26 June, 2022


Drought In Sri Lanka

By Ratnam Nadarajah

Ratnam Nadarajah

Water is the most precious commodity in the world

In a world dominated by scarcity, climate change and population growth, water is no longer being taken for granted. Bitter disputes between nations and states have been a frequent issue in the recent past.

Drought in Sri Lanka seems to be very frequent phenomena in the recent years. According the latest headlines in the media the drought is upon us once again with devastating effects.

It has been affecting not only the dry zones per se but all other areas such as Kandy, Bandarawela to name a few due to scarcity of water both for drinking and other domestic use.

Drought is natural phenomenon in that land dries up due lack of precipitation (normal rainfall), rising temperatures, climate change, over use of water and lack of proper management of water and its resources. This is a major issue for water management and environmental protection. Unsustainable water management, including water over-consumption and water pollution, as well as predicted climate change effects in droughts, could result in severe impacts on nature and society.

Inefficient management of drought and water resources is a major issue for planners. The lack of adequate water use planning leads to heavy overexploitation of rivers and reservoirs in case of drought, which jeopardises the survival of associated fauna and flora. It is therefore essential to establish and develop measures to minimise socioeconomic and environmental impacts, of drought

From crisis management to drought planning

Analysis of the drought management policies in many countries including Sri Lanka indicates that decision makers have react to drought episodes mainly through a crisis-management(firefighting) approach by declaring a national or regional drought emergency programme to alleviate drought impacts, rather than on developing comprehensive, long-term drought preparedness policies and plans of actions that may significantly reduce the risks and vulnerabilities to extreme weather events. Although in the last few years’ drought seems to been a common occurrence in Sri Lanka, each time the disaster management team are ill prepared and ill equipped to manage the aftermath. The long-term impact of recurrent droughts has on land degradation is another major issue for planner to think about.

Does the Disaster Management Committee (DMC) has a comprehensive drought plan; which would provide a dynamic framework for an ongoing set of actions to prepare for, and effectively respond to drought, including: periodic reviews of the achievements and priorities; readjustment of goals, means and resources; as well as strengthening institutional arrangements, planning, and policy-making mechanisms for drought mitigation.

It is a matter of concern that despite being a country with abundant rainfall and many rivers we are facing water scarcity. Some our rivers are facing extinction because pollution, diversions, and unregulated sand-mining. The eco-system is being tampered with by filling up of wet lands. The water policy should be that water is a natural resource and public asset. Its use should be regulated for optimal use. The principle of ‘polluter pays’ will definitely be a deterrent. However, it is more important to focus on preventing pollution rather than going after the polluters after the damage is been done. It should be mandatory for industries to invest in pollution control measures. In recent times, we are being made aware of the detrimental effects of pesticides and other chemical fertilisers getting into food chain as well as penetrating into water table.

There have been recent initiatives instigated by the President Maithripala Sirisena prohibiting the use of chemical pesticides and championing for sustainable development in the nation. One wonders how much of this is pure rhetoric to keep the masses at bay and how much is borne out of real concern for the environment; that is the question for the electorate to decide when it matters!

When I visited the US Virgin Islands St Thomas in 1988, I was amazed to find that domestic (roof) rain water harvesting amounts to eighty percent of the water consumption in the tiny island.

Rainwater harvesting in Sri Lanka is a potential source of water at low cost. Our neighboring countries are ahead of us in this regard. I believe that there is a pilot project in hand to harvest household rain water in the north by an Indian outfit.

Israel is the best soil mechanics and water conservationists in the world. There is no doubt about it, when you see their record of accomplishments. I can very vividly remember visiting the Colombo Industrial exhibition in 1965, which was dominated by the East Germans, with the building of the iconic Planetarium. Israel on its part had a massive exhibition stall in the old Colombo race course. Here they exhibited the then available technology to preserve water and efficiently irrigate to get the best yield.

Here we are over half a century later, what have we learnt? Not much considering recurrent droughts in recent times.

The modern day “Drip feed” irrigation is an Israeli invention (Simcha Blass by a fate of luck) which is changing the world of agriculture as we know. Over 150 countries use this method of watering and saving water usage tenfold.

Overcoming the challenges of an arid climate and scarce natural water reserves has always been a vital necessity for the growth of Israel’s population and economy since the founding of the state. This has led to continuous improvements in Israel’s water sector, through innovations in technologies and long-term plans. The Israel, NewTech Programme promotes the country as a global water technology leader by investing in human capital, research and development, marketing, and start-up growth and international activity. This programme achieved great success in the local development and global export of Israel’s innovative water technologies.

