Home » Will the Uma Oya Multipurpose Project Impress Sri Lankan Voters?

Will the Uma Oya Multipurpose Project Impress Sri Lankan Voters?


On April 24 Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe and his visiting Iranian counterpart Ebrahim Raisi inaugurated the Uma Oya Multipurpose Development Project (UOMDP). Executed by Iran’s Farab Energy and Water Projects, the $514-million project was primarily financed by the Sri Lankan government.

The Uma Oya Multipurpose Development Project will water approximately 4,500 hectares of new land and 1,500 hectares of existing agricultural land in the Moneragala District, according to the President’s Media Division. Moreover, the districts of Badulla, Moneragala, and Hambantota, which are among Sri Lanka’s poorest, will benefit from 39 million cubic meters of water for drinking and industrial purposes. Additionally, the project will contribute 290 GWh of electrical energy annually to the National Grid. These areas heavily rely on agriculture as the primary source of livelihood for most of their residents.

The Uma Oya Multipurpose Development Project sets a precedent for collaboration among nations of the global south, President Wickremesinghe said at the joint press conference in Colombo. He described the project as a testament to the enduring partnership between Iran and Sri Lanka in energy generation, irrigation, and water management.

Meanwhile, President Raisi highlighted the strides in technology that Iran has made, despite harsh sanctions over the last 30 years, and said Iran was ready to export its “technical and engineering services to Sri Lanka.”

Large-scale infrastructure projects have long served as political trump cards for governments across South Asia, where leaders often leverage such projects to trumpet their achievements to secure electoral victories. However, the success of such endeavors has become increasingly uncertain amidst a changing political landscape.

Nowhere is this uncertainty more palpable than in Sri Lanka, where the inauguration of the Uma Oya Multipurpose Development Project stands as a stark example of the potential pitfalls facing governments banking on infrastructure projects for political mileage.

The inauguration of the Uma Oya project presents both the Iranian and Sri Lankan governments with strategic PR opportunities. For Iran, amidst escalating tensions with Israel, this inauguration serves as a platform to demonstrate its regional alliances, particularly in Asia. Sri Lanka’s decision to proceed with the visit despite unofficial objections from U.S. diplomats signals that the Iranians are not isolated.

As for Sri Lanka, presidential elections are nearing and the Wickremesinghe administration is facing formidable challenges from the National People’s Power (NPP), which is leading opinion polls. Unveiling significant infrastructure projects tends to generate favorable publicity, a tactic frequently employed by Sri Lankan governments as elections draw near. Some of the government politicians had attempted to use the “success” of the project to tarnish the reputation of the NPP which had objected to the project due to environmental concerns.

However, the public reaction from Sri Lankans has been lukewarm. Most people see the publicity surrounding the event as an election gimmick and the negative environmental and social impact of the project has been massive.

The Uma Oya project was a part of the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration’s infrastructure project drive and its dream of converting Hambantota, the hometown of the Rajapaksas, into a modern metropolis and hub of industry and logistics.

The groundwork for the project was laid in 2008, when the Sri Lankan cabinet approved on February 20, 2008, a memorandum presented by the Minister of Irrigation.

Critics of the project point out that while the project cost was estimated at $250 million, the contract awarded to the Iranian Company was pegged at over $529 million. Initially, the Export Development Bank of Iran (EDBI) was to provide $450 million and the balance of $79 million was to be paid by the Sri Lankans.

The 2010 annual report of Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Finance and Planning stated that the project would involve the construction of two reservoirs on the tributaries of the Uma Oya River and a 23-km tunnel to divert water to an underground powerhouse of 120MW further downstream. The water accumulated in these reservoirs would be diverted into the Southern Province, where Hambantota is. Work on the project had already commenced, the report said, and would be completed by 2014.

Among the projects that were to be supplied water were the Mattala Airport, Hambantota Port, Hambantota Industrial Zone, and Hambantota Oil Refinery—projects that were to turn Hambantota from a sleepy second-tier town into Sri Lanka’s hub of trade and manufacturing. It is worthwhile noting that out of all these projects, only the Hambantota Port remains a successful endeavor, mainly due to the heavy lifting by China Merchants Port Holdings.

From its inception, environmentalists said that geographical and geological features were not conducive to extensive tunneling in the area. They warned that previous governments had considered and dropped the project due to potential disastrous environmental consequences.

Environmentalist Sajeewa Chamikara from the Movement for Land and Agricultural Reform (MONLAR) told The Diplomat that the idea of an irrigation and electricity generation project utilizing Uma Oya was initially explored back in 1987. The German consulting firm LAHAMAYOR conducted the first feasibility study. Subsequently, in 1991, the Central Engineering Consulting Bureau conducted another feasibility study and presented it to the Asian Development Bank (ADB). However, the ADB rejected the proposal, citing a failure to adhere to accepted international norms. Between 2002 and 2003, a Canadian consulting firm, SNC-LAVALIN, also conducted a feasibility study to assess the potential for a multipurpose development project centered around Uma Oya. These studies primarily focused on the feasibility of constructing two reservoirs in Puhulpola and Dayaraba. When this proposal was submitted to the ADB, it was once again rejected due to various technical issues, including concerns regarding the transfer of water between different basins.

Chamikara said that Iran, on the other hand, held the belief that providing financial resources and technical support would lead the Sri Lankan government to prioritize the welfare of its citizens. The project hit a snag in 2013 after Iran was sanctioned and was unable to continue funding the operation. While the Iranian company continued to be the project implementor, the Sri Lankan government coughed up the funding to continue the project.

The tunneling took place in areas with metamorphic rocks, which are more resistant to deformation and weathering than sedimentary rocks. And then, the worst fears of the environmentalists came true.

In December 2014, a leak occurred in the tunnel being constructed as a part of the project after the tunneling destabilized the ground, leading to cracks appearing on the surface, which in turn caused cracks to appear on the buildings in these areas. Moreover, as groundwater seeps deeper due to the destabilization, the surface water is lowered, depriving water for agriculture and general consumption.

According to Chamikara, thousands of families were affected and even now the problems faced by 17,000 families have not been solved. Once farmers, these affected people now eke out a living as day laborers and travel long distances each week in search of drinking water.

The calamities faced by tens of thousands of people can no longer be hidden due to the prevalence of social media, which has ensured that mainstream media no longer control the narrative. On Facebook and TikTok, which has become increasingly popular among Sri Lankans, social media users have been vitriolic about government politicians calling the project a success.

In South Asia, parties and politicians in power use large-scale infrastructure projects to draw mileage. However, examples from Sri Lanka show that this does not always work especially if the party in power is losing popularity.

Inaugurating the Norochcholai power plant and providing a significant electricity tariff reduction in 2014, did not stop Mahinda Rajapaksa from losing in 2015. In 2019, leaders of the then government declared open several sections of highways, but this did not stop the landslide victory of Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

It is likely that the inauguration of the Uma Oya project too will not impress those about who to vote for in elections a few months down the line.

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