Batticaloa, Peace and Conflict

Let Them Drink Rice Wine: Withholding Water as Punishment on the East Coast?

If you look at Batticaloa District on a map, you’ll see that in a sense there are two Districts.

The first is the coastal strip, where you find Batti, Kattankudy, Valachchenai, and other towns and villages.  I’m only guessing, but it seems to me that some 90% of the Districts’ population lives in this narrow band of land.

As you will see on your map, a long sinuous lagoon separates most of the coastal strip from the interior, which makes up the bulk of the District.  The interior is sparsely populated and there are no real towns to speak of; at best you could call them small villages or hamlets.

I am most familiar with Mamunai West Division, which is located directly opposite the lagoon from Batticaloa town. I’m quite familiar with many of the farming hamlets that dot the area, and the people who live there. Incidentally, the Division extends west, and includes Unnichchai Tank, one of the largest tanks in Sri Lanka.  This is crucial to the point of this article.

In 2007, an agreement was signed between the Sri Lankan Government, the Asian Development Bank (as funder) and a Chinese construction conglomerate called China Geo-Engineering Corporation/Salcon Engineering Berhad/Access Engineering Ltd. to create a water transport system from Unnichchai to the coastal strip. Work was promptly begun, and proceeds apace today.  The project is called the Batticaloa Water Supply Project.

To date, numerous Chinese-style water tanks have mushroomed up and down the coastal strip, and many roads have been dug up in order to lay massive pipes.  This includes the dirt tracks that pass as roads in Mamunai West.  The project is busily underway, and is slated to be completed in March 2010.

Water is an extremely serious problem in the Mamunai West.  Or rather the extreme lack of it.  During the long, dry, hot season, the water table disappears beneath the bedrock and many places literally are bone dry.  For example, a friend constructed a water tank in the hamlet of Palakkadu.  Palakkadu is so dry they had to pay a village boy to pedal his bike along the dirt track to a still-functioning tube well several kilometers away to fetch enough water to mix the cement.  That’s how dry it is.  The local Divisional Secretary (DS) has tried to improve the situation by bringing in NGOs to dig deep (and very expensive) tube wells, and has a water truck that makes the rounds.

There have been two serious consequences from this project in the Division, and they largely depend upon which part you live.

If you live near the tank, you have lost almost all of your water supply.  Prior to the project, there was a British colonial era conduit that regulated flow from the tank.  This conduit maintained the area water table.  While the water table was deep, too deep to dig a conventional open well for example, it did allow for deep tube wells to be drilled and old fashioned hand pumps were adequate to bring it to the surface.

However, the conduit has now been closed and as a result, the water table has fallen drastically. The deep tube wells no longer draw anything near sufficient amounts of water.  One well I saw takes about 10 minutes of pumping to draw a liter of water.  Every couple of liters-full of water brought up, and pumping must stop for a half hour or so to allow more water to accumulate. People are now queuing up hours to get a couple of liters of water, sometimes well into the night.  On top of this, much of Mamunai West is jungle, so there are issues with wild animals at night, particularly wild elephants.

If you live closer to Batticaloa, the problem is much the same.  The difference is that while the DS water truck didn’t service those areas near the tank (as there was water available) it did on the sun-baked eastern half of the Division.  However, due to the fall of the water table, the government pump no longer draws water, rendering the truck useless.

In both cases, the Division is littered with all those expensive tube wells the NGOs drilled, and almost all of them are now worthless.  The few that work are now drawing water from a depth that contains sodium.  I’ve tasted it.  While not as salty as the ocean, it is definitely not fit for drinking.  I could taste the salt in my mouth for the rest of the day. (Let me be precise; the water still drawn near Unnichchai is fit to drink; the water in the eastern half is not.)

I am not associated with this project, so I don’t really know the ins and outs of it, nor do I know authoritatively what the final project will look like.  I can only report what the people have been told, which is what they tell me. And in a sense, perception is more important than truth.

First, the fall of the water table will be permanent and will probably go lower.  The conduit is closed permanently, and all outflow will be piped directly to Batticaloa.

Second, the residents of Mamunai West will not see a drop of the water.  There are no plans for water towers, tanks, or taps in the Division.

Third, the project itself has brought no economic benefit to the people of Mamunai West.  For example, at the edge of Palakkadu is a big, brand new water control station and pump. However, no one from the Division has been able to get a job with the project, not even as construction labor.

Don’t get me wrong.  Water is a big concern for the coastal strip which does, after all, represent 90% of the population.  It is a good thing that the water will be efficiently transported to where it is needed.  There is no argument about that.

But why can’t the people of Mamunai West also benefit? The pipes are going right past their villages.  True, it would be a waste to put a tower/tank/tap in every hamlet, but surely three or four can be put in central locations so that locals can drink good water?  Surely, compared to the amount of money being spent on coastal infrastructure, the additional cost for Mamunai West would be tiny?  So too would be the amount of water consumed.

So why are the residents of Mamunai West being ignored by the planners of this project?  I will tell you.  It involves a little history, so bear with me.

First, let me say that I have no documentary proof of this; there is no “smoking gun.”  However long history of living here has given me a lot of experience, which, when dosed with common sense, leads to the following:

During the recent civil war, the District was politically/militarily divided in almost the same way Batticaloa Lagoon divides region.  Specifically, during the last half-decade of the conflict, the coastal strip was largely controlled by the Government and/or its militia proxies, in particular the TMVP.  The interior was still controlled by the LTTE.  The TMVP and LTTE were engaged in a cloak and dagger war up and down the costal strip.  White van-ing was common, and you could hear gunshots at night.

In 2007, the military rolled through the interior of the District, defeating the LTTE and eventually brought the entire Province under government control.

The people of the interior were labeled “pro-terrorist suspects” in a way similar to what is going on now in the North.  The result was the military turned its back while their allied militias launched a witch-hunt in the interior.  The rumours trickling out of the interior were so bad that the government even prevented foreigners such as myself from entering the area, ostensibly for our security.  Mamunai West, being opposite of Batticaloa, was considered a terrorist hotspot, and the people suffered accordingly.

By the second half of 2008, things had calmed down and foreigners were allowed to enter.

OK, so what?

It’s just that one can’t help noticing that the areas left out of the project are precisely the areas that are supposedly “pro-LTTE” whereas the TMVP relies on what little popular support it has strictly on the costal strip, which will benefit from the extra water.

I hate to sound cynical, but could it be that if the situation were reversed, if the interior was TMVP territory, that the pipes would stop in Vavunatheevu, the Division village closest to Batticaloa? On suspects that it would be so.

What one can conclude is that this project, while indeed helpful to most people, was also created and implemented as a method of reward and punishment, and the shoring up of shaky political allies, not only as a humanitarian project.

I want to stress something, if only to cover my own rear end, as foreigners are barely tolerated by the authorities in the east.  This situation is in no way based on ethnicity, or religion.  It SEEMS to be based purely on politics, national and local.  I am only pointing out that this project has the appearance of being shaped by politics, rather than a desire to help ALL the people of Batti District.

Again, let me reiterate; the project will be very helpful for Batticaloa and its environs.  Many people will benefit.  The problem is not the project itself, but its motivation and its effects on the people of Mamunai West.  Overall there will be tremendous benefit.  But really, couldn’t the project planners to a little something to offset the damage they’re doing to Mamunai Wests’ water supply?  I mean just a tiny little something?

I would very much like to get a posted response from someone involved in this project that addresses this issue. In fact, it’s my hope that by writing this, that Someone Important will tell Someone Else Important, and so on, and that the situation can be fixed. I hope something positive can come from this article.

Food for thought.  Or should I say, water?