Mau-ara miracle
A once hungry and thirsty people in the parched land of Hambantota are today brimming with happiness, as their harvests bloom thanks to the Mau-ara diversion scheme. Kumudini Hettiarachchi reports on this story of success

Vidanagamage Prematissa went each day to the main road attempting to divert the drought relief lorries that were plying into Hambantota. His village was far interior and the lorries never came their way to distribute aid. He and his family, like all the other villagers, were beggars - awaiting handouts of rice, kos or del and precious water.

A beaming Prematissa with the freshly harvested paddy.- Pix by M.A. Pushpa Kumara

That was last year, around this time. Now he is smiling from ear to ear. Even before you can step into his home, he ushers you into a room stacked to the roof with huge ura (bags) bursting with paddy.

"I have settled the debts I took last year, kept enough rice for the whole family to eat, given rice to my close relatives who don't have fields and still have so much left," he says with pride and joy.

All this from two acres of land cultivated under the Maha-indi wewa in Hamban-tota district which is in the vicious grip of a drought, with most tanks fully dried up or partially parched.

"Mau-ara was a dream. There was no song and dance. The channel was cut quietly and our dream came true. Fields which had never been cultivated, not only in yala but also in maha were suddenly irrigable last season and we have just brought in the harvest," says Prematissa, while wife Gnanawathie adds that last year they didn't have a drop of water in the tank even to have a bath.

Her husband used to go far and wide in search of water and the precious little he brought back was sparingly used for their daily needs. A bath with about four coconut shells full of water was a rare luxury they could ill-afford.

Mau-ara Malala-ara is a diversion scheme undertaken by a dedicated group of irrigation officers to solve the "permanent" water problems of the men, women and children trapped between these two waterways in the Hambantota district. Though dotted with about six main tanks and another eight minor ones, they were the victims of severe droughts and poor rainfall. These rainfed tanks were dry most months of the year. Of the two paddy cultivation seasons they never attempted yala and hardly ever maha, because it was only during maha that there was even a little bit of rainfall. Their meagre livelihood depended on chena (slash-and-burn) cultivations of mung, bada iringu, cowpea and brinjal.

But for the first time more than 800 farmers including Prematissa - those living in the area now, notwithstanding new settlers - in the project area covering about 4,000 acres, cultivated the yala with water released from Mau-ara. Now the tanks in the area are brimming.

"Those days we used to grow mung, sell whatever we could and often starved the rest of the year," says Prematissa.

"Ninety-nine percent of the project is complete. We should be able to complete the project by the end of next month," says dynamic Kanthi Chandralatha, Irrigation Engineer for Hambantota, who has seen "this baby" grow to what it is today since its inception in June 1997. Then she was just a junior engineer working under the able guidance of Director-General, Irrigation, Linton Wijesooriya and Project Director A.D.S. Gunawardene. (See box)

Now assisted by Project Manager M.D.J. Stembo, both passionate about the need for agricultural self-sufficiency for Sri Lanka, she says, "We have the expertise in the country. There are reports that the first reservoir built to collect rainwater after damming a waterway in the whole world, was the Basawakkulama tank in Anuradhapura in 238 BC. We have a long history of tank building."

That is not the only project they are involved in. Take the "unchanging scenario" in Sri Lanka with regard to paddy cultivation. "In the 1990s, we were producing only about 78 bushels of paddy per acre. We are still doing the same. China and India which were at the same level then have increased their yields to 162 and 158 respectively. Why not us?" queries Engineer Kanthi.

So under the Wap Haula progamme being implemented by the Irrigation Department, she and Mr. Stembo are mobilizing farmers through massive awareness programmes to increase harvests and improve their lot. Notices of meetings are put up on trees and they plan to set up boards with "farmer news" at strategic points in these far-flung areas.

"We are working with the Provincial Agriculture Department to make farmers more aware about organic farming. How to 'hide' the water from evaporation and percolation by laying a bed of straw and albizzia leaves. The straw could be from the same field and it can be done at no cost. The nitrogen in the straw will also help the young paddy plants. Cow dung could be collected and used as manure, in view of the high cost of urea," says Mr. Stembo. "Already such model plots have worked wonders." (See box)

A gradual change in farming patterns is taking place in the area. After a meeting was held close to M.A. Piyasena's home, he is convinced that he should try his hand at this type of farming. "The Mau-ara project has kept us from starving for the first time. Our next commitment is to increase the yield in our fields."

