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 Post subject: Pugwash, Lunuganvehera, and the destruction of the commons
 Post Posted: Fri Jun 20, 2008 10:10 pm 
Pugwash, Lunuganvehera, and the destruction of the commons

Since independence the ancient water and soil conservation ecosystems, a priceless economic heritage of the Sri Lanka people, has been eroded in the name of development by new hydraulic engineering projects. This has got to stop.

by D. L. O. Mendis Secretary / Convenor Sri Lanka Pugwash
@ The Island 05 May 2008

Karl Wittfogel in his Oriental Despotism (1957) using the example of China claimed that hydraulic civilizations developed simultaneously with the development of an extensive bureaucracy in a despotic society. The Cambridge engineer turned historian E R Leach, disagreed; he showed in his well known essay "Hydraulic Society in Ceylon" (1959) that the monumental earthen dams and channels, and the stone sluices and spills, many of which still remain functional, were built without any forced labour in ancient Sri Lanka.


There have been some articles and also a paid advertisement, in The Island newspaper, about Pelwatte in the Moneragala District. It is stated that 65,000 hectares of sugarcane could yield an average of 80 tons of cane per ha. to give 8 tons of sugar per ha., which would result in substantial benefits to the economy. These benefits include big reductions in petroleum costs by substituting ethanol (as done in Brazil and elsewhere), reduction in sugar imports, and generation of thermal power. It may not be generally known that Pelwatte lands had been poisoned by use of agro-chemicals by a multinational corporation that had cultivated sugarcane using local peasant labour for about ten years recently, and abandoned it after getting maximum benefit from government incentives for foreign direct investment, FDI. Now, an attempt is being made by Pelwatte companies, Pelwatte Sugar, Pelwatte Distilleries, and Pelwatte Dairies, to try to restore the land, part of the ancient commons in Sri Lanka, and give the local peasantry a stable and sustainable way of life. The colonial rulers had deliberately destroyed peasant landholdings in Uva -Wellassa after the 1818 rebellion, and later (wittingly or unwittingly) destroyed instead of restoring the ecologically stable and sustainable ancient water and soil conservation ecosystems that had once flourished but lay abandoned in the southern area. They did this by the location of new wildlife reservations in the once densely populated and highly developed southeastern region, including the Menik ganga basin, and the few remaining humans were driven to the southwest. The Lunuganvehera project, drove the last nail in the coffin as it were, in the destruction of the ‘commons’, about which more anon.

Pugwash and the tragedy of the commons

Sri Lanka Pugwash organized a regional Workshop in November 2007 on the theme ‘Learning from Ancient Hydraulic Civilizations to Combat Climate Change’, to honour Jayantha Dhanapala on his unanimous election as President of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, for a five year term commencing October 2007. By a serendipitous coincidence the 2007 Nobel Peace prize was awarded in October 2007, to Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Vice Chairman of which is Sri Lanka Pugwashite Professor Mohan Munasinghe. The Workshop was inaugurated in Colombo after which participants visited Kalaweva, Sigiriya and Anuradhapura in ancient Rajarata, Kandy, and finally Pelwatte in Moneragala district.

When Workshop participants passed over the Uda Walawe dam on the way to Pelwatte and again on the way back to Colombo, the wrong location of Uda Walawe reservoir in the middle basin of the Walawe ganga was clearly seen. This great reservoir should have been sited about fifteen miles upstream of the present location, at the foot of the southern escarpment. Workshop participants also saw the map of Sri Lanka called the ‘Water Resources Development Plan, 1959’ from which all major new reservoir projects in Sri Lanka are selected, and the wrong location on this map of Lunuganvehera reservoir in the lower Kirindi oya basin was pointed out to them. Following the colonial tradition, the Uda Walawe National Park, a new wildlife reservation, was established by joining the two upper catchment reservations of Uda Walawe and Lunuganvehera reservoirs. This also caused destruction of a part of the ancient ‘commons’ where cattle and buffalo used to graze, making the southern area famous from time immemorial for its curd and honey.

