual book that they should read. The principal author of this book of collection of essays, “Community based water conservation and development: two contrasting examples from Sri Lanka and from Russia” (OPRO Printers, Moratuwa, Sri Lanka, September 2013) is the well-known engineer D.L.O. Mendis. With names and dates, he alleges, that the River for Jaffna project was derailed half-way from its completion by two or three non-engineers holding high-level positions in GOSL, just by exchanging a few e-mails between them!  Despite this arbitrary act, a technical committee which had the task of prioritizing the water resource development projects to be undertaken in the island listed River for Jaffna as the new number one priority. Therefore, instead of promoting Tamil separatism by way of planting maaveerar trees or using the word genocide, Wigneswaran can help Jaffna people by getting the RfJ project resurrected ASAP. DLOM’s book gives all the information he needs to request, if necessary, funding help from David Cameron, Manmohan Singh or the Canadian one, via MahindaR.

Cows and engineers

            DLOM’s book reminded me two engineering episodes that I could never forget. One was about the Mahaveli Authority engineers. They had a hard time figuring out why cows and buffaloes did not use the bridges that they built for the animals to cross the irrigation canals so that the canal bunds do not get damaged. The bridges were at the identified cattle crossings. When this cow issue came to the attention of a new Director General (and who told me this story), who was a people oriented manager, and a believer in the value of “community knowledge,” he asked the field engineers to arrange a joint meeting with the area farmers.

            At this high-powered meeting farmers were listening to technical, cost-benefit kind of discussion going on between head office staff and the field engineers. After witnessing this drama patiently, an elderly famer finally got up and said “cows do not like the bridges because under the hot sun concrete bridges are like burning hot coal.  Cows simply did not want to get their hooves burnt. Before the meeting turns into another technical discussion, the farmer also volunteered to offer a solution: He said, “You make adjustment to cover the surface of the bridge with a thick layer of soil.” The DG told me that after this meeting one engineer was talking about applying for a patent, and he told him if so make it a joint one with the farmer.  The other was a personal experience of visiting an abandoned working class housing scheme at Nuwara Eliya, built on a hill top by civil engineers  of the then Cement Corporation because cement was available in plenty. They were all concrete structures, ice cold for most months of the year and were not habitable even by wild dogs. How engineers lost the ability to use commonsense or to benefit from the “social capital” available in plenty with village farmers can be due at least partly to the concrete not soil-based education they have received in an ex-colony of the West. From arts graduates who joined CCS (now CAS) to medical or engineering students have received an education based on the humiliation theory””natives and native systems were primitive and needs modernization or Europeanization. This Eurocentric thinking (Europe is superior) created a perpetual class of black-whites, not just in Ceylon but all over the colonial and ex-colonial world.

Black-whites are not, they become

            Mendis in his book does not use the phrase black-whites, but the message in the book is that at least in the field that he is an expert, in irrigation, hydraulic engineering has prevailed, ignoring the native (ancient?) concept of eco-villages.  Thus, Jungle clearing is the first budget item in irrigation projects, and no space for soil restoration. It is amazing that in a dog-eating-dog world of white R2P and Geneva Human Rights, very few knows that (ancient) paddy farmer in Sri Lanka kept a small plot of the paddy field reserved exclusively for birds. The delicate ancient water conservation systems (Irrigation canal systems) became objects to be cleared (destroyed) for the construction of modern concrete reservoirs, big and bigger. Using historical evidence Mendis demonstrates that Sri Lanka should go back to its ancient eco-systems approach of using water for human benefit.

            He compares the eco village idea that became popular with the Ringing Cedar Series by the Russian, Vladimir Mergre (p.5) to home gardens found in the Jaffna peninsula and the dry zone of Sri Lanka. In 1857 the colonial secretary Emerson Tennent compared these Jaffna gardens with the market gardens of Fulham and Chelsea in London (p. 9). With mostly stupid politicians of all colors paying lip services to sustainable development, the destruction of the environment and eradication of past heritage is continuing, and Mendis’ book should be required reading for teachers of universities on the need to empower students with a balanced knowledge that everything European is not great (black-white mind set), and in the case of the story of water, Sri Lanka has had an admirable record.

