The Urgent Need of a National Water Resources Policy

Sri Lanka is endowed with rich and sustainable water resources emanating from the central highlands. The island wide average of rainfall is about 1,900 mm, almost two and a half times more than the world annual mean of 750mm. We are water rich!

The total volume of fresh water received annually is 13,230 million m3. The average annual river flow, which is 31% of the rainfall, is 40,680 million m3. Although Sri Lanka has abundant water resources in aggregated terms, this picture is misleading, a very large portion of our water resources are, mismanaged and misused, primarily owing to the lethargy and inefficiency of the statutory bodies with responsibilities to ensure a robust water sector and of course, aggravated by that cancer of our nation: political interference.

Another strong reason as to why we have allowed  our water resources to degrade to such a disturbing state is the  level of ignorance, nationwide, on the individual rights and responsibilities vis-à-vis water. Discussions on water or water policy are usually very closed affairs with little public participation. It was with that goal in mind that I penned this article. Although public participation was not large, it is heartening that there were some very informed contributions towards fortifying an existing document on draft framework for a National Water Resources Policy (De Alwis 2011).

Adding the contributions received we have a furthered the document  (below) so that it  reflects  wider public comment and concern .   Such a document can contribute to any policy discussions on water.  Such a document should be always open for comment, discussion  and adaptation with increasing knowledge and sophistication

There may be little to add to the broad statements below, as many people have already contributed and stated that which we agree with, but that should not deter the document seeking endorsement from the public.  The wider the endorsement, the more will be the obligation of the funders and policy makers to consider these views and the greater will be the transparency of the process.

A Framework National Water Resources Policy

  1. All citizens of Sri Lanka are entitled to have access to clean water free from pollution for preservation of life as a basic human right.
  2. All water resources, excluding rainwater, belong to the people and subsequent to consultation and agreement may be held and managed in trust for them by local and national bodies elected by the people.
  3. Rainwater is considered part of the land on which it falls and will belong to the person or institution owning or having legal rights to use of the land.
  4. In situations of limited supply, traditionally accepted water use rights for drinking and sanitation will take precedence over all other claims on the resource. Maintenance of livelihoods will be next in the order of precedence.
  5. The unit for planning the development and management of water resources will be the watershed of the stream or river basin.
  6. Where basins or watersheds are spread across local government boundaries, their utilization and management would be the responsibility of next higher-level government concerned. Trans-basin and multi-basin development and utilization of water resources would be managed by authorities set up for the purpose.
  7. Government or Community organizations would be responsible for the distribution of water to users. This responsibility may be contracted out to private organizations where the government or community organization concerned deems it appropriate.
  8. Water rights will be recognized, with regulations governing allocations in line with local needs and national priorities.
  9. In order to ensure the sustainability of publicly funded water development projects, whether for domestic use, irrigation or commercial purposes, responsibility for the maintenance of the systems would ultimately be handed over to the water users. In the case of large water development projects, the government would support the formation of user organizations for this purpose.
  10. The development of water resources would take economic, social and environmental sustainability into account.
  11. The responsibility for maintaining the quality of a water resource, according to the uses to which it is put, should rest with the users either individually or collectively as the case may be. External polluters of water sources shall be liable under the law to appropriate penalties.
  12. Groundwater extraction and pollution will be monitored and appropriately regulated through the relevant institutions in groundwater sensitive areas.
  13. Management of water resources will be devolved or decentralized as provided in prevailing Constitutional provisions.
  14. Water resources should be shared among the demands of major competing uses including domestic use, irrigation and drainage for agriculture, animal husbandry, fishery, aquaculture, biodiversity maintenance, power generation, industry, tourism and construction in a balanced and integrated manner.
  15. Where there are competing demands for limited water resources, the quantity of water available after satisfying the demand for domestic supplies and livelihood maintenance would be allocated on the basis of national priorities and economic rather than financial returns.
  16. In situations of water scarcity, fiscal, and if necessary legal, punitive measures would be taken to prevent wastage, pollution and luxury consumption of water.
  17. All developers of water resources including state agencies will need to obtain the approval of the National Water Resources Council (NWRC),  which has been  set up to regulate the development and use of water resources. There will be incentive schemes for the improvement of water quality and quantity increase and disincentive schemes for the reduction of water quality and quantity.
  18. The State will actively promote the integration of gender and public health concerns in policies, plans and programmes in water sector activities
  19. All citizens have an obligation to conserve water, use it judiciously, avoid deliberate contamination and purify it at own cost if inadvertently contaminated.

