Simply can’t be suspended The promise of Uma Oya is tremendous – Dr. Jagath Gunatilaka

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By 2017-08-13

By Niranjala Ariyawansha

Dr. Jagath Gunatilaka, Geological Department of Peradeniya University, who is also the head of the Detailed Modification Geological, Engineering Geological and Hydro-Geological Investigation Unit, said the Uma Oya Project could not be suspended half way. He warned that such suspension would lead to the water sources in Bandarawela and Ella areas completely running dry.

"Eighty-five per cent of the project has now been completed. Excavation of upto 10.4 kilometres of the 15.4 km tunnel has also been completed. This will be the longest tunnel in Sri Lanka.

"The underground power house in Wellawaya is almost complete and even the transformers are installed. The dams in Puhulpola and Dayaraba are also complete. We cannot suspend this now. We must remedy the identified shortcomings and finish the project," Dr. Gunatilaka said.

He pointed out that billions of rupees would be wasted if the project is suspended at this point.

Bent Aagaard, a Norwegian expert invited to study the Uma Oya project has recommended too that it be continued, but has pointed out several shortcomings including the failure to carry out a proper Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) before the project began.

Last April, a huge water leak of 1,400 litres per second began from Karandagolla tunnel which is the main tunnel of the project. Due to massive public protests by area residents the Government suspended tunnel excavation temporarily. During our visit to the site last week, the Iranian engineers told us that between 700 and 800 litres of water were lost per second through the leak.

We observed that about 85 per cent of the project was completed. Puhulpola dam is 60 per cent complete while Dayaraba dam is 98 per cent complete. Although digging in the Karandagolla dam has been suspended, Iranian and Sri Lankan engineers and all other workers were busy completing the 120 MW underground power house in Wellawaya.

Meanwhile, certain sections demand that the Uma Oya project be halted because their fundamental rights are violated as a result of drying up of water resources and damage to houses and interruption to livelihoods. Several residents of Bandarawela and the Centre for Environmental Justice filed fundamental rights petitions in the Supreme Court a few months ago against the continuation of the project.

When these petitions were taken up for consideration last Friday, the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) sought Supreme Court permission to intervene in the cases.

BASL Secretary, attorney Amal Randeniya said that they would not demand suspension of the project, adding that, "We are resorting to this litigation in the public interest considering the damages caused to people and environment by the project. We are more concerned about how the people are compensated in terms of the damages they have suffered."

Environmental organizations and other interest groups emphasize that the farmlands in the eastern valleys in the region will permanently turn into wastelands as a result of this project. Those who do not believe that the water sources will be replenished are urging that the project be suspended. Certain other sections that accept the scientific evidence with suspicion are still hopeful of regaining their past prosperity. It's obvious that the communities as well as the engineers are in trouble as a result of the project being implemented without a proper Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).

Will the water resources be replenished?

The scientific analysis of the engineers is that similar leaks generally occur in this type of tunnel boring and the leak may vary according to each different project. For example, a similar leak occurred when the tunnel of the Samanalawewa power project was being excavated. It caused the water resources in the area to run dry but 11 months after the tunnel and reservoir were filled, they returned to normalcy.

But the professionals do not stipulate such time frames for the water sources to be replenished after completion of the Uma Oya . This is because of the magnitude of the Karandagolla tunnel leak. They point out that a longer time will be required for the water sources in Bandarawela and Ella areas to return to normalcy.

"We can make a prediction about the water sources replenishing only after all the leaks are grouted and sealed completely. After that, we will monitor the ground water level before making a prediction," Dr. Gunatilaka said.

The Karandagolla tunnel between Bandarawela and Ella is 150 metres below the surface. He said that water sources located far away from the tunnel parallel to it will be replenished within a few months after the project is completed.

"But we cannot say for sure that the water sources will return to normalcy for at least three years after the project is completed," he added.

Seven boreholes were drilled to monitor the ground water table in the villages which took the impact of the first leak that sprang on 26 December 2014. The number of boreholes has been now increased to 15 and the ground water table is monitored. However, Dr. Gunatilaka said that the leaks should be 100 per cent grouted before predicting any time frame for replenishment.

The Norwegian expert has emphasized in his report that stronger cement is needed to grout the cracks and crevices. Accordingly, the engineers have decided to use ultrafine cement which is capable of entering into even ultra-tiny holes.

Five kilometres are to be further excavated in the Karandagolla tunnel project. Dr. Gunatilaka explained that several places had been identified in which similar leaks might probably spring. He pointed out that Iranian engineers are responsible for addressing all the shortcomings and completing the project.

"They have to do it," he stressed.

Meanwhile, after the first leak appeared in December 2014, the Government appointed a committee to investigate the causes for the leak. The committee headed by Dr. Gunatilaka recommended the Tunnel Boring Machine (TBM) be modified to facilitate grouting.

