Colombo Telegraph

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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