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 Post subject: Mahaweli experience in western and eastern Rajarata
 Post Posted: Fri Jun 20, 2008 9:54 pm 
Some comments on the Mahaweli experience in western and eastern Rajarata

by D L O Mendis - Rajarata
@ The Island 10Jun2008

The ancient irrigation works, brilliantly documented by R L Brohier in his Ancient Irrigation Works in Ceylon, in 1934, had been built mainly in ancient Ruhunurata and Rajarata. My two part article titled ‘Pugwash, Lunuganvehera and the Destruction of the Commons’, in The Island newspaper on May 5 and 6, 2008, discussed problems created in the southern area, part of ancient Ruhunurata, on account of the wrong location of the gigantic new reservoir, Lunuganvehera, too far down in the Kirindi oya basin, too close to the sea. This sequel to that article joins the ongoing discussion started by Dr Prassana Cooray, on widespread kidney diseases in Mahaweli development areas. This article seeks to start discussion on threats to the commons in ancient Rajarata, where the ancient irrigation systems, now better known and described as water and soil conservation ecosystems, once flourished, from about the mid first millennium BCE till after the 13th century CE. Two recent examples of danger of destruction, relevant to this discussion, the proposed Eppawala phosphate rock project in western Rajarata, and the proposed Moragahakande project in eastern Rajarata will be discussed in this article.

Kala Wewa is one of the magnificent reservoirs of the ancient world

The first of four references in the May 5 article, to well known books and papers, was Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring published in 1962. The twenty fifth anniversary edition in 1987 claimed that it is one of the twenty five most widely read books in the English language. The main theme that Rachel Carson discussed was DDT poisoning discovered in the food chain, and its consequences, leading to poisoning of earthworms and the birds that ate them and died, hence the title, Silent Spring. As I recall it, DDT was widely used in the anti-malaria campaign in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), starting during the second world war when foreign troops were stationed in our country. It was discontinued following the outcry against DDT that arose after Silent Spring was published.

Now, an exactly similar situation has been documented in regard to cadmium poisoning of groundwater in Mahaweli project areas and elsewhere, leading to chronic renal failure as described by Dr Prassana Cooray. In a Rupavahini TV program on Monday, June 2, Dr Sarath Bandara, Professor of Agriculture at Peradeniya University, and environmental activist Udula Bandara Awsadahami, explained that the source of the cadmium in the groundwater had been traced to the imported phosphate fertilizer used by the farmers. Professor Bandara categorically stated that phosphate fertilizer made from Eppawala phosphate rock, apatite, does not contain such harmful proportions of cadmium, and should be used instead of the imported fertilizer.

They argued convincingly that the problem of water pollution could be alleviated and resolved by restoring the ancient water and soil conservation ecosystems (ancient irrigation systems) that had been adversely impacted by the hydraulic engineering systems imposed in the area under the Mahaweli development scheme. While agreeing with that view, two examples are presented in this article, of the danger of destruction in the name of development, of two wonders of the ancient world that may yet happen. These wonders are the well known Kalaweva-Jayaganga ecosystem in western Rajarata, and the little known Parakrama sagara, the second of the three seas of Parakrama, in eastern Rajarata. Incidentally, the Parakrama Talaka referred to in the Mahavamsa as the third Sea of Parakrama, has already been vandalized, if its location was in that well known part of the Jayaganga where the gradient is about six inches to the mile, as described by the great R L Brohier:

The Jayaganga indeed an ingenious memorial of ancient irrigation which was undoubtedly designed to serve as a combined irrigation and water supply channel, was not entirely dependent on its feeder reservoir the Kalaweva for the water it carried. The length of bund between Kalaweva and Anuradhapura intercepted all the drainage from the high ground to the east which otherwise would have run to waste. Thus the Jayaganga adapted itself to a wide field of irrigation by feeding little village tanks in each subsidiary valley which lay below its bund. Not infrequently it fed a chain of village tanks down these valleys the tank lower down receiving the overflow from the tank higher up on each chain.

That this part of the Jayaganga could be described as a great reservoir was seen when there was no perceptible hydraulic channel flow in this reach until Mahaweli engineers straightened parts of it by cutting through some contour curves. This act of vandalism has been brilliantly described by Udula Bandara Awasadahami on TV, and by three research scientist – engineers, Kapila Peiris, Sanjiva Wijesinghe and Manjula, authors of the National Science Foundation book ‘Ecosystems based Water Management’. But, as mentioned in the earlier articles a former acting Director of the Peace Secretariat, not an engineer, joined the tragic-comedy when he criticized my 1995 Pugwash paper: Past, Present and Future Conflict over water in Sri Lanka, with the comment: ‘Doesn’t good Sinhala water go to Tamil areas?’ about which more anon.


