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Letters from Sri Lanka – The World’s Largest Water Harvesting Earthworks Project

Posted August 10, 2009 by Craig Mackintosh PRI Editor & filed under Irrigation, Regional Water Cycle, Water Conservation, Water Harvesting.

A mahout and his elephant (the elephant is the one on the left) Photos Copyright © Craig Mackintosh Preamble: Okay, the elephant has nothing to do with the story below (except that it’s also large in scale), but it is an appropriate way to let you all know of my whereabouts, and to explain my lack of posting of late (and it’s a great way to get your attention…). I’m currently in Sri Lanka – working on the Sustainable (R)evolution book project we told you about a little while back. I leave the country in a few days, heading to Ladakh, but over the next
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5 square miles (84 square kms) Of course. This is all no mean feat considering his reign only lasted 33 years – and considering the size of the dam walls themselves. A sluice at the Anuradhapura reservoir As fascinating as all this is. 3910 canals. although the most famous hydrologist. King Parakrama Bahu is credited with being the greatest water harvesting earthworks engineer of all time. An ancient dam wall/embankment at Anuradhapura forms a reservoir behind it. he didn’t do this single-handedly…. Permaculture earthworks projects for supplying water and rehydrating the landscape are. generally. And. although over the course of time stream and river diversions played a considerable role in feeding the system as well. I’m told that originally all the dams were filled through rainwater harvesting only. because our ambitious king. with a catchment area of 32. Putting the ethics of this behind us though. like the one I’ve photographed for this post. as I have time. He also repaired 1. And some of the reservoirs. First up – I’ll post on an earthworks site I visited today…. it gets even more so since much of the ancient system is still in use right now – helping make today’s Sri Lanka the largely food-self-sufficient country it is. King of Sri . This is a medium sized dam. they’re (ideally) done with voluntary. expect several posts on different elements of this country that should interest you. For example – the thousands of miles of canals were designed so precisely as to descend at a steady rate of less than 20 centimeters per kilometer (or less than a foot per mile). as they’re known here) and 328 stone sluices. ensuring that if a particularly strong wet season did its worst. with individual canals reaching up to 80 kilometers (or 50 miles) in length. also had an overflow spillway as a feature.weeks. century upon century of work in Sri Lanka has seen hundreds of large and thousands of smaller dams pepper the landscape. Is it believed that during the 12th century he constructed or restored: 165 dam walls. on land that would otherwise be predominantly bone dry. supposed to be small scale by nature. What I’m going to describe below fits into neither category. also in the spirit of Permaculture. the water would outflow passively without breaching the restraining wall. Originally devoid of natural lakes. these earthworks transformed the country into the granary of the Orient – enabling the early Sinhalese to grow rice (and other crops) across the large flatlands of the island state.969 embankment breaches. History books indicate that forced labour was his earthmoving equipment of choice. I say early Sengalese. The work was meticulous in its detail. Let not even a drop of rain water go to the sea without benefiting man – Parakrama Bahu the Great. 163 major and 2376 minor reservoirs (or ‘tanks’. but converted by Web2PDFConvert. was actually only one of a long line of Sri Lankan dam and canal builders – the earliest of who dates back as far as the fourth century BC. 1153–1186 AD The quote above – a highly valid argument for Permaculture engineers by the way – sets the scene for this story. The sluice above and below is ancient in placement. community/collective labour where possible.

or ‘tank’. they become concrete sided only (i. This will divert waterflow into an individual converted by Web2PDFConvert. An end-of-the-line category channel.modern in its restoration – with concrete walls and an iron sluice gate. no seal on the bottom). some of which are controlled by minor sluice gates. via a sluice through the dam wall (right) and begins its life-giving journey across the countryside (left) From here the canal winds through the countryside.e. slightly ajar mini-sluice at right. with the precious cargo finally reaching rice farmers across the area. with the man-made tributaries branching off into smaller and smaller lines along the way. Water exits the reservoir. This means water seeps into the ground to lift the water table – recharging the many thousands of wells across the countryside. but only initially. in real terms the water ultimately gets used for a lot more. Let me explain: today’s canals are fully concrete lined. showing an officially controlled. As the water enters smaller offshoots. The shot below progresses this photo series to show the other side of the dam wall – where the open sluice allows water to flow into the adjacent . While today’s legislation demands that water diverted to your property only be used for rice paddies.

