Fresh water for Jaffna farmers
Minister of Social Services and Social Welfare Douglas Devananda
and Northern Province Governor G.A Chandrasiri inspecting the
Ariyalai barrage reconstruction work.
The North of Sri Lanka is different from the rest or the country in
its geography and culture. Its agricultural concepts and practices have
the rich inbuilt qualities. For the Northerners agriculture is the main
economic base. Facilities promoting agricultural sector bear a
significant impact on their economic life.
Located in the dry zone of Sri Lanka, Jaffna, faces shortage of water
vital for its agriculture. There are no streams or rivers in the Jaffna
Peninsula, where the land is largely flat. In addition, the topography
does not permit construction of reservoirs. This makes ground water the
potential source of the peninsula. Paddy cultivation is essentially
Cash crops and cottage garden crops are mostly irrigated using well
The Jaffna peninsula largely depends on the annual rainfall of about
1270mm received mostly during October to December monsoon rains. The
rain water is collected in wells and it is believed that in the entire
peninsula roughly about 100,000 wells exist. Meanwhile, water pumps came
into use since 1950s.
The supply of adequate fresh water has been the perennial problem of
the peninsula. Studies have already shown that due to over exploitation
of the aquifer in Jaffna peninsula most wells have become brackish. Thus
it is essential to meet the increased demand for supply of fresh water.
The reconstructed Thondamannaru Barrage.
Pic: Chaminda Hithetiya
Work in progress at the Muthalikkuli Salt Water Exclusion scheme
Valukkaiaru main channel work in progress
Maintenance work in progress
"Over pumping the fresh water in the limestone aquifers permits sea
water percolation through the fractured limestone as no part of Jaffna
is more than about 15 kilometres from the sea. Now about 30% of the
wells are saline," Engineers Thiru Arumugam, K. Shanmugarajah and D.L.O.
Mendis states in 'A River for Jaffna' article published in a Colombo
daily in August 2008.
The article was published to commemorate the 103rd Birth anniversary
of Senior Engineer Sanmugam Arumugam, an acknowledged authority on the
country's water resource. The salt water intrusion has its serious
impact on the ground water level, water quality, soil salinity and
related environmental problems.
In 1859, British Colonial Secretary Sir James Emerson Tennant
described the importance of well water for agriculture in Jaffna, as
follows: "The value of these wells is extreme in a country where rivers
and even the smallest stream are unknown, and where the cultivators are
entirely dependent on rains of two monsoons. But such has been the
indefatigable industry of the people, that may be said to have virtually
added a third harvest to the year, by the extent to which they have
multiplied the means of irrigation around their principal towns and
Sir Tennant continues to describe the market gardening that existed
in Jaffna. He says, "In the immediate vicinity of Point Pedro (and the
description applies equally well to the vicinity of Jaffna and the
Western Division of the Peninsula in general), the perfection of the
village cultivation is truly remarkable; it is horticulture rather than
agriculture, and reminds one of the market gardens of Fulham and Chelsea
more forcibly than everything I have seen out of England. Almost every
cottage has a garden attached to it, wherein are grown fruit trees and
flowers, the latter being grown in great quantities for decorations and
offering in the temples. Each is situated in a well-secured enclosure,
with one or more wells."
According to historical records, it was nearly 350 years ago was the
earliest known proposal was made to improve the fresh water in the
peninsula. It was Dutch Captain Hendrile va Reede who conceived the idea
of improving the fresh water supply in the peninsula.
In 1879, Government Agent Twyneham proposed that dams would prevent
salt water from entering the lagoons, which he withdrew later.
Then in 1916 Government Agent Horsberg suggested that as an
experiment the reaches of Vadamarachchi lagoon be made into a fresh
water lagoon by blocking some culverts. This was done in 1920. The
scheme operated successfully for four years but was not made permanent.
Then as records indicate in 1940s the Divisional Engineer Webb, had
produced detailed plans for the Thondamannaru and Ariyalai barrages.