Israel’s agricultural sector has transformed into one of the world’s foremost leaders in water conservation, as was recognised by the OECD and FAO in2012.Despite the drastic decline in agricultural water consumption over the past decades, agricultural production has continuously grown, and is sufficient to export approximately 80% of its products.

Israel recycles more than 80 percent of its effluents, compared with about 1 percent in the United States.

Currently, Israel requires almost a billion cubic metres per year (MCM/year) more water than average natural replenishment provides. Nevertheless, average annual sustainable natural water consumption has been achieved, while. providing for all the country’s water needs, via innovations that have involved overcoming extensive engineering, biological and logistic challenges. Innovations include: The treatment and reuse of almost all the nation’s domestic waste water for irrigation in the agricultural sector. They say “necessity is the mother of invention”’ that is clearly the case with Israel

Even with exceptionally efficient national water use, Israel’s water needs exceed natural supplies. To address this deficit, Israel’s desalination capacity has rapidly reached 560 million cubic metres/year with some of the world’s largest sea water reverse osmosis (SWRO) facilities, lowest costs, and numerous innovations in crop-yield/m3 of water.

May be it’s time that Sri Lanka adds SWRO to replenish the water resources. The power requirements for these facilities is another story for another day!

Recycling of waste water can be effectively used only if the technology is cost effective. Setting up a specialized agency for timely implementation of such steps is desirable. Need to educate the public in water conservation and preservation. When anything is cheap or free, human tendency is to waste it. The tariff on piped water should be metered and charged with a minimum discount. I know people will be outraged with this suggestion.

But in the long-term interest of the country, as Gandhiji had said “in true medicine and true advice, the most unpalatable is the truest”

We can take a leaf out of the Israeli experiment to better our water management and usage. Our “planners and thinkers “should seriously consider and invite the Israelis to start the ball rolling.

In my opinion it would be money worth spending.

One cannot imagine the enormous demand on water, power, and the infrastructure requirements for current projects namely; the Financial City (Chinese) Western Megapolis, Hambantota, 15,000 Acres Industrial Zone (Chinese +) plus others in the pipeline.

It is time that planners begin to think outside the box!

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Latest comments

  • 4

    Sri Lanka is building Mega cities and concrete high rises that need massive amounts of energy for AC and hydro-power, while poor local farmers die of thirst and kidney disease due to water shortages because of climate change and environmental degradation through sand mining, deforestation, to feed mega city development for Chinese and Indian moguls and black money laundering financial port cities without environmental sustainability planning.

    Lanka is a looming development disaster and debt trap. The concept of integrated development planning and aid coordination does not exist.

    Today under Jarapalanaya Ranil and Sirisena and their crooked cronies including Hot air foot note man Harsha De Silva and Malik, Sri Lanka has an even more retrograde and ENVIRONMENTALLY UNSUSTAINABLE AND SOCIALLY DESTRUCTIVE development model than under Mahinda Jarapassa dictatorship, and is headed to be an environmental, financial and security disaster in the Indian Ocean because of massive corruption, lack of DUE DILIGENCE and sell off of assets of the country because through scam development project like Volks Wagon car plant and Horana tire factory. Ranil and Malik’s idea of development is miles of road for luxury SUVs, Ragner Rover and Jaguar Auto Shows and car races, just like Namal Jarapassa before, rather than environmentally friendly and cheaper public transport systems.

    Car Shows should be Banned and TRANSPORT POLICY focus must be on Bus, train and integrated public transport!

    Meanwhile in the countryside, communities suffer and are stripped of natural resources and WATER due to sand mining and deforestation to feed mega city. Land and marine resources are being sold off to China, US and India, without any clear plan of how People of Lanka will benefit from hot aid projects. Moves are being made to hand over land, marine and security surveying and information systems to the US, Trimble Co. in California while China takes over Hambantota port.

    • 3

      Sri Lanka’s whole hydro carbon energy intensive MEGA POLIS concrete jungle development MODEL and policy needs to be turned upside down and re-designed given new global realities of:

      a) CLIMATE CHANGE and Perennial water shortages
      b) De-globalization, no more cheap FDI, no more high growth rates and, down turn in free trade and FTAs (with Brexit and Trump (who got it right on TPP).

