Final Days of the Kelani River

Feb 4, 2015

Last January, me and my girlfriend went on an epic trip to Sri Lanka. Why Sri Lanka, as it's not a very known and popular destination for Northern Americains? In fact, we wanted to go to an unpopular destination, go a little bit more out of bounds. We wanted to live a deep cultural experience, surf in the indian ocean, see some wildlife and some wicked landscapes. Sri Lanka had everything we wanted. Kayaking wasn't the purpose of the trip, but we tought it would be cool to spend one or two days paddling on the Kelani river in Kitulgala.

At the end of our trip we went to Kitulgala. In this small city, there's not so many hotels and there's not so many restaurants, but there's more than 10 rafting compagnies. When I saw a tuk-tuk with 14 foot raft on the roof, I new we were at the right place. As soon as we arrived, we went to Borderlands wich is a big rafting compagny and the only place where you can get a kayak and some gear. We met Wade Campbell, fellow canadian, and owner of the place. With Wade we arrange a nice set up to paddle the Kelani river on the next day with Kandy, an awesome local kayaker and raft guide. 

The next day we took our gear and headed to the put in of the upper section of the Kelani river, me and Kandy were about to run the upper section(IV) and my girlfriend would wait for us at the beginning of the lower section (III). 

When we get to the put in I saw something I didn't expected at all. One of the biggest nature destruction I've seen in my life. They were, and they are still building a dam on the Kelani River, right at the actual put in of the upper section. A chinese worker quickly came to tell us we shouldn't go in the river because it was dangerous. They were about to do some blasting. I will always remember what Kandy respond to this guy:'' do you know what's really dangerous ? This ! (pointing the futur dam). The river will stop flowing, no river, no life, this is dangerous !''.                                                                                                                                                                          

While me and Kandy where running the rapid where the dam will stand, the chinese workers where so happy and proud to tell to my girlfriend how they were about to blast everything and that there will be no nature left at the end. This just made me realize how people can have differents visions of what we want to do with our planet. Can we be mad at these chinese workers ? I don't know, because in there values and there education they learned that what they are doing is appropriate and for them this dam means progress, just like my grand father that worked on the massive hydro project in Baie James a few decades ago.









In Quebec we destroyed so many of our rivers, some of them were world class as the Rupert and more recently the Romaine. One mistake after the other we are blocking the veins of the Earth. The same thing is happening everywhere in the world, if you think about what is going on on the Nile, the Zambezie and the Futaleufu... The Kelani River is not world class, it is not the Nile it is not the Mistassibi and it is not the Zambezie, but just like Wade told me it's world class for Sri Lanka. It is the only commercial rafting river of the country. Does a 35 mega watts project overpass the tourism potential of this area ? People aren't traveling to Sri Lanka for rafting, but it's a great added value to any trip and Kitulgala is definetly a succefull trourism area !

“Last year alone the tourism industry in Kithulgala was able to generate US $ 17.5 million and we hope to attract more foreign tourists by 2017 and generate more foreign exchange to the country. If the power project hampers adventure sport activities and if tourists are ‘kicked out’ from Kithulgala, not only it will affect the tourism industry but also the livelihoods of over 1500 families,”






Rafting is the main attraction in Kitulgala, there's a few other things but most people go there only for rafting so were the 17,5 millions will go when there will be no more rafting ? And what about the huge amont of jobs ? Or even the Sri Lankan kayakers running this river everyday ?

In 1957 they filmed a moovie in Kitulgala. The Bridge on the River KwaiThe Bridge on the River Kwai is a 1957 World War II film directed by David Lean, based on the novel Le Pont de la Rivière Kwai (1952) by Pierre Boulle. The film is a work of fiction but borrows the construction of the Burma Railway in 1942–43 for its historical setting. It stars William Holden, Jack Hawkins, Alec Guinness and Sessue Hayakawa. At the end of the moovie the American army is destroying the railway bridge. So the place where they filmed this moovie as become a secondary attraction in Kitulgala. As a compensation, and to keep the tourism industry alive in Kitulgala when the river will be dryed, the plan is to rebuilt the famous bridge that has been destroyed in the moovie. According to me it's a very poor solution, most people don't care about this bridge and the next generation of tourists, just like me, don't know anything about this moovie wich is older than my father. And tell me what's the interest about crossing a bridge when there's no water under it ? 

As a person living in Quebec, it's easy for me to say don't build the dam as I have all the electricity I need for a very ''cheap'' price because we are the champions of hydro power. Of course needs for power outweigh the needs of the paddling community, but what about the tourism ? It's hard to tell to a developping country that they shouldn't build a dam to produce energy as we just did the same thing in our countries during the last 50 years and they really need that energy to grow. Yes, hydro power is a ''green energy'' but I think it is the green energy of the 70s. Now we can do way better. Right now they are remooving dams in the USA. Sri Lanka as a huge solar, wind and tidal energy potential but hydro power is the more known and with the help of a huge chinese compagny it offers an easy way.

My experience in Kitulgala brought me many reflexions and this is why I wanted to share it with you. Maybe this article is not a lot, but it can make a small difference or at least inform some people about what is going on in this small country...





As a conclusion these are few words from Wade about the most updated situation in Kitulgala... 

''Working day and night with no stop in blasting and digging the Kelani river will likely be damed before the end of this year. Investors and stake holders are requesting that all work be stopped until a professional investagation can be conducted. With an out dated environmental report and with many mega projects now closed or under investigation the damage to this declared eco adventure tourism zone is DIRE - HELP SAVE THE KELANI RIVER BEFORE ITS GONE FOREVER. To all who have experience what this river has to offer - kindly share this and stay tuned for the details of the court case which takes place on the 5th of Feb. - might saving a mere 6 KMS of wild green rain forest which provides the only rafting experience on the island and which is giving birth to Sri Lanka's Eco Adventure Tourism Industry not worth a short pause to see if in fact this is the right direction for the country ''

I feel privilege to had the chance to paddle the Kelani, I hope it will be flowing for the next generation...

Thanks to Elizabeth Lemieux for the huge help.

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