Construction works of the barrage at Thondamannaru had started
following the World War II in 1947 completed in 1953. Then, later the
Ariyalai barrage, where the Upparu lagoon connects the sea, was
completed in 1955. Due to years of negligence and difficulties in
maintaining these barrages the wooden gates and stop logs perished and
sea water has started passing through them freely.
Engineer S. Arumugam published 'A River of Jaffna' in 1954 which
later became famous as the 'Arumugam plan'. The Arumugam plan proposed
to utilize monsoon rain water from the mainland streams for the benefit
of Jaffna people.
As Engineer Mendis has mentioned in his article the openings in the
road and rail bridges in Elephant Pass causeway at the Western and
Elephant Pass lagoon were closed to prevent fresh water going to the
A bund has been built in the 1950's at the Eastern end of Elephant
Pass lagoon at Chundikulam to isolate Elephant Pass lagoon from the sea,
with a spill way provided to discharge excess flood water to the sea.
With these alterations, the lagoon turned in to a fresh water lagoon but
the Chundikulam bund breached by heavy floods allowing sea water to flow
in to the lagoon.
At the Annual Sessions of the Institution of Engineers, Sri Lanka in
October 2007 a resolution on improving fresh water lagoons was handed
over to President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
A sum of Rs. 100 million was released for restoration of
Thondamannaru barrage. The work is now completed thus initiating the
process of making the Vadamarachchi lagoon a fresh water lagoon.
Also in the Arumugam Plan, a 40 feet wide 2.5 miles long channel,
called the Mulliyan Link Channel was proposed from the North Eastern
side of the Elephant Pass lagoon to convey fresh water from the Elephant
Pass lagoon to the Vadamarachchi lagoon at its southern end. This
included regulatory gates to control the flow. Unfortunately as reports
indicate, only about two and a quarter miles of channel was completed in
Another link channel has been built between Vadamarachchi and Upparu
lagoons so that the fresh water from Elephant Pass lagoon can be
supplied to Upparu Lagoon via Vadamarachchi lagoon. At present, the
gates are no longer water tight and sea water seeps in to the lagoon.
At the moment, about 11,000 acres of land bordering the Vadamarachchi
and Upparu lagoons are uncultivable. There will be a dramatic
improvement of the 30% of wells in Jaffna which are now saline.
"Fresh water prawn farming can commence on the banks of the lagoons,
with potential for export earnings. Converting the Elephant Pass lagoon
into a 30 square mile fresh water lagoon will provide fresh agricultural
possibilities on both sides of the lagoon i.e. the Jaffna peninsula side
on the North and the Vanni side on the South, once the salinity has been
leached from the soil," Engineer Mendis states in his article.Repairing
of the Arialai Barrage, which is under the consideration of the present
development plan of the Government, will greatly contribute to the
improvement of the fresh water in Jaffna.
According to reports the peninsula originally had about 1000 small
ponds which collected the North East monsoon rain water. But at the
moment many of these ponds are neglected and silted due to poor
maintenance. The authorities have already planned to initiate a project
to reconstruct, rehabilitate and improve and desilt these ponds.
The ground water is the potential for water resources development of
the Jaffna peninsula. Of the 1000 square kilometers of the Jaffna
peninsula about 60% are covered by dwellings, home gardens, roads,
parks, public buildings. About 13% is cultivated with food and
subsidiary crops and 13% is cultivable with rain-fed rice paddy. 4% is
not arable due to salinity. Another 10% is covered by the two lagoons.
Recent reports from agricultural experts conclude stating that more than
4500 hactres of fertile agricultural land have turned saline and have
become unsuitable for cultivation. Thus the uncultivable lands can be
treated for soil salinity if the water table gets stable with more fresh
water seeping in.
The supply of adequate fresh water has been a perennial problem of
the people of Jaffna. And it is important at this stage to ensure an
adequate supply of water meet the increased demand.