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Breached irrigation works:Not letting the crisis go to waste

In 2005, we were approached by citizens and professionals to help raise awareness about the dangers of “an inland tsunami,” dam breaches. With the help of committed professionals, a small grant of around LKR 700,000 (around USD 7000) from the local initiatives fund of CIDA, an extremely generous partner in Vanguard Management, and the active involvement of community leaders including many from Sarvodaya, we conducted a participatory research project that remains to this day one of our most successful and rewarding efforts.

The end result was a USD 71 million plus World Bank soft loan to help repair 32 of the most endangered dams. If not for that initiative, one wonders whether things would be worse than today, where we are suffering the effects of multiple small tanks breached, but all the big ones safe, so far.

I wrote about the need to pay more attention to dam safety and maintenance, after the first flood of 2011.

The Dam Safety Project only covers 32 of the 350 large and medium dams; the 12,000 small dams that were the causes of most of the damage in 2011 are outside its scope. They are under the authority of the Department of Agrarian Services, under a different ministry.

There is no systematic effort to assess their safety and to remedy the problems, if any, even as of today. One hopes attention will be paid as a result of the most recent disaster.

Why are all the human-made reservoirs that dot this country not under a single Ministry? What is the rationale for a Mahaveli Ministry, decades after the accelerated construction program was completed? Why is the Department of Agrarian Services, a creature of Philip Gunawardene’s reforms of 1958, still alive and kicking five decades after those forgotten socialist experiments? Why is it in charge of the neglect of village irrigation?

It is heartening to see that the government is taking action to expand the scope of its dam safety work:

Sri Lanka will expand its dam safety program to cover more large reservoirs and will ask for additional funding from the World Bank following recent floods, officials said.

D C S Alakanda, who heads Sri Lanka’s Dam Safety and Water Resources Planning Project said the talks with World Bank to expand the project will begin next week.

The current project funded with a 7,500 million rupee interest free credit from the World Bank covers 32 out of 80 large reservoirs deemed to be most in need of rebuilding or having their safety improved.

Irrigation minister Nimal Siripala de Silva said most of the large dams in the country except for some built in the last three decades were made out of packed earth and they had a life of around 50 years.

The report went on to quote me and refer to LIRNEasia’s 2005 work, but that is not the main point. Everyone who cares about the lives and livelihoods of people who live in the shadow of Sri Lanka’s thousands of reservoirs should support the government and its international donors in their efforts to establish a sustainable system of dam safety and maintenance.

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