Not too late for better alternatives?

Recent protests bring Kelani River Dam Project to forefront once more

By Jithendri Gomes

Jayantha Wijesinghe

The Kelani River Dam Project and its environmental impact was brought to light once more, with the recent protest that was held in Deraniyagala. The protest was staged on 13 February, against the multi-purpose water project of the Seethawaka River and the construction of an electricity power plant in the Rucastle area. The people in the area are opposed to the construction of an electricity power plant and the motive of the protest was to communicate that to the Government.

The Kelani River, starting from Samanala Kanda, meets the ocean in Colombo and is said to be 145 km in length. Eighty percent of the water used in Colombo is obtained from this river. It is also the source of multiple reservoirs in the country such us Castlereagh, Norton, Kehelgamu Oya, Maskeliya, Canyon, and Laxapana. It is also used for transportation, fisheries, sewage disposal, sand mining, recreational activities, and to produce hydroelectricity.

The Government claims that building this dam will add 20 MW of electrical energy to the national grid. It is also said to provide electricity, heating, and light to thousands of homes along the river, it was promised that blackouts will reduce drastically, and that the entire nation will benefit from this project. It is also supposedly one of the last areas left for a large hydroelectric power station, a lesser known fact.

We spoke to Jayantha Wijesinghe, the Convener at Rainforest Protectors of Sri Lanka and an ardent environmentalist, to discover the environmental impact this project will have on its surroundings and the nation as a whole.

Good or bad? The environmentalists speak

“Let me answer it differently,” said Wijesinghe. “Any conservationist’s ideology anywhere in the world is that any dam built across a river is a disaster. It has been an accepted fact for close to two decades after multiple studies concluded that it would be a failure. So, any conservationist will oppose the idea 100%.”

He continued: “Unless, of course, there is a greater need for the country. We are not extremists, if the needs of the people cannot be met; if the basic need for water is greater, we won’t stand in the way. However, this is not the case in Sri Lanka. Therefore, we do not recommend it. Its purpose is neither to control the floods nor deliver the people’s greater need.

“This project is focused mainly on making sure that Colombo does not flood, and there are plenty of ways to make sure that it doesn’t. There is an attempt to build four reservoirs upstream of the Kelani River to control the flood waters in Colombo.”

Of cushions and cups: Proposals

“We propose the following mechanisms, and if we focus on them you will see that this kind of massive project is unnecessary,” furthered Wijesinghe.

“The most important thing that needs to be done immediately is to rejuvenate the flood regulating environments. This includes wetlands, paddy fields, streams, rivers, canals, and other irrigation mechanisms. But just like all things in this country, there is politics, with many underhand dealings.

“The previous Government started a flood prevention programme under its regime. The plan was to connect all the wetlands in Colombo by building interconnecting canals to direct the water into the ocean. The water was to flow from Diyawanna to Kotte, then to Attidiya, and was to finally be released into the sea. The advisors and engineers certainly misguided them as the project was a failure. Creating wetlands will not solve the flood problems. Building these tanks only increased it.

“If there is a cushion and a cup with the capacity of 150 ml containing water, it is proven and rather obvious that the cushion will be able to hold more water than the cup’s capacity. The wetlands only have a limited capacity like the cup, therefore it was not successful.

“Building these wetlands also intervened with existing habitats in the area. The naturally existing Kadolana plants were removed, land was filled and reclaimed, and the ecosystem of the existing animals was lost. The solution is to preserve the flood regulating environments and maybe even build a mesh along the river banks.”

Reclamation of land – the biggest contributor

“As a country, for last 60-70 years, we have been tampering with the existing environment. Land reclamation has been happening more in the last decade than ever before. This will only increase the problems. Because of these projects, our ecosystems have changed, and even our rain patterns have changed. When we know we have made mistakes, we must learn from them. Yet, we continue down the same path,” noted Wijesinghe.

Wijesinghe referred to the Mahaweli scheme as an example. A tunnel was dug to divert the water, but then a leakage occurred and all the surface water got trapped in this canal and left the people without any water. Forty years later, the same happened with the Uma Oya project. The people in the area were left without any water. This resulted in many indirect costs; water bowsers were required to provide sufficient water for the people, families had to be relocated and helped into rebuilding their lives, etc. The final cost was far greater than the investment itself.

“This takes place even within Colombo’s suburbs; the main flood regulating paddy fields in Homagama were reclaimed in order to build the bus station. A few years later, it was being done in Kottawa for the same reasons. If these areas also begin to flood a couple of years down the line, we know what the main contributor is.

“We are a country full of smart and educated people, I am sure we can come up with solutions without having to reclaim land. Why not build columns and have elevated car parks and stations instead?”

