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International Rivers Network’s Campaigns in Sri Lanka

Habitat for elephants was flooded and fragmented due to construction of the Mahaweli Dam in Sri Lanka.
Credit: IRN Archive
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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 focus on the construction of large dams for power generation and irrigation. The 2,000 MW Mahaweli Project, supported by several World Bank loans between 1970 and 1998, is the country’s largest multi-purpose project. The project was advertised as being able to make Sri Lanka self-sufficient in rice cultivation, yet, 20 years after irrigation from Mahaweli began, farmers complain that the project’s irrigation system does not even provide enough water for one crop per year.

The World Bank’s Independent Evaluation Group assessed the World Bank’s support for the Mahaweli Scheme several times. In its 2004 assessment, it rated a central part of the project as "highly unsatisfactory" and stated: "The performance of both Bank and borrower is rated unsatisfactory because of the lack of attention during preparation and implementation to containing costs and ensuring the technical and economic viability of the project."

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 Wanniyalaeto had been hunter-gatherers and custodians of the forest for hundreds of years. Now, they are prohibited from entering the Mahaweli Watershed Management Project.

The Mahaweli Project is not the only Sri Lankan water development project with large costs and meager benefits. At the very first regional consultation of the World Commission on Dams, which took place in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in 1998, affected people and Sri Lankan citizens presented the environmental and social legacies of the Mahaweli Scheme, the Victoria Dam and the Samanalawewa Project. A woman who was resettled to make room for the Samanalawewa Project told the Commission "The truth is that the people of Kinchigune actually had to live under the trees until they put up huts and then built their own houses through their own efforts. Although the farmers were provided compensation for their houses and crops, this was peanuts compared to what they had. Nothing was provided free of charge, and even the electricity connections had to be paid for."

The consultation also heard presentations questioning the viability and adequacy of the new dams planned for Sri Lanka, including the adequacy of the environmental clearance for the planned Upper Kotmale Project.

In 2002, the Government of Sri Lanka signed a loan agreement with the Japan Bank for International Cooperation for the construction of the 150 MW Upper Kotmale Project in central Sri Lanka. According to the Ceylon Electricity Board, as of mid-2006, preliminary work for the project has started. Civil society groups in Sri Lanka are opposed to the project as they fear that once again, the social and environmental costs will far outweigh the project’s benefits. "During previous hydro power projects, hill-country Tamils suffered heavily. They were left on the roads without relocation or resettlement. There is no assurance that this will not happen again," says E. Thambia, who represents the People’s Campaign Against Upper Kotmale Project.

Additional Information

Ann Kathrin Schneider, Policy Analyst

International Rivers Network


Phone: +1 510-848-1155