Skip to Content

Asian Tribune is published by E-LANKA MEDIA(PVT)Ltd. Vol. 20 No. 106

A Day without Water: Managing Sri Lanka’s Water Resource’

Colombo, 15 May, (

A seminar of on the importance in Water was held at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute for International Relations and Strategic Studies under the title of ‘A Day without Water: Managing Sri Lanka’s Water Resource.’

The seminar was held on April 30, 2013, emphasized the centrality of water to the life on Earth, understanding and recognizing various pressing issues in water management, in sustainable practices of water usage.

The event was organized at the backdrop of the International Water Day and also to celebrate the International Year for Water Cooperation – 2013.

Resource persons for the seminar were drawn from a wide spectrum representing academia, practitioners, activists and policy makers. These individuals who are pioneers in their fields dealt with a range of themes starting from the knowledge system of water, water security, drinking water, ground water to waste in water.

Apart from being the platform which brought together a number of experts who have made a unique contribution to the development of the water sector in Sri Lanka, the presentations and the interactions also made important questions, particularly on empowering people and enhancing awareness of water pollution.

Prof. Athula Senaratna the Vice Chancellor of the University of Peradeniya made a presentation on the theme ‘Water Resource of Knowledge – Current Status’. He underscored the need to contextualize research on water sector to suit the current needs and future developments in the country which are invariantly connected to the consumer utility, health and innovations. Prof. Senaratna assured the audience that there would not be a day without water as Sri Lanka only makes use of 11 billion cubic meters of water out of the annual water budget of about 130 billion cubic meters of water.

However, the second speaker, Mr. Jeremy Bird, Director General of the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) opined the concept ‘a day without water’ differently. He stressed that access to water is not about physical availability of water, but a state which would be achieved only when three dimensions of water scarcity; physical, economical and institutional water scarcity, are addressed. Mr. Bird was of the mind that access to water is more related to economic and political considerations than physical scarcity and that economic and political agendas acquire prominence than the humanitarian case to ensure water security.

Therefore, overcoming challenges in the water sector requires technological innovation, change of mindset as well as policy change. Mr. Bird pointed out that success stories in water security are founded in places where there is visionary and strong leadership that brings opposing interests into balance, informs policy making with scientific understanding, and negotiates decisions that are socially acceptable.

Representing a significant policy making institute in the Sri Lankan water sector, the Chairman of the National Water Supply and Drainage Board, Mr. Karunasena Hettiarachchi, spoke on the ‘status of drinking water supply and sanitation in Sri Lanka’. He stated that by the end of 2012 a total 84% of the households in Sri Lanka were served with safe water supply facilities.

Mr. Hettiarachchi emphasized the importance of having a multi sectoral approach to examine the use of water resource in a sustainable manner. As a part of it, the Water Board has adopted a three pronged strategic framework in providing water supply and sewerage services in Sri Lanka.

Three approaches as follows: long term water supply and sewerage service requirements in large cities, requirements of small townships, and rural water supply and sanitation. Mr. Hettiarachchi also detailed several initiatives taken by the Water Board to ensure sustainable water supply in Sri Lanka such as protecting catchment areas with the support of the local authorities, forest department and the police, ground water recharging to reduce the chances of bore holes running dry and studying on alternative water resources for use in case of emergencies.

Dr. H. A. Dharmagunawardena, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Geology of the University of Peradeniya addressed the gathering on ‘ground water of Sri Lanka’. His speech focused on the global picture of ground water and determinants of the ground water occurrences.

According to him, ground water accounts for the third largest water resource on the Planet Earth, which falls in line after salt water in the oceans and glaciers. It is less than 1% of water found on earth, yet 100 times more abundant than water found in lakes and streams on the Earth’s surface. In Sri Lanka, over extraction of ground water and pollution in terms of Industrial waste, human waste, agro-chemicals have led to ground water pollution.