Eppawala in western Rajarata

Danger of destruction of the human made Kalaweva-Jayaganga ecosystem, by a proposal to mine the nearby Eppawala phosphate rock deposit to exhaustion in 30 years by a conglomerate of US and Japanese multinational corporations and local counterparts, was averted only by a case taken to the Supreme Court by Ven. Mahamankadawela Piyaratne Thera of the Galkande Mahavihare, Eppawala, supported by concerned environmentalists in Colombo.

It was described allegorically as follows, by Professor Jonathan Walters another US University scientist, who had lived in the Eppawala area for many years and knew more than most local scientists, the magnitude of the impending tragedy:

The Mahavamsa commentary, Vamsatthappaksini, conceived of Sri Lanka as a beautiful woman (Lankangana) whose face is Anuradhapura. By extension her neck is the Kalaweva – Jayaganga cultural landscape, through which still flows the water and grows the rice that has sustained Sri Lanka for more than 2000 years.

Destroying the ancient Kalaweva-Jayaganga ecosystem by mining the Eppawala phosphate rock deposit to exhaustion would be like literally slitting the throat of this beautiful woman. But, in the National Science Council report to the Supreme Court prepared by scientists, on the direction of the then Minister of Science and Technology, it was described as follows:

The Jayaganga is an engineering marvel that must be preserved for eternity as the Heritage of humankind just as the Taj Mahal, the Pyramids or Ruwanveliseya are preserved for posterity.

Fortunately, Justice A R B Amerasinghe understood the issue better, and said in his judgement:

Its preservation is therefore not only of interest to the literati at a higher plane, as a matter concerning the heritage of humankind that must be preserved, but also at the more mundane level of the petitioners and others like them who depend on the continued and efficient functioning of that system for the pursuit of their occupations and indeed for sustaining their very lives, a matter of grave and immediate personal concern.

Justice A R B Amerasinghe also said:

While, as I must on account of its extravagance reject learned counsel’s claim that people would "starve" if the project is not proceeded with, it might be pointed out that there seems to be no disagreement that the phosphate deposit should be utilized. Indeed, an hypothesis has been advanced that the Eppawela deposit was not "discovered" in 1971, but was known to our rulers and people for thousands of years who shared the thought that the deposit should be utilized. The difference between them and us is how this should be done. The ingenuity of the rulers and people of Sri Lanka in times gone by, it is suggested, had created a stable and sustainable agricultural development system harnessing the key natural resources available within their natural habitat, including the Eppawela deposit. The natural processes of weathering, microbial activity and precipitation might have released plant nutrients which were carried overland by flowing into the reservoirs, channels and rivers as well as permeating into the soil matrix and possibly reaching underground aquifers. (See Ivan Amarasinghe, Eppawala: Contribution to Nutrient Flow’s in the Ancient Aquatic Ecosystems of Rajarata).

At the present rate of quarrying the apatite, up to 50,000 tons per year, the deposit would last for more than one thousand two hundred years. The proposal to exhaust the deposit in a period of just 30 years, was commented on by a former Chairman of the Netherlands Pugwash Group the late Professor Phil B Smith as follows:

"As far as I am concerned the most important question is not why this mining must take place at all, but why it must be done with such "indecent haste"? After all, the rock is already being quarried at a rate and using technology which leaves natural systems intact, and is bringing profit to the region. Not only that, but these profits could continue to flow in for a thousand years ….. Why then would anyone want to do this, especially the government of the country itself?

The reason is to be found in the misplaced use of discounting. Discounting the value of a man-made object, such as a house, a lathe, or a factory, is a perfectly respectable financial procedure. As time goes by, such an object wears out and/or becomes obsolete for the purpose for which it was made. Its real value goes down with time, and it would be foolish to pretend that it does not. A widely-used value for discounting durable goods or buildings is 3% per year, meaning that the present value will be reduced to zero after some thirty odd years. But what we see happening all over the world is the misplaced application of this procedure to natural wealth.

