18 October, 2021


Search For New National Water Policy Smacks Of Old Top Heavy, Top Down Approach

By Rajan Philips

Rajan Philips

Rajan Philips

It is good that the government is embarking on a new National Water Policy development. But it is not so good that the development of the new policy appears to be following the old top heavy and top down approach.  It is also surprising that the Ministry of Land and Land Development is taking the lead on this matter and has placed full-page newspaper advertisements soliciting public input to the process of policy development. The process itself will apparently be directed by a special committee involving representatives from 16 central government institutions implicated in matters relating to the nation’s water resources and their usage.

Background material has reportedly been prepared based on four workshops among the representatives from the 16 government institutions. According to the Land Ministry Secretary, Asoka Peiris, previous efforts at developing a national water policy were unsuccessful because of administrative conflicts and lack of public consultations. This time the Parliamentary Consultative Committee on the subject decided to develop a national water policy and entrust its implementation to the 16 state institutions that are located in land development, water resources, Mahaweli/irrigation, agriculture, agrarian development, wild life and forest conservation, environment and education. The goal now is to consult with stakeholders including farmers and complete the policy for cabinet approval.

The intentions are good but the approach appears to be too straightforward for a very complex subject. This is also strange considering the extent and mixed results of the numerous earlier efforts in regard to developing a national water policy and framework for water management. Much has been written on these efforts and there are also considerable professional resources and interests available both within and outside the government. The Sri Lankan version of the International Water Management Institute, its activities and publications are good examples. Madar Sammat’s 2005 paper: “Water Institutional Reforms in Sri Lanka”, provides a comprehensive account of the many efforts at policy making and institutional reform in regard to water management.

The paper coincidentally was written soon after a major reform initiative with input from 115 stakeholder consultations had ended in failure.  The initiative was directly under President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who in keeping with her ‘personalizing’ style of government had brought the newly created (1996) Water Resources Council and Water Resources Secretariat into the Ministry of Finance that was her presidential portfolio. Nonetheless, the two institutions worked hard to formulate a radical reform program involving major institutional changes and an overarching legislation appropriately titled “National Water Act.”  The proposed reforms were outlined in a draft policy document: “National Water Resources Policy and Institutional Arrangements.” The whole exercise fell apart under heavy public criticism that the reforms were too top down, very secretive and consultative enough, and that the reform efforts were being pushed by external pro-market forces. The government withdrew the proposals.

67 Ministries and Nine Principles

A previous attempt (1980) to enact a Water Resources Bill drafted by the then Ministry of Irrigation, Power and Mahaweli Development died at the cabinet table headed by President Jayewardene, owing to lack of ministerial support. The Bill had recommended provisions for inter-sectoral water allocation (i.e. for irrigation, power, industry, domestic uses etc.), full-cost pricing, and an inter-ministerial Water Resources Council. As I noted earlier, a Water Resources Council was set up later, but at the inter-secretarial level and not at the inter-ministerial level. While President Kumaratunga assigned the Water Resources Council (WRC) and the Water Resources Secretariat (WRS) to the Finance Ministry, Ranil Wickremasinghe as Prime Minister in 2003 sent them back to their more natural home: the Ministry of Irrigation and Water Resources Management.  With Ranil Wickremasinghe gone in 2004, President Kumaratunga decreed yet another location for the two WRs (old timers may recall SWRD Bandaranaike poking fun at the two plantation trade unions, CWC and DWC: “the two double you sees!”): this time around to a new portfolio called the Ministry of River Basin Development. I could not find any portfolio like that among the 67 or so shining ministries show-cased in the Rajapaksa cabinet. And now we have the Ministry of Land and Land Development taking the lead in developing a new National Water Policy.

It is not my purpose to criticize hard working public servants, especially those involved in so vital a subject as water management. But the public servants and professionals involved in this exercise must work to establish a good foundation for developing a proper water policy in the long term, rather than rushing to produce a half-assed contraption for easy cabinet approval and Presidential photo opportunity. Although nothing conclusive has been done in regard to water policy or water legislation, the current crop of public servants have a mine full of previous efforts and experiences to draw from. They should also be mindful that they are dealing with a subject whose importance is now universally recognized, and whose significance will outlive the term of any government no matter how unlimited it may appear to be.

Suffice it to say that the nine principles that formed the basis of the 2000 attempt at water policy are still valid for the new efforts. They are: 1) water is a basic need for all living beings; 2) water resources are public property owned by the people but managed by the government as a trustee; 3) water is a scarce good with economic, social and environmental values; 4) water management under a decentralized and participatory decision framework; 5) cost-sharing among stakeholders by agreement; 6) high priority for water supply and sanitation; 7) river basins as a basis for planning, managing and implementation; 8) recognition of water rights as the basis for water allocations and transfers within national priorities; and 9) integrated treatment of surface water and groundwater. I would elaborate on the significance of some of these principles in the context of the distribution of water resources and stresses in different parts of the island.

