Uma Oya, a symbol of Iran-Sri Lanka relations

Tuesday, 23 April 2024 00:35 –      – 19

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The Uma Oya Multipurpose Project, featuring two dams and a 120-megawatt electricity generating power plant, is to be ceremonially commissioned this week. The $ 529 million project was initially to be funded by Iran. However, after economic sanctions were imposed on that country, Sri Lanka undertook to fund the bulk of the project. This was after the initial tranche of $ 79 million was transferred by Iran and the country continued to support the project with technical assistance with over 400 Iranian engineers having worked on the site.

The Oma Oya complex consists of dams across Dalgolla Oya, and channelling water over a 4 km tunnel to Mathatilla Oya where another dam is constructed to channel water through a tunnel to the Uma Oya Power Station. The hydroelectric plant has already started generating electricity and the complex is expected to irrigate approximately 25,000 acres of paddy land.

The project that was originally scheduled to be completed in 2015, faced multiple problems. Sri Lanka could not pay the contractors for years due to the Iranian regime coming under sanctions. Banks were reluctant to deal with Iran despite there being provisions for financial transactions that did not concern sanctioned individuals or State entities.

There were further environmental concerns concerning the project. Construction of the tunnel linking the reservoir to the hydroelectric plant caused severe drainage of ground water and earth tremors in at least 10 villages in Bandarawela. There have been reports of wells drying up in some areas due to the project and at least 1,200 houses being damaged due to the construction work. Adequate compensation had not been granted to these affected families.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi or a high-ranking official is expected to inaugurate the Uma Oya project. If the visit of the Iranian President is to go ahead, while there are increased tensions in the Middle East, especially between Iran and Israel, it would be an important message of the importance placed by the Iranian regime on its relations with Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka has for years navigated the muddied waters of unilateral sanctions imposed on Iran by the United States. Despite these sanctions allowing food and medicine to be traded, Sri Lankan tea exporters have faced numerous problems due to over compliance by financial institutions which run the risk of getting blacklisted by the US for dealing with sanctioned countries. The only refinery in the country at Sapugaskanda had been designed to refine crude oil from Iran. The inability to import crude oil from Iran had increased the energy cost for the country which in the last decade had to import nearly all its oil in the refined form.

While Sri Lanka had done commendably to stay clear of the Middle Eastern and US-Iran revelries in the past, more recent developments may require a bolder position. It is now abundantly clear that the Palestinian genocide is being carried out with the overt political, military and diplomatic support of the countries that wish to isolate Iran. Therefore, any concerns expressed on relations between Iran and Sri Lanka need to be weighed against the current events in the Middle East. Should the Iranian president visit Sri Lanka this week it should be made clear that he will be among grateful friends, and a people who equally reject colonisation, apartheid and genocide.