Broadlands power project will kill Kitulgala’s white water rafting

"You can’t turn a river on and off’’


by Amal Jayasinghe

Kitulgala (Sri Lanka) - Its detonation may have been a landmark in movie history, but 57 years after the "Bridge over the River Kwai" was blown to smithereens, Sri Lankan authorities are offering to rebuild it as a peace-offering to dam-hit villagers.

Sri Lanka’s Electricity Board, under fire for damming the Kelani river and knocking out water sports, is offering to recreate the wooden railway bridge in the final scene of the David Lean’s 1957 epic World War II movie: "Bridge on the River Kwai."

Since the filming of the iconic scene at Kitulgala, 90 kilometres (56 miles) north-east of Colombo, the valley has become a magnet for movie buffs and tourists, but the location is also a prime site for a power station.

Electricity Board’s chief project engineer Kamal Laksiri said they were keen to mitigate the effects on the tourism-dependent villagers and were turning to the fame of Lean’s movie to woo tourists even after the dam has been built.

Some 5,000 families depend largely on tourism generated as a result of the Oscar-winning movie which was based on a French novel by Pierre Boulle.

"We have offered to rebuild the (film set) bridge at the same location," Laksiri told AFP. "Today there is no bridge, only a few concrete posts remain.

"We have looked at drawings and pictures of the bridge and we will recreate it."

He said the CEB was also pushing for a museum to house movie memorabilia so that the village can continue to earn from tourism. The epic movie was set in war-time Burma, present day Myanmar, but filmed mostly in Sri Lanka.

The other locations in Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, included the colonial-era Mount Lavinia Hotel and the Royal Botanical Gardens at Peradeniya which was once an allied headquarters of the South East Asia Command under Lord Louis Mountbatten. They are now major tourist hot spots.

In the movie, the wooden railway bridge built by allied POWs was blown up plunging a steam locomotive into the Kelani river with five compartments packed with Japanese soldiers in the form of dummies.

The wreckage from the film set is long gone, but the memory of the movie is still earning millions of dollars for the local economy.

Local tourist guide Chandralatha Jayawardena, 59, takes foreigners along a leech-infested treacherous mountain slope to the river bed to show what is left of the blown up bridge — a few pieces of concrete.

"My husband was an extra in the movie and we earn a living by guiding tourists," she told AFP at her modest single storey home which has a sign board pointing to the foot path leading to the river bed.

"If the dam is built, we will all lose our income," she said.

River without water

The spin-off from the movie fame was the recent addition of white water rafting which has become a thriving water sport industry. It earned the local community nearly $20 million last year, but the bubble is about to burst.

Work is now underway to build a hydroelectricity dam to add 35 megawatts of much needed electricity to the national grid by 2017, but the move will also deprive water to a stretch of the river.

Local and foreign white water rafting companies say the section that will be affected has the best rapids — 17 in all classified as class 3, which is considered not too easy and not too dangerous and the best location for them.

The Board is proposing to release water from the dam during the day so that water sports could continue, but at night a section of the river will go dry.

"This will be a model for sustainable development," engineer Laksiri said. "We will lose some energy (by releasing water during the day), but we are willing to do that."

He said there had been only three companies carrying out water sport activities when an environmental feasibility was carried out 10 years ago, the number has grown steadily.

The Sri Lanka White Water Rafting Association, a grouping of over a dozen firms and hundreds of individual directly involved in adventure tourism in Kitulgala, say they are unimpressed with the offer to rebuild the WWII bridge.

"If there is no rafting, there will be no need for tourists to come here," the Association’s secretary Priyantha Pushpakumara told AFP at his Ceylon Adventure resort in Kitulgala on the banks of the Kelani river.

"What is the income you can get by issuing tickets to see a brand new bridge. That is not what we want. Even if you build it, what is the point. There will be no water under the bridge."

Pushpakumara said his association did not think recreating the film set would boost tourism because taking away the water would kill off the now thriving river-based activities including kayaking and canoeing.

He estimates the local community’s tourism earnings to rise to $42 million by 2017 if the dam is not built and Sri Lanka is on course to attract over 2.5 million tourists by then.

Tourism chiefs disagree. They believe that the recreation of the film set will guarantee Kitulgala remains on the tourist map.

"Kitulgala was always promoted as the place of the bridge in the Bridge on the River Kwai," Rumy Jauffer, the Sri Lanka tourism promotion bureau’s managing director, said.

"Recreating that bridge will certainly add value."

Rapid rise

Sri Lanka’s robust economic growth after the end of 37 years of ethnic war in 2009 has seen a surge in tourism. A record 1.27 million holiday makers visited the island last year. Hotels are adding to the demand for electricity.

The CEB says they want to reduce dependency on expensive diesel generators and harness whatever renewable energy that is possible and the proposed Broadlands power station in Kitulgala is the final major hydro project.

Austrian rafting coach Alfred Haslinger, 30, says the Board’s offer to release water during the day may not be practical.

"You can’t just turn a river on and off. It won’t be the same again. It is really a shame."

He said he had been riding the rapids at Kitulgala for six weeks and found it to be most suited for family entertainment.

"There are no super crazy hazards here," he said getting off the river at the same location where the Japanese train was blown up in the movie.

"I have ridden many rivers in Nepal and many other places, but this is a really good place for rafting for the whole family, it is a shame to dam it."

Rafting association’s Pushpakumara says they have petitioned the Supreme Court to stop the river being dammed. The case is to be heard later this month.

For the locals, the offer to recreate movie history is a bridge too far.


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