Why misplaced? Because a forest does not become less valuable as time goes by. In most cases, it actually becomes more valuable. The apatite deposit of Eppawala does not diminish in value in the course of time. But economic theory reasons differently. Economic theory says that if I can purchase a forest for a million dollars I should only do that if I clear-fell it in about thirty years, otherwise I should invest my money elsewhere. The way the economic system works, this is correct, since if I invest the money elsewhere I will receive more money (the verb earn is usually used here, but I believe that that verb should be reserved for income from honest work). The fallacy in this reasoning is that it assumes that there is an infinite amount of natural wealth which can be tapped, and that the earth can support an infinite amount of waste generation. A child knows that this is manifest nonsense, but main stream economists are unfortunately not children. They do not realize (or allow themselves to realize) that this is a "dead-end" way of thinking, since eventually all of the other wealth will be exhausted, and/or all life will be poisoned by endless economic growth. We will return in our conclusion to what we believe to be the origin of this apparently ineradicable fallacy in the thinking of the economists who advise governments all over the world".

Dr Phil B Smith then went on to give an example of this fallacious reasoning in his own country the Netherlands, and concludes with an interesting explanation for this, as follows:

"The destruction of forests all over the world by private owners (and companies who have bribed government officials to allow it) is known to all. The same is true of wealth below the soil. When immense gas fields were discovered in the north of the Netherlands, the state gave the rights of exploitation to the NAM, a (private) oil company, with another, linked, private concern, the Gasunie, receiving a concession on the distribution. The Gasunie announced that the fields would be exhausted in thirty years, even before the full extent of the fields was even known. This is because, as shown above, it doesn’t matter what it is, or how big it is, conventional economic wisdom says that it has to be used up in about thirty years. And so also the Eppawala deposits.

There was enough gas in the fields to warm our houses for three hundred years, which would have given us time to develop renewable sources of energy. But good business practice dictated that it had to be gone in thirty years so 90% of the gas had to be exported. And so it was. In another ten years the gas will be gone. Incidentally the rapid extraction of the gas is already resulting in costly instability of the land above the gas fields. The gigantic costs (except to the amount of a small guarantee fund deposited by the Gasunie) incurred by the replacement of all sewage and water piping as well as tens of thousands of foundations of houses and buildings will be borne by the inhabitants, not the Gasunie or the NAM. The future costs which will have to be borne by the peoples of the Eppawala region will be proportionately enormously greater.

In conclusion, it is indeed hard to understand why, despite the obvious fallaciousness of these dogmas, conventional wisdom continues to hold to the idea that discounting natural wealth is perfectly legitimate and that privatizing the whole planet will protect the environment. I believe that it is because these ideas suit the predilections of those who possess wealth. Still, the naive reader might ask, how is it possible that business leaders who mostly have children and must be assumed to be concerned about the living conditions in the world in which their descendants will live, are busily destroying this future world. I suggest that examining the belief structures of religions will reveal the same insensitivity to obvious facts. All religions are built on rationally impossible stories, and economy fits well into this picture. The possessors wish to be told that they may be just as selfish as they wish and it will come out for the best. In all of history there has always been a priesthood which provides the powerful with the stories they want to hear. Today that priesthood is trained in theological seminaries bearing prestigious names such as the Harvard School of Business and the London School of Economics".

An unexpected consequence of publicity in the Pugwash conferences on Science and World Affairs, was a comment by Professor Philip W Anderson, Nobel laureate in physics, from the Princeton Institute of Advanced Studies, implying recognition of the vital importance of Eppawala for Sri Lanka’s food security, a topic that is now making global headlines.

"You will never have heard the name "Eppawala". This is a project of a US-Japan consortium to mine phosphate in gigantic quantities from a mountain in Sri Lanka, destroying a thousand-year-old irrigation system, numerous antiquities, and many villages, and compensating the locals on a typical Third World scale with a minute fraction of the profits - profits which hardly exist if one were to count the true cost of the project. It is a staggering example of the misuse of economic reasoning which characterizes third world "development" projects. Not just third world, in my opinion!"

Moragahakande in eastern Rajarata

Dr Siran Deraniyagala, a former Director-General of Archaeology, has said:

"The water heritage of Sri Lanka comprises two elements, the natural heritage and the man-created (cultural) heritage. Should this heritage resource with which Sri Lanka is blessed be diminished in any manner, the government will stand accused of neglect of the country's birthright."

Despite this, engineers continue to prepare for implementation projects derived from new reservoirs shown on the Water Resources Development Plan, 1959. This is a map prepared without taking into adequate consideration the ancient irrigation works that had been identified and shown on the one mile to an inch topographical survey sheets prepared over a period of about eighty years in British colonial times, from land surveys. To make matters worse, these one inch sheets as they are called, have now been replaced by metric sheets prepared from aerial surveys, that do not show the degree of detail that was shown on the old one inch sheets.

