Uma Oya Multipurpose Project

By Shradha Upadhayay

Puhulpola Oya (right) and Mahtilla Oya (left) joins together to form Uma Oya
Puhulpola Oya (right) and Mahtilla Oya (left) joins together to form Uma Oya
Sajeewa Chamikara/Sri Lanka Nature Forum
On April 2008, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad celebrated the start of construction on the Uma Oya Multipurpose Project in Sri Lanka. The project will involve the construction of two reservoirs on tributaries of the Uma Oya River and one tunnel on the river itself to divert water to a powerhouse further downstream. Once completed, the project will have the capacity to generate 90 MW of electricity and irrigate 5,000 hectares of agricultural land. The project is estimated to cost US$16 billion. The Government of Sri Lanka is financing the project with US$450 million from Iran.

Whereas the Government of Sri Lanka promotes the project for its irrigation and power generation benefits, others are more cautious and warn that the Uma Oya Watershed cannot sustain such a large water diversion project. Currently, water from Uma Oya is diverted to irrigate agricultural areas near the Mahaweli River. With the construction of the Uma Oya project, yet more water would be diverted from the river. With the construction of the reservoirs and the tunnel, people living upstream of the planned tunnel are likely to suffer from water shortages.

Even without the dam, the water level of the Uma Oya River already drops significantly during the dry season. After the construction of the dam, the diversion of water from the river during dry season months will drastically reduce the water available for drinking and irrigating the fields. Also, the project would not be able to generate any electricity during the months of December-April, due to the lack of water in the river.

Siltation of the reservoir is another problem that the project is bound to face. The Rantembe, a reservoir in the Uma Oya Watershed, has silted up in a very short time, and as a result lost much of its generation capacity early on. If the Uma Oya Reservoir silts up as quickly as predicted, the financial profitability of the entire project is put into question. In a recent article published in Sri Lanka's The Sunday Times, Malaka Rodrigo points out that "soil erosion will cripple large-scale hydro projects like Uma Oya and Rantambe by reducing water inflow. The sediments which will be deposited in the waterways due to soil erosion will flow down to the reservoirs causing problems."

Apart from the challenges that the natural environment of the Uma Oya River poses to the planned project, observers in Sri Lanka criticize the government for calling construction to start even though key studies for the project are not yet in place. According to Sajeewa Chamikara, program manager of the Sri Lanka Nature Forum, "Laying the foundation for the project without a proper plan, a feasibility study or an environmental impact assessment or any sort of permission from any relevant government agencies can be a serious precedence for the society." The Sri Lanka Nature Forum, a forerunner for environmental conservation in Sri Lanka, is preparing to launch a formal campaign on the project.