Fool of bricks

            The black-white mentality is pervasive from the president of the country to the GSN (grama sevaka niladharee).  Generations of Sri Lankan people grew up under the humiliation paradigm of European colonialism.  For them, the colonial master came to modernize, the primitive people in the island. They created an inferiority complex by humiliating natives. Everything that came from Europe was good, and a class of people received training in Christian boarding schools in Colombo, Jaffna and Kandy for example, on European habits and history. Ever since successive generations, even those who go to universities in the Sinhala medium, ended up as victims of this humiliated mind-set, becoming black-whites by default. It is a process of survival that traps them in””black-whites are not; they become.

            This Eurocentric thinking is more visible today than in the past as more economic freedom and more “development” is supposed to be taking place today. It is for “development” that field officers of the archeology department give permits to dynamite granite rocks sites with ancient ruins. It is because of modernization that younger medical graduates think native Vedamahattya (Ayurvedic physician) is of no good, until they get older and seek his help as the western system they practiced cannot help them any longer. When LSSP Marxists in the 1940s called King Dutugemunu was a fool of bricks (for building the Ruvanveli Maha Saaya), was it due to stupidity, ignorance, or extremist political ideology? The irony is that white civil servants in Ceylon discovered, protected and valued ancient Sri Lankan ruins, whereas irrigation engineers and politicians in Sri Lanka after 1948 continued to destroy this heritage for short-term personal gain, placing the future generations at risk.

Black-white irrigation blunders

            Mendis points out several “irrigation blunders” made in the past.

(1) One is the wrong location of the Uda Walave Reservoir. Rather than submerging all the ancient “small tanks”, the reservoir should have been located further upstream at a new site so as to command the systems of small tanks. This suggestion made in 1967 when the Uda Walawe headworks being constructed (1965-68) was ignored and the country is paying dearly for it by way of unmet water needs (p. 131).

(2) Similarly, the Lunugamvehera was selected (Lower Kirindi Oya Reservoir) without investigating the alternative site, Huratgamuwa site because of a political desire to rush through during 1978-86 (p. 124). By leveling off and submerging small tanks both Uda Walwe and Lunugamvehera projects led to ecological imbalances and mal-development (example: droughts in the Hambantota Area) (p. 192).

These projects were all components of the Southern Area (water resource development) Plan, based on hydraulic engineering perspective, while DLO Mendis had proposed a plan based on ecosystems perspective (p. 161, 168-9).  

(3) The latest mistake, according to DLOM is the Implementation of the Moragahakande reservoir and the NCP Canal Project (p. 161). Like the two previous projects, this one was also undertaken without considering the alternatives. Because of the fact that NCP canal is a ridge channel (running along the central dividing ridge in the north-central part of the island) unlike the contour channels used by ancient irrigation canals such as the Jayaganga, DLOM thinks this will create an east-west water use conflict in the near future.

Tragedy of the commons

            Politicians acting in haste or in an arbitrary manner created untold damage to the people of Sri Lanka and yet there is no learning from the past mistakes. This is called a new kind of tragedy of the commons, because it is an abuse of the public property by a temporary group of politicians in power at a given time. For example, When the Gal Oya project was in preparation the late Dr. S. A. Wickremasinghe suggested vehemently not to build one large downstream reservoir (known later as the Senanayaka Samudraya) but to construct a large number of upstream small reservoirs so that a better fit with the ecological and societal concerns could be achieved.  The tax-paying general public of Sri Lanka has suffered so much because for known or unknown reasons politicians and engineers ignored his appeal, which now looks as nothing but commonsense advice.

