Dutch canals in Sri Lanka
Historian K.M. de Silva observes that the notable Dutch achievement
in irrigation was the building of canals to function as commercial
waterways. R.L. Brohier records that the Dutch constructed canals which
linked streams, lakes and lagoons, creating a continuous line of
waterways between the interior and the ports.
Salt Canal built by the
R.L. Brohier observed that the rivers brought sand and sediment on to
the sea coast. This sand and soil instead of being carried out to sea,
got heaped up at the shores and formed bars at the river mouth.
The river water flowed elsewhere in search of outlets. In this way,
chains of lakes and shallow lagoons were formed, for considerable
distances along the coasts. This is seen on both the east and west
coast. The Dutch saw in these sheltered sheets of water the opportunity
to create waterways which would provide easy and cheap transport for
goods from outlying areas to the ports.
Brohier says that the first canal was probably the one that
originated from the Kelani River through to Muturajawela and to
Pamunugama. It had been started by the Portuguese and completed by the
This was thereafter extended by way of lagoons, backwaters and
rivers, to the Maha Oya, then 120 miles on to Puttalam and 15 miles more
across the Puttalam Lake to Kalpitiya.
Brohier says that in 1706, the Negombo Canal was being extended to
Maha Oya and canal cuts had been made linking rivers, backwaters and
lagoons to provide a canal link from Colombo to Puttalam. This entire
route can be clearly traced in aerial photographs. However, the Hamilton
canal from Pamunugama to Hendala was named by the British.
The Dutch built several canals in Colombo. The most valuable was the
San Sebastian canal. It originated at Grandpass near the present
Victoria Bridge, a point on the Kelani River north of Colombo, at that
time an inland port, and went through Bloemendhal, Hulftsdorp hill to
the Beira Lake and on to the Colombo water front.
Enormous cargos of copra, cinnamon, pepper, fibre, arrack and other
articles of trade went down the North and the South Colombo canal
systems into San Sebastian Canal, to be transported from Grandpass to
the Colombo water front and loaded into ships. The Colombo rendezvous
for the large canal traffic was the Grandpass, the ferry on the bend of
the Kelani River. Part of San Sebastian canal is in use to this day.
Hamilton Canal from Bopitiya to Elakande
It also acted as a protection against flooding. The Mulleriyawa tank
in the lower reaches of the Kelani River is another example of a
combined flood protection and irrigation scheme.
The Dutch also planned to build canals which went southwards. They
planned a canal connecting Nedimala and Kotte to provide a continuous
water way from the Kelani River to the Kalu Ganga. This was under
construction in 1743, but not completed. The canal from the two sides
terminated at Gangodawila. The Kelani valley railway now runs through
The traces could be seen in 1978. The present day
Kirillapona-Nedimale-Dehiwela Canal was a part of this project. The
Dutch then started to construct a canal connecting Moran Ella and the
Kaluvamodera Ela to link the Kalu Ganga to Bentota Ganga. They also
planned a link between Galvaka Ela and Palawatta Ganga to provide a
second connection between the Kalu and Bentota Ganga. These two projects
were not completed. Brohier cautions that Anstruther Canal in Kalutara
The Dutch also constructed canal systems in Galle and Matara, to
facilitate transport of agricultural produce and for floating timber
down from the forests of the hinterland. Galle had two canals of around
20 and 30 miles each.
The Keppu Ela, starting from the Gin Ganga meanders over twenty miles
of suburb to the sea at Mahamodera, with flood outlets. There was also a
subsidiary canal traceable to this day, known as Muwangoda Ela. It
brought timber from Nagoda, Udugama and sugar from Ukwatta up to
There was a canal system of about 30 miles based on the Polwatta
Ganga at Weligama and the Nilwala Ganga flowing by the Matara Fort.
There was also an incomplete Dutch canal project at Maggona-Beruwela,
and Bellana–Ratmale, near Bentota.
The best canals are in Batticaloa. There was a 31 mile canal from
Batticaloa to Samanthurai. The northern regions of Batticaloa were also
similarly given a series of canal cuts, by which water was provided from
Vanderkoen Bay (20 miles north of Batticaloa) making possible a
continuous line of canal transport 57 miles long.
Part of this canal system served also as flood protection schemes.
Some are in use to this day, controlling flood water on the coast
between Batticaloa and Kalmunai, off the Nilwala Ganga at Matara, and in
the northern suburbs of Colombo.
The Dutch also built one important and useful dam, the Urubokke Dam.
The Urubokke Dam took water from a perennial river on one side of a
mountain range to a non-perennial river on the other side and had a
great impact on rice production in those areas.
It was an impressive engineering feat which successfully surmounted
the disadvantage of a climatic barrier which left one side of a mountain
range plentifully supplied with rain and the other side subject to long
periods of drought.
The Dutch constructed a dam across the upper affluent of a river in
the Matara district, formed a reservoir and dropped the surcharge water
from it on to the other side of a mountain range called Rammeli Kanda.
This was linked to a non-perennial river on the opposite side of the
hills, which was dry for half the year.
This provided a reliable supply of water for several thousands of
acres of paddy as far as Ranna in the parched Giruwa Pattu. K.M. de
Silva describes the Urubokke Dam as the first new irrigation project in
the island since the days of the Polonnaruwa kings.
He says this was their one notable achievement in irrigation.
Kelegama and Madawela say that most engineers consider the Urubokke dam
as undoubtedly the masterpiece of Dutch irrigation engineering.
The writings of R.L. Brohier, K.M. de Silva, S. Kelegama, R.
Madawela, D. Mendis and K.D. Paranavitana were used in compiling this