A River for Jaffna

Sketch of Jaffna Peninsula, Sri Lanka Showing River for Jaffna Project Area

This article is published to commemorate the 103rd birth anniversary of Mr. Sanmugam Arumugam who retired as senior Deputy Director of Irrigation in 1968 and was an acknowledged authority on the country’s water resources. Soon after his retirement he was invited to be General Manager of the Water Resources Board where he also served as a Director. Arumugam’s Water Resources of Ceylon was published in 1969 by the Water Resources Board. The Arumugam Commemoration Volume, Water for People and Nature, was edited by Mr. D. L. O. Mendis who co-authored this article.

By Engineer Thiru Arumugam, Engineer K. Shanmugarajah and Engineer D. L. O. Mendis

The Jaffna Peninsula has no rivers and is totally dependent on annual rainfall of about 1,270 mm, (about 87% from October to December), to recharge underground aquifers. Water used to be drawn by well sweeps, in about 100,000 wells in the Peninsula, but from the 1950’s pumps are used. Over pumping the fresh water in the limestone aquifer permits sea water percolation through the fractured limestone as no part of Jaffna is more than about 15 km from the sea. Now about 30% of the wells are saline.

Within the Jaffna peninsula, Vadamarachchi and Upparu lagoons have surface areas of about 77 and 26 square km respectively, about 10% of the peninsula’s approximately 1,000 square km. These salt water lagoons receive north-east monsoon rain water from their catchments of about 50% of the Peninsula.

Paddy cultivation is essentially rain-fed. Cash crops and market garden crops are, however, irrigated using well water. British Colonial Secretary, Sir James Emerson Tennant in 1859 described market gardening in Jaffna as follows, and his description remains basically unchanged except that pumps have largely replaced well sweeps:

"In the immediate vicinity of Point Pedro (and the description applies equally well to the vicinity of Jaffna and the western division of the peninsula in general), the perfection of the village cultivation is truly remarkable; it is horticulture rather than agriculture, and reminds one of the market gardens of Fulham and Chelsea more forcibly than anything I have seen out of England. Almost every cottage has a garden attached to it, wherein are grown fruit-trees and flowers, the latter being grown in great quantities for decoration and offering in the temples. Each is situated in a well-secured enclosure, with one or more wells. From these night and day, but chiefly during the night, labourers are employed for raising water by means of vessels (frequently woven of palm leaves) attached to horizontal levers; something like the sakkias used by the peasants on the Nile for a similar purpose…..

The value of these wells is extreme in a country where rivers and even the smallest stream are unknown, and where cultivators are entirely dependent on rains of two monsoons. But such has been the indefatigable industry of the people, that they may be said to have virtually added a third harvest to the year, by the extent to which they have multiplied the means of irrigation around their principal towns and villages."

The earliest known proposal for improving the fresh water in the peninsula was made nearly 350 years ago by the Dutch Captain Hendrile van Reede, who said: "A dike to contain the sea at Condemanaer (Thondamannaru) and Navacolli, (Navatkuli - Ariyalai) with sluices to claim the rain water and a canal to the salt pans at Nieweli would create more useful arable land."

Van Reede was remarkably perceptive to realize this on a casual visit to Jaffna. Only a Dutchman with their long history of land reclamation would have thought of this scheme.

In 1879, Government Agent, Twyneham, proposed that dams would prevent salt water from entering the lagoons, but a severe cyclone and flooding, possibly a tsunami caused by the eruption of the volcano Krakatoa in Indonesia caused severe flooding in Jaffna in 1883. Twyneham withdrew his proposals because had the dams been there, flooding would have been much worse.

In 1916 Government Agent, Horsberg, suggested that as an experiment the upper reaches of Vadamarachchi lagoon be made a freshwater lagoon by blocking some culverts. This was done in 1920 and the scheme operated successfully for four years, but was not made permanent, possibly due to the great depression.

In the 1940s Divisional Irrigation Engineer, Webb, produced detailed plans for barrages at Thondamannaru and Ariyalai, a scheme supported by Balasingham, a Member of the State Council. Construction work on Thondamannaru Barrage commenced after the war, was completed in 1953, and the Ariyalai Barrage in 1955. However they are no longer functional as the wooden gates and stop logs have perished and sea water passes through them freely.

To increase availability of fresh water in the Jaffna peninsula alternative sources to local rain are needed. The relatively shallow Elephant Pass seawater lagoon has a surface area of about 77 square km. and a catchment area of about 940 square km in the mainland Vanni, mainly the Kanakarayan Aru and three smaller streams. North-east monsoon surplus rain water from the Vanni discharges into Elephant Pass lagoon. During the 1960’s a scheme was proposed to utilize this water running to waste from the Elephant Pass lagoon, for the benefit of the Jaffna peninsula.


KEY POINTS of the RIVER for JAFFNA Project

Key points of the scheme and details of the work done at that time are as follows:

* Close the openings in the road and rail bridges in Elephant Pass causeway at the western end of Elephant Pass lagoon to prevent fresh water going to the sea. This work was completed.

* 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.

* 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.

* 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.

* 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.

