The Mahaweli and its harnessed waters


I was joyfully proud when watching on TV the proceedings of the Moragahakanda Reservoir being commissioned on January 8. Pride about what and whom? My head held high and heart beating exultingly because (after too long a delay), the last of the Accelerated Mahaweli Diversion Scheme reservoirs was completed. The ‘chiefs’ at the event made me proud too of our nation: the excellence of the addresses delivered by the President and Prime Minister and they themselves; the skilled dance and song performances showcasing inherent talent; and very much by the competence and real good looks of the three comperes. Appearance does matter, no arguing that.

What was said

The Prime Minister made very concise and precise observations. He offered due respect to Maithripala Sirsena who from the time he was Minister of Agriculture and then Environment, persisted in his advocacy of completing the Accelerated Mahaweli Scheme by completing the last of the dams and accumulation of water for irrigation and electricity generation. He noted that planning covered three years and then came ‘strife’ for five. No names were named, no blame placed but I surmise the delay was because a scheme started and carried out so very efficiently under the UNP – JRJ leading and Minister Gamini Dissanayake giving his all to successfully execute the massive undertaking - was pushed aside deliberately. Worse the water thirsting Hambantota was ‘developed’ with the construction of a couple of massive white elephants. We all know that the Mahaweli Scheme itself and the settlements within it were neglected after the UNP were sent out of power and worsened under the last regime. (These last are my observations, not mentioned by the PM at all). He praised very succinctly all who were involved with the Scheme and more so Maithripala Sirisena who persisted in getting the last of the reservoirs, Moragahanda, completed so the North Central Province, Vavuniya and Trincomalee and even further north would benefit thus facilitating the increased production of our staple, improving the economy and tourism. He said that of course good weather was essential for the full benefit of the now completed wewa to be realized.

The President traced the history of this massive irrigation scheme from 1930 to 40s when the idea of diverting the Mahaweli Ganga northwards was first mooted. In 1954 tentative steps were initiated. In 1960-70 under Dudley Senanayke and C P de Silva further progress was made and on 8 January 1976, Mrs Bandaranaike laid the foundation for the Moragahakanda Wewa.

President Sirisena recounted that he had come to the event by bus and sat on the bank of the to-be-tamed river, contemplating matters. Then swept in J R Jayewardene who as Prime Minister in 1976 decided to accelerate the scheme from the 30 years stipulated by Soviet engineers to Mrs. B

to the then astounding five years. I add that another daring act was to appoint the comparatively young Gamini Dissanayake to be in sole charge of the scheme. It was not only damming the river and giving alternate housing and land to the displaced in so many areas but building massive infrastructure and doing so very much for resettlement in land now irrigated – System C et al with new townships built with necessities like schools and hospitals. All successfully achieved within allocated time.

The President said he was particularly interested in Moragahakanda reservoir and supplying Polonnaruwa and other northern regions with water because the old wewas and irrigation schemes could not cope with newer increased demand. Chandrika Kumaratunge had been interested and laid a foundation stone. He mentioned with no rancor but as a historical detail that he had on several occasions and meetings impressed on the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the sufferings of the north central and northern peasants who lacked water to even slake their parched throats. Evidently these pleadings fell on deaf ears. In 1994, Maithripala Sirisena had traversed the wilderness and followed the ganga with Engineer A N S Kulasinghe who had plans for the scheme that was completed and commissioned on 8 January 2018. Thus his magnanimous proposal to name the Moragahakanda Wewa, four times the size of the Parakrama Samudra, after this internationally famed engineer.

Happy memories

Every long weekend and all holiday seasons had my husborganizing extended family trips. I well remember walking on the site of the Victoria reservoir when the dam was being constructed and shown white marks on stones high on the hillside with the fact that those were pointers to the height of the water in the built reservior. Stupendous! We drove along the Hewahata road and saw Kundasale on the opposite side of the Mahaweli and was told that the house my brother and family lived in would be submerged, so also houses high on the hillside. Once the dam was complete, driving to Digana for the first time since Victoria was completed, I saw the tips of the crowns of coconut palms just above the reservoir water and realized with a shock how deep and extensive the reservoir was. We used to often holiday in a circuit bungalow within the housing complex built for the persons of the British Balfour Beatty company who built the Victoria dam. Girandurukotte and such like were visited and we stayed in a bungalow almost in the water at Rantambe. Having known Gamini Dissanayake as the smart Trinitian, son of the next door neighbour-couple down Sangaraja Mawata Kandy, the Mahaweli Scheme was specially admired, and yes, appreciated.

Going back to much before the Mahaweli Accelerated Scheme, the first introduction to colonization schemes was the Kottukachiya Farm near Anamaduwa inaugurated by D S Senanayke. Later as a teenager in middle school, we had to learn all about the first irrigation scheme in Gal Oya started also by D S with three benefits: controlling the annual flooding of the Oya, providing irrigation to the newly colonised areas and generating hydro electricity in a rudimentary manner. A story later privy to us was that D S Senanayake, like our great king Parakramam Bahu I, decided that no water should flow to the sea without it being used for the peasantry through irrigation. The king would have wanted to ensure his capital Polonnaruwa was surrounded by paddy fields irrigated by rainwater collected in the wewa he got built as he majestically surveyed his territory. D S is supposed to have propounded his maxim as he answered a call of nature when touring his much beloved hinterland and watched the liquid pass into the soil!!

Another much favoured and often holidayed-in irrigation scheme site was Uda Walawe. A stone plaque noted that on the spot, C P de Silva, Minister of Irrigation and Lands, impounded the Walawe River. Veneration and wonder were felt each time the plaque was seen. Gone now. A seminar I attended housed participants in a seminary near the Polgolla dam so it was walks in its vicinity. Taking a flight to Kandy a couple of years ago, we landed in the Polgolla wewa.

Appreciation to workers

The President and the Prime Minister thanked all those who had been involved in the Moragahakanda Scheme. Yes, countless persons from engineers to unskilled workers gave of their sweat and toil, to the Accelerated Mahaveli Diversion Scheme. A name that comes to mind is architect Ulrik Plessner who was commissioned by Gamini Dissanayake to construct new townships like Teldeniya to replace inundated ones and others in newly opened up land such as Girandurukotte, Dehiattakandiya and Welikanda. He re-introduced a style of architecture where the home was above the shop in the towns he designed like Digana. J R Jayewardene’s promise was to create a new land for a million farmers. Though dams and other infrastructure were allocated to different countries – Britain, Germany, Sweden and Canada - and were progressing well, housing had fallen between their stools. The Irrigation Department was called in, but competence was lacking. Plesner was qualified in advanced engineering and large construction and was in Sri Lanka working with Geoffrey Bawa. He agreed to take charge of town and housing construction and thus was formed the Mahaweli Architecture Unit (MAU)

So this massive scheme is now complete. Much gratitude to all! We hope the weather will be constant and give sufficient water to the Dr A N S Kulasinghe Samudra.

Nanda Pethiyagoda

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