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Harnessing Sri Lanka's Nile; A Nation Braces For A Flood Of Its Own Making

Up a twisting road here -- past orchid plants, working elephants, and banana trees -- live a few members of the Vedda tribe, the aboriginal people of this island nation once called Ceylon.

The Veddas' wooden huts sit near the banks of the serpentine Mahaweli River, known as ''the queen of Lanka's streams.'' In the past 2,500 years, as various Indian kings invaded this isle off the tip of India, the Veddas have seen great civilizations rise up from the wealth produced from large irrigation systems, civilizations and systems which eventually crumbled.

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In 1984, the first of four new water projects will begin to flood the Veddas' present homeland, forcing them to make way for a possible new era of prosperity in a nation where the average income is under $250 a year.

Prosperity is the promise of Sri Lanka's President Junius Jayewardene, whose United National Party won at the polls in 1977. The new government ended three decades of semi-socialism on Sri Lanka, opening the economy to entrepreneurs and foreign investors - and pegging the country's future to the harnessing of the Mahaweli by 1986.

In a nation of 15.4 million people, the project's impact could be immense. It will more than double the amount of electric power and reduce oil imports, as well as lead to the resettlement of over 300,000 largely landless people in the little-used and dry northern plains.

Perhaps the largest irrigation project in Asia today, the Mahaweli construction rivals Egypt's Aswan Dam in scope, although spread out over several dams. It will cost nearly $2 billion, three times the 1975 estimate. The World Bank and five western nations -- Britain, West Germany, Sweden, Canada, and the United States -- are primary contributors to the engineering. They are also providing three-quarters of the foreign exchange financing.

For almost 10 years, however, Sri Lanka will spend about 7 percent of its gross national product and about one-third of its public capital investment on the Mahaweli scheme. At peak construction, over 30,000 Sri Lankans will be employed on it.

The multipurpose project could help solve the sensitive, sometimes violent, tension between the dominant Sinhalese population and minority Tamils. By the 1990s, the project will reach into the Tamil territory of the northeast. ''When you defuse the pressure of unemployment in this region, the political tension will ease,'' says Lalit Godamunne, Secretary General of the Mahaweli authority of Sri Lanka.

Tamil leaders claim that the project is an attempt to resettle Sinhalese in their territory.

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What worries government officials, however, is whether the poor peasants being relocated, such as the Veddas, view the project as their own.

Experience throughout Asia shows that farmers often neglect and abuse irrigation systems -- for instance by drawing too much water -- when they are built and run by high-level government officials. Even worse for Sri Lanka, the Mahaweli project is commonly viewed as a foreign venture, with the immediate gains going to foreign construction companies.

Thus, Sri Lankan leaders have tried to rally public support for the Mahaweli project by pursuing a public relations campaign -- ''waging a war on want,'' bringing about a ''rebirth of the nation,'' -- and, most importantly, by reviving memories of past glory by dovetailing modern irrigation with the ancient systems.

''We are seeking to complete the task left unfinished by our ancient forebearers,'' says Gamini Dissanayake, minister of lands and Mahaweli development. ''It will mark a return to our ancient homeland. It is also my fond hope that our people will respond to the ancient civilization which flourished and reawaken to their cultural ethos.''

Indeed, except for the giant hydroelectric dams, most of the project relies on simply rehabilitating old channels and reservoirs. When a British agent arrived here in 1855, he noted: ''It is possible that in no other part of the world are there to be found within the same space, the remains of so many works for irrigation which are of such antiquity and of such magnitude as in Ceylon.''

An English sailor captured by the King of Kandy in 1660 wrote: ''The inhabitants take great pains in procuring and saving water . . . for the doing of which they use art.''

The secret to Ceylon's past success was the invention of a valve known as bisokotuwa that could regulate the flow of reservoirs 30 to 40 feet deep. ''It was this invention alone which permitted the Sinhalas to proceed boldly with the construction of reservoirs that still rank among the finest and greatest works of the kind in the world,'' wrote a 19th-century British colonial ruler.

