7.2 Water Security

Key issues relating to water security in Sri Lanka are identified as the variability of the availability of water, climatic variations, pollution of water and degradation of watersheds, use of groundwater and water governance.

The aim of water security is for all citizens to have equitable access to clean, safe and affordable drinking water and sanitation into the future at least cost. Water security is a basic human right as water is fundamental for sustaining livelihoods, human well-being, socio-economic development and eco-systems. During the last few decades there have been attempts to establish a privatised water market in Sri Lanka. We see the privatisation of water as a denial of basic human rights of our people.

The link between globalization and sustainable water management is evident from the relationship between the impact of international trade and the structure of the global economy and local water depletion and pollution. Whether the international trade in virtual water flows leads to global water use efficiency or whether it simply shifts the environmental burden to other locations need to be explored. Following the UN Conventions, we believe that it is the responsibility and the duty of a government to protect and secure this basic right of the people. It should remain under people’s control.

This crucial resource underpins the economy, society, environment and cultural and social values. Water security will be enjoyed when water resources and services are successfully managed on an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable basis while:

  • satisfying household water and sanitation needs of all communities on an equitable basis;

  • efficiently supporting productive economies in agriculture, industry, and energy;

  • developing sustainable vibrant, liveable cities and towns;

  • restoring healthy rivers and ecosystems; and

  • building resilient communities that can adapt to change.

Water governance refers to the range of political, social, economic, and administrative systems in place to regulate development and management of water resources and provision of water services at different levels of society. A key in sustainable water management is equitable, participatory and accountable water governance. Water is a strategically critical resource like food for the society as a whole. Factors such as population growth, urban expansion, deforestation, environmental degradation, climate variations, land use, salination, pollution, privatisation and exports demand influence it. Water supplies need to be made secure and resilient and satisfy customers in terms of quality and costs.

Sri Lanka has abundant water in terms of average per capita water availability despite being subjected to water scarcity issues at district levels due to socio-economic, geographic and climatic factors. Water shortages at district level will be of concern with future increase in demand and climate change.  Agriculture and food production consume most of the available water during the water cycle and the remainder is attributed to households, commercial and industrial use.

Water scarcity continues to be a major constraint to development in the dry zone. Attempts to address the imbalance between the excess water in the wet zone and the lack of water in the dry zone have caused many socio-economic and climatic issues due to the lack of a long-term vision based on scientific advice and long-term community engagement and consultations. As magnitude and intensity of extreme weather events continue to increase, per capita water availability can be expected to decrease.

Water security requires protecting reservoirs and dam sites, pump stations, distribution networks, hydropower plants and related water infrastructure from contamination both natural and wanton and to natural hazards such as flooding, droughts, tsunami like events and during political and civil unrest, and curtailing water wastage and profligacy. Protests to safeguard drinking water against pollution show the failure to foresee water security challenges and the lack of appropriate regulatory and administrative mechanisms to allocate water amongst competing users sustainably and economically efficiently. Water quality issues are found due to faecal pollution, turbid water, eutrophication, organic pollution, agrochemical use etc. Agricultural waste pollutes both groundwater and surface water with excessive use of agrochemicals and excessive use of fertiliser and water compounding this problem.

Under colonialism the transformation of the ecological system in Sri Lanka into a plantation economy employing unsustainable agricultural practices such as soil loosening and petro-chemical use has led to many ecological imbalances causing water and environmental issues such as soil erosion in the hill country, sedimentation of the waterways, sea erosion and rising salination levels in the coastal belt. Though our soil is fairly robust, there are fragile environments that need caring, such as the sloping lands in the plantations or the poorly structured soils in dry zone. These soils are susceptible to erosion and give rise to instability. Due to the large irrigation projects implemented since independence, conservation of the ecosystem and bio-diversity has become a serious issue with certain species both animal and plant under threat of extinction. Degradation of watersheds causes siltation, which is a threat to the sustainability of water resources. Thus, water security needs to become a key element in national planning with relevant measures to protect all water related infrastructure from any potential disruptions.

