The leak that turned into a flood

Twenty years have passed since the Kantale Dam breach. How safe are the dams built since then and are we prepared for another such disaster, asks Malaka Rodrigo

“My husband had died and I was living with five children. I lost four of them to the raging waters,” says Artumugam Mangala of Kovilgama recalling her own tragedy in the Kantale dam disaster of April 20, 1986 when this dam in the north east breached. Most of the villagers in the border villages of Kovilgama and Pottankudi were fast asleep, and were awoken to the destructive force of the dam waters that hit them like a mini tsunami.

“It was around 3.30 a.m. when we heard a sound. We were fearful of a terrorist attack and thinking Army trucks were coming, we started running toward the road. When we were halfway there, we saw the water coming and we quickly climbed onto nearby coconut trees,” recalled Prema Kumari of Kovilgama who was a young girl then. “My mother and I were on one tree and father also started climbing. The water swept over the tree. When I turned around I saw my father being washed away … then my mother.” She clung on and was rescued by a helicopter, but sustained injuries when she fell off in mid-air.

The Kantale dam is more than 50 ft high and about 14,000 ft long. Irrigation Engineer of the Kantale Tank who was overseeing the dam in 1986 at the time of the disaster M.P. Senawatte recalled the events leading up to it. “A person tending cattle came running up and told me that there was a leak in the dam early morning. I rushed to inspect it and found a big leak on the left spillway. I tried to stop it, but realizing it was impossible felt I should save the villagers.”

A helicopter rescuing a survivor of the Kantale dam breach. Pic courtesy LIRNEasia

But even for the administrators, there was no clear evacuation plan or hazard warning system to follow. “I rushed to the Kantale Police and then to the Kantale Member of Parliament trying to start evacuating the villagers,” said Mr. Senaratne. But the dam breached suddenly releasing all its waters ready to be released to the fields the next day.

A pump house built on the dam by the Water Board where large steel piles were driven in is believed to be the root cause of the Kantale Dam breach. The operation created lots of ground vibrations and even cracks in houses near by.

The Kantale disaster killed 126 people and more than 1600 houses were destroyed. The disaster was the focus of a public forum organized by the LIRNEasia to commemorate its 25th year anniversary earlier this week on the theme “Are we ready for another such disaster..?”

“We were on the brink of seeing another major dam breach a few months ago,” said Bandula Mahanama, Chairman of the Galamuna Farmers’ Association who was on the panel discussing dam safety in Sri Lanka.

He said that in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, large tanks such as Kawdulla, Minneriya and the Parakrama Samudraya were all full and the spill water destroyed paddy lands and properties during the heavy rains last December and January. “If any of these dams breached at that time, it would have caused a much larger disaster than Kantale,” he said.

“The Colombo planners do not see the real picture,” he added. “The water destroyed our paddy lands. Many lost their valuables and houses were damaged. So life in these areas has to be rebuilt. But if a large dam breached - the disaster could be much larger.”

LIRNEasia’s research in 2005 on Dam Safety and the video directed by Divakar Goswami was presented at the forum together with the Vanguard Foundation Lanka National Committee of Large Dams and Sarvodaya. Head of LIRNEasia Dr. Rohan Samarajiva said that in the face of climate change which brings more floods, we cannot continue to subject our people to debilitating cycles of livelihood destruction.

“As I view the documentary we made in Kantale back in 2005, what haunts me is the statement by a survivor. All that we had built up got washed away, and now we have painstakingly built up our lives again.” Dr.Samarajiva wrote. “As I watch it again in April 2011, I wonder whether all that they had built up since 1986 had got washed away, again.” Two successive periods of heavy rainfall at the beginning of the year devastated the livelihoods of the people. More than 200 small tanks breached; big tanks were saved by the emergency actions of irrigation engineers, he points out.

There are approximately 320 medium and large dams in Sri Lanka and over 10,000 small dams, most of which were built more than 1,000 years ago. The new large reservoirs built by the Mahaweli Project such as Victoria, Randenigala are also now 30 years old and prone to cracks and leaks. So it is a priority to monitor the dams frequently to ensure their safety.

Realizing the danger, an expert team, the ‘Sri Lanka National Committee of Dam Safety’ began a five-year project to analyse and inspect the conditions of 32 large dams. The project is expected to be completed in the next three years.

At present, there is no single body overseeing the maintenance of Sri Lanka’s dams. Large dams are managed separately by the Irrigation Department, Ceylon Electricity Board and Mahaweli Authority. Some of the smaller and medium sized tanks are managed by the Water Supply and Drainage Board and also the Agrarian Services Department. But most of the dams are multi-purpose, where their waters are used for electricity generation, irrigation etc.

The Dam Safety Committee panel is also recommending an apex body to provide proper management of the dams.

The consequences of a major dam failure in Sri Lanka can be devastating to life, property and the environment. So it is also necessary to manage the disaster to minimize the damage and there should be preparedness.

The representative of the Disaster Centre Management (DCM) who joined the LIRNEasia panel on Dam Safety said they are planning to get maps of the downstream areas of dams in order to act quickly in case of a dam breach. The need to have a proper hazard warning system for the downstream areas too is highlighted. In the Kantale disaster, it was the brave act of a man named Dason who had rushed to the mosque to warn people that saved lives.

In the case of dams in the Mahaweli river, a breach of one dam could have a snowball effect adding pressure to downstream dams which may also succumb if action is not taken quick enough. So it is important to have proper guidelines on what action needs to be taken as urgent action would be needed to avert a disaster.

The Panel on Dam Safety also pointed out the need for expert manpower who can operate the dams. It is also proposed to use modern mechanisms to implement a proper monitoring system to identify warning signs early.

Secretary of a farmers association R. Gunawardene said that villagers living close to the dam are still afraid that such a disaster might occur again. There are some leaks in the dam already, but heavy vehicles are seen on the dam sometimes not respecting the speed limits. People watch carefully when the water level rises. “But there is no real plan, even now, in case something happens,” Bandara Menike, another villager in Kovilgama said in the video. “We have not been told a specific escape route or been given an emergency drill or anything like that.”

“I have told my little ones, that if the dam bursts in the night, or when I’m not there, to run up the hill,” said Prema Kumari who lost her parents in 1986, and is now a mother of three. What greater reminder of the need for proper preparedness in case of disaster and to ensure the safety of our dams.

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