      Sri Lanka today has persistent DROUGHT, WATER SHORTAGES, and de-forestation and rural communities and farmers have chronic kidney problems related to water scarcity. Mega Cities and apartment developments require increasing the population but where will the water be sourced for these?

      Yes, indeed, The Financial port city for Chinese and Indian money laundering will be another financial and environmental disaster with Pathala Champika Ranawaka is the ultimate mega city megalomaniac – wanna be Sinhala Buddhist Emperor to Boot!

      Pathala Champika is in Charge of Ranil Wickramasinghes’s Megacity Folly and delusions of grandeur based on advise of American Economic hit men! Boy or boy!

    • 1

      communities suffer and are stripped of natural resources and WATER due to sand mining and deforestation to feed mega city.

      India wants Coc cola to stop bottleing their because COKE uses so much of their water. NOw, COke wants to bottleing in Sri lanka. Think about water shortage. I heard, COKE is using reverse Osmosis and saline-water else where in bottling.

  • 4

    Reverse Osmosis (RO) is hugely expensive and totally inappropriate for Sri Lanka.
    Israel has nuclear energy and has stolen land and water from the Palastenians and is also a Security Development Disaster.

    Sri Lanka needs to do integrated sustainable development planning and focus on wind energy and solar while reducing its carbon foot print and car and SUV fetish.

    Decent public transport and value addition and technology transfer while focusing for rural development should be the policy focus.

  • 2

    I totally agree with Kalupahana, Lola and Dude on their valuable input and sincere sentiments.
    Yes our so called mega planners seem hell bend on stripping mother earth with all the above development projects.These are not sustainable developments by any standard. As I have alluded, where is the infrastructure to support: vis-s-vis, power ,water, skilled man power, transport etc. “Cart before the horse”

    Reverse Osmosis typically use less energy than thermal distillation. Whatever the method “Desalination” remains an energy intensive process; for which, energy and bankrupt Sri Lanka can ill afford at this stage of development of the country

  • 3

    A very timely article. A must read. I have my reservations about seawater desalination, in a country where a large number of people are engaged in fishing. The fisheries industry is vital to this island. The salt extracted from the seawater is back flushed into the sea, creating conditions unsuitable for fish spawning. The cost of energy for desalination and the cost of RO membranes will also be prohibitively high.

    There is no alternative to water conservation and more efficient ways of using water. I also sometimes wonder how efficient our reservoir and tank systems are to conserve water, in a country that is prone to the effects of climate change. What are the evaporative losses from these tanks? Are they increasing or decreasing?

    Mr.Nadarajah, Thanks.

    Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

    • 1

      Dear Dr R Narendran
      Thanks for your iniput . There are a few large scale floating solar panel projects in different parts of the globe. One hope is that not only it adds the valuable space but also acts to reduce water evaporation from lakes, tanks etc
      The developers are very hopeful that this combined scheme would bring down the rate of evaporation.
      Just imagine a series of floating panels on ” Paragrakmabahu Samudra and Vavaniya Tank! it would be a double whammy .

      • 1

        Dear Mr.Nadaraja,

        Thanks for the information on floating solar panels. An interesting concept indeed! However, when will our country catch up with such technology? When will we learn to innovate to find solutions to our problems? Whenever I hear of Parakrama Bahu’s achievements, I wonder what we have achieved ourselves, without copying, in the post independence era? I wonder, whether we have really understood what our problems really are. We are yet copying others. We are not better than bumbling baboons?


    • 1

      Just to draw your attention to a relevant article in today’s Island Business news: “Desalination or a River for Jaffna? ” by Thiru Arumugam

      • 1

        Manel Fonseka,

        Stalling this project is the greatest crime committed against the north and as a result on this country.

        According to what Engr. Mendis, the untiring campaigner for implementation of this project , all the barrages were repaired during the Rajapakse tenure, including the dam separating the sea from the Elephant Pass lagoon. Only the 04 Km long Mulliyan Canal needs to be dug. This project has been shelved by vested interests that promoted the ADB funded water distribution scheme based on the Irranaimadu tank.

        Engr. Thiru Arumugam should check on the above facts presented by Engr. Media at a seminar at the Kadirgamar Institute about three years back.

        The Northern Provincial Council has chosen not to follow up on this project, for its politically tainted reasons.

        Incidentally, this project was first mooted during Dutch Colonial rule.


        • 0

          Thank you Dr RN for the above
          Will read the above article and do some research on this worth wild project

        • 0

          Dr Narendran

          I have forwarded your comment to Thiru Arumugam.

