Home Environment Uma Oya project: A silent disaster raging under the radar

Uma Oya project: A silent disaster raging under the radar

Uma Oya project: A silent disaster raging under the radar
(Akitha Wijayasinghe)

Bandarawela is famed for its climate and the spectacular scenery. It’s quite hard to find someone who wouldn’t love to be there. But once you take a peek at the lives of the residents of the area, you would immediately realize that their lives are not as beautiful as the town implies.

Some of the residents live in the fear that their stepping would aggravate the cracks on the floors of their houses.

They have to be very careful at consuming little water they receive every fortnight. They mourn watching their ruptured houses and descending croplands and paddy fields. Initiation of the ‘Uma Oya Project’ turned their lives upside down. This is their Tragedy.

What is this Uma Oya Project?

From time to time, prevailing governments initiate several projects. In 2008, the government introduced the ‘Uma Oya Project’ which is said to be the largest multi-purpose project after the ‘Mahaweli Movement.’ Producing hydroelectricity, management of irrigation water and for consumption, and flood control were some of the objectives for initiating the project. Tunneling water needed for Mattala International Airport, Hambantota Industrial Zone, Hambantota Harbor and Hambantota Oil Refinery remained as the main objectives.

Although several proposals were made in 1987 about building a reservoir in Uma Oya, they were declined due to technical issues and the protests based on the idea that this barricades people’s access to water at their will. It was in 2008 when the proposals on this project resurfaced. On 29th April 2008, foundation to this enormous multi-purpose project was laid with the inauguration of then PM Rathanasiri Wickramanayake and Iranian Minister of Commerce Meer Rasami. The ceremonies alone cost a whopping of 26 million rupees. This project was kick started on political necessities, without any feasibility study or environmental assessment.

According to the gazette notification no. 772/22 issued on 24th June 1994 under the Environmental Act, before embarking on a project, such as a river basin development project, an irrigation project, a power plant higher than 50MW, or any tunnel, acquiring and approving an Environmental Impact Assessment report is a necessity. However, in 2011 the project had obtained an EIA report but today the liability of that report is highly doubtful.

Effects to the environment

It has been alleged that the project has caused a number of environmental issues around the highly sensitive ecosystem in the Uma Oya valley, due to the underground excavations and constructions. It all began in 2014, when some houses started to rupture in Heel Oya, Palleperuwa, Egodagama, Weheragalathenna areas. At the same time, many environmental issues had arisen in the areas where the tunnels were dug such as rupturing land and houses, rapid decrement in ground water and land erosion. A major leak in the tunnel caused wells, streams and water fountains to dry up. At the beginning, about 250L of water per second was leaked and it gradually developed up to 1000 liters per second. One theory regarding this is that this may have been caused as the tunnel is dug below the groundwater layer and the excavations have caused the soil layer above the tunnel to lose its stability and water to leak into the tunnel. As the groundwater layer above the tunnel depletes, the surface ground dries up and starts cracking.

Effect on livelihoods

With water leaking from the excavated tunnel, about 7550 families of Bandarawela, Hali Ela, Welimada, Uwa Paranagama, Ella and Wellawaya belonginf to two districts Badulla and Monaragala are concerned about their futures. Despite the distress that the people had faced, the government continued to carry on the development projects, worsening their condition. Even after 7 years, they are still facing the same problems, same threats. Their houses were cracked, and they live in fear of falling head over heels at any moment. All their wells and ponds have dried up. There’s not enough water for even their consumption. Many are still to be compensated for the losses the project caused.

At present, although 80 per cent of the Uma Oya multi-purpose project is completed, difficulties it created to the people are still unsolved.

People from Uduwaragedara in Udaperuwa are the most affected in this crisis.

R.M. Dhammika Bandara(44) from Uduwaragedara explaining his experience said,

Even today we don’t know how they estimate like that or on what basis. We never had those estimated reports. Now we have requested under the Right to Information Act, for their criteria to these estimates for compensations.

– Dhammika Bandara –

“This is my hometown. I own three houses here. We used to cultivate paddy and have all three meals daily. But things have changed since 2014. The tunnel of this Uma Oya project passes beneath our paddy field. Like I said before, I have 3 houses in three different locations. The main house has completely collapsed while the other two also have ruptured. The state estimating officers estimated only Rs. 63,000 to this house I’m residing. But they estimated Rs. 175,000 for that small single roomed construction at the corner of the land. Our main house was estimated at Rs. 120,00 only. Even today we don’t know how they estimate like that or on what basis. We never had those estimated reports. Now we have requested under the Right to Information Act, for their criteria to these estimates for compensations.”

“Some houses have been estimated for 6,7 lakhs. Some people were even compensated with the complete estimated value. We haven’t received ours yet. We used to feast in the past. Today we don’t even have enough water for our cultivations. Our fields have dried up.”

“We are supplied with drinking water only once in a fortnight. The tanks we have been given are of 500L capacity which are quite small and not even enough to live through the two weeks period.”

It’s quite possible that these estimates could be fabricated on purpose.

W.A. Samaranayake, another local from the area told Medialk.com that his 80 perch land plot where he used to harvest 80 bushels was estimated only for Rs. 518,000. “I used to cultivate rice in Yala season and vegetables in Maha. Today I’m left with nothing,” he mourned.

Contradictory statements by NBRO

Another resident, P.M. Premathilake said that he was provided with contradictory statements from the NBRO.

“First, they informed me on 6th January 2017, that the land I was residing was not suitable for live in because of this project. I was told to move out to a temporary house. And they agreed to pay the rent for the first six months. But again, on 13th May 2019, they told me that my house and land will be unaffected by the project. I have no clue how to move in again to that ruptured house.”

Residents of the Udaperuwa area say although Uduperuwa is the most affected area by this Uma Oya project and yet been left without any compensation to many people in the village, residents in most of the other areas where the effects by the project was minimum were compensated. The residents allege that only the people who got political recognition get compensated.

“NBRO has informed us that some of our lands are safe to stay even though the houses have severely ruptured. It’s a nightmare for us to live under such conditions.”

Regardless of the contradictions, the NGRO had provided the Divisional Secretariat with the letters to be delivered to the people, informing their land’s state and recommendations. The bizarre turn of events is that although it’s the Divisional Secretariat’s responsibility to deliver them to the residents, they never received the letters. They lived under the shadow of fear, not knowing if they could see the next sunrise.

A severe threat to their lives

Jumma mosque in Udaperuwa is another building collapsing due to this disaster. People say that ceremonies are held every Friday and about 150 people join them. The building is in a critical condition.

People in Kolathenna, Rifton Estate are also filled with fear for their lives as their lands are being subjected to landslides, thanks to this Uma Oya project. Even at a drizzle, they take protection at the Palleperuwa Community Hall.

Residents in 22 houses have already decided to evacuate due to the posing danger. Ella Divisional Secretariat has informed them to get a 10 perch land with a house for 16 lakhs. That too should be next to a main road, schools, places of worship, the Divisional Secretariat has conditioned. Residents of the Rifton Estate say that it’s too hard to find such a place for that amount of money.

The aftermath

It’s quite tragic that the very project started to uplift the lives of the people has caused them so much pain turning their lives into a living hell. Although the project is almost finished, many people’s lives are still paralyzed. Since 2014, so many politicians came down the road passing them, promising an end to their misery, but their appeals were not answered to date. It won’t be long when the project is completed and opened to the public festively. But nobody would think that the tears and souls of the displaced people too flow through that tunnel.


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