Figure 1

The most glaring example of this, worse even than Lunuganvehera, is the proposed Moragahakande project that has been announced in the Mahinda Chintana and launched recently with a great deal of fanfare (Figure 1). One can see how the politicians are (mis)led by the techno-bureaucracy on these issues. As I see it, the only course of action available to me is to go to the general public through articles of this nature.

Moragahakande reservoir and the NCP canal

The Water Resources Development Plan, 1959, shows a proposed large new reservoir called Moragahakande, a few miles upstream of the Elahera anicut on the Ambanganga, and a canal called the North Central Province or NCP Canal traced in a general northerly direction between the Konduruweva range on the west and the Sudukande range on the east both of which lie in an approximately north – south direction. (Figure 1) Feasibility studies done on this proposal over the past several years, are said to have cost more than two hundred million rupees. At today’s costs perhaps this would be double that amount. However, the proposal presented to government and inaugurated in the recent past is only the Moragahakande reservoir, with no mention of the NCP canal, which incidentally had been renamed the Upper Elahera canal sometime in the past, as if a change of name would solve the problems concerning the project that was being presented.

Let us now examine the Moragahakande reservoir proposal. At a first glance at the topo sheet, this gigantic new reservoir seems to be well sited above the ancient Elahera anicut, across Ambanganga (Figure 1). But when we go into the history of the ancient irrigation works, in R L Brohier’s work, we come to a different conclusion. In his Ancient Irrigation Works in Ceylon, Vol 1, pages 28 – 32, we find a Report of three British surveyors, Adams, Churchill, and Bailey, who, in 1855 had surveyed the ancient Elahera channel from Elahera anicut to Konduruweva a distance of about 18 miles. Their report had been submitted to the Governor of Ceylon, Sir Henry Ward, who had inspected the site himself and included the report in his inspection Minutes that were published in the Ceylon Almanac in 1857, two years later. This is what Brohier re-published in his great work Ancient Irrigation Works in Ceylon, in 1934.

We may ask, why did the Governor decide to inspect the site himself? The answer will be evident to anyone who studies the Report of the three Surveyors, as the Governor would have done. Thanks to R L Brohier anyone can do this today. And anyone who studies this Report would never use the one mile to an inch topo sheets to locate Moragahakande reservoir and the NCP canal the way these two structures have been sited as shown on the Water Resources Development Plan, 1959. Why? Because the Report describes how the ancients had designed and constructed an alternative complex that is far superior to anything modern engineers have ever designed and constructed in Sri Lanka so far, through which the proposed NCP canal has been traced. This is a truly incredible water and soil conservation ecosystem, built by Parakrama Bahu the great (1153-1186), consolidating all the systems that had been built over eleven centuries in eastern Rajarata, starting with the Elahera anicut by king Vasabha in the first century CE. The first item of note is ancient Parakrama Sagara, the second Sea of Parakrama, made up of seven adjacent reservoirs beginning with the biggest, called Koththabadhdhanijara, created by raising the dam that Vasabha had built across the Ambanganga, eleven centuries earlier. It is no coincidence that Wilhelm Geiger, the great German scholar, had translated the word Koththabadhdhanijara in two different ways – ‘the weir furnished with a reservoir’ and ‘the reservoir whose flood escape was walled up’.

The most wonderful feature of this composite reservoir is the fact that there is a drop of sixty feet from the first to the last of the separate adjacent reservoirs, and there were short lengths of canal connecting them, which were equipped with canal locks to make the canal navigable, as described by the surveyors in 1855, and confirmed by Governor Sir Henry Ward himself in 1857. Unfortunately these were vandalized by a project to augment Minneriya reservoir from Ambanganga in the early 1940’s. The Elahera-Minneriya canal was kept separate from the cross drainage from the Konduruweva range by means of concrete flume not allowed bridges; and concrete canal falls were built in the canal to surmount the sixty foot fall from Elahera to Minneriya. The flume not allowed bridges were demolished in the early 1950’s when it was realized that they were a gross mistake for which the blame could be laid on foreign engineers who had been employed during the days of the second world war. The canal falls were enlarged and remained.

Flume-not allowed-bridges built in the 1940’s that were demolished in the 1950’s

All this may sound unbelievable to engineers today who as a rule do not read history. (And historians who know nothing of engineering come up with ridiculous ideas from time to time, about which the less said here the better). At a discussion at the Institution of Engineers in January 2007, an eminent engineer, a very good friend of mine, solemnly proclaimed that he had studied the topo sheets and found no trace of a succession of reservoirs between Elahera and Konduruweva as I had described, even though I placed Brohier’s book with the surveyors’ Report under his nose. He could not or would not understand what I was trying to say, that these are not what Brohier described as ‘chains of small tanks’, one leading into the other, below the Jayaganga, now called cascades of small tanks, but adjacent reservoirs at different levels, like the side view of a flight of steps. (Perhaps he may revise his views, even at this late stage, on reading this article which is available to the general public).