            May be JR Jayawardena was also involved in that decision as a minister. But a second disaster was made by JRJ when he implemented the Mahaveli Project, and when it became an accelerated one.  Both the environment and the people had to suffer unnecessarily for this mega-techno experiment, and it was hurried for whose benefit? We only know that Mahaveli petrol had a green color added so as to try to prevent pilfering it. Mahaveli project is an insult to all those Sinhala kings who contributed to a water tank-based civilization in Sri Lanka.  No one knows, to what extent, the Mahaveli blunder is responsible directly and or indirectly for increased landslides, micro climate changes, soil erosion and kidney failure disease in the dry zone of the island.  The weight of the huge Victoria reservoir on a limestone-covered bed rock must have some repercussion.  

Paradigm failure

             Mendis now in his seventies is one of the engineers who did not become a victim of the black-whitening process. This is why he could escape from becoming a victim of the hydraulic engineering paradigm followed by engineers in developing the 1959 water resources development plan (p. 152).  In 1956 R. L. Brohier presented a four-stage model of the development of ancient irrigation system in Sri Lanka (1. Rain water tanks, 2. Small village tanks, 3. Large reservoirs, each submerging a number of small tanks, and 4. augmentation of a large reservoir by diversion from a river (p. 131)). Brohier based his hypothesis on the increasing size of storage reservoirs, without any reference to the invention of the sluice. This made his model erroneous (p. 145).

            In the 1980s a new paradigm replacing Brohier’s was presented by Mendis””a seven-stage hypothesis on the evolution and development of water and soil conservation ecosystems (irrigation systems) in ancient Sri Lanka (1. Rain fed agriculture, 2. Seasonal or temporary river diversion and inundation irrigation, 3. permanent river diversion and channel irrigation, 4. Development of weirs and spillways on irrigation channels, 5. invention of the sluice with its access tower (sorowwa and bisokotuwa). 6. Construction of storage reservoirs equipped with sluices, and 7. Damming a perennial river (p. 145))

The concept of Vetiya

            Why so many abandoned small tanks (Brohier’s stage 3) was an enigma for irrigation engineers until the engineer P.A.G. Paranagama, around 1990, discovered by accident in the Mau Ara basin (Walawe left bank) that these were not bunds of abandoned small tanks, but examples of Vetiyas, a small earth bund, essentially a water conservation device built to raise the water table (p. 147).  Each vetiya raised runoff in the Ara or Oya above the valley bottom and into the permeable reddish brown earth soils of the valley sides, before deflecting it around the vetiya so that it could drain back to the valley bottom and down to the next vetiya in the chain (p. 197).  In South India, a small tank is called a yeri or eri, and the term includes the vetiya. The result of this system was that farmers had their “Dry Zone Forests Gardens” similar to the “Market Gardens” (home gardens) in Jaffna.  In Jaffna the water table was raised by lift irrigation using groundwater whereas in the Dry Zone it was by gravity fed rain water using the vetiya.

River for Jaffna

            The concept of River for Jaffna is therefore nothing but using the Vetiya idea kind of water conservation method to raise the groundwater level in the Jaffna Peninsula. If some modern “environmentalist” is worried about its environmental impact, the only adverse impact will be the need to change from fishing in brackish water lagoon to fishing in a fresh water lagoon. It is like tobacco framers are offered subsidy to change over to onion or chilly cultivation! Transition from brackish water to freshwater lakes will take time giving room for fishermen to adjust to the change.

            The River for Jaffna does not mean creating a new river, overland concrete canal or a huge pipeline. The idea of converting several lagoons is the Jaffna peninsula into fresh water lakes is at least a century old. At present there are over 100,000 water wells in Jaffna and the top part of these wells hold fresh water.  If well water is pumped out excessively then salt water underneath comes out and spoils cultivation. So the purpose of RfJ is to saturate the groundwater with fresh water lagoons and thus keep the salt water down. This can one day help in protecting these wells from the adverse effects of a possible sea-level rise due to global warming. The RfJ is simply a plan to augment the freshwater groundwater supply in the Jaffna peninsula by a erecting a few barrages so that the water coming from the Kanakarayan Aru and three smaller streams to the Elephant Pass Lagoon is taken to the Vadamarachchi Lagoon through Muliyan Link Channel.



