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 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
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.
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.
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.
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