Parakrama Bahu restored the water and soil conservation ecosystem from Elahera to Minneriya and on to Gantalawa or Kantalai, and from that great reservoir to the sea at Trincomalee through Tambalagamam bay. It is difficult if not impossible to justify Moragahakande project when restoration of ancient Parakrama Sagara is available as a better alternative. But, it could be dangerous to write critically about the Moragahakande project as seen for example in the the reaction of the former acting Director of the Peace Secretariat mentioned above. In that incident I had predicted future east – west conflict over water if the Moragahakande reservoir and NCP canal were built, and the paper was well received in Pugwash. But, the acting Director of the Peace Secretariat was assuming that I was trying to use water, with air, one of two most vital requirements for life itself, as a weapon. He needed to be reminded of the famous words in the Russell–Einstein manifesto which inspired the Pugwash movement: ‘Remember your humanity and forget the rest’. One shudders to think what goes on in the mind of such a person in a position of the utmost responsibility and importance to the security of our country, when he deals with issues of a scientific nature about which he so obviously seems to know very little or nothing.

The commons in ancient Rajarata

A Symposium had been organized in the University at Peradeniya in 1971 on the topic Collapse of the Ancient Hydraulic Civilization in Rajarata and the Drift to the Southwest. Among the causes for collapse that were presented and discussed were invasions, occupation of the region by the invaders, foreigners who were not familiar with and therefore unable to manage the complex of irrigation systems that were vital for the security of the nation, elimination of the class of persons responsible for this maintenance of the irrigation systems called the ‘kulinas’, internecine strife, incessant cyclonic rainfall, soil salination, earthquakes that had caused changes in the patterns of river flows, and collapse of foreign trade, that had a major adverse impact on the economy.

Comparisons with similar problems in the modern Mahaweli project areas may be made. The kidney diseases due to excessive amounts of cadmium in the imported phosphate fertilizer, that Dr Prassana Cooray has described, comes to mind in this context. We may conclude that the ancients did not have to face this problem because they had the benefit of the slow leaching effect of Eppawala phosphate rock as described in the extract from Justice ARB Amersinghe’s judgment above. Eppawala phosphate is free from harmful amounts of cadmium.

The previous two part article (May 5 and 6) described the destruction of the Commons in the southern part of ancient Ruhuna, on account of the Lunuganvehera project. A way to alleviate some of the adverse consequences was suggested by shrinking the Lunuganvehera reservoir in stages over a long period of time, after a new upstream Huratgamuva reservoir is built near Wellawaya. It was described how this has been done in the modern Allai scheme in ancient Ruhuna, near Seruvila temple.

Are there similar long term adverse impacts in Rajarata on account of the modern hydraulic engineering Accelerated Mahaweli development project? In the light of presentations made in the Pugwash Workshop in November 2007, a general statement may be made that these causes, if any, may be collectively described as impact on the Commons. Moreover, it will be a slow process, similar to what is happening in the southern area today on account of the wrong location of Uda Walawe and Lunuganvehera reservoirs, barely perceptible and difficult to quantify in a short period of time, but nevertheless real.

In conclusion, Justice A R B Amerasinghe in his Eppawala judgment referred to another project in the southern area of ancient Ruhunurata as follows:

If I might adopt the words of Martha Prickett Fernando in her comments on another project – the augmentation of the Malala oya basin from Mau ara – "Unless development activities in areas like this project are accompanied by proper EIA studies and [proposals for] mitigation of the [adverse impacts on] archaeological resources that will be damaged, vast numbers of sites – in fact, much of Sri Lanka’s unrenewable cultural heritage and the raw data for all future studies on ancient Sri Lanka – will be destroyed without record, and an accurate understanding of life in ancient Sri Lanka remain forever wrapped in myth and hypothesis". In that connection, the words of D D Kossambi (The Culture and Civilization of Ancient India) come to mind: "To learn about the past in the light of the present is to learn about the present in the light of the past".

What this means is that we must undertake a fresh EIA study of the Mahaweli project, and look again at causes for the collapse of the Rajarata civilization and the drift to the southwest. A key aspect will be the impact of hydraulic engineering on the Commons, after the apogee of the Parakrama Bahu era, just as it is an important aspect in the southern area today.


:lol: Kala Wewa (Reservoir) - 470 AD

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