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Volume 30, Number 6November/December 1979

In This Issue

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Arab Aid

In Sri Lanka

Written by John Lawton
Photographed by Burnett H. Moody

Amid the lush tea plantations of Hatton Plateau in Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon, a 350-foot-high dam is being built across the Kotmale Oya River to create water power for Sri Lanka's first underground power station. Simultaneously, around the island's palm-fringed shores, mechanized fiberglass boats are gradually replacing the traditional wooden fishing boats that still make up two-thirds of Sri Lanka's fishing fleet. And close to the port capital of Colombo - the only place in the world where steam-driven trucks are still in commercial use - a modern fertilizer plant is nearing completion.

All those projects, like others in Korea, Pakistan, India and Malaysia, are examples of the impact that Arab aid is having in Asia - a direct, rapid impact on the lives of struggling peoples.

Sri Lanka, which the Arabs called Sarandib (a word Horace Walpole rearranged into serendipity, or what Webster calls "the art of making discoveries by accident"), is itself discovering the modern age - not, however, by accident, but as part of a development plan partly financed by Arab aid.

The fertilizer plant, at Sapugaskande, seven miles north of Colombo, is Sri Lanka's biggest industrial project and a top priority in the country's economic plan. The complex includes an ammonia plant with a capacity of 545 metric tons per day, and a urea plant with a daily capacity of 940 metric tons.

When it goes into full production in the early 1980's, the Sapugaskande plant will make Sri Lanka self-sufficient in nitrogen fertilizer. As it now must import nitrogen fertilizer, the project is expected to save the state about $32 million a year in foreign exchange.

Meanwhile, the project is providing well-paid jobs for more than 4,000 workers, many of whom have acquired on-the-job specialized construction skills from which they will be able to derive lifetime benefits.

Early in 1979, some of these workers were putting the finishing touches to a 70-foot-high water cooling tower that dominates the plant. Others were scurrying like spiders across the mountainous rooftop of a giant warehouse, while still more were installing a maze of pipes and equipment below.

Construction, officials said, would be completed by the end of the year, at a total cost of some $160 million. Almost one-fifth of this amount is being provided by the Kuwait Fund in the form of a 15-year loan at four percent interest, with a grace period of four years before repayment begins. Another Arab country helping finance Sri Lanka's economic development is the United Arab Emirates. Not surprisingly, the Emirates - themselves largely dependent on the sea before they struck oil - are providing funds to modernize the island's fishing fleet.

A vital element in Sri Lanka's economy, fishing is the main source of income in coastal regions - providing jobs for some 72,000 people - and supplies almost 70 percent of the islanders' animal protein rood. In addition, the fishing fleet provides the country with exports; Sri Lanka's prawns, lobsters and shark fins are in high demand abroad. For that reason, Sri Lanka claims exclusive fishing rights to more than 90,000 square miles of ocean.

Despite this, fishing is one of the island's least-developed industries. Almost 14,500 of Sri Lanka's 22,000 fishing boats are small non-mechanized indigenous craft, and fishermen still catch fish by casting nets or pulling them through the water, by beach seining and by pole-and-line fishing. Offshore and deep-sea resources - including flying fish, spear fish and marlin - remain virtually unexploited.

To tourists, of course, a fisherman balanced precariously on a four-log theppam raft hand-casting his net into the sea or oru outriggers riding the surf are captivating sights. But they are little use for offshore fishing. "We must," says a Ministry of Fisheries official, "move out to deeper waters."

To do this, however, the fishermen need bigger and better boats - which is why the Abu Dhabi Fund is advancing $5.2 million to Sri Lanka. The loan will be used to design, build and equip 150 34-foot craft for trawling, gill netting and combined fishing, plus two 50-footers that will be the forerunners of a much larger offshore fleet. "You can't move from the medieval to the modern all at once," says a fisheries ministry planner. "You have to take things in stages."

The first stage - mechanization of Sri Lanka's inshore fishing fleet - is well under way. And although, for example, the majority of boats drawn up around the west coast fishing village of Negombo early in 1979 were primitive theppams, orus and valiants - dugout canoes - some fishermen are already proudly painting new fiberglass hulls in bright colors and tinkering with new outboard engines. Changes were taking place too in the central highlands of Sri Lanka, where for nearly 200 years the Sinhalese kingdom held out against Portuguese, Dutch and British invaders, and where, during the same period, a daring attempt was made to divert the water of Sri Lanka's largest river, the Mahaweli Ganga. For centuries, the Mahaweli Ganga had rolled down the steep valleys of the central hills to discharge its precious water unused into the sea. But in the fourth century B.C. one of the Sinhalese kings launched construction of an 18-mile canal at Minipe to divert some of the water into irrigation canals and an artificial storage lake - the remains of which gave modern planners the idea for a scheme that today may revolutionize the island's economy.

As late as 1978, Sri Lanka was importing about $200 million worth of food per annum. At the same time fully 70 percent of the island was without electricity. Then, however, Sri Lanka launched its effort to harness the wasted waters of the Mahaweli Ganga. The biggest development scheme in Sri Lanka's 2,500-year history, the Mahaweli Ganga project is expected to provide 400,000 jobs at the peak of construction, create farms for 200,000 poor families and, the main goal, open 340,000 acres of new land to cultivation - enough to make Sri Lanka self-sufficient in food - and generate 300 megawatts of energy.

The first stage of the project - construction of a diversion on the Mahaweli Ganga, near Kandy - was started in 1970, and by 1976 two tunnels, a weir and canal improvements had been completed and 70,000 acres of new land had been brought under cultivation.

That same year, the government decided to accelerate the program; instead of 30 years, planners decreed, the entire project would be finished in six years. By 1979, as a result, work was already underway on one huge reservoir, construction had been inaugurated on another, plans were completed for a third, and feasibility studies were completed on two more.

The largest of the five projects is the damming of the Kotmale Oya, a tributary of the Mahaweli Ganga, near the village of Kadadora - home of Dutugemenu, greatest of the early Sinhalese kings. It was Dutugemenu who built the artificial lake for water storage and the irrigation canals - marvels of engineering for their time - that inspired today's projects. The 1,900-foot-long Kotmale dam will be used mainly to generate power for Sri Lanka's industrial expansion. Water from the 217-square-mile reservoir will be carried through a system of tunnels to an underground powerhouse, with a capacity of 150 megawatts, four miles downstream. The reservoir will also provide sufficient water to irrigate another 50,000 acres.

Inaugurated in January 1979, on the 31st anniversary of Sri Lanka's independence from British rule, the Kotmale project is expected to be completed in five years at a cost of $160 million. As almost one-third of this will be financed by a $50-million loan from the Saudi Fund for Development, Kotmale is an example of the important role being played by Arab aid in the economic development of the "pearl of the Indian Ocean" - and in the development of several other Asian countries as well.

This article appeared on pages 22-25 of the November/December 1979 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1979 images.