(By Shalika Wimalasena | Translated by Akitha Wijayasinghe)
Although the government has repeatedly stated that the widening of the Neluwa-Deniyaya road through Lankagama, which affects the World Heritage Sinharaja forest, is only for the benefit of the people and that there is no ulterior motive to widen this road suddenly, environmentalists’ argument that it is untrue was reaffirmed during the Cabinet meeting which was held on 16th.
Cabinet Decisions – 2020.11.16 – No.10
Implementation of the Gin-Nilwala diversion project proposed for optimal use of water from the Gin and Nilwala rivers- the Gin and Nilwala rivers carry 2,000 cubic meters and 1,200 cubic meters of water to the sea, respectively. The Gin-Nilwala project has been implemented to control flooding in these rivers and to alleviate the shortage of drinking and irrigation water in Hambantota District from the excess water in these rivers. Studies on this are currently in the final stages.
Taking into consideration the proposals made by the Minister of Irrigation and the need to expedite the project, the Cabinet approved to implement it in several phases using local funds.
The seriousness of the issue
Neluwa-Deniyaya road through Lankagama was constructed by the Sri Lanka Army and even the President went to Lankagama following protests. Then, due to the rains in the last two weeks, the newly laid tarmac on the road has eroded. After photos of these were posted on social media, Highways Minister Johnston Fernando immediately went to Lankagama and told the media that it was untrue.
The construction work on this road was carried out without any preliminary environmental assessment reports. The residents in Lankagama warned them that something like this could happen due to its close proximity to the Sinharaja rainforest and the dense layer of decomposed leaves and plants. But no one was concerned about it. Everything was done in a hurry claiming that it was for the sake of people, without allowing anyone to enter the area where the road was being constructed.
A road with cruciality
That road is a necessity for the people of Lankagama. They have the same right for this land to enjoy it as any of us do. It doesn’t matter if you are going from Deniyaya or Neluwa, getting to Lankagama is nearly impossible. People inside the village are suffering from the lack of facilities. Agents belonging to every government promise them to put an end to their distress but still they forget Lankagama which is isolated, far from two cities mentioned, right after that.
This isolation is not an issue of a hundred of kilometers as claimed earlier.
The distance from Lankagama to Neluwa and from there to Deniyaya is between 15-20 km. Sinharaja has created this distance. This is a village with an officially appointed Grama Niladhari by the government and a population of just over five hundred families.
Restricted to media
During the construction of this road, the media was barred from entering Lankagama, by some close associates of the Chairman of the Neluwa Pradeshiya Sabha. They were supported by the people too as the government continued to say that they were doing this construction only for the benefit of the people. In addition, the Army and the Civil Defense Force had set up additional guards.
Deploying the Army
The media continued to question the reason behind giving this contract to build this road to the army, when there were more road construction companies in the country. When contacted, Army Spokesman Brigadier Chandana Wickramasinghe said that requests have been made to the President for several such roads and that the Army had been tasked with selecting roads that could not be constructed or supplied by road development institutes, and to construct them.
When asked whether the Environmental Assessment Reports were made and has the Army been responsible for the preparation of those reports for the construction of these roads, the Brigadier said that the Army has been deployed only for construction and that the preliminary work, including the preparation of relevant reports, is the responsibility of government agencies involved in road development.
When inquired about this, Environment Minister Mahinda Amaraweera said that there has been a shortcoming on the part of the Army. However, now it is not possible to file a case in this regard, he added.
What is the real deal behind this project?
The actual necessity of building this road was to kick start the Gin-Nilwala project as soon as possible, hiding behind people’s needs. And to bring the necessary equipment and vehicles to Lankagama. Although it has not yet begun, it is clear from the above cabinet decision that the path is leading to serve that purpose.
At a time when the COVID-19 19 pandemic has struck the country so hard, could it be a coincidence that the Cabinet Minister himself went to monitor an incident on this road and presented a relevant Cabinet paper the following week? If you do not do what you want to do at the right time, you will not get another chance to rectify it. The best example for this is the Uma Oya project.