          • 0

            Manel Fernando,



            • 0


              Manel Fonseka.


        • 0

          Dr R Narendran

          The Chundikulam Dam at the eastern end of Elephant Pass Lagoon was built in the 1960s. It breached in severe floods a few years later and has never been repaired since.

          If you look at Google Earth you can clearly see the Dam breached in three places in long lengths.

          In Google Earth you can also clearly see the trace of the Mulliyan Link Channel which was meant to link Elephant Pass Lagoon and Vadamarachchi Lagoon. It was never completed because funds ran out.

          The River for Jaffna was the brain child of my father, late Sanmugam Arumugam, when he was Deputy Director of Irrigation.

          Thiru Arumugam

          • 0

            Thanks for your response Mr.Thiru Arumugam,

            I remember Engr. Mendis stating that ‘a dam ‘ was built by the army during the war, separating the Elephant Oass lagoon from the sea.

            Has it been breached since? If you are in contact with Engr. Mendis, please check details.

            I want to see the Jaffna River, becomes a reality for the denizens of the peninsula and in tribute to the Dutchman who first conceived it and your father- one of the great men Jaffna had the fortune to produce.


          • 1


            Thanks for your article. Is that expensive R/O water going to be used for all purposes or only as drinking water? I find the idea of flushing toilets, watering plants, washing clothes etc with ADB financed R/O water very very strange.

  • 1

    To start with I disagree with the above comment about sand mining. It’s OK to remove sand from the river as the filled up river with sand will cause flooding. Due to the severe recent floods in UK the government is using heavy machinery to dredge the rivers of sand.etc.
    When there is a artificial restriction is created in the country, where one place is so sacred that no one is allowed build but the cronies and the friends of the politicians can build and they use absurd restrictions to divide and rule where only a privilege few have no restrictions.
    MS is guilty of this dirty monopoly as a minister where his family did all the sand mining while the poor were not allowed to sand mine.Kandy where we could buy the locally harvested sand is stopped but have to buy the same sand flowed to Miyangana where they hold a monopoly.
    With respect to the drought,governmnt have to dredge lakes that are filled with earth and keep it ready for rain to fill it.Politicans have opened up forest lands for onion cultivation where the lakes in the area are filledup with earth by erosion of the land by cultivation of this over supplied crop where the cultivators couldn’t sell. Animals lost their lands and we lost our water.

    • 0

      Sand mining certainly periodic eliminated flooding, and then some !

      It also eliminated one of the best ways that land would get replenished with nutrients on a regular basis. Now, people have to resort to buying vast quantities of expensive fertilizer where they did have to purchase so much before

      So yes, like most things in Sri Lanka, some people made great short-term profit at the expense of long term benefits to the country

  • 1

    One wonders and shudders every time we read of a mega project of a high rise building , a 7 star luxury hotel built plan on the drain and strain on our resources vis Water sand and landscape of arable land .Then again the displacement and disturbance to the people who live in this environment .A slum was their castle , proximity of a work place , a community of helping each other .A change should happen but should it not be a gradual change and not a revolutionary demand on the fragile environment of limited resources specially precious water ..We create the desert ..we enlarge the dry zone with over grazing and We the Urban new rich enter the forest and cut down trees to provide timber for the new structures .We are cutting down the forest that preserve our water from evaporating. We build dams for HE to provide energy for the new structures ..all these new fangled structures make demands on energy for they have high technology that are designed to do so. Now we want to import smart technology from a place that is using this technology to turn green their desert land ..Have we the commitment of their expatriates that contribute to this green revolution of the Home land ?Has our education system ever trained the mind of the youth like those of a Kibbutz in Israel to first work for the community? Have we trained the mind of the youth to think of the potential of farm cultivation and given them skills as interns to work in a dry zone farm not as mere farmers but also as being cost effective producers Have we given our youth knowledge of sustainable development without using too much of heavy technology that lead to erosion . Are we having animal farms that might lead to over grazing and desertification as in some African countries ?.. So much to plan so much vision needed and this look at Israel and her commitment is a good starting point to embark on the think tank ..We do not need to visit these areas as Ministers in OUR powerful vehicles but a well educated dedicated officers can research hands on and get back to the drawing board at the employment and training Ministry and work locally with local know how and adapting the foreign to our own cultural and physical environment ..it is never too late .We have to face the drought today and need funding to help out the isolated people of the dryzone living in the shadow of development and looking p to the skies for that rain cloud that will not be blown away ..

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