farmer’s paddy field – when it’s his turn at least…. followed by extended dry periods – this massive water harvesting network was a highly appropriate investment for Sri Lanka. Mackintosh and get home safely! Fraternally. Sign Up to see what your friends like. This sudden geological catyclysm that changed the river course that sustained our ancient hydraulic civilization. 2 60 8 Responses to “Letters from Sri Lanka – The World’s Largest Water Harvesting Earthworks Project” Eernest Truman Very Interesting! It always strikes us as exciting and wonderful that it is these off the beaten path places that are taking permaculture systems to new levels of engagement. The scientific evidence is clearly seen in the aerial photographs of the old course of the Mahaveli Ganga and its new river course…. a very long term one at that! The many thousands of streams flowing out of these vast reservoirs not only supply a large population with their staple. This resulted in the major part of the population to abandon these areas and move to the Wet and Intermediate Zones…. each project is a reservoir of wealth that will help us grow in knowledge and expand our ability to communicate the site specific relevancy to new interested people. Follow up with: Letters from Sri Lanka – Greywater Recycling at Kuttam Pokuna (the Twin Pools) Letters from Sri Lanka Series Like 60 people like this. slowing evaporation. And. The fall of the ancient hydraulic civilisation of Sri Lanka in the 13th century was due to sudden Natural Cataclysmic change of the river course of the Mahaveli Ganga and was not due to foreign invasions as historians would want us to believe. The large scale. Ernest August 10th. Keep up the great work Mr. We all should try to document and convey our own works throughout the world. but also allow countless trees of every kind imaginable to get to work in shading and feeding people. Rice harvested as egret supervises Not all was perfect with the ancient system though. – A. Fernando. as it turned out. Denis N. centralised nature of the system did backfire at one point – when a major but natural change in the course of the Mahaweli Ganga river in the thirteenth century completely undermined a large part of the . This book will be a great asset to our global community. 2009 Reply converted by Web2PDFConvert. and providing habitat for Sri Lanka’s rich biodiversity. but do make sure not a drop reaches the ocean without benefiting the land. keep it ethical. Fellow National Academy of Sciences The moral of the story? Keep it small. led to disease and famine. Given the extreme nature of water flows in this region – monsoon rains in the wet season. and the men and creatures on it.

Maybe if we all start our own continuos swale dam system it will get done.Would you give me permission to post this in my website? Please. bone dry. Sorry.Tim Auld Fascinating! It’s great to see permaculture techniques and principles vindicated so thoroughly. Thanks January 16th. Imagine if Kevin Rudd had the guts to start a 300 year project to sustainably green our deserts? Aren’t we infrastructure building our way out of a recession? how about some the farmers have poisoned the soils and killed all the microorganisms with pesticides and weedicides and so the soil is no longer capable of holding water as there is no living organisms to retain the moisture. .that Government could form this partnership with it’s constituent’s it’s unlikely.Many years later we address the catastrophe. January 16th. 2009 Reply jeff Great update. Australia. Sri Lanka.. B.Best wishes Mr Mackintosh looking forward to the next chapters.. well thought out solutions to real (eternal) human needs rather than another expressway? Lets think. mostly bone dry.. 2009 Reply Susil Dear Sir this is a great article Craig. Very impressive! August 10th.I would like to second you Ernest.. Wake up Sri Lanka. Looks like we are a bit slow on the uptake. 21 centuries ago.M has been telling them about the salt in the Murry since the salt watch issue in the PIJ and probably before. Imagine what we could do now if our governments actually cared for the welfare of their people to the same degree now? (forced labour aside of course). 2009 Reply Bernado Soares What a wonderful story. thanks Craig. August 12th.power to the people. BS August 10th.but the sad fact is the soils are dead around these vast reservoirs. 2013 Reply Leave a Reply converted by Web2PDFConvert. Regards fernando August 19th. So the water that comes down for irrigation just disappears through the soils and thus the quantum of water needed to irrigate land is much more than before. I recommend having a browse of Sri Lanka on google maps to see how large these reservoirs and canal networks will truly be a humbling and beautiful book and a real treasure. and then link to this page for readers to read the rest. 2009 Reply fernando pessoa It would be great to think. but you cannot post the entire post elsewhere. February 5th.and so it is time to rebuild the quality of our soils to take advantage of this vast rainwater harvesting system our ancestors built. 2010 Reply Craig Mackintosh Hi Susil.thankyou for the insight Craig.C. long term. You’re welcome to put the first two or three paragraphs on your site. It can be done with ancient tools and slave labor therefore we can do it with earth movers before fuel becomes scarce. 2010 Reply chris tilaka-sri dharmakirti We take this for granted in Sri Lanka.

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