The scheme was only partially completed in the 1960’s and the key Mulliyan link channel from Elephant Pass lagoon to Vadamarachchi lagoon was never completed. In the brief period that Vadamarachchi and Upparu were fresh water lagoons the benefits to the peninsula were noticeable and many saline wells became potable water wells. The present situation is that the barrages at Thondamanaru and Ariyalai are no longer watertight and sea water enters these lagoons freely.



The benefits of completing this project include the following:

* About 13,000 hectares of land can be cultivated with paddy in the Jaffna peninsula. The area presently cultivated is about 8000 hectares due to soil salinity and other reasons. This cultivation is entirely rain fed unlike paddy cultivation on the mainland which is under irrigation. As it is rain fed, the yield per acre in Jaffna is very poor and is only about one-third of the average yield per acre on the mainland. If the Vadamarachchi and Upparu lagoons become fresh water lakes, the water table and water quality in the wells will improve, and using lift irrigation it will be possible to irrigate these paddy fields without depending purely on the rain, and the paddy land now lying fallow can also be cultivated. The potential for improvement in yield and rice production is staggering.

* About 4,400 hectares of land bordering the Vadamarachchi and Upparu lagoons are uncultivable at present as they are saline. When these become fresh water lagoons, after the salt is leached out of the soil, it will be possible to cultivate this land with cash crops and paddy.

* There will be a dramatic improvement in the water quality of the 30% of the Jaffna wells which are now saline. In many cases the water will become suitable for domestic and agricultural use, increasing the acreage under agricultural cultivation.

* In existing wells it will be possible to increase the amount of daily pumping without the water going saline, thus increasing agricultural cultivation and livestock production.

* Fresh water prawn farming can commence on the banks of the lagoons, with potential for export earnings.

* Converting Elephant Pass lagoon into a 77 sq km fresh water lagoon will provide fresh agricultural possibilities on both sides of the lagoon i.e. the Jaffna peninsula side on the north, as well as the Vanni side on the south, once the salinity has been leached out of the soil.




K Shanmugarajah, Chief Engineer of this project in the 1970’s has written a comprehensive book on the history of the project, which contains detailed designs, details of the work carried out and work remaining to be done. Detailed cost estimates have also been included. At 1991 rates, the cost of completing the project was estimated as Rs 280 million, and projected to cost Rs 350 million in 1995. This estimate at present day costs would be of the order of US $ 10 million.

If funds for the full project are not immediately available, phased implementation could be considered in the following steps:

Step 1: Recondition Thondamanaru Barrage

Replace and repair perished wooden gates and lifting devices etc. If this barrage is made watertight Vadamarachchi lagoon will become a fresh water lagoon fed with rain water from its 300 sq km catchment area.

Step 2: Recondition Ariyalai Barrage

Repair and replace perished planked bays and replace with screw operated gates. Repair breaches in separation bund between Upparu lagoon and Ariyalai saltern. Repair separation bund between Vadamarachchi and Upparu lagoons as required. This will make Upparu lagoon a fresh water lagoon fed with rain water from its 220 sq km catchment area.

Step 3: Complete Mulliyan Link Channel

Complete excavation of Mulliyan Link Channel, form bund and roadway, causeway, and provide control regulator. Estimated cost of this work at 1991 rates was Rs 42 million plus administration and facilities costs. Provide link channel between Vadamarachchi and Upparu lagoons. When this work is completed there is a possibility that the water in the Elephant Pass lagoon at the height of the north east monsoon may be sufficiently low in saline content, even before the Spill cum Causeway at Chundikulam is completed, to enable it to be diverted to Vadamarchchi and Upparu lagoons as required.


Step 4: Complete Spill cum Causeway at Chundikulam

At the eastern end of Elephant Pass lagoon at Chundikulam, complete the spill cum Chundikulam causeway, zoned embankment, and flanked embankment with gravel road. The spill plus causeway will be 2100 metres long and the bund 1400 metres long. Estimated cost of this work at 1991 rates was Rs 93 million plus administration and facilities costs. When this work is completed Elephant Pass lagoon will become a fresh water lagoon.

Repair and improve 8 km long access road from Paranthan-Mullaitivu road to Chundikulam causeway.


In October 2007 at the Annual Sessions of the Institution of Engineers, Sri Lanka, held in Colombo, a Resolution was passed unanimously urging the Government to complete this Project. This Resolution has been conveyed to the Government.

A presentation on the River for Jaffna Project was also made by Engineer Thiru Arumugam, in November 2007 in Colombo, Sri Lanka at the Nobel Peace Prize winning Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, Workshop on Learning from Ancient Hydraulic Civilizations to combat Climate Change. A resolution was passed at this Workshop, proposed by Ambassador Jayantha Dhanapala, President of Pugwash, and seconded by Engineer D L O Mendis:

This Pugwash Workshop resolves to recommend to the Government of Sri Lanka that the project known as A River for Jaffna that was started some fifty years ago, and almost completed, but is now in a state of disuse and abandonment, should be restored without delay, as a most important step towards including Sri Lankans of the Jaffna peninsula in the development and enjoyment of the natural resources of the country, thereby contributing to early achievement of a durable peace.

This Resolution will receive global publicity when the Proceedings of the Pugwash Workshop are released in the near future.

When this project is finally completed there will be a complete transformation in the agricultural productivity of the Jaffna Peninsula and the quality of life will also be greatly improved by solving to a large extent the problem of salinity in wells.

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