Mahaweli River: Maduru Oya Dam is Built with Help from Canada

The signboard at Maduru Oya dam showing the key facts and players involved

Sri Lanka is proud of its ancient “hydraulic” civilization. King Prakramabahu in Polonnaruwa famously said that “not a single drop of water that falls as rain should reach the ocean without benefitting man”.

Modern engineers follow in the footsteps of those building thousands of years ago, as Canadians supporting the construction of Maduru Oya dam discovered when they dug up an ancient sluice structure. Centuries ago, earthen bunds or dams were built to perfection, a herculean task using elephants and manual labour.

The Mahaweli is the longest river in Sri Lanka with a watershed covering one fifth of the island. Its tributaries are dammed and provide 1000 square kilometres of irrigation in the dry zone and 40% of the country’s electricity. Decades ago it was one of the biggest multi-purpose river basin development projects in the world.

Mahaweli is a Sri Lankan story but Canada’s $100 million contribution and cooperation with Central Engineering Consultancy Bureau of Mahaweli played a part.

Everything about the project was complicated including the Canadian participation, which involved the Canadian International Development Agency funding of six different companies, as well as FAKJ, a consortium of four construction companies.

In February, 1983, Canada’s Justice Minister took time out from a Commonwealth Ministerial Law meeting and, with Sri Lankan Lands Minister Gamini Dissanayake, placed the final corefill on Maduru Oya, one of the five Mahaweli dams.

There is no consensus on the success or failure of the Mahaweli scheme but the varying views on things that worked and others that did not, makes it a fascinating case study.

Much has been written on the Mahaweli project and its outcomes in each of the five constructed reservoirs –Victoria (UK), Kotmale (Sweden), Randenigala and Rantembe (Germany) and Maduru Oya. Many Canadians have taken part in the debate and pondered big issues of human rights, ethnic conflict, attacks on contractors, and the role of aid that dogged downstream irrigation planning for system B of Madura Oya.

Resettlement issues are frequently fraught with controversy. It took decades for a national resettlement policy to be finalized with help from the Asian Development Bank and Canadian consultants.

Canadian economist and resettlement planner Martin ter Woort, was involved in the 1980s in Maduru Oya and subsequently in other resettlement projects. He was keenly aware that the Maduru Oya project ran through an area with both Sinhalese and Tamil communities, with the latter predominant. The issue of who to resettle on the newly-irrigated lands was never resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.

Ambitions for the Mahaweli scheme were huge in the 1980s when Lalit Godamunne was Secretary General of the Authority. He wanted much more than rice paddy subsistence. He was sure that commercial crop diversity was the key to success. The government was keenly aware of the pent up demand for land to cultivate and for this reason there was intense pressure to fast track everything. The major 1983 and 1987-88 riots set those ambitions back as investors balked.

Today it is possible to visit the ancient sluice and tour the Maduru Oya downstream area while meeting some of the 130,000 people living in the catchment area. Farmers cultivate rice paddy and other field crops and raise livestock.

Engineer Navaratne, Executive Director of Technical Services, joined the Mahaweli Authority in 1978. When queried about Maduru Oya’s outcome, he expresses satisfaction with the results because of the livelihood provided to so many families that were resettled on scrub land. The full promise of Maduru Oya was never achieved but Maduru Oya dam was an important step to meet the enormous needs of rural farmers.

The site of the ancient hydraulic precursor to the modern dam


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