The Jayantha Dhanapala Felicitation volume was released at the workshop, and a companion volume, the Proceedings of the workshop, is now under preparation. A contribution by Aiichiro Mogi from Japan is on the ‘Commons’, a theme also taking off from a reference in the felicitation volume to Jared Diamond’s ‘impressive book, Collapse’, as described by Jayantha Dhanapala, in his Max Perutz memorial lecture in Colombo in April 2007. Jared Diamond who holds three professorships in the University of California, Los Angeles, USA, acknowledges his debt to the environmental activist Clive Ponting of the University of Swansea, England, in his 1991 book titled "A Green History of the World". A revised, updated version titled "A New Green History of the World" was published recently in 2007, subtitled ‘The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations’. Both Diamond and Ponting describe how ancient civilizations failed to survive, and adduce reasons for their lack of sustainability.


However, neither of these authors has mentioned the ancient hydraulic civilization of Sri Lanka which had flourished from about the mid first millennium BCE till after the 12th century CE, when it had suffered an apparently irreversible decline. Karl Wittfogel in his Oriental Despotism (1957) using the example of China claimed that hydraulic civilizations developed simultaneously with the development of an extensive bureaucracy in a despotic society. The Cambridge engineer turned historian E R Leach, disagreed; he showed in his well known essay "Hydraulic Society in Ceylon" (1959) that the monumental earthen dams and channels, and the stone sluices and spills, many of which still remain functional, were built without any forced labour in ancient Sri Lanka. This has been referred to by former Vice President of the World Court, Judge C G Weeramantry, another distinguished Sri Lanka Pugwashite, in his much cited Separate Opinion in the Danube dam case. Some participants met Dr Weeramantry on the final day of the Workshop, and received copies of this judgement. All this made the regional Pugwash Workshop a landmark, and the forthcoming Proceedings will fill a lacuna in the record compiled by Diamond and Ponting and others.

Just as Clive Ponting and Jared Diamond presented a western perspective of the collapse of ancient civilizations, some other even earlier studies that are fundamental sources, presented information concerning dilemmas of development today, relevant to the forthcoming Proceedings. These include: 1.) Rachel Carson’s landmark study Silent Spring published in 1962; 2.) Garrett Hardin’s much cited essay ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ in Science, 1968, and his ‘Extensions of The Tragedy of the Commons’, in Science, 1 May, 1998; 3.) Gadgil and Guha’s pathbreaking work, This Fissured Land: an Ecological History of India’, (page xl of the Dhanapala felicitation volume) and 4.) Peter Barnes’ Capitalism 3.0, A Guide to Reclaiming the Commons (2006).

Rachel Carson’s book has been described in its 25th anniversary edition in 1987, as one of the 25 most widely read books in the English language. It focused especially on the harmful effects of DDT, and by extension, on all other chemicals used mainly in modern agriculture promoted by agribusiness. This book created an uproar which still continues, on account of the hostile reaction of multinational companies that felt threatened. Poisoning of the earth by chemicals at Pelwatte was referred to in a message (p. xliii of the Dhanapala felicitation volume) by Caesar Voute, a senior Pugwashite now living in Bulgaria, who was not able to attend the workshop.

Garrett Hardin’s essay presented a hypothesis that went back to Adam Smith’s 1776 classic An Inquiry into the Wealth of Nations, which is generally recognized as one of the origins of modern economic theory. Hardin argued that whereas the ‘Commons’ were an essential part of all early civilizations, collapse of those civilizations was inevitable on account of increase in human population, and resultant over-grazing of the commons. In this he followed the hypothesis due to Malthus that since population increased in geometric progression while food production increased in arithmetic progression, overpopulation would inevitably lead to food shortage and starvation.

Ancient hydraulic civilizations

Hardin described early river valley civilizations in Asia, Africa and America, but he too failed to mention hydraulic society in ancient Sri Lanka. In the Danube dam case, Judge C G Weeramantry gave an authoritative statement of the ancient hydraulic system of Sri Lanka, and described how the Arahant Mahinda preached to King Devanampiya Tissa at Minintale, which he said was the earliest known statement of the principles of modern environmental law. We may add that this statement was synonymous with a description of the commons: ‘Great king! Thou art not the owner but only the guardian. The birds of the air and the beasts of the forest have as much right to all this as Thou!’ By another serendipitous coincidence Dr Weeramantry gave the Keynote Address at a recent international conference on the Environment, in April 2008, at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where Professor Hardin had been Professor and later emeritus Professor of Human Ecology, at the time he wrote his path-finding essays. We do not know if Professor Hardin is still among the living; but Dr Weeramantry had not met him at the conference.

