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FEATURE STORY

Benefitting from Safer Dams and Reliable Water Supplies

June 11, 2014

R.M. Sampath (left), S.A. Ringanie (center), B.L. Piyasena (right)            

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sri Lanka relies heavily on a dam network of 270 medium and 80 large-scale dams to provide irrigation water for farms in its dry zone, which covers two thirds of the country.
  • Many of the dams are over 100 years old and their maintenance has been badly neglected, particularly in the conflict-affected North and East.
  • The Dam Safety and Water Resources Planning Project has repaired 62 days, which will reduce floods, water management, and irrigation for over 1 million farmers.

PUTTALAM, May 8, 2014 - B.L. Piyasena used to fear living downstream from the Tabbowa Dam. The structure had not been comprehensively overhauled for over 100 years and villagers were haunted by the threat it would burst during heavy rains and sweep their lives away.

Not any more. The dam has been strengthened, new sluices and radial gates have been installed, and it can now safely be filled to capacity without worry about triggering a breach that would case a catastrophic flood. Furthermore, the dam’s increased water capacity means that an additional 250 hectares of adjacent land can be cultivated, and farmers can now rely on having enough water for two full growing seasons.

“Before, we could only grow in one season. It was very hard to live from that money and we thought about going somewhere else to find work,” said Piyasena, 66, who is the chairman of the local farm organization. His annual income has since doubled to around R300,000 [JS1] because he can sow higher yielding field crops in the second season, in addition to the paddy he farms in the first season. 

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Before, it was hard to feed the children and send them to school. Now we can do both. Close Quotes

R.M. Sampath
Villager

Men building new community center besides Tabbowa Tank

“I bought a two wheeled tractor last year,” he said, explaining that he earned around R65,000 per season for renting it out to other farmers.

Sri Lanka relies heavily on a dam network of 270 medium and 80 large-scale dams to provide irrigation water for farms in its dry zone, which covers two thirds of the country. Many of the dams are over 100 years old and their maintenance has been badly neglected, particularly in the conflict-affected North and East. That has turned parts of the network into a growing public safety hazard, while unpredictable weather patterns associated with climate change are making matters worse.

The $65 million World Bank Dam Safety and Water Resources Planning Project, approved in March, 2008, targets 32 large dams whose poor condition poses a high risk of failure. It also improves the access roads, lighting, and other basic facilities at the other 48 large dams. Crucially, the project incorporates sustainable arrangements to ensure long-term management and upkeep of each dam to ensure that safety standards are maintained.

Since inception it was recently, May 2014, extended by a further $83 million to widen the scope to include additional high risk dams, including in the the North and East, where substantial work had not previously been possible due to fighting, as well as completing the original project for which costs had been higher than initially estimated. The total project, to be completed by 2018, will reach over one million beneficiaries.

Tabbowa Dam, which cost R194 million to rehabilitate, now irrigates 1,,000 hectares of farmland. Its water supports 1,500 families, including 150 households who make a living from fishing. The rest of the villagers farm paddy in the Maha, or first monsoon season, and vegetables and other field crops in the Yala, or second monsoon season

Local villagers appreciate not having to worry about a flood in the night, and they have seen a genuine improvement in their living standards due to the better access to water for irrigation and drinking.

“We used to get social welfare,” said R.M. Sampath, who now farms paddy and field crops like groundnuts and maize. “Our crop yields are up 100 percent. Before, when we could not fill the dam full, there was not enough to water the paddy fields. Now we have enough for a second crop,” said the 38-year old, who has used the extra income to buy a rice mill which he uses to process his neighbors’ rice.

A father of four-year old twins, Sampath reckons that the family’s income has tripled, to around R35,000 a month. “Before, it was hard to feed the children and send them to school. Now we can do both,” he said, looking towards the fields of paddy below the dam, where a tuktuk driver selling lottery tickets was trundling from farmer to farmer.

More money in the village also means opportunities to start up other small businesses, including S.A. Ringanie’s poultry farm. She has 250 chickens laying eggs, which provide her with a steady income at R12 per egg, plus 100 birds being reared at any one time for sale in the local markets.

The 64-year old, who has four sons, two daughters, and nine grandchildren, got into poultry farming a year ago and has noticed the improved prosperity of local farmers having a direct impact on the livelihood of her own family, which now earns around R25,000 a month from farming.