When trying to convince the environmental damage caused by this and the impact on the ground water in the area, at the launch of the Uma Oya project, people of the area said, ‘Do not hinder development. We only earn Rs. 1000 by working a whole day here. The Iranian company pays us Rs. 2000. Don’t be jealous that we are going to eat and dress well.’
Years later, those people became the victims to the persecutions mentioned earlier. There were craters inside the houses. Wells dried up. Even the small waterways and streams dried up. It was too late when people realized the situation but the roots of destruction had spread too deep. No one can blame the people for being like that. The wage of Rs. 2000 was important to those who were suffering from poverty and had no fixed price for their vegetables. This time, the people of Lankagama have been shown the importance of the road and the developers have been able to achieve their goal in the same way.
Are the objectives of the project successful?
The study of the initial feasibility assessment reports related to the Gin-Nilwala water diversion project shows that the project is being implemented for several main purposes. These include the supply of drinking water to a number of areas in Matara and Hambantota districts, the supply of water to the Hambantota port, airport and commercial zone and the supply of water to 8,500 hectares of farmland in the Hambantota district.
Despite this, people living in the Gin-Nilwala basin have been told that excess water from these two rivers will be diverted to Hambantota during the monsoon season to control flooding. But looking at the above objectives of the project, it seems that this is going to be operational throughout the year. Even today, people of these river basins are facing severe water shortages in the absence of rains, and the future will be even more difficult for them.
This is an old scheme. It is highly doubtful whether it is applicable today. The Gin-Nilwala diversion project, which was first studied in 1936, is currently facing serious problems in its attempts to implement it in the same old school way. By now, most of the wet forests in the Gin and Nilwala rivers have been cleared and tea has been planted in the lowland. As a result, water from these river basins is not properly absorbed into the ground.
During the rainy season, surface runoff joins rivers, causing temporary flooding. During droughts, surface water evaporates rapidly, causing water scarcity. Due to this, when there is no rain, issues like lack of drinking water, lack of water for tea cultivation and reduced yields etc arise. The arrangements are being made for new development projects in Hambantota in such a background.
Plans of tunnels
The main objective of this project is to construct three small reservoirs through three dams at Pitadeniya-Lankagama, Kotapola and Ampanagala and to carry Gin-Nilwala water to Muruthawela Reservoir through several tunnels. The water will then be diverted to Chandrika Lake through a canal, which is planned to carry water to the Udawalawe Reservoir. The water will be pumped to Kiribban Wewa and Mawuara Poshitha Ela.
The water distribution area of the Pitadeniya-Lankagama Reservoir to be constructed in the vicinity of the Sinharaja Forest Reserve under this project is planned as 14 acres. The dam will be 93 meters long and 4.5 meters high across the Gin River. The water will be transported via Diyadawa reserve to Galdola through a 12.5 km long and 4.3 m diameter tunnel. The project will carry water through three such tunnels.
Schemes related to the excavation of the first tunnel in the Lankagama – Madugeta area have already been plotted. It can be argued that the main purpose of widening the Lankagama road, which has caused such controversy, is to bring in the massive machinery to Lankagama to serve their hidden agenda. At present they cannot be brought through Neluwa to Lankagama or from Deniyaya to Lankagama. People of Lankagama do not need such a widened road.
They never asked for such a wide road either. What else is the reason behind this sudden urge to build this road, deploying the army, even without an environmental assessment?
Area proposed for the construction of this tunnel is one of the areas with the highest pressure in the earth’s interior. In geological terms, it is close to aquifers. In a related feasibility study, the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau testified that such a stream of water that emerged after the earth’s eruption stretched to a height of more than 30 meters.
Geologists believe that with the excavation of the tunnel, these underground streams may get attached to the project. They point out that this will cause a rapid drop in the internal water level of a large area including Lankagama and its surroundings. That is similar to the story of Uma Oya.
