Thursday, August 16, 2018

Long Walk to Water Autonomy

[by : Bharatha Prabhashana Thennakoon & Chinthana Nanayakkara]

Wanni! The moment you mention the word it immediately brings to your mind an endless stretch of parched and scorched earth. It immediately brings to your mind an endless stretch of hot midsummer sky devoid of the faintest hint of rain. Even the wind is coarse and dry. Trees and leaves have shrivelled and wizened. Gaunt and skeletal, cattle graze on dead grass that is more like sand. People make their living by chena cultivation against all odds. Paddy cultivation they have given up - not because they detest it, but because of the nagging doubt about timely rain.

However, amidst all daunting challenges people in Wanni haven’t abandoned their constant battle with earth as yet, toiling in defiance to make their chena cultivation and its improbable harvest a reality. From the time of our ancestors, we have seen Wanni in this plight. Does that mean our future generations too should experience Wanni the same way?

Construction of Wayamba Canal along with the ‘resurrection of 2,400 tanks’ programme is due to be commenced this month under the patronage of President Maithripala Sirisena. As the people in Wayamba, we could not describe our happiness when we first heard the news that all necessary steps have been taken to provide water to the dwellers in the Kurunegala district.

In their youth, our ancestors, unfortunately, failed to witness the promise of Wayamba Canal being fulfilled. A promise which was mentioned casually somewhere in the to-do list of national or regional political leaders who came to power from time to time. Our ancestors are no more with us. It is now our turn.

Yes, we were under the impression that ‘Mahaweli Water to Wayamba’ is just an illusion intended for our current generation also - who are engaged in an eternal struggle with soil - and remain so for our future generations as well, but the recent news tells us otherwise - creating strong trust in our minds about the Wayamba Canal initiative.

Wayamba Canal project

Wayamba Canal project takes place in compliance with his 2015 ‘Maithree Governance – A Stable Country’ election mandate in which President Maithripala Sirisena pledged his people that he ‘will take measures to repair clogged irrigation systems and remove silt-formed tank beds so as to preserve abundant rainwater and face climatic changes’.

First, high-level talks dealing the issue in detail regarding the scarcity of water for the people in Wayamba dates back to 1960s. But it remained unresolved, despite the eagerly anticipated solutions proffered by the Mahaweli Project or the various water management programmes based on Deduru Oya, which meandered across the Wanni region itself. Ever since then, people in Wanni were unwilling to place much faith on political discussions that concerned supplying water for their agricultural requirements.

Cultivators and farmers in Wayamba had much zeal and zest to exert themselves dedicatedly to the task of tillage. But the shortage of water brought their large-scale agribusiness to an inevitable halt. The only answer left to them was to depend on rainwater.

So when rainwater pools into tanks - which are actually man-made excavations engineered during the reign of the Sinhalese Kings - people in Wanni utilize it to the last drop. They have to. Because of the searing heat, evaporation occurs swiftly. There were times when the tanks in Wanni contained ample water. But today they are not much different from abandoned playgrounds. Few tanks still stubbornly hold on, looking – pitifully - not more than mere ponds.

In this context, it is not much of a new experience for people in Wanni to endure lengthy periods of drought when it becomes extremely problematic and difficult for them to obtain water to drink let alone farm their lands. Especially for the people living in the northern sector of Kurunegala district, this tragic situation is a part of their everyday life. True, roads had been built and buildings erected, but the necessity of providing a sufficient water supply to the region always received poor attention and went unnoticed. The ultimate result was; groups of villagers walking miles on foot - with buckets, pots, bottles and cans in hand - to fetch water from faraway wells. Yeah, it might sound unbelievable to you. But the scene is commonplace.

Through this proposed new project, it is expected to channel 130 million cubic metres of water to Wayamba. Ten percent of that amount is clean, distilled water suitable for drinking. This may also help alleviate the infamous, hereditary kidney ailment the people in Wayamba have been mysteriously suffering from generation to generation.

Already, the Kurunegala district has been identified as ‘risky’ in relation to this Chronic Kidney Disease of unknown aetiology (CKDu), the origins of which are still at the debate. It has been identified that the northern zone of Kurunegala district has the highest risk exposure to CKDu. According to statistics published in 2015 by the Ministry of Health, the number of patients having CKDu has surpassed – staggering and shocking - one thousand five hundred. It should be specially noted here that a majority of these patients live in the region which will be provided with drinkable distilled water under the Wayamba Canal project.