            The project consists of five barrages, one bund and a link channel.


            While RfJ is half completed and it is evaluated as the number one priority by a recent expert committee a different more costly project is being promoted by the National Water Supply and Drainage Board with an ADB loan. This new project plans to take water from the Iranamadu tank to the city of Jaffna. This new project has the following components (i) Improvement of Irainamadu Head Works including high lift irrigation (ii) provision of water supply and sanitation in Jaffna Peninsula (iii) Sewerage and (iv) Construction of Assistant General Manager office building, OIC office and Quarters. Readers can compare the work involved under the new project with the work to be done under the RfJ project.

Water supply and sanitation in Jaffna project

Component 1: Improvement of Iranaimadu Headwork including high lift irrigation.

Component 2: Water Supply

  • Construction of intake at Iranaimadu
  • Construction of Treatment Plant at Palai (35,000m3/day)
  • Supply and laying of treated transmission mains (44km)
  • Supply and laying of distribution mains (284km)
  • Construction of 17 nos of Elevated towers and 4 nos of Underground reservoirs. 

Component 3: Sewerage

  • Construction of sewerage net work
  • Construction of Sewerage treatment plant at Kallundai

Component 4: Capacity Building – Construction of Assistant General Manager office building, OIC office and Quarters

Work need to be done to complete RfJ Scheme

Step 1: Recondition Thondamanaru Barrage

Refurbish the existing Thondamanaru Barrage (where the northern end of Vadamarachchi lagoon joins the sea) and improve the discharge gates to allow for discharge of flood water. This will make Vadamarachchi a fresh water lagoon. The existing barrage is no longer watertight and allows sea water to enter the lagoon.

Step 2: Recondition Ariyalai Barrage

Provide a spillway and gates at the southern end of Upparu Lagoon where it connects to the sea, near Ariyalai to make Upparu a fresh water lagoon. Provide a link channel between Vadamarachchi and Upparu lagoons so that fresh water from Elephant Pass lagoon can be supplied to Upparu lagoon. The spillway and gates were constructed, but the gates are no longer watertight and sea water enters Upparu lagoon.

Step 3: Complete Mulliyan Link Channel

Excavate a 12 metre wide, 4 km long channel, called the Mulliyan Link Channel, from the northern side of the Elephant Pass lagoon to convey fresh water from the Elephant Pass lagoon to the southern end of the Vadamarachchi lagoon, including regulatory gates to control the flow. Unfortunately only about 80% of this was completed when funds ran out.

Step 4: Complete Spill cum Causeway at Chundikulam

Build a bund at the eastern end of Elephant Pass lagoon at Chundikulam to prevent fresh water going to the sea at that end and a spillway to discharge excess flood water to the sea. This work was completed and Elephant Pass lagoon became a fresh water lagoon for a few years but unfortunately the bund was breached by subsequent heavy floods, thus allowing sea water access since then.


            When RfJ could deliver to people of Jaffna Eco villages, GOSL is trying a massive project with ADB loans. Most people think such large projects have generated a class of commission-based officers and politicians. Sri Lanka has an evil triangle: politician, officer and NGO. It began may be thirty years ago, but it is in worse shape now in 2013. This triangle of black-whites is not interested in Small Is Beautiful, Eco Villages, Sustainable Development, global warming, landslide or soil erosion. Mega projects aimed at “modernization” whether it was agriculture or irrigation has failed to deliver all over the world. As Mendis points out in his book Sri Lankan dry zone and Jaffna limestone region gave home gardens to people for thousands of years without kidney failures.