Such arbitrary projects, crossing rivers cannot be funded by financial institutions such as the Asian Development Bank. They cannot provide the environmental assessments they request in the Asian Development Bank. So, governments have looked for an alternate path. China does not care about environmental assessments. What matters most for them is to succeed in the program they have designed to consolidate their power.
China does not care about the rights of people and the environment when implementing and funding for such projects. The best example of this behaviour of Chinese companies is the Rajanganaya Water Project. 35,000 farming families cultivate 22,500 acres of farmland under Rajanganaya Wewa. The Chinese Development Bank has provided a loan for a project to obtain water from the tank.
Environmentalists point out that in this project, no assessment has been made of the damage to the people and the environment. Complaints have been made to the Chinese companies involved in the construction and to the Chinese Development Bank, which provides the loans, but they, just like the governments, have not paid any interest regarding the matter.
As a result, the Gin-Nilwala project too has been handed over to China. Thereafter, from 2009 to 2014, a Chinese company has carried out geological surveys and other surveys related to this project. The government appointed in 2015 has taken steps to prepare a feasibility study report in this regard.
Environmentalists and lawyers point out that this raises a whole lot of allegiance issues. The conflict of interest here is that handing over the feasibility assessment of water availability, an essential infrastructure for projects being implemented in the Hambantota area by Chinese companies, to another Chinese company. The loan is also provided by a Chinese bank.
Do you think that they will act responsibly protecting the rights of the people of this country and weighing in the destruction of the environment, and not depriving the people of their profits and other benefits?
Banks that lend money only want to lend and then take back the interest and recover the loan. In particular, the Chinese company has been tasked with submitting a report on the project, including geological surveys, measurements and plans.
It does not state that a social, economic and environmental feasibility study will be conducted. The work done by the governments from 2009 to 2014 and from 2015 to 2019 and the government that came to power in 2019 is charging forth with their initial plan successfully. When inquired about this, Environment Minister Mahinda Amaraweera said that this project will not be implemented without an accurate environmental assessment report. He also said there is no hurry to initiate this project.
Joint money grabbing
This fact can be further explained as follows. In 2014, a Chinese company was awarded with USD 696 million engineering, procurement and construction contract for the implementation of the Gin-Nilwala diversion project. However, financial reports reveal that the loan agreement for the implementation of this project has not been formally signed with the Export-Import Bank of China.
However, in 2015, the General Treasury released Rs. 3,549 million for this project. At the Cabinet meeting held on 24th January 2017, the Police Financial Crimes Investigation Division was entrusted with the task of investigating the financial problem of the project. However, no investigation report has surfaced so far.
The rule of law becomes a joke
The impact of this project on the rule of law cannot be underestimated.
According to the National Environmental Act No. 47 of 1980 published in the Gazette Notification No. 772/22 dated 24th June 1993,
Prior to the implementation of any development project in any of the areas declared under the Soil Conservation Act, it is mandatory to obtain the environmental approval subject to the EIA process before implementation of river basin development and irrigation projects, clearing of more than one hectare of forest land and utilizing for other development projects, implementation of all tunneling projects, implementing any development project within the range of 100 meters of protected areas, declared under the Forest Conservation Ordinance and National Heritage Lands Act.
In addition, according to the Antiquities Ordinance No. 9 of 1940, as amended by Act No. 12 of 2005, Gazette Notification No. 1152/14 dated 04 October 2000, an archaeological damage assessment should be carried out in obtaining lands and wetlands exceeding two hectares to submerge with water and an archaeological approval must also be obtained.
However, efforts are still in progress to implement this project, violating all these regulations. Senior lawyers point out that this is a blatant violation of Article 12 (1) of the Constitution, which states that ‘ All persons are equal before the law and are entitled to the equal protection of the law.’
People are happy for now!
It is clear that the story behind Lankagama Road and its background is not as beautiful as it sounds. People’s money has been used for this project by all previous governments. There has been no formal audit of that funding so far.
Not even a formal environmental assessment report has been prepared for this project. However, it has been decided to re-invest local funds to kick-start it. Does it mean that this is another public investment without any transparency?