The seminar also addressed the water-energy nexus. Mr. Asoka Abeygunawardana, the Executive Director of the Energy Forum speaking on the ‘power of water’ illustrated the evolution of Sri Lanka’s energy requirements which were initially met by hydroelectricity. He pointed out that importance of hydroelectricity has increased owing to its capacity to reduce the cost of enumeration. The unit cost for hydroelectricity remains negligible for hydropower with Rs. 1.50 for the delivered price.

Mr. Abeygunawardana revealed that 50% of the Sri Lankan population lives below the electricity poverty line. Increases in the electricity unit cost and consequent increases in the prices will further deteriorate the situation for the ordinary people. With the intensification of the issues in the Sri Lankan energy sector, clash between irrigation and power generation has also aggravated.

Garbage has become one of the primary threats to global water resource. Sri Lanka is lagging behind in addressing garbage management. “Under the presumption that ‘out of sight is out of mind’ land filling measures have become main methods in tackling garbage issues. However, leachate with germs and chemicals can get into the water ways and cause water pollution”, stated Dr. Ajantha Perera, the founder of the National Program on Recycling of Solid Waste in Sri Lanka. Bottled water which has surfaced as an answer to clean water in return has posed a number of problems when it comes to quality testing and access to water as well as in terms of disposing plastic bottles which is an environmental threat. Dr. Perera reiterating the need to formulate an effective policy on rainwater harvesting emphasized the need to return to the wisdom of the Kings who knew the importance of making use of every drop of water that comes down the sky.

Ms. Kusum Athukorala, the chair of the Sri Lanka Water Partnership also shared her thoughts on ‘Water Cooperation in Sri Lanka – Who cooperates with whom?’ Drawing references for water cooperation in the traditional society such as ‘Pinthaliya’ and equitable access to water in irrigation, Ms. Athukorala highlighted the need to put aside the ‘business as usual’ model and seek unusual alliances and unlikely partners. In the traditional society, provision of water was considered a meritorious act which was not solely determined by economic reasons. She also drew attention to the role of women in the rural water sector. Majority of the community based water projects are run by women and they are not exposed to management skills or financial skills. She stated “women’s empowerment in a country like Sri Lanka requires institutional changes and political support. For a country with high status for women, Sri Lanka lacks gender integrated planning”.

As much as water is essential to life, ensuring that water will not have negative impacts on health is also very important. Dr. Paba Palihawadana, the Chief Epidemiologist of the Central Epidemiological Unit of the Ministry of Health contributed under the topic ‘health issues and water quality’. She indicated that the bacteriological analysis of water samples drawn from across the country, including water board specimens proved unsatisfactory for the majority of the samples. When it came to the private sources such as well water and community water supply, about 50% of the samples were unsatisfactory. The fact that some of the germs which cause outbreaks of water born diseases in Sri Lanka such as Viral Hepatitis cannot be decontaminated by boiling or by chlorination draws attention to proper purification mechanisms in community water supply programmes.

Mr. D. L. O. Mendis, senior engineer and a collaborating scientist at the Institute of Fundamental Studies, Kandy spoke on a very interesting topic - ‘River for Jaffna’. ‘River for Jaffna’ is a project proposal based on the ‘Arumugam Plan’ which was conceived by S. Arumugam when he was Deputy Director of Irrigation in the 1950s. The idea was to take water from the Elephant pass lagoon resourced by the spill water of the Iranamadu reservoir through the Mulliyan canal to the Southern end of the Vadamarachchi lagoon which will take water up to the Thondamannaru barrage at the Northern tip of Jaffna which was built in the early 1950s.

Mr. Mendis’s presentation demonstrated how the success of ‘River for Jaffna’ project would greatly benefit people of Jaffna as it would improve both quality and quantity of ground water in Jaffna peninsula. At the moment, this project is misread and is misinterpreted as an effort to divert Mahaweli to the North.

The audience of the seminar comprised of the general public, students and professionals in the water sector.

Mr. Asanga Abeyagoonesekera, the Executive Director of the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute and Mr. Ravindranath Dabare, the Chairperson of the Centre for Environmental Justice contributed to the seminar as moderators.

- Asian Tribune -

diconary view
Share this