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Port City Confusion and Uma Oya Cockup: Challenges to good governance - Page 2

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Port City Confusion and Uma Oya Cockup: Challenges to good governance
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It may be that the UNP is not intrinsically opposed to any of the Colombo urban development projects initiated by the Rajapksas, including the Port City project, but only to the bull-in-a-China shop (no offence to the Asian superpower) way that the Rajapaksas were going about them? Put another way, these development projects might be acceptable to the UNP so long as they are undertaken without the terrible Rajapaksa flaws of single-source contracting, corruption, cost-overruns, and less-than-satisfactory or total lack of environmental assessments. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe is quite proud of the "Western Region’s Megapolis Plan" that he created in 2003 with assistance from Singaporean professionals, and might be favourable to development projects so long as they are consistent with his Megapolis Plan. The PM’s new appointee to the Central Bank, Arjuna Mahendran, spoke of this plan and the Prime Minister’s passion for it in a newspaper interview following his appointment as Governor. Mr. Mahendran went on to speak of China’s great expertise in building new cities, whatever it means. What this means for Sri Lanka, I do not know. What I do know is that good governance should not merely mean that Gotabhaya idiosyncrasies have given way to Ranil Wickremasinghe idiosyncrasies, no matter how superior the latter might be to the former.

In the case of projects such as the Port City involving land reclamation, detailed engineering studies on drainage and coastal erosion impacts must precede any environmental assessment or decision making. Sri Lankan coastline is erosion-prone and coastal tinkering should not be allowed without proper investigation. After the tsunami, the fishermen were not allowed to build anything anywhere on the beaches, but there is no stopping of tourist encroachments on the coastline, not to mention a whole Chinese Port City. When senior government leaders and central bank governors speak preferentially about development models, they prematurely set the terms of reference for other technical studies. That is to say after a President or Prime Minister has spoken glowingly about potential development or infrastructure projects sponsored by local or foreign vested interests, it would be almost impossible for planners and engineers to objectively identify and evaluate the pros and cons of projects for informed decision making. Instead, technical professionals will be constrained to lend support to whatever has been politically decided. Even the terms of reference for the environmental assessment will be skewed to fall in line with the political direction. The main motivation would be to ‘make it work’, rather than ask searching questions about the project. The challenge in public sector undertakings is not about making things work, but about avoiding second best and third rate solutions. Will the new government handle the Port City project different from its predecessor? That is the question.

In general terms, urban development in Sri Lanka cannot be modelled on Singapore because Sri Lanka is a great deal more and varied than the Singaporean city state. On the other hand, on the scale of China the whole island can be a single megapolis! Sri Lanka’s urban development should be creatively guided by its own geographical, cultural and demographic specificities, and implemented not by President’s or Prime Minister’s offices but by the provincial governments and municipal authorities. The country should not embark on projects that are unaffordable, and while Colombo should get its due share of resources as the country’s biggest city, it should not suck development oxygen out of other provincial cities. In my view, none of the mega development projects so far identified in Colombo will pass the tests of need, affordability and infrastructure capacity. Priority should be another consideration because any government must ask itself whether it is acceptable to allocate public resources to support luxury private developments in Colombo when the vast majority of the people have no access to running water and decent sanitary facilities. And the State, at the national, provincial and local levels, must not get itself off the hook by leaving the task of providing water supply entirely to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).

The Uma Oya project is a classic instance of political considerations and bilateral (Iranian-Sri Lankan) funding convenience dictating engineering decision making. In a rare public commentary on the project at the time of its ceremonial inauguration, in April 2008, by then Presidents Mahinda Rajapaksa and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, GT Dharmasena, a former Director General of Irrigation, extensively outlined a number of technical issues that had emerged during feasibility studies undertaken over several years in regard to the trans-basin diversion of Uma Oya through a 24km long tunnel to serve the diverse needs of Monergala District in the Uva Province and Hambantota District in the South. To a large extent these issues had not been addressed when the project was given the green light to go ahead, apparently to meet the urgent water needs of Hambantota’s own mega projects. Now the project has run into red light with a leak in the tunnel excavation drawing down groundwater levels in the surrounding areas and leading to public protests. Already, there is public perception that the tunnel excavation may have also contributed to the recent Koslanda landslide tragedy. The government has now suspended the project until further investigation. The tunnel excavation has proceeded to two-fifths of its full length and about half of the total $530 million has been spent so far. Even though the new administration is not to be blamed for this costly misadventure, for the people in the area good governance will not mean anything unless the new government satisfactorily addresses the Uma Oya problem and restores public confidence in government undertakings.

~ ~ by Rajan Philips


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