2016 Feb 11
by Lin Yanqin
“See those men in white helmets over there?” asked my river rafting guide as we stood under the warm morning sun to let our clothes dry.
I was only half-listening, distracted by a cute stray dog that had ambled over, probably in search of food. We had spent the morning rafting down the Kelani river and trying out canyoning on a series of gentle waterfalls. I was enjoying my warm tea and the sound of the rushing river that began in Sri Pada, Sri Lanka’s fifth-highest peak.
The men in helmets were part of a company planning to build a dam on the river, said our guide in a matter-of-fact manner, that I initially failed to grasp the implications of what he had said. Soon, he continued, this part of the river will go quiet.
Even for a half-baked thrill-seeker like me, it came as a shock. Rafting and other white-water thrills are a key source of income for those who have become experts at guiding people through such activities in the country’s Kitulgala area, and a dam was threatening to put an end to it all.
The Broadlands Hydropower project is expected to add 126GWh of electrical energy annually to the national grid. Energy — in a clean and renewable form, to boot — is nothing to sneeze at in a country where blackouts are common enough for torches and emergency lights to be found in every hotel room we stayed in.
The downside? The 35MW dam will cut through two of the Kelani’s main tributaries. It’s a move that will affect 13 of the 18 rapids that have become popular attractions — collectively an industry that reportedly draws 100,000 tourists to Kitulgala annually, keeping a significant number of locals in gainful employment.
Natural wonder under threat
If we were among the last of the tourists to enjoy the rush of journeying down the Kelani’s rapids, then we were certainly a lucky lot. My friend and I had spent two nights on its banks, half-reading, half-watching the afternoon showers turn the grey-green waters into a churning, muddy brown, and back to grey-green. We watched the sun rise in the distance, turning the waters gold, as mist rose from the dense green jungle around us. We took dips in the bracingly cold water, careful not to venture too far from the sheltered banks, for fear of being swept all the way to Colombo. Through it all, we listened to its torrential rush, at once soothing and invigorating. The valley of Kitulgala is pretty as a picture, but the gushing of the Kelani brings that picture to life.
The river is one of Sri Lanka’s many natural wonders that have been drawing tourists for decades, and was also where the 1957 movie The Bridge On The River Kwai, about the building of the Burma Railway in World War II, was filmed. Sri Lanka has sought to make a name for itself as an eco-tourism hotspot, but the move to dam the Kelani river feels contrary to this goal.
Of course, a steady supply of electricity remains something Sri Lankans cannot take for granted. As tourists, we experienced the odd blackout or two, and emergency lights are par for the course in every building.
But the dam will also cut off the income of the 10-odd operators making a living off the rapids, as well as that of their staff. Dinithi Pathirana, sales and adventure manager of Borderlands, an adventure company that has been operating in Kitulgala for 13 years, said the move will end their rafting and canyoning services, which make up 75 per cent of their revenue.
The company employs 42 staff. A rafting guide can start off with a monthly pay of LKR30,000 (RM864) and earn up to LKR75,000, excluding tips, which is roughly US$2,500 to US$6,200 a year — in a country where the estimated GDP per capita is US$3,700.
“There are other local businesses such as farmers, butchers, water suppliers depending on our business, too,” she added. “We are worried that we’d have to completely shut down the operations in Kitulgala and we are looking at other areas that we can diversify into. We try our best to keep all the workers in that way, but in the worst case scenario, 18 to 20 staff will lose their jobs.”
In addition, the construction has also caused deforestation, and damaged some houses in the valley. “Environmentalists have warned (of) this beforehand but the government undertook this project, disregarding their concerns,” Pathirana added.
To soothe concerns over the loss of the tourist dollar, the Sri Lankan government has promised to build a replica of the eponymous movie bridge, reportedly within the next two years to draw tourists — an attraction I’m certain will be lost on anyone born after 1970 or who isn’t a film buff.
I have not watched The Bridge On The River Kwai, but someday I may have to, just to relive what the Kelani river once sounded like as it rushed its way through the heart of Sri Lanka.
This article was first published on the Malaymail Online