Mahaveli is a success. But ….
Posted on September 27th, 2020

Chanaka Bandarage

The Mahaveli Development Program is the largest multipurpose national development program of Sri Lanka. The program included irrigation development of about 365,000 hectares of land and development of hydro power of 470 MW capacity.

The original master plan was for the completion in 30 years, but in 1977 it was expedited to be completed in 7 years.

The final phase, Moragahakanda, was completed in 2018.

The program encompasses seven administrative districts and covers approximately 1/6 of the island’s land mass.

Much has been written praising the Mahaveli Program which opened up thousands of new agricultural lands and created volumes of hydro power.  There is no doubt that framers in the dry zone were hugely benefitted.

Mahaveli created eight major hydropower projects – Bowatenne, Kotmale, Maduruoya, Polgolla, Randenigala, Victoria, Rantambe and Moragahakanda. All of these were multimillion dollar mega projects. The effects that they had on the environment, fauna and flora is unprecedented.

Not much has been written about the negative effects of the Mahaveli Program. This short article attempts to address some of them.

Hundreds and thousands of virgin forests were cleared for the settlement of new settlers. It is estimated that over 256,000 hectares of virgin forest lands became Mahaveli land.

Large swaths of fertile land went under water and thousands of people were forcibly uprooted from their ancestral lands. Many people left their lands with tearful eyes.  Some of the lost lands were the best, most fertile and valuable agricultural lands of the country (eg. lands in Teldeniya, Kotmale, and Elahara).

Thanks to the accelerated Mahaveli Program, the human – elephant conflict took an adverse upturn.  As more and more downstream settlement projects were implemented, these large mammals had no other alternative but to encroach into newly formed human settlements.  The massive deforestations directly blocked the ancient elephant corridors. Other wildlife too lost their habitats; they either became extinct or endangered.

Thousands of humans and elephants have died as a result of this fierce battle between two intelligent animal species. The conflict is ongoing; for over 40 years we are grappling with the problem. It seems we do not know the solution!

The damage caused to paddy and other crops by the displaced elephants and other animals such as monkeys, wild boar, deer/sambhar and peacocks etc is immeasurable.

Veddah communities lost land that they had enjoyed from time immemorial.

In some areas, due to the building of huge dams, the healthy Mahaveli is ‘almost dead’. One could notice that the river in Thennekumbura – Haragama areas now has very little water. Large granite rocks that were previously submerged have become permanently exposed due to the dearth of water resulting from the dams.

The large shark like fish (some were capable of growing to over 8 feet in length) that roamed Mahaveli is no more; they have disappeared forever. The dams blocked their free flow movement within the river. Also, they destroyed local ecosystems thus the fish that swam upstream to mate became extinct.

By 1990s hydropower has become extremely unpopular worldwide. This is due to the harm it causes to communities and ecosystems. The world by then understood that the environmental disturbance the hydropower dams contribute had greatly reduced the world’s endangered species. But, Mahaveli had done its damage then.

The environmental damage/destruction the Mahaveli Program has done is enormous (the strange situation is that in Sri Lanka we continue to build large and small hydropower stations at great cost to the environment.  The writer states that Sri Lanka should have stuck to clean coal power stations instead. All developed nations developed from coal power (some later developed nuclear energy). China and India continue to build coal power stations at a breakneck speed, knowing that it is the most reliable and cost effective source of power generation. They are on a race to become very wealthy. Norochcholai alone provides the country with 300 MW power – approximately 2/3 of the power generated by the eight Mahaveli hydropower projects combined!).

Major effects of salinity has been reported in some Mahaveli areas (eg system H irrigation area, especially in the Kalawewa basin).

It is not a secret that the Mahaveli Program was a source of illicit money making for unscrupulous politicians, their cohorts and government administrators. Some say it is the Mahaveli Program that introduced mega style corruption in Sri Lanka. Today, the practice has become the norm.

The intention of this article is not to undermine the huge gains that the country has secured from the Mahaveli Program, but only to highlight some of the major negative effects.

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