Thursday, September 4, 2014

D.J. Wimalasurendra, Father of Sri Lanka's Hydro Power

We frequently hear about scientists of Western countries. But, Sri Lanka can also be proud of the scientists it has produced. The relics of ancient monuments attest to the fact that there was a well developed science centuries ago in Sri Lanka. In recent years, after Sri Lankans had been introduced to Western science and its concepts, some Sri Lankan scientists took them even further. The talents of such scientists were critical for the development of the country.

Devapura Jayasena Wimalasurendra was such a great man. He is celebrated today as “father of hydro power development in Sri Lanka.” All Sri Lankans who benefit from electricity should be extremely thankful for the pioneering work of Wimalasurendra.

Commonly known as D.J. Wimalasurendra, he was born on September 17, 1874, in Galle. His father was a master craftsman, Mudaliyar Don Juan Wimalasurendra. Educated in Ananda College, Colombo, he later graduated in Civil Engineering from the Ceylon Technical College. His interest in hydropower goes back to 1901, when he was sent to look for mineral deposits in the Kelani River valley. At Laxapana Waterfall, watching the water cascading down 115m, he realized the immense potential it processed. Hydropower, abundant in the country, could be used for generation of electricity.

Sadly he received little encouragement from the colonial government. But, Wimalasurendra was not a person who was discouraged easily. He answered by starting the first ever small hydro power station in Sri Lanka at Blackpool, Nuwaraeliya. This power station supplied electricity to the Nuwaraeliya Town which was much smaller than today. It was in 1913 (100 years ago) that this power plant was constructed.

Wimalasurendra was innovative and thinking ahead of his times. In 1918, with the success at Blackpool to back him up, Wimalasurendra read a paper titled "Economics of Power Utilization in Ceylon" to the Engineering Association. Now this institution is known as the Institution of Engineers, Sri Lanka (IESL). He argued the case for the development of hydro potential of the country. He estimated that 114.5 MW could be developed from Kehelgamuwa Oya. The engineers, the majority of them Englishmen, were skeptical of the project. They also questioned what the country would do with 114.5 MW of power. This shows that the engineers were not thinking of the industrial development of Ceylon. They just wanted Ceylon to be a producer of tea, rubber and coconut. Wimalasurendra pointed out the need for cheap power for setting up heavy industries for the development of the country. He also suggested the electrification of a section of the railway.

In 1923, the government started a hydropower project, but sidelined Wimalasurendra. Bitter at heart, he left for England. Returning at the request of the Colonial Secretary, he was appointed Chief Engineer at Public Works Department. But his projects were still not given the full support. He resigned in 1929, contested and won the State Council election from Ratnapura in 1931, and continued to promote his project through the Council. Yet, it was only after the Second World War that his ideas were taken seriously. In 1950, at the ripe age of 75, he saw his dream fulfilled. Laxapana power station was inaugurated that year. A happy man at last, he died on August 10, 1953.

He was a visionary and an innovative thinker. But as many innovative thinkers are, he was discouraged by many other, less innovative people. But, he was confident and persevered with his ideas. Ultimately, he received the due recognition. Sri Lanka remembers Wimalasurendra, but not those who discouraged him.

“Although it was not my fortune to execute the scheme I have originated, I am happy that I lived to see it brought to fruition by my countrymen, and that I should have, in the evening of my life, able to see in reality the dawn which I saw in the mind's eye over half a century ago. Now, if I leave this world, I leave fulfilled” –D.J. Wimalasurendra, at the inauguration of Laxapana power station in 1950.

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