May 30, 2024

Sri Lanka’s Moragahakanda dam project is an environmental disaster

Hesandi Ravisinghe in Galle, Sri Lanka

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March 30, 2018. The Moragahakanda Dam in the Matale District of Sri Lanka. Construction began on 25 January 2007 and was completed in 2018.

Picture by: Samantha Weerasinghe | Flickr

The bar for one of Sri Lanka’s largest and supposedly most conservation-oriented development projects has been set so low that it has caused more damage than progress.

The Moragahakanda Kaluganga Development Project was initiated to support agricultural needs in central and northern Sri Lanka. The project, however, was planned terribly, resulting in numerous drawbacks that outweigh its benefits.

The Moragahakanda scheme is considered crucial for the development of Sri Lanka’s economy; the project brings $30.1mn to the country from agriculture alone and provides locals with many infrastructure benefits.

The Moragahakanda dam was built primarily for irrigation and power generation while its reservoir supplies water to the cities of Anuradhapura, Trincomalee, Polonnaruwa and Matale. The project aims to help farmers cultivate their crops during the Maha and Yala seasons, the two monsoon seasons in Sri Lanka.

Project director D.B. Wijeratne stated that “a total of 100,000 hectares is cultivated annually thanks to the reservoirs and cropping intensity has increased by 1.8%”.

The environmental damage caused by the project has been immense. Construction of the dam resulted in the deforestation of thousands of acres of the Knuckles Conservation Forest which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This puts local species at risk due to habitat loss and some of the trees cut down were more than 500 years old.

The dam also hindered the flow of the Amban Ganga and Kalu Ganga rivers. This prevented endemic fish species from swimming upstream for reproduction, and ‘blocked the currents that fish rely on to survive’. The fish were moved up the river in buckets while the dams were built, because building a fish bypass ‘proved impractical’.

On top of this, the Minneriya elephant gathering, a famous wildlife phenomenon, was faced with an alarming crisis. During the dry season, as many as 400 elephants gather at the Minneriya reservoir to eat the fresh grass on the dried-out reservoir. Because of the Moragahakanda dam, the Minneriya reservoir has been full during the dry season for ‘irrigation purposes’.

Hundreds of Sri Lankan elephant deaths are caused by human activity

Elephant ethologist Dr Sumith Pilatpitiya notedthe decrease in the number of elephants at the gathering from over 400 in 2017 to 20 in 2021. Moreover, the physical condition of elephants has declined since the completion of the project in 2018.

This has given rise to conflicts between humans and elephants and has significantly affected the tourism industry – the elephant gathering alone brings 4000mn rupees(almost $13mn) to the country.

The Sri Lankan Sunday Timesreported how the gathering had been ‘killed by irrational decisions and shortsighted policies’.

The Moragahakanda development project has also displaced 1,181 families. According to villagers, the majority of these families can barely afford one meal a day.

Land that was given as compensation to those displaced were ‘painfully disproportionate to the value of land people used to own’. With irrigation channels further away, resettled farmers lost paddy fields to the project and claim the new land they were given is unsuitable for agriculture.

This has led to the loss of jobs and money for food. Many families are now forced to rely on bowsers (mobile water tanks) instead of the fresh mountain water they used to drink.

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  • March 30, 2018. The Moragahakanda Dam in the Matale District of Sri Lanka | Picture by: Samantha Weerasinghe | Flickr

  • March 30, 2018. The Moragahakanda Dam in the Matale District of Sri Lanka | Picture by: Samantha Weerasinghe | Flickr

  • The Moragahakanda project had far more negative consequences than predicted in its environmental and social considerations.

    The absence of data, poor research and low standards have been detrimental to ecosystems. Innocent people have suffered as the result of the insufficient research done by the authorities.

    Even so, if the Moragahakanda-Kalu Ganga project is considered one of the biggest and eco-conscious irrigation projects it poses the question: what is considered a harmful project?

    The standard for these large-scale irrigation projects is so low that even ‘the pioneer project in conservation’ is absolutely detrimental for the environment. In my opinion, the project brings little to no change if the success of a certain party comes from the suffering of another.

    Written by:


    Hesandi Ravisinghe


    Galle, Sri Lanka

    Born in 2009, Hesandi lives in Galle, Sri Lanka, and is interested in art, nature and wildlife (especially elephants, leopards and birds). In her free time, she enjoys painting and has a passion for travel.

    She speaks English and Sinhala while learning Indonesian.

    Edited by:


    Ananya Prasanna

    Science editor

    Reading, United Kingdom


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