‘Lessons to be learned from Ancient Hydraulic Civilizations in India and Sri Lanka’ are discussed in the Dhanapala felicitation volume. Gadgil and Guha’s statement on the loss of commons due to the Forest department in India as stated by Joitreau Phule back in 1881 was commented on as follows: ‘In India, the British destabilized an existing stable and sustainable ecosystem, or way of life, but in Sri Lanka we ourselves committed massive acts of vandalism by the wrong location of Lunuganvehera and to a lesser extent Uda Walawe. It is thus evident that the lessons to be learned from our ancient hydraulic civilization, have not been learned by hydraulic engineers, who have ignored the living evidence of the ancient systems that are still very much in use. Peasant farmers know this, but the social gap between engineers and peasant farmers was not bridged when new projects were selected for implementation from the Water Resources Development Plan, 1959’.

Reclaiming the commons

Peter Barnes’ book Capitalism 3.0: A Guide to Reclaiming the Commons, refers to what he calls Capitalism 1.0 or shortage capitalism, which dates back to Adam Smith, and Capitalism 2.0 which he calls surplus capitalism, which John Kenneth Galbraith described in his Affluent Society in 1958 as follows: ‘The ordinary individual has access to amenities – foods, entertainment, personal transportation and plumbing – in which not even the rich rejoiced a century ago…… So great has been the change that many of the desires of the individual are no longer even evident to him. They become so only as they are synthesized, elaborated, and nurtured by advertising and salesmanship, and these, in turn, have become among our most important and talented professions’.

Peter Barnes defines ‘the commons as a generic term like the market or the state… it refers to all the gifts we inherit or create together…. These diverse gifts are like a river with three tributaries: nature, community, and culture’. He goes on to show that ‘all three branches of the commons - nature, community and culture - are under assault from corporations and need to be fortified’. He says that ‘capitalism today leads willy-nilly to three pathologies: the destruction of nature, the widening of inequality, and the failure to promote happiness despite the pretense of doing so’.

Of relevance in this context is the model titled ‘The Vicious Spirals of Over-development’ presented as a counter to Radnor Nurkse’ once popular ‘Vicious Circle of Poverty’, in an Engineering, Architecture and Surveying sectional presidential address in 1975, at the Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science titled ‘The Technology of Development and the Under-development of Technology in Sri Lanka’. The wrong location of both Uda Walawe and Lunuganvehera reservoirs, too far down in their respective river basins, were discussed as they had been discussed earlier in presentations at the Institution of Engineers, starting in 1968, forty years ago, after Uda Walawe dam construction was completed following the historic river closure in 1967. When the award of the 1995 Nobel Peace prize was celebrated at the AGM of British Pugwash in London, these issues were discussed in an invited Address titled ‘Environment and Conflict in Sri Lanka’. That paper is also published in the Dhanapala felicitation volume.

The key to Capitalism 3.0 according to Peter Barnes is to create a new Operating system for the economy, and he gives the example of Bill Gates’ Microsoft Disc Operating System or MSDOS. Bill Gates in his 1995 book The Road Ahead discusses how he developed Windows which uses graphic images, a method that his rival Apple Mackintosh had developed earlier. He gives a clue to this in a cautionary statement: ‘It’s increasingly important to be able to compete and cooperate at the same time, but that calls for a lot of maturity’. In Sri Lanka where it has been said that we are almost genetically conditioned to be jealous of each other, this calls for a special national effort in times of unusual hardship for the common person, when unequal competition is seen everywhere.

Lunuganvehara and Diversion of Uma oya

When the President of Iran visited Sri Lanka recently, the Uma oya diversion project was formally inaugurated. In this proposed project, water that presently flows into the Mahaweli ganga, will be diverted to augment Lunuganvehera in the south while generating hydro-power in the process. Former Director-General of Irrigation, Engineer G T Dharmasena in the Island on Friday, April 25, 2008, questions assumptions about benefits of the project, but that is not the issue presented here. Rather it is the location of Lunuganvehera reservoir too far down in Kirindi oya basin, a blunder implemented in 1978 – 86, against the protests of those who pointed out a far better alternative upstream location at Huratgamuva near Wellawaya, that would not have devastated the commons in the southern area as has happened. President J R Jayewardene surprised everybody at the 1987 Institution of Engineers sessions which he inaugurated at the BMICH saying that Lunuganvehera was called ‘a colossal monument to technological folly’. He commended engineers for ‘thinking’ and said he would ask Minister of Irrigation Gamini Dissanayake to set up a commission of inquiry, but this did not happen, and after the Minister was assassinated the issue was forgotten.