These reservoirs, or ''tanks,'' dot the northern landscape, most of them in disuse, but their names are now part of Sri Lankan folklore. A Vedda song, for instance, goes: ''O yonder, yonder spreads the tank/ O, Mahaweli whose waters cry as they run/ O, Mahaweli thy waters never fail/ O tank in whose waters sport the queen of blue flowers.''

Many villages assume the name of a tank, and today many chiefs take their village's name. One might find Chief Siyambalagaha-wewa, meaning ''tamarind-tree tank.''

One tank was so large it once had an island with a three-story royal palace ''of superlative beauty, fit to draw into it the multitude of joys in the world, '' according to an ancient record. Another legend passed down is of a king's guardian who threw himself into a small break in a dam to prevent a breach. He drowned and was considered to be reincarnated as a guardian deity to be worshiped.

''With modernization in Sri Lanka, the feeling that this project is ours is disappearing,'' states M. B. Adikaram, project manager for the largest dam, Victoria, near the old capital of Kandy.

''We cannot convince the Western engineers of this. The ancient system was tied up with custom and rituals, and no farmer would dare take more water than he needed. This sense of sharing is gone,'' he adds.

A 1980 study by a German consultant reported: ''Traditional forms of cooperation, such as 'attam' or 'kaiya' have lost much of their former importance.''

Before the fall of Ceylon's last kingdom in the 13th century, one king, Parakrama Bahu I, constructed over 300 miles of major channels, 165 dams, and 163 tanks. ''He did this with help of his people, the skill of his artisans, and the power of elephants,'' says D. N. Fernando, additional secretary to the Mahaweli authority.

''His example of mobilizing the people would be good for us to follow. The people participated actively and inherited the product of their labor.

''The people of Sri Lanka today could build this project faster than is being done now. There are too many foreign contracts. The people have not made it their own,'' he adds.

''What we are trying today is just the same as what our ancients did when they were moving to the climax of their epoch,'' says Mr. Fernando. ''We are going to the plains by repairing and enlarging their works, possibly until another calamity occurs.''

Two previous civilizations on Ceylon fell either to earthquakes or malaria, Mr. Fernando believes. The possible new era based on the Mahaweli scheme could fall due to the lack of cultural support of the people, he says.

Each resettled family is given $100 and housing material to build their own homes. Other credits are granted by the government for 18 months, and then the farmers are on their own. Private businesses, such as marketing firms for soy, chilies, or nuts, are encouraged to follow the new hamlets. Schools for children also double as farm-training classrooms. Television will reach rural areas this year, and it will be used to educate farmers on new agricultural techniques.

The key is the village leader, who must act as a buffer and conduit between the newly-established farmers and numerous bureaucrats. ''He must push the pride of self-reliance so that people do not lean on government,'' adds Mr. Godamunne.

As concern grows over the effects of a top-down approach to tapping the Mahaweli, officials actively try to build in a ''self-help'' attitude among farmers being resettled. Some 21,000 have already taken up new lands -- about 2 1/2 acres per household.

''People in Sri Lanka think of water as a God-given -resource, so they use plenty of it,'' says Mr. Godamunne.

The resettlement program, taking lessons from similiar relocation schemes in Brazil, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Egypt, plans to create ''homogeneous hamlets.'' One local leader will teach farmers how to share irrigation water, and a resident, rather than a roving agricultural agent, will help -develop diversified crops.

''Communal management of water is not foreign to Sri Lankans, just dormant. The tradition of sharing, such as in housing, is still around,'' says Mr. Godamunne.

Beyond the sums of money spent and the size of the project, Sri Lanka officials are watching for the figures on water usage in the newly irrigated areas. Early results show farmers using six to seven acre-feet of water per paddy of rice -- still above the expected four to five acre-feet set by the government.

The remedy is still not clear -- except to keep trying new ideas. ''Our only salvation is the Mahaweli,'' says Mr. Adikaram.

What is there that cannot be done by men of perseverance? King Parakrama Bahu I

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