e Sri Lankans appear to be a bunch of lotus eaters - living dreamy lives and indifferent to important issues which challenge us on an almost daily basis. The country faces a huge problem of a shortage of doctors to patient’s ratio. The state universities cannot produce the number of doctors needed to meet the backlog.
Yet we watch with indifference as doctors and university students attempt to hold the country to ransom, demanding a private university granting medical degrees which would help even minimally close the gap be closed down.
We watch doctors and students disrupt our lives with near weekly demonstrations during the rush hour bringing traffic to a standstill.
We watched indifferently, when via unsolicited project proposals the Hambantota port and the Mattala airport were constructed, leaving the country in debt to the tune of around $8 billion to China.
Without the accompanying infrastructure like an industrial zone or business enterprises there was no way the port was going to attract ships. The port remained idle, a fate similar to what has been described as the emptiest airport in the world. Meanwhile the loss-making ventures continued consuming massive sums on maintenance in addition to loan repayment.
Then, another unsolicited proposal this time - from Iran. A proposal to divert waters from the Uma Oya in the hill-country to the drought prone Hambantota. Sadly even during the monsoon season the Uma Oya is barely able to sustain agriculture in its own basin. The project was signed in 2008 - a loan of USD 450 million.
No one raised issue when former Secretary of the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment resigned protesting excessive expenditure under the Iran-funded project. The project started sans environment impact reports, non inclusion of local expertise and handled exclusively by an Iranian-based construction firm whose expertise lies with desert tunnelling, led to a number of technical defects which in turn have led to leaks in the tunnel.
It was originally estimated around 2,000 litres of water per second spilled from the 15.4 km long tunnel, drying up ground water reserves in addition to causing damage to hundreds of houses… Grouting has reduced the leak but has not completely sealed it. This new man-made disaster brought the common man and woman onto the streets. It brought Bandarawela to a complete stand-still and forced the government to take notice.
Today Sri Lanka is literally in a ‘catch-22’ situation... despite the Uma Oya project being environmentally harmful, its spelling ruin for the economy of the people in the Badulla-Bandarawela area, despite the damage it is causing to ground water resources, despite the damage causes to human habitat. THE UMA OYA PROJECT CANNOT BE STOPPED.
This is the reality the country faces.
Ex-President Mahinda Rajapakasa’s dream projects – the Hambantota Port, and the Mattala International Airport and the Sooriyawewa cricket stadium - all loss-making projects have turned into monumental debt traps. Facing a reality of not having sufficient money to successfully implement the Hambantota dream/nightmare, or the cash to repay loans, government was forced to seek a partner to take it over.
And so, China - the only country with sufficient cash to fund such a project - is back in the game. China Merchants Holdings (International),has taken over an 80% share of the Hambantota deep sea port in exchange for $1.1 billion of Sri Lanka’s debt to China. The agreement also provides for the setting up of 15,000 acre, China-led industrial zone in the vicinity of the port with government providing part of the infrastructure.
An industrial zone needs an uninterrupted supply of water to function smoothly and Hambantota a drought ridden part of Sri Lanka has to find this water from somewhere. The Uma Oya multi-purpose project has been the selected means of bringing water to the drought ridden Hambantota district. By strange coincidence all these projects came about via unsolicited project proposals. The Hambantota port project fits in with China’s 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, - a sea-based portion of the Belt and Road initiative.
But who or what persuaded the Iranian authorities to suddenly undertake a deep study of Hambantota’s arid zone and bring in a proposal to divert waters of the little-known Uma Oya to Hambantota? Can debt-strapped Sri Lanka wriggle out of this imbroglio? Did commissions outweigh the environmental and love of country?
Sri Lanka won the war against terrorism, but do we have the capacity or the guts to bring to book the hypocrites who ooze patriotism, while in reality care a damn for the country?