They have also learnt that if they rear a pair of oxen, they will be able to fertilise one acre of land. "Till recently we didn't know that cow dung is sold for Rs. 10 per small bag in Colombo," says Prematissa laughingly adding that they should take a tractorload once in a while to Colombo to make a good profit.

Banter aside, how to grow paddy is serious business for these farmers. And the proof of the success of the Mau-ara project is not only in the smile-wreathed faces of farmers, but also in the pots of boiling aluth sahal (new rice) on their tiny hearths.

The beginnings
The Mau-ara Malala-ara diversion project started off as something mentioned by famous British colonial Assistant Government Agent Leonard Woolf.

With a 30% drop in rainfall figures and changes in the monsoon patterns the cultivation timetables were gradually changing. What did these changes predict for our agriculture? Could we ask our humble farmers and all Sri Lankans to reduce the size of their stomachs and change their staple food? asks Irrigation Engineer Kanthi Chandralatha.

The tanks or wewas in the Malala basin were fed only by the rains. But long ago, Woolf who had a vision had suggested that water should be diverted to the southern dry zone to make it self-sufficient. In 1994, Irrigation Engineer P.A.G. Paranamana wrote a small report exploring the possibility of such a diversion. In 1995, a small group of engineers under the guidance of Deputy Director G.V. Ratnasara produced a pre-feasibility report in nine months.

That was the birth of the diversion scheme. A dam had to be built across Mau-ara, coming from the Monaragala district - the waters, which otherwise would have flowed to Mahagama wewa and onto Walawe Ganga and the sea - a transbasin canal cut and the water diverted to Hambantota's tanks including the Malala-ara waterway which dries up during the dry season.

A unique feature of the project was that it was not given out on contract but carried out by the Irrigation Department with directly hired labour. The chain of command began with the Project Director, under whom was the Chief Resident Engineer, who in turn had two resident engineers with the work demarcated as headworks and canals. Under them came 32 junior engineers, including Kanthi. As most officers were reluctant to come to such a remote place, graduates, from all three communities who had just passed out from the engineering faculties were deployed. The beginnings were arduous. The source or Mau-ara tank was in the Uda Walawe sanctuary. After environmental clearance was obtained, the work began.

"We worked day and night. First we lived under trees, then in rough tents without proper food and water. It was like mobilizing a small army. The workers were from the area itself and we became like one big family. Gradually, there was an improvement in the living conditions of the workers. The salaries paid out to these workers, amounting to Rs. 3 million a month helped them come up in life. That was a bi-product of the project. Every morning and afternoon, buns were given out with cups of milk tea. Some of these people were so poor that they would eat only half a bun and take the other half for their hungry children back home," relates Kanthi. "Two-thirds of the workers were women. They were dedicated and hard working."

Now with the project nearly complete, the irrigation engineers are justifiably proud. The estimated cost was Rs. 750 million. But it will only cost about Rs. 550 million. It's also a completely Sri Lankan job.

The men, women and children in the Malala basin who ran behind vehicles begging for scraps of food and water are today living with dignity because of Mau-aru, adds Kanthi.

High yields
The average yield from an acre of paddy is 78.4 bushels per acre but in Hambantota that has changed positively and drastically.

A seven-acre model plot cultivated organically in Wehera Pellessa has produced a yield of 181 bushels per acre. It had been carried out jointly by the Irrigation and Agriculture Departments.Wimalasena Senanayake faced dire straits last year. He, his wife and five children ranging in age from 10-16 survived only on drought relief.

Of the 220 coconut trees in his home garden of two acres, 90 died leaving him in despair. No other crops survived. Now he has brought his paddy harvest in and his tiny cadjan-thatched home has bags and bags full of paddy. His yield this year - 181 bushels per acre. "Venadata vediya goni 30 vediyen thiyenawa. Anthima binduwata wetila hitiye. Then nam berenne puluwan," he smiles.

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