Sri Lanka has a long history of irrigation and water development projects. For hundreds of years, small dams, canals and water tanks successfully contributed to the nation’s agricultural development and food security.
Recent developments in the country include both the construction of large dams for power generation and irrigation, as well as small hydropower projects below 15 megawatts. The 2,000 MW Mahaweli Project, supported by several World Bank loans between 1970 and 1998, is the country’s largest multi-purpose dam. The large-scale displacement of Sri Lanka’s indigenous population, the Wanniyalaeto, was one of the most severe negative impacts of the project. The Wanniyalaeto were forcefully evicted and resettled in colonies. They were neither consulted nor compensated for the loss of their natural habitat and hunting grounds. Large tracts of forest were inundated, logged or turned into a national park. The Mahaweli Project is not the only Sri Lankan water development project with large costs and meager benefits. At a 1998 regional consultation of the World Commission on Dams in Sri Lanka, affected people and Sri Lankan citizens presented the environmental and social legacies of the Mahaweli Project, the Victoria Dam and the Samanalawewa Project. People also questioned the viability and adequacy of the new large dams planned for Sri Lanka, including the Upper Kotmale Project.
Civil society groups in Sri Lanka are opposed to this project as they fear that once again, the social and environmental costs will far outweigh the project’s benefits.
Small hydropower technology is better adapted to meeting rural electricity supply needs in Sri Lanka. The local small hydropower industry is overseeing a wave of new projects, and small hydropower projects are currently adding more electricity to the grid and to rural off-grid homes than are big dam projects.
Upper Kotmale Hydropower Project: Another Disaster in Dam History, report for the South Asia regional consultation of the World Commission on Dams in 1998