Disaster-Infrastructure: Unbuilt dams and roads built as dams


by Rajan Philips

There is no harm in sounding like a broken record when one is talking about the country’s broken infrastructure. Even cabinet ministers have started sounding like broken records trying to avoid personal blame after the flood disaster. Ministers and political leaders have landed on either side of the Southern Expressway, some blaming it as a virtual dam built on a floodplain, and others contradicting that criticism. Most of the senior ministers cannot escape blame, regardless of what they might claim, because they have been in cabinet for a long time even under different presidents while the Southern Expressway was planned, environmentally assessed, designed and eventually built. Either way, whether the expressway was a contributor to flood disaster or not, a determination has to be made, and any design flaw needs to be addressed before the next major storm. Equally importantly, the government must slow down its plans to build other highways and other flood-aggravating urban developments including the Port City, and establish a consistent process to ensure that the design and construction of infrastructure facilities are undertaken in conformance with applicable standards and practices. Is the government, with a bafflingly shuffled cabinet, capable of doing that?

Before addressing that question, let me bring in here the statement last week by the Minister of Home Affairs, Vajira Abeywardena, about a 1968 feasibility study by the Colorado (US) engineering firm ECI that apparently recommended the construction of six dams on Kalu Ganga, Gin Ganga and Nivala Ganga, as flood control measures. This is consistent with the information in Justice Kulatilaka’s writings that I have been citing in these pages. According to the Minister, the study was undertaken by the Ministry of Agriculture, Land, Irrigation and Power, which in 1968 was under CP de Silva in the Dudley Senanayake (UNP) government. Presumably, this initiative was undertaken in parallel with the much larger feasibility study for diverting the Mahaweli Ganga.

To recall a bit of engineering entrepreneurial history, the local partners of ECI in 1968 were MSM de Silva, one of the country’s most gifted civil engineers, and ECL (Engineering Consulting Limited), Sri Lanka’s first engineering consulting firm that MSM founded with CCT Fernando. MSM was also the technical founder (finances came from the Pin Fernando family) of CDE, Ceylon Development Engineers, Sri Lanka’s first heavy construction company and the only company that as far as I know has undertaken construction contracts in foreign countries – in Indonesia and in the former East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). This was all long before the advent of the open economy and the arrival in Sri Lanka of contractors of every hue from everywhere. In 1969/70, the World Bank commissioned a team led by Dudley Seers, the Development Economist, to study the country’s economic potential, and one of its conclusions was that the country’s construction sector was the only sector that had reached a level of self-reliance not only to meet domestic demand but also to explore external opportunities. Where are we today? That is my supplementary second question.

Back to the 1968 study, we could surmise that the study and its recommendations may have been shelved aside in the political preoccupation with the Mahaweli – the brouhaha over the recommendations of the UNP government in 1969, its defeat in 1970, the more calibrated implementation of the Mahaweli scheme by the UF government, and finally its ‘accelerated development’ after 1977. The accelerated development obviously brought new lands under irrigation and increased the national hydropower capacity, but it did little to the development of the country’s heavy construction industry. The main actors and contractual beneficiaries were foreign donors and their companies.

Leaving aside the Mahaweli saga, is it possible to revisit the 1968 ECI/ECL study and implement its recommendations for dams and flood protection measures in the southwestern parts of the country? Minister Abeywardena certainly raised that prospect when he revealed the existence of the long-shelved and forgotten study. But there have so far been no higher-level takers for the idea after the Minister’s statement to the media. We have no idea as to how much clout the Minister and the sources that gave him the information have to pushing this idea further inside the government. There are both political and technical issues involved here and they are also the burden of the questions I raised earlier.

What is the government

capable of doing?

Politically, or, rather from the standpoint of government administration, it is not clear if anyone in this government knows - who is doing what? The President shuffled the cabinet with one hand, and gazetted the assignments with the other, and the mismatch between the two is worthy of a comic tele-drama series. Even the shuffled ministers may be confused about what they were doing earlier and they are supposed to be doing in their new portfolios. May be they like the overall confusion as it allows them to do whatever they want. The new Minister of Foreign Affairs who has the subject of lotteries assigned to him, is also taking the initiative, apparently given his status as a senior Colombo area MP, to order the military to collect garbage in Colombo. This is confusion and usurpation compounded. Perhaps, the ministers are loving it, except the younger and the more serious ones who should have been promoted in the shuffle but were not.

The technical challenges are daunting, but they can be addressed given the body of knowledge and experience in the country provided there is political will and willingness to put things right. Much has been said about the construction of the Southern Expressway – it has been built as a bund when it should have been built ‘on pillars’ allowing drainage underneath. Elevated roadways are usually a feature in urban areas where it is necessary to span over existing built environment. New roads in ‘green fields’ usually follow the old principle of cost-saving by balancing the ‘cut’ and ‘fill’ in the earthwork in road building, unless the new road is intended to span a valley. The important design consideration is the impact on floodplains and pre-existing drainage patterns and how they are accommodated in the road design, along with the runoff created by the road itself. These are addressed in the detailed design of the road, with the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) providing the framework for the design.

The EIA is not a substitute for design and drawings, but a new layer of review to minimize and mitigate environmental impacts of engineering undertakings. No serious contractor will accept a tender based on an EIA, without ‘good for construction’ drawings. That said, no infrastructure work can now be undertaken without completing its EIA to provide the framework for its design and construction. The recommendations of the 1968 feasibility study will now have to through all the hoops of environmental previews and assessments. And they must, unless Sri Lanka wants to be in the deviant Trump land where environmental considerations are being disregarded by executive order.

To return to my initial question – is the current government capable of doing any or all of this? It remains an open question. The end of the week brought a new distraction – this time from the north, where the newly minted Northern Provincial Council is caught up in the oldest tricks of Jaffna municipal politics. Municipal self-determination, you might say. Men may come and men may go, but the political rivers in Sri Lanka go on for ever with or without dams. In that vein, it is difficult to be pleased about the prospects of the beleaguered people of the North getting their lives restored, or the flood affected people in the south getting their disaster infrastructure in place, any time soon.

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