The Uma oya diversion presents an opportunity to correct this situation and restore the commons but this will call for new thinking by the techno-bureaucracy of whom Galbraith (1958) has said: "The high public official is constrained to follow the conventional wisdom". This conventional wisdom is the above mentioned Water Resources Development Plan, 1959 from which major new water resources development projects are identified. (The most recent of these, Moragahakande and Heda oya reservoir projects that are to be implemented early, on the advice of the redoubtable techno-bureaucracy, will not be discussed in this article).

It is suggested that the techno-bureaucracy should advice government to use the Uma oya diversion to build a new after-bay reservoir at Huratgamuva below the 150 MW power plant at Wellawaya. Irrigation water from Huratgamuva could be re-used in cascade fashion all the way down to Lunuganvehera. This enormous reservoir could then be reduced in stages with the now submerged land on the present periphery of the reservoir being recovered for irrigated agriculture, in stages year by year; and the commons below it could be restored. Increased benefits will justify increased costs of the proposed amended project. When finally the Lunuganvehera dam stands in splendid isolation it could be used as the site for a new township, incomparably better than the ridiculous proposal for Ruhunupura (modeled on Singapore according to some) that was prepared at great cost some years ago.

A precedent (which the techno-bureaucracy may use to advice government on such a course of action) is available in the Allai scheme near Seruwila temple where I worked in the 1950’s. The depth of water stored in the ancient Allai tank fed from the Verugal aru diversion anicut and Kallar inlet channel, was reduced in stages year by year and the land so released on the periphery of the tank, was brought under irrigated agriculture. A new headworks reservoir, the Mavil aru reservoir, was built at the former Verugal aru diversion anicut that was in the news not too long ago. This was a very good scheme, similar to that outlined above for Uma oya, and Lunuganvehera, and it should be noted that it was not identified from the Water Resources Development Plan, 1959.

Proceedings of the Regional Pugwash workshop, November 22 – 28, 2007

A more detailed description of ‘the tragedy of the commons’ in southern Sri Lanka (and elsewhere) will be published in the Proceedings of the recent Pugwash workshop. It will apply concepts of Peter Barnes’ Capitalism 3.0 such as the following definitions:

- Common wealth is the monetary and non-monetary value of all the assets in the commons

- Common property is a class of human rights that lie somewhere between private property and state property

- The commons sector is an organized sector of our economy.


Anyone going to the sources mentioned in this article will understand that all is not lost, despite the unscientific and irrational approach to water resources development planning based on the unscientific and irrational basis on which the Water Resources Development Plan, 1959, was prepared. This is because the ancient water and soil conservation ecosystems embody stable and sustainable principles that can yet be used, but, there must be the political will to achieve this. This may involve a contest with the techno-bureaucracy and the so-called aid agencies including the World Bank, whose officials must be called upon to face these issues in open debate. For too long, the unscientific and irrational basis of underlying reasons for identification of new projects without considering alternatives has been bulldozed over. Since independence the ancient water and soil conservation ecosystems, a priceless economic heritage of the Sri Lanka people, has been eroded in the name of development by new hydraulic engineering projects. This has got to stop.

In conclusion, it can be predicted that sooner or later diversion of Uma oya waters to the southern area will become a political issue. For example, at one time the non-scientist acting Chairman of the Peace Secretariat, (when Jayantha Dhanapala resigned from that post to contest the post of Secretary-General of the UN), blithely assumed that the reason for my opposition to the Moragahakande project was because it would ‘take good Sinhala water to Tamil areas’. That discussion which reveals the arrogance of his ignorance, has been published in full in a chapter in my book, Water Heritage of Sri Lanka (2002). In anticipation of such stupidity therefore, at the October 2007 AGM of the Institution of Engineers, Sri Lanka, a resolution was proposed and passed with only one against and 56 for the proposal: ‘This house recommends to government to restore the River for Jaffna project that was partially implemented about fifty years ago, to win the hearts and minds of the people of Jaffna’. Contrary to first impressions this is NOT a project to take Mahaweli water to the north, but a far better water and soil conservation ecosystems project that has been presented and discussed at the Institution of Engineers, Sri Lanka, and in international Pugwash conferences, on numerous occasions. Started about fifty years ago, and now lying abandoned it will surely bring immense benefits to the Jaffna peninsula when taken up again.

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