            The Eco village of the Russian Anastasia is nothing but the living Trinity of the Sri Lankan heritage. The village, the water tank and the temple (mosque/church) was an ecological unit that was in harmony with nature and with society. At a time when a debate is going on whether the need of the people is devolution of powers to politicians in the provinces or the empowerment of people at the village (GSN) level, Mendis’ book shows that eco villages is what we had and what we need.  President MR who is now in trouble for acting like a Sinhala Vessantara by accepting 13-A, still has time to consider how the Jana Sabha concept, that he himself promoted some time back with a Director General of Jana Sabha, could be implemented at GSN level with units demarcated on the basis of ecology-geography-hydrology.

            A non-political Jana Sabha system where people decide how to run their daily affairs is the only way to prevent genocide talks by Wigneswaran, to have a handle on crime and corruption rampant in the country and to prevent Sri Lanka divided into two warring units. I think Mendis is in a position to write a book linking the Eco Village concept with the GSN level empowerment of people living in eco villages as he is perhaps the only irrigation engineer who saw the link between  water conservation and politics.

14 Responses to “Did an e-mail stop the completion of the River for Jaffna project?”

  1. Lorenzo Says:

    C. Wijeyawickrema,

    NEVER support a river for Jaffna. That is SUICIDE.

    IF Jaffna has more clean water for drinking and agriculture TAMIL MADU ILLEGALS will come in shiploads. It CANNOT be stopped.

    Leave Jaffna water as it is or POLLUTE it if possible. That is the way to achieve DEMOGRAPHIC BALANCE.

  2. Sirih Says:

    One major issue in SL is how we design and build houses and multi story buildings… Whole model is based on concrete and even the interior walls are concrete.. This is a bad and expensive model and concrete is quite expensive and unnecessary since almost every country now use contrete only for the foundations..
    In US and Australia we have brick-veneer design and it is quite cheap and fast to deploy… If termite is a issue then we can use brick-steel model and this is much cheaper than concrete and also structure can be erected within few days..
    My brother got state of the art alloy fabrication plant in Sri Lanka and I have asked about the metal structure vs concrete costing… He said metal one is quite cheaper than concrete model and metal model can fast deploy and in future it is easier to change any internal walls since structural parts are look after by skeleton like design…
    My brother also a UK qualified engineer and designed the first north sea oil platform for Philips Petroleum and highly respected in that field… He told me that there is a cement mafia in SL and architect are not properly qualified for modern building design and whole system is corrupt to make money using concrete.
    These are sad facts and when I told him to push for these designs in SL, he said sadly he does not have time… which is true.
    Time to get Uni guys to get these modern designs into public domain so that we save so much money.

  3. AnuD Says:

    NEVER support a river for Jaffna. That is SUICIDE.

    I say the same.

  4. aloy Says:

    Could you please ask your brother to contact me via Lankaweb. Currently I am involved in a 1000 unit high rise housing project in an ASEAN country and we are in search of new technologies like this. There is another 6000 unit project in the pipeline and we should be able to deploy this technology if there is proven record.

  5. Sirih Says:

    @aloy, Pls. go to linkedin my profile.

    And my contact details are there and I will then pass your details to my brother.

  6. Nanda Says:

    This is where DLOM and the Lankan Engineers behave without wisdom. Intelligence is not wisdom. Wisdom is the knowing of reality before the reality kills you.
    This is a rare ocation that proves politicians sometimes have better wisdom than bookworms.

    RFJ project is an excellent project to be resurrected not ASAP but SASN ( Soon After Sinhalization of North).

    I am an Engineer too. I too was working under MDB ( In Sinhala it was called M.S.M Maha Salli Mankollya) Kalawewa Right Bank development in the thick jungle, sleeping on camp beds in wooden huts. There, like army soldiers, we followed the seniors, respected them to find out later most of them are involved in Maha Salli Mangkollya.

  7. Ananda-USA Says:

    Sirih said “Whole model is based on concrete and even the interior walls are concrete” !!!

