I was in Sri Lanka a couple of weeks ago and had the opportunity to travel through Bandarawela, a unique destination for eco-tourists. Even during the colonial period Bandarawela with its semi-temperate climate was the main holiday destination for the foreign masters. Its reputation as a relaxing holiday resort in beautiful Sri Lanka still remains undiminished. What a paradise?
However, I was shocked to see the irreparable damage caused to the town’s water supply by the so called Uma Oya project – a project politically motivated, dubiously designed and hastily executed by the former regime. Although the economic motive was to divert water from the Uma Oya and Kirindi Oya rivers to the dry lands in Hambantota, the birth place of the former president, a lack of proper assessment of the project’s side effects has proved disastrous to Bandarawela. There is nothing wrong in irrigating lands in the dry zone with excess water available in other parts of the country. In the medieval times Sri Lanka was a shining example of a hydraulic civilization.
But mega irrigation projects should be designed in the light of a strict cost-benefit analysis. The cost should include not only the financial cost but also, and more importantly, the environmental cost. Just because a foreign country, and in this case Iran, has agreed to fund the project it should not be undertaken without proper feasibility study. The callous indifference shown towards the environment by the Uma Oya project has not only deprived Bandarawela of its natural water supply but also has caused structural damage to thousands of residential and commercial buildings. Substandard engineering work is definitely to be blamed. But ultimately the buck stops with the government in power.
I was visiting a house in the town, which is more than one hundred years old and occupied by an acting judge. It was actually more than a house and resembled a magnificent repository for some rare legal records systematically arranged and displayed. The building and its contents are of immense historical value. Shockingly, the floor of the house, its walls and ceilings are all cracked and even the bed room of the occupants is massively damaged. They were not just hair line cracks which could be patched up but massive cleavages threatening total collapse at any time. This seems to be the fate of hundreds of other houses and buildings, new and old.
The current government, although is not directly responsible to this disaster, is nevertheless answerable to the Bandarawela citizens. One should not forget that President Maithripala Sirisenawas also a senior member of the Rajapaksa cabinet. Environmental neglect, when designing and executing megaprojects in the name of development, and the consequent damage caused by such projects to individuals, families and buildings cannot be ignored simply by throwing a few million rupees as compensation to the victims. Restoring Bandarawela’s water supply and rebuilding the damaged structures will certainly involve substantial outlays. Will the authorities provide proper justice to the victims of this town?