Our vision is to make society benefit from secure access to water resources into the foreseeable future by maximising the productive value of water, minimising long-term costs to users, industry and government and protecting water-dependent environment through a proper water governance framework. Water security needs to be considered in the long-term for peoples’ benefit, rather than in the short-term simply for acquiring and maintaining political power. Investment decisions should be based on balanced social, economic and environmental analysis, informed by sound scientific advice and implemented through transparent and contestable processes. Through better water policy development and implementation, and with better governance systems, natural and human-induced water security issues could be better handled.

Household water security is essential for eradicating poverty as the poorest households have been left behind from the investment made to provide increased access to safe drinking water and sanitation. Addressing this inequitable access to pipe borne water and improved sanitation will be our priority.

Economic water security deals with supporting productive economies. Sri Lanka has enough water to support agriculture and economic development, but spatial and temporal variations have caused many challenges such as highly inefficient water use with relatively low agricultural productivity. The highest increase in demand for water emanates from the industry sector and urban households due to rapid industrialization and urbanization. Extreme climatic conditions such as drought and flood require forecasting and planning for future needs in terms of water supply and demand. As the liveability of urban and rural communities advances the demand for quality water supplies will rise. As such, water management with integrated planning across water cycles becomes critical.

If severe scarcities are to be avoided, effective steps for water conservation and management need to be taken. Urban water security deals with developing vibrant liveable cities and towns. Our cities are overcrowded and continues to draw more people in. They have the highest number of slum dwellings. Waste water, mostly untreated, is released into waterways and groundwater. For protecting public health, well-being and economic growth, the increasing pollution trends need to be reversed. Managing the demand for water needs to be looked at depending on the variability of water availability.

Natural disasters can temporarily affect water availability and security. Hence, alternate back up water supply arrangements to the affected areas should be in place. Future predicted water shortages in the drought prone and water deficit districts need to be explored after the conduct of necessary feasibility studies. Augmentation of drinking water supplies through desalination, recycled wastewater and treated stormwater for potable use can be considered based on expert advice regarding economic, environmental and social merits. Sea water desalination is expensive, however, with increased portability of desalination units and multi-barrier approach, we will explore the adoptability of desalination while maintaining primacy of protecting human health.

Most rural communities in the coastal belt depend on extractable water for drinking and other domestic requirements. This could become vulnerable due to future over-exploitation. Groundwater is also being increasingly extracted for agriculture leading to increased agricultural productivity and resilience. This seems to have led to high extraction rates and a trend toward faster expansion of groundwater than surface water for irrigation. Such over-pumping of groundwater, for instance in the Jaffna Peninsula, could lead to very high salinity levels rendering the water unsuitable for both farming and domestic consumption. The key to the equitable use and sustainability is a paradigm shift from unregulated groundwater extraction to groundwater management and governance.

We will adopt measures to integrate investment in water and sanitation into national planning and to increase investment and maintenance of the needed water related facilities within enforced accountability mechanisms. We will allocate sufficient resources to improve water governance with the objective of attaining greater efficiency, transparency and equity. We will adopt measures to increase investment in the following areas:

  • modernisation of irrigation services, reducing and reversing environmental damage and protecting natural habitat;

  • water infrastructure and capacity development for wastewater treatment and controlled wastewater discharge;

  • Integration of land and water management into urban planning for managing flooding of our cities; and

  • improvement of water productivity and conservation.

Our rivers are in poor health due to pollution threatening health, economy, quality of life and ecosystems. Already, the island is experiencing extreme hot weather, extraordinary drought, floods and landslides and mosquito-borne diseases. Increased frequency and severity of drought and floods have made us particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate variability. This has adversely affected the timeliness and predictability of water supply. Coordination of the efforts of the public sector, private sector and the communities will enable reducing pollution and financing restoration of healthy rivers.

We are most vulnerable to water-related disasters, but we continue to be inadequately prepared to face such disasters. We will improve river health by holistically integrating water resources management and addressing the issues of water logging and salination. We will reduce the costs of rehabilitation through investing in risk reduction and preparedness by combining structural and non-structural solutions. We will also work towards establishing regional knowledge hubs as well as links with the expertise available with the non-resident Sri Lanka communities for receiving their advice for advancing research on important water security issues.

Considering the criticality of water for people’s survival, we will establish a National Water Commission (NWC) led by an Independent Commissioner for Water Security. The NWC will be an independent statutory body within the government portfolios dealing with water, sustainability and population. We will launch a National Water Security Initiative (NWSI) under the direction of the NWC with due consideration of the inter-university research project recommendations and the current water initiatives and the legislative and administrative set-up.

