New Internationalist

Too Much Too Soon

Issue 105

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The missing link

Sri Lanka's Mahaweli Dam complex is probably the largest single development project anywhere in the Third World. Yet Shoaib Sultan Khan, UNICEF's 'Man in Mahaweli' argues that the building of people's skills and organisations, though costing little, is as important to the project as the building of the dams themselves.


The diverting of the waters ot the Mahaweli, to irrigate the dry North Central zone of Sri Lanka, has been a subject of discussion for more than a century. Today, it is happening. Mahaweli water, blocked by three major dams and released through tunnels blasted through the valleyside, is now trickling into the island’s dry zone. When the trickle becomes a flood it will deliver 500 megawatts of hydro-electric power and irri¬gate a million acres of land.

The Mahaweli Master Plan was originally supposed to take 30 years to complete. But the quadrupling of food and energy prices, which have throttled back the import-dependent Sri Lankan economy, persuaded the government that it cannot wait Re¬scheduled as a six-year crash programme, the Accelerated Mahaweli Development Plan will cost a staggering $2 billion. But the reward is dramatically increased self-suf¬ficiency in the world’s two most worrying commodities — food and energy.

The First Families
It was in 1976 that the first 10,000 families began to move into the newly irrigated land of the area known in the Mahaweli Master Plan as ‘System H’. Many of them came from distant parts, bringing all their possessions with them, including their homes — poles, lats and palm-frond roofs— travelling with them in the backs of govemment lorries. Today, ‘System H’ is nearing completion, with 27,000 families settled on 71,000 acres of new or newly irrigable land.

But it is the story of that first 10,000 families — those who had three years to ‘settle in’ — which provides the first real evidence of whether one of the world’s largest development projects is really going to work. And it is a story which contains human lessons as important to the Mahaweli Project as the engineering master plan itself.

An Equal Start
There were elements of a socialist Utopia in the early days of’ System H’. Each family was given two and a half acres of irrigable land, free seeds to start them off and half an acre of higher land on which to build a home¬stead. So land, water and a wide range of agricultural and social services were avail¬able equally to all.

Today, walking round the fields and home¬steads of ‘System H’, it is obvious that this egalitarian base has quickly tarnished. The omate and colourfully decorated concrete plastered houses — with motor bikes, sewing machines, electricity and hand-tractors —stand side by side with lowly daub and wattle huts, devoid of any facilities at all Some are already more equal than others!

And even though the course of a mighty river has been changed, even though miles of canals have been bored through rock, even though thousands of miles of distributory and sub-distributory channels have brought the Mahaweli to the very gates of the fields themselves, and even though hundreds of agricultural extension workers were in place ready to help, the majority of the farmers are nowhere near to realising the potential benefits — and some have not received any water at all.

Living and working in ‘System H’, the reasons for this degree of 'failure at the last gasp’ were not hard to see. Providing services — irrigation, new seeds or expert advice — on an individual basis to thousands of farmers is not only so inefficient as to make the task nearly impossible, but also so unfair that it is of very little help to the majority. For the use of such services depends not only on their availability but also on whether people have the skills to take advantage of them. Such skills cannot be assumed. They have to be created. The minority who possess those skills — be they skills of physical ability, technological aptitude, literacy and numeracy, managerial or entrepreneurial talents or — most important of all — an attitude of confidence and belief that it is possible to change one’s own life for the better — will take advantage of any available services to improve the lives of themselves and their families. Those who do not possess such human skills — those who lack education or those for whom confidence in the future has not been one of life’s lessons — are in the majority. And their use of available services to maximise the new potential for improving their lives is correspondingly low.

This ‘human element’ is therefore the missing link in the Mahaweli scheme. And without it all the aid and loans and engineering miracles in the world will not liberate its potential to bring major benefits to the majority of the settlers.

Turnout Gate
The designers of the Mahaweli scheme may not have foreseen this problem. But they may have accidentally built in its solution. The irrigable land of 'System H’ was divided into units of 30 to 50 acres. And the water for each of these pieces of land is controlled at the turnout gate. Having brought the water so far, the planners believed that the 12 to 20 farmers whose lands were to be irrigated by the same turnout gate would work together to distribute the water equally and maintain the drains jointly. The assumption of the human skills to do this was therefore built in. The absence of those skills resulted in three-quarters of the irrigation channels being damaged through non-maintenance. And even three years after moving in, some of the farmers whose plots of land were furthest from the turnout gate were not receiving any water from the Mahaweli. Nonetheless, the key to developing the farmers’ organised human skills to take full advantage of Mahaweli’s opportunities is to be found in that two-metre wide contraption of concrete and iron called the turnout gate.

Production Point
The importance of the turnout gate gradually emerged through the frustrations of ‘System H’s’ development workers. Agricultural extension workers couldn’t visit every individual farmer and yet had no farmers’ organisations to work with. Irrigation workers were unexpectedly faced with a lapsed maintenance of drains and unequal distribution of water within each turnout area. Community development workers in the hamlets where the farmers and their families lived found that they had no communities to work in. In some hamlets, created almost overnight and inhabited by people who were strangers to each other, there were no community organisations of any kind.

Experience in many countries has taught that community organisations can rarely be sustained if they are built around social services alone. From the first small agricultural settlement to the giant cities of today, human organisations have usually revolved around production. And the production focal points of Mahaweli’s ‘System H’ are the turnout gates that provide the water for 12 to 20 farmers.

Soon these small groups of farmers within each turnout area were being asked to select or elect two representatives. One was to be a Contact Farmer, who undertook to attend fortnightly agricultural training sessions for a year and to communicate and discuss what was learnt, regularly, with the other farmers in his turnout area. The second was to be a Farmer Manager, to be responsible for taking up irrigation management.

Today over 3,000 farmers have been elected to represent 15,000 turnout groups and the sustained attendance level at the regular training sessions in irrigation, agriculture and community development speak volumes for the effectiveness of the approach. Education is now no longer individual in focus or general in scope. It is addressed to the group and concerned with the practical problems of a turnout area — water distribution, drainage maintenance, land preparation, use of new seeds, timing of fertilizers and pesticides, quantities of water required, group credit availability and many other practical and immediate needs of the farmers and their families. Eventually this cadre of 3,000 will have enough expertise to take over the functions of government workers in ‘System H’.

Farmers’ organisations, centred around turnout gates, have made it possible to begin building the ‘missing link’ in the Mahaweli’s ‘System H’ and ensure that most of the people take up most of the benefits available. Yet the cost to UNICEF of its community organisation work is less than the proverbial drop in the ocean of irrigation.

Community Development
The involvement of UNICEF in this process of farmers’ organisations may seem strange to some. But experience in many countries has shown us that only with the active participation of an organised community can effective programmes for drinking water and sanitation, maternal and child health, creches and pre-schools, nutrition improvement and women’s employment be successfully launched and sustained. So the evolution of organised community involvement — for which the turnout gates happen to be the logical focal point in this area — was pre-condition not for the provision, but for the use of services and the deriving of maximum benefit for the majority.

Today the farmers of the 5 or 6 turnout groups who live in the same hamlet are also forming hamlet-level organisations. So the community development officers now have community in which to work.

Problems remain, some of them acute. The formation of crucial skills — co-operative water management, land improvement, capital formation — have a long way to go before they can pull whole communities out of the poverty which still exists in the new land.

But the ‘missing link’ of Mahaweli beginning to be forged. And in other Systems of this giant development scheme, the lesson is being heard that active participation an social organisation of the people is as necessary for development as water is for the land.

Shoaib Sultan Khan


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