    I agree with you completely! Who in his right mind would build interior non-load bearing partition walls out of solid concrete? The cost would indeed be prohibitive!

    As you point out, the foundations are usually built from reinforced concrete. But, the structural load bearing frame of a building may be built either using bolted or welded steel I-beams of various sizes, or from steel-reinforced concrete pillars and beams, or an appropriate combination of these to minimize cost. For the floors, relatively thin steel-reinforced floor panels, or honeycomb extruded metal panels, supported on the structural framework, can be used. In Sri Lanka, steel I-beam construction is reserved for large commercial buildings, to minimize the dead load due to reinforced concrete.

    The rest of the non-load bearing exterior walls, and interior partition walls, can be built using a SANDWICH construction approach that uses sheet rock panels mounted on an inexpensive framework built from galvanized sheet steel, or inexpensive wood, structural members.

    In colder countries, the hollow space within the sandwich wall construction is filled with thermal fiberglass blankets or with pumped-in foam thermal insulation. Interior thermal wall insulation is not used in Sri Lanka, but this could change in the future as energy costs rise, and people demand more comfortable buildings with dust-free actively cooled environments. I remember how keeping our old-style breeze-cooled open verandah homes free of dust was a continuous battle in Sri Lanka.

    Recently my family built a large 4-storey building in a suburb of Colombo using this approach to structural design, at a much lower overall cost than the all-concrete method you are rightly criticizing. I am now working with architects to design and build a multistory residence-cum-office building with zero-net-energy use, minimal net water use and net-waste generation, with highly energy efficient natural cooling and dust control built-in, at a fraction of the cost of the approaches currently being used in Sri Lanka. A major problem, of course, is getting the necessary local government permits for these novel approaches.

  8. Nanda Says:

    Alloy, Siri,
    What is the “new technology” ? Brick veneer constuction is not new. It is even older than concrete. Sirih’s brother is talking about use of steel as the structure rather than concrete.
    There is a lot of pros and cons for both steel and concrete. If steel is cheaper and faster, then why Singapore still use concrete even with the problem of lack of unskilled labour ?
    For structures up to about 40 stories, concrte is cheaper, but I agree that partition walls should be light weight or steel stud walls. In highrise construction you have to think about fire protection too. This is an old argument still being debated. However, I agree, current Lankan Architects are like frogs in wells.
    Alloy, this is just one of my fields of specilisation. I know you stated you worked at SEC and the time frame indicates you are few years senior to me.

  9. Nanda Says:

    There you go. Ananda, you too are in the same field. But I disagree because brick venneer is a waste of bricks as a structural material.

  10. Nanda Says:

    Lets not get distracted.
    River to Jaffna is a dissater. That is the topic. Not building industry. I don’t know why Wijay Ayya give the weapon to Bijjesvaran.

  11. Ananda-USA Says:

    Nanda said “But I disagree because brick venneer is a waste of bricks as a structural material.”

    True, but I didn’t advocate using ordinary bricks AS A STRUCTURAL MATERIAL, which would be both heavy and structurally weak along the cement bonds holding the bricks together … very weak in tension/bending!

    However, thin large and lightweight brick veneer panels are now available to give the look of brick construction to buildings constructed with steel or concrete frames. They are bonded on top of the sheet rock panels for cosmetic/decorative purposes.

    There are now even nicer looking decorative synthetic materials available as large sheets in Sri Lanka for giving a fabulous polished granite/marble look to the exteriors of building that would look positively ugly without them.

  12. Nanda Says:

    “thin large and lightweight brick veneer panels are now available” In Sri Lanka ?

  13. Nanda Says:

    Brick look alike tile laid, AAC panels ?

  14. Ananda-USA Says:


    Thin large and lightweight brick veneer panels are available in the USA; I don’t know about Sri Lanka, I can find out for you from my contacts in SL. Yes, these panels look like laid brick, with simulated cement seams.

    The granite/marble look exterior panels are available in Sri Lanka; we have used them on our own building.

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