The immediate repercussions

According to Wijesinghe, building reservoirs upstream is extremely dangerous. “This area has a high probability of the occurrence of landslides and floods. The people will have to be extra cautious and vigilant. This area is geologically very sensitive and unstable, and building a canal will only add to its instability.”

Kosala Sugathapala, a resident of Deraniyagala and a member of the Janahanda Sanvidanaya (a group formed and commissioned by the Chief Priest of the village to create awareness and stand up against the project) spoke to us about the matter.

“To begin with, we were not informed of such a project. We got to know of it only when a popular radio channel mentioned it first. We are still confused about whether it is going to be a dam or a power plant. The project is commissioned by the Dehiowita Pradeshiya Sabha and when we question them, they too don’t give us a proper answer.

“After the construction, the water level in our river is supposed to rise by one metre. Currently, it is at 69 m and they predict it to rise up to 70 m. Recently, they came and marked it, and warned more than 15 houses close to the river of flooding. We live in a flood prone area, and if this project is implemented, our village will be flooded faster than usual.”

Roshan Chathuranga, an environmentalist at the Shilpa Sayura Foundation and a resident of Deraniyagala, also confirmed the views presented by Sugathapala. He was also a part of the recent protest against the construction of the dam. He mentioned that the people were most upset about not being informed of such a construction that is to take place in their village and the continued avoidance of the questions and concerns they raised.

According to Wijesinghe, it is also one of the greenest areas in the country with the most amount of rainfall accounted for. With the changes made to its existing ecosystem, this too will change rapidly. The existing environmental flow will discontinue.

Wijesinghe elaborated that the Seethawaka basin has the most diverse aquatic biodiversity. “When we tamper with its environment, these biodiverse endemic fish and beings will be affected, and their species will soon vanish. No one is accounting for these small creatures, unlike a rhino or a tiger or even a bear.”

Direct impact

According to Wijesinghe, for the construction to begin, the people in the area will have to be vacated immediately – there are close to 5,000 families living in the area.

“They will have to be relocated not too far from the area they are used to. This means that they will have to deforest in order to provide land.
“There will be massive costs in building new infrastructure which will have to include everything from houses to schools and lands.”
Not to mention, it will be unimaginably expensive, both directly and indirectly, he added.

Learning from others

“Bangladesh is a country that suffers from many floods. As a nation, they have accepted and adapted to it,” stated Wijesinghe. “They have learnt to manage it by strengthening their disaster control programmes.

“Other parts of the world including major cities like Florida and London have similar problems. They resorted to adopting climate resilient, smart planning, and climate impact mitigation measures. Colombo won’t flood that easily, and there are different methods to solve this problem.

“If we remove the illegal settlers along the Kelani River and build elevated river banks, the immediate problem will be solved. It will solve the matter to a great extent, as they are the people most affected.

“A World Bank study was done on nine river basins in Sri Lanka, off which the Kalu Ganga records the biggest flood-related disaster in 2007, which certainly requires more attention. So, it is clear that Colombo is given more prominence for political reasons.”

It’s not too late

“With the Open Government Partnership (OGP) Summit in 2019 that enables citizens, civil society, and businesses to participate in government decision-making, and with Sri Lanka signing the treaty as well, we are now able to play a vital role. It still hasn’t come to the implementation stage, but it is the responsibility of the Government to educate the people before such a study is undertaken. Just as the government sectors are informed, the people must also be educated. If not, they panic,” shared Wijesinghe.

“With agreeing to the OGP, the Government is now responsible to get the people involved and consult them first. They must follow measures to find out what the people affected expect and want done. In fact, they now require the approval of the people before seeing a project through. But none of these protocols were followed, and ultimately resulted in a protest.

“We are currently in discussion with the Climate Resilience Improvement Project (CRIP) and are working towards writing to the Government and President himself with our opinions. We will also request that the open governance treaty to be followed to end secrecy. It is not too late as it still in the planning stage.”

He suggested that the Government should:
· Look at the already existing alternatives
· Have an open conversation with all the stakeholders involved and affected
· Consider all the indirect costs and other externalities
· Look at what can be done in a smaller scale as solutions without looking at massive projects such as these first
· Take smaller actions that will create more impact rather than big “solutions” that will have bigger negative impacts
“We are urging the Government to relook at this entire study before implementing it. We must look at more nature friendly solutions as building a dam across is proven to be detrimental,” he concluded.


*With the testimony of Sugathapala, we approached the Dehiowita Pradeshiya Sabha. They dismissed us by saying that it does not belong to their territory and directed us to the Deraniyagala Pradeshiya Sabha, who confirmed that the Seethawaka basin or the area proposed is within their borders, but up to date, they have not received any information about it or even a commencing date. They also informed us that their central committee (Sabhava) was also unaware of this project.