At the aggregate level (i.e. taking Sri Lanka as whole) it could be argued that the island’s water resources are more than adequate for its current and future demands. This is not all the case in India that has to feed 17% of the world’s population with only 4% of the world’s renewable water resources and 2.6% of the world’s land area. However, as usual, water resources are not uniformly distributed in the island and they are also subject to the vagaries of weather. So in spite of water being plentiful at the national level, there is water-stress and scarcity in a number of dry zone areas and this will get only worse in the future. In addition, while surface water is the dominant water resource everywhere in the island, the Jaffna peninsula stands out as the only area that is totally dependent on ground water.

Another important concern is the growing inter-sectoral competition for water, i.e., for irrigation and agriculture, hydropower, industry, and domestic use. The development of laws and institutions over one hundred and fifty years is indicative of the growth in the demand for water and the diversity of its use. To wit, the Irrigation Ordinance (1856) that codified customary practices; the State Lands Ordinance (1947) that established the public and private water domains; the Electricity Act (1950) that set the framework for using water to create energy; the Water Resources Board Act (1964) – a comprehensively intended initiative that unfortunately got stuck in the technicalities of tube welling; the National Water Supply and Drainage Board Act (1974) to provide water and wastewater systems for domestic and industrial use; the Mahaweli Authority Act (1979) that elevated river basin exploitation to new levels; the Agrarian Services Act (1979) to look after agriculture fed by minor irrigation schemes; and last but not least the 13th Amendment (1987) that assigned a number of water-related functions including Provincial Irrigation Departments (PIDs) to the Provincial Councils, none of which apparently have passed any legislation in regard to their water responsibilities.

Of the nine principles, the most controversial has been the one involving pricing or setting water rates. Pricing is unavoidable in the modern economy, but it should be preceded by due consultation and education, and acknowledgement that all sectors are being treated fairly. It should not only be the farmer who gets hit for using irrigation facilities, while industries can have a free ride pumping groundwater for their use. It is a sign of Colombo-centered development that 80% of Lanka’s industrial units are located in and around Colombo and a number of them tap into groundwater like anybody’s business. Conflicts between Industrial and domestic demands have already arisen, and also between irrigation and domestic demands.  For example, farmers’ rights over water in the Kadupitya Oya river basin came into conflict with the urban water supply schemes for that area. Similarly, the plan to convey water from the Iranaimadu tank to the Jaffna Peninsula has divided the TNA in the Northern Province. There is no mechanism to deal with these real life situations and they cannot be resolved by decrees at the national level, or by bureaucratic regulations.

The principle of decentralized and participatory management is intended to address the errors of centralized bureaucracy. The involvement of farmers in the operation and maintenance of irrigation outlets has been going on for many years and should offer useful lessons for the future. However, there has been no effort at all to coordinate the central and provincial government agencies in regard to their water-related functions. Sadly, the new initiative by the Ministry of Lands and Land Development does not seem to include any effort to bring about that coordination even now. India adopted a new National Water Policy in 2012, and the Indian experience should offer useful lessons to Sri Lankan policy makers. Notably, India has a National Water Resources Council that is chaired by the Prime Minister and includes the Chief Ministers of all the Indian States. That is an example that Sri Lanka could follow and the government could even take credit for it as 13A+!

There is also a technical and natural-environmental reason for decentralizing water management. Almost sixty years ago, the Province of Ontario, in Canada, established Conservation Authorities for watershed management, based on the spatial principle that the agency jurisdiction must correspond to the boundaries of the watershed, and the participatory principle that water management programs must be developed locally according to local conditions and priorities. The Ontario experience also illustrates an eco-system approach with heavy emphasis on inventorying the natural environmental features in every watershed and sub-watershed and developing technical guidelines for minimizing and mitigating the impacts on them due to human encroachment – be it urbanization, industry, power, or irrigation. I find it strange that the eco-system approach is not specifically captured in any of the nine principles I listed earlier. This too should be a matter for consideration in the new initiative to develop a national water policy.

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Latest comments

  • 0

    ”the eco-system approach is not specifically captured in any of the nine principles” must be carefully noted by everyone.
    Thank you, author.

  • 0

    Hope the Ministers read this and ask the academics to explain the science of our Water Resources to the various departments, ministries and the public. Hope the academics come forward to make their statement too on this. Otherwise civil societies will have to arrange meetings all around the country to get the author to address local groups of citizens.

  • 0

    Ecologists, geographers and Central Environment Authority too have an urgent role to play here.

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