Two German TBMs are used to excavate the Karandagolla tunnel. By 2014, the excavating had been completed only on the Ella side. The other TBM had been installed outside the tunnel, and under the committee's instructions it was modified so that grouting could be done at 360 degrees.

The German producer of the TBM said that the machine which had already been used in the tunnel could not be taken out for modifications. The TBM is 180 metres long and can be moved only forward. Dr. Gunatilaka pointed out that the tunnel could be grouted only at 180 degrees with that machine.

The EIA on the Uma Oya Project reports 'chances are very rare' for leaks to occur. Therefore, the engineers had not deployed a TBM which could do pre-grouting when leaks occur.

The German experts have however now said the TBM which is installed in the tunnel could be modified. Accordingly, modifications have been re-started 150 metres ahead of the site of the leak.

This showed that the Tunnel Boring Machines which could pre-grout leaks could have been used from the beginning if the EIA had identified weather rock. In such circumstances, even the first leak that occurred on 26 December 2014 could have been avoided.

Technical aspects of the Project

The technical aspects of the Uma Oya Project, Uma Oya Relief Office and the Water Supply and Drainage Board (WSDB) are now trying hard to provide solutions to the drinking water problem of the people. The Deputy Project Director of Uma Oya Relief Office P.B. Amarasekara said that the drinking water demand per day was a minimum one million litres.

" Last week, we could harness only 550,000 litres per day. Now the WSDB is providing us about 700,000 litres. We have distributed about 4000 water tanks of 500 litre capacity. Approval has been received for distributing about 8000 more tanks. We intend providing 2000 litre water tanks also to many families," he explained.

Trains transported 440,000 litres of water from Nanuoya but the WSDB did not recommend it for drinking due to its high iron content. Attempts to transport water from Pattipola were foiled by protesting people of that area.

Amarasekara, retired Chief Secretary of the Uva Provincial Council said that the Uma Oya project is only one reason for the water insufficiency in areas like Bandarawela and Ella. The area has been facing water shortages for many decades though the phenomenon of the Uma Oya project, causing the water sources to dry up, emerged only three years ago.

"Deforestation of mountains, forest fires and illegal constructions also contribute to the present crisis. Historical village names like Ella, Diyathalawa and Nanu Oya suggest that these areas were rich sources of water back in time. The colonial planters spared forests when cultivating tea. But our people cleared all that mountain forest cover and now face the results," Amarasekara said.

The WSDB has now started three projects to provide solutions to the water shortage in the Uva Province. The board claims that the drinking water problem of the residents of Badulla, Bandarawela, Ella, Welimada, Haliela, Haputale and Diyathalawa will be resolved permanently by these projects.

Badulla, Ella and Hali Ela water projects will provide water from Badulu Oya to 16,000 families. The project was started in March 2014 with US assistance. The project will be completed by the end of September this year.

Secondly, the Attampitiya water project was started in June 2017 with a Rs. 3 billion State investment. It is to be completed by 2020. About 3000 families will get water from this project.

Ruwan Liyanage, Deputy General Manager and Project Director of WSDB, Uva Province, said that the Cabinet had approved the Bandarawela, Haputale and Diyatalawa water supply project.

He said that it would be a huge project estimated to cost Rs. 19 billion and it would be implemented in collaboration with China. The project will provide water for 20,000 families in Bandarawela, Haputale, and Diyatalawa Divisional Secretariat areas and parts of Hali Ela and Welimada divisions.

"Our main target is accelerating this project. We expect immediate Government support for that. The technical evaluations of the project are now being made, " Liyanage said.

" The Irrigation Department has agreed to provide water from Puhulpola and Dayaraba reservoirs under construction in the Uma Oya project for the second and third water projects. That will be the most important purpose of the Uma Oya Project for the people of the area. We are not recognizing the immense social benefits of these projects because we prefer to simply be critical of anything good such as the Uma Oya project," he added.

His point of view is that the issues to the drinking water problems of the people will resolve a major part of their problems.

Upto 85 per cent of the population in the eastern valleys of the Uva Province are farmers. It is true that the people led prosperous lives even amidst water scarcities. However, they claim that the impact of the Uma Oya project has pushed them to the streets.

Thereality is that agricultural activity in the valleys collapsed long ago and will remain unchanged until the water sources are replenished. Anyone who travels around this area will easily see that farmers here have lost their livelihoods and are facing severe economic and social problems.

The Government's performance in providing water in this urgent crisis scenario in addition to paying compensation for property and crop damage is satisfactory. But public officials of the area also feel that the Government is responsible for providing income sources for the people until their livelihoods are retained.

(Pix by Thilina Fernando)

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