Environmental harm overlooked in Kiwul Oya Irrigation project: An overview of the potential impacts of the proposed scheme

R. Ram

Irrigating the Mahaweli ‘L’ zone, with Mullaitivu as its center, was the aim of a project that has remained dormant for decades. The government has decided to give it a new lifeline through the Kiwul Oya project.

Kiwul Oya is the main tributary of Ma Oya, which starts in the eastern part of the Vavuniya district and flows to Kokkulai in the Mullaitivu district. By constructing a dam across Kiwul Oya, the Mahaweli Authority is planning to irrigate the Vavuniya and Mullaitivu districts and provide the people with drinking water.

The total cost of the project is Rs 7,062 million: Rs 6,230 million has been allocated to develop the irrigation infrastructure and Rs 832 million for the protection of the environment. The project will take place in five stages in five different zones: ‘A’ Zone – Kiwul Oya reservoir embankment and flood plains; ‘B’ Zone: agricultural reservations; ‘C’ Zone – settlements under the Kiwul Oya project; ‘D’ Zone: small reservoirs and settlements adjacent to them; and ‘E’ Zone – the elephant corridor.

About 6,000 agricultural families will benefit from this project, with about 50,000 people gaining access to drinking water.

Although it might seem that the Kiwul Oya project is aimed at the social progress of the people in the Mahaweli settlement areas, it comes at a cost to the environment. It is feared that the project would affect several lakes, forests, wildlife, insects, and biodiversity.

Moreover, environmentalists believe that this project would escalate the elephant-human conflict in the area. Although Rs 832 million have been allocated for environmental conservation and various proposals are being studied to offset the damage, the best option is to carefully assess the destruction the project may cause to non-renewable resources in the environment.

Floods and status of tanks

If the Kiwul Oya project is completed, there is a risk of inundation in the villages of Kattupoovarangulam, Vedivaitha Kallu, Marudodei, Kanjiramottei, and Kulangulam. In particular, some 430 acres in Kattupoovarangulam and 475 acres in Veduvaithakall are under flood risk. As resettlement in these areas has not been completed yet, this will be disastrous to the new settlers.

Although the villagers have their own land, there are still delays in providing them with basic facilities.

In addition, more than 75 small tanks and water sources, including Ramankulam and Velankulam, will disappear completely, if the project is implemented, the environmentalists warn. Although it is argued that there is no harm in removing small ponds since the river basin is long, livestock farmers may face difficulties finding water for their animals.

Deforestation and the plight of wild animals are also concerns that need to be addressed. About 90 percent of the project area, including the forest reserves, is flat land and has the characteristics of a dry zone. Thus, the project area, with its isolated jungles, small hills, and rocks, faces a higher risk of inundation once the project is completed.

The Kiwul Oya project begins by clearing the reserved forests in the Periyakattikulam area of ​​Vavuniya. An estimated 2,500 hectares of forests will be destroyed through water transportation to the Gribon Tank as part of the project.

The Department of Wildlife Conservation has expressed concern that due to the new settlements envisaged by the project, wild animals will lose 1,500 hectares of their habitat, thus intensifying human-wildlife conflicts. The construction of electric fences and roads has been proposed in the project proposal, but this might create a problem for the movement of wild animals, the environmentalists note.

The Department points out that if the wild elephants are looking for new routes, the electric fence will have to be extended by another 50 kilometers, and additional funds will have to be allocated for that. However, no provision has been made in the project proposal in this regard.

Meanwhile, to prevent conflicts between elephants and other wild animals, a canal has been planned along the dam of the irrigation project. Electric fences are also proposed. However, no plans have been presented to prevent wild animals, including elephants, from entering farmlands before the completion of the defences.

Also, according to the surveys conducted in the project area, two of the total 88 plant species found in the area are nationally endangered, and seven other important plant species have also been identified.

In addition, the project area is home to 214 animal species. Of these species, 14 are endemic, four are globally endangered, and eight are nationally endangered. Apart from this, 43 species of butterflies, 11 species of freshwater fish, 19 species of mammals, and 15 species of endangered reptiles are found in this area.

Also, there are many bird species which have permanent breeding grounds in the area. It has been confirmed that 10 species of migratory birds come to this area and stay for a long time.

Rainfall, soil profile, and groundwater

Although the project area is located between the Kantale Reservoir and the Iranamadu Reservoir, the rate of water evaporation varies. This difference can be catastrophic for the farmers in the long run. It is also bad news for the regeneration programme for the destroyed forests.

Furthermore, the wind speed is average in the area. It received an average annual rainfall of 1,486mm from 1964 to 1994. The region now receives continuous rainfall during the monsoon season.

But these are data obtained thirty years ago. It is questionable whether the expected normal rainfall will be obtained after clearing the reserved forests.

Apart from these issues, red-yellow silt soils are found and they have similar dry zone soil properties. However, since they are used to absorb or transmit water, their nature will change over time. In the long term, these changes will not only change the nature of agriculture but also the nature of groundwater as a whole, the environmentalists say.

On what basis was the agreement reached?

While the main objectives of expanding agriculture and improving habitats will remain the same, the project will lay the foundation for massive ecological destruction through activities such as the excessive use of chemicals in agriculture, the settlement of more people, the destruction of aquatic habitats, the unauthorised felling of valuable trees, and unrestricted hunting

In this context, the permission of the National Planning Department, the Central Environment Authority, the Archaeology Department, the Wildlife Conservation Department, the Forest Conservation Department, and the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau is required to implement this project. While there are plenty of negative aspects to be found in every sector, officials and experts who are supposed to protect them have given permission to proceed, as confirmed by the Environmental Impact Assessment report.

Simply put, if approval is given based on the proposed funding of a project, government officials who authorised the project are obliged to answer the question of how the funds can be used to protect the environment after the depletion of valuable natural resources.

The views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Sri Lanka Press Institute.

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