Under the NWSI, provinces will be encouraged through research projects that will take a water-sensitive, decentralised approach to their water issues, with the aim of turning settlements into independent sites that will recycle their own wastewater, harvest rainwater, develop green spaces for water cleansing and food cultivation and restore natural waterways and tanks to encourage diversity and deal with flooding. Our approach will be based on more productive use of water, reducing the impact due to disaster vulnerabilities, prioritising sustainability as the issue in managing ecosystems and applying this knowledge in the decision-making process.

A Water Security Audit will be conducted in all provinces through grass-root level consultations to assess the water issues of each province. As assessed currently, even the wet zone would suffer in future due to water scarcity in an economic sense. The NWC with the assistance of an expert committee and the government, particularly, the work already done by the current water establishments will recommend a suitable course of action to secure rights of the people to continue to use water as one of their basic rights.

The NWC will initiate a scientific study of the effects of large irrigation schemes established and the benefits a system of small tank networks the dry zone inhabitants could accrue. In addition, it will look into additional ways of harmonising the surplus water during the wet season and the water scarcity during the dry season. It is also paramount to study the use of groundwater and underground as water resources through wells and hand pumps. Depending on the recommendations of the Commission, we will take measures to build necessary infrastructure to increase water flows to the regions affected by drought related conditions.

We will emphasise on application of evidence-based practical initiatives, better planning founded on an improved understanding and more efficient management of water systems and application of simple new conservation technologies, such as drip irrigation, waste reuse and rainwater harvesting. We will provide for sustainable management of water resources including accounting for use and development for domestic purposes ensuring adequate and safe public water supply.

We will ensure transparency and security of water resource management. We will make it explicit that water quality specifications are taken into account in all applicable decision-making, particularly, in uniformly protecting water quality in public drinking water sources in both urban and regional areas. In water planning, public water supply will be accorded the highest priority by setting of statutory allocation limits and statutory water allocation plans for current and future use of public water supply. We will establish joint mechanisms between water scientists and policy makers to improve information exchange to ensure that advancements in hydrological sciences are employed to address water security issues and also to determine the data that need to be collected. Such data should be openly and easily made available to be utilized to improve water quality or security in the country.

A national research and development strategy for water, recognising its multiple roles and importance across the economy will be developed and its components prioritised. Government support for innovation in water management should be carefully targeted to accelerate the development and uptake of technologies leading to greater efficiency in supply and use of water.

We will establish a STEM based inter-university government funded research project code named ‘Water for A Healthy Sri Lanka’. This is to develop and use digitalised and other technologies for island-wide sustainable water usage and management in addressing any emerging water issues, particularly in the areas with critical water shortages. The policies of Provincial Governments on sustainable water management need to be aligned with those of the National Government. Any divestment of their responsibilities to provide sustainable, just and affordable, potable water to their population will provide grounds for the National Government to legally challenge such divestment of a provincial government.

To achieve the national water security agenda, the NWC will table an annual report to the Parliament and will be made publicly available. This report will highlight the achievements and inadequacies during the year in realising the water agenda with the future directions planned for the three subsequent years.

Conservation of water will be the best additional source of freshwater. Traditional and natural wetlands and water bodies like tanks and village ponds etc. have been badly neglected in the yester decades. These structures will be restored, maintained and used properly and these water bodies should not be allowed to be encroached upon for any other land use.

A long-term community based participatory public awareness program can be undertaken at a suitable time to address the reservations on desalinated water, recycled wastewater and treated stormwater and assist public acceptance of potable recycling of water. We will introduce a school curriculum to educate children and communities about urban water and wastewater issues. Water conservation could be implemented mainly by creating community awareness and enforcing it through pricing mechanisms

In targeted communities, water consumer cooperatives and farmer’s cooperatives can be set up to actively manage small-irrigation schemes. Providing them ownership would reduce project costs and promote programme efficiency. In the agricultural sector, cooperative water bodies can be established that would strengthen livelihoods of farmers. Community cooperatives can initiate schools for primary education which practice activity-based learning. This would help make communities aware of climate change and other topical subjects that affect their livelihoods. In power, we will provide incentives for these cooperative societies to be genuinely and legally recognised.

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