Water for paddy cultivation

The next gravest worry that stems from the water crisis in Wanni is obtaining adequate water for paddy cultivation. In desperate times, things easily escalate and the cooperation, harmony and togetherness that prevailed among farmers since bygone times have started to gradually fade away. Even the opening or closing of the smallest water conduit has driven people to the point of ending the lives of one another. Unable to bear the loss of harvest many have committed suicide.

The water crisis has worn out the farmers. For them, it is a question without an answer. Some say, going to farm is more painful than going to war. The construction of Wayamba Canal is in some sense a humanitarian operation of its kind that hopes to sooth the sorrows of such people in distress, bestowing them with the invaluable gift of much-needed water. In one hand, it is an alms giving at a supreme level. On the other hand, it is an excellent endowment that can be conferred on a distraught community of our nation to end their long-lasting grievances.

With a breathtaking expanse of 92 kilometres, Wayamba Canal is expected to steadily flow into eight main lakes and 350 other smaller tanks that span the breadth of Wayamba and Central provinces. Consequently, 2,400 additional tanks connected to the ancient Tank Cascading System (TCS) that is unique to our country, will be water fed by the excess release of the leading tanks.

The eight main lakes belong to Nikaweratiya, Galgamuwa and Hiriyala electorates in the Kurunegala district. One of the lakes, Devahoowa comes under Matale district.

The 350 smaller tanks belong to five divisional secretariats. They are Polpithigama Divisional Secretariat (109 tanks), Maho Divisional Secretariat (104 tanks), Ehetuwewa Divisional Secretariat (90 tanks), Galewela Divisional Secretariat (11 tanks) and Dambulla Divisional Secretariat (1 tank).

Further, a myriad of ‘lake clusters’ - each consisting of a parent lake and several infant lakes dependent on it – that are nestled in the Basins of Mee Oya, Hakwatuna Oya and Kalaa Oya, will come to life with the rejuvenating new water flow.

Most significant lake clusters are Maniggamuwa, Helembagahamula, Gallinda, Ehetuwewa, Ulpatha Wewa, Pahalakele Amuna, Polpithigama and Kataragama.

In addition to this, large-scale irrigation projects are scheduled to be started at the wake of Wayamba Canal. Some of them are Mahakithuala reservoir, Mahakiruala reservoir, Dambe reservoir and Wemedilla new sluice. And yes - three underground tunnels more than 500 metres in length will be built focusing the areas of Ranwediya, Nilagama and Mahakithula.

One of the key issues in this project is to be compliant with the Social Security Programme and Forestry Preservation Programme. Already, arrangements have been made to face the required standards.

National heritage

When implementing projects of this kind, a frequently observed shortcoming is that the vital components of Mother Nature tend to be ignored. But this time it is going to be different. Scientists and scholars are dedicated to the task of mitigating the impact on nature at all costs. All functions of the project are carried out according to the 2009 Social Security policies endorsed by the Asian Development Bank. This guarantees that the Wayamba Canal project will be closely monitored by ADB and will not proceed according to anyone’s whims or fancies.

Meanwhile, the Department of Archaeology has submitted a report on how this project will affect the archaeological sites in the project area and how to preserve them. The report has proposed to minimize the harm that the Wayamba Canal could bring on our national heritage. We should keep it in our mind that the Wayamba Canal is not a project that drowns our glorious history. It should carry water to the needy whilst protecting our regional values and cultural inheritance.

In brief, at the culmination of this project in 2024, the northern parts of the Kurunegala district will be provided with an annual water supply up to the capacity of the 105,000-acre foot. The total cost of the project is calculated at Rs. 30 billion. 13,000 families will directly (40, 000 families indirectly) benefit from this new water resource and 12,500 hectares of cultivable land will be well nourished with water.

The day we and our kids will watch and feel the seeping waters of Mahaweli across the paddy fields of Wayamba, which had been only a dream for the past generations, is not far. Each drop of that water will quench our thirst. Each drop of that water will enrich our lands. At last, our farmers will be able to stand up proudly as farmers. They will be beggars no more. As in the ancient times, they will again come to be treated as kings. Farming will no more be an ordeal.

We are waiting for that historical moment to scoop up a handful of crystal clear water that will soon reach us through the Wayamba Canal. Blessed with pirith chanting, the waters will no doubt bring prosperous times to the entire Wanni region.

Daily News 16.08.2018
(Page 11) Lake House - ANCL

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