Each statement of this framework needs to be examined by the public discussed and debated upon. Perhaps such a process could contribute to a functioning water policy.  The reason as to why a functioning water policy is so urgent becomes evident when we look around a see what we have done to our water.

For example, In coastal areas, with unconsolidated sands, rainwater Is stored in the form of lens – like bodies resting on salt water with a transition region of brackish water in between. Fresh water is thus available a few feet below the surface. Traditionally water was extracted through shallow wells, which supplied good quality drinking water, filtered by the high porosity and permeability of the sands,. But unmanaged extraction for vegetable cultivation led to severe salt intrusion if ground water was over exploited. About 12000 large diameter shallow wells are used in the dry zone for irrigation with a demand for 8000 more. However,  to maintain water supply sustainably, there must be a regulated rate of extraction.

The North Western Province provides a lesson. On the advice of various ‘agricultural and irrigation experts’ A massive program of tube wells was implemented. They exploited ground water through 130 tube wells, which finally suffered as a result of intrusion of salt water in Puttalam, Mannar, Paranthan, Kilinochchi and Mulathivu. These wells are now lost, as the aquifer has been compromised by irresponsible technology application.  Further,   79% of the wells in this province are contaminated by agrochemical run off, fertilizers alone contribute to nitrate concentrations well above levels advocated by the World Health Organization (WHO) for safe drinking water.

In the MDG report, the major water pollution issues in Sri Lanka have been categorized as pesticide pollution, nutrient pollution and groundwater pollution due to agriculture, industrialization and urbanization.

In spite of the growing evidence that the current toxic approach to agriculture is unhealthy for humans, these trends have not lessened.  Tragically, even testing for pesticide residues and heavy metals in our food and water has been neglected. The public unprotected. Thus recent data is full of holes and lacks information on this critical aspect of public health.  As agrochemicals are extensively used in agriculture, there is little doubt as to the existence of pesticides in water and resultant effect of bioaccumulation in plant and animal tissues. But as usual, the government has not demonstrated any serious concerns on such issues of public health

In the mountain areas, a study of the pollution of water resources in Sri Lanka states:

 ‘ Eutrophication or the process of nutrient enrichment of stagnant waters due to excessive use of fertilizer, is becoming a critical issue. A case study of the problem of eutrophication and algal blooming in the recently constructed Kotmale reservoir due to excessive use of Fertilizer in its upper catchment has been demonstrated (Piyasiri 1995, 2000)’

Industrial pollutants are also responsible for polluting both.

Surface and ground waters. Things have got very bad in certain parts of Sri Lanka,  for example, in the Lunawa lagoon aquatic life has been severely degraded due to the continued discharge of waste water into its tributaries. The lagoon, which supported a significant fisheries industry, is now devoid of aquatic life, is reported to be covered by 2.5 to 3.0 meters of sludge (Anon 1998) and is considered to be biologically dead.’

Water bodies such as the Beira Lake, Kandy Lake, Lake Gregory and the Kotmale reservoir have undergone eutrophication and algal blooming due to nutrient pollution. Eutrophication deteriorates water quality and increases concentrations of toxic substances resulting from degradation of toxic strains of Microcystis,.  Such toxins affect human and animal health and can cause massive fish kills as experienced in the Beira Lake, Kandy Lake and Kotmale resevoir.

The national tragedy  is that  we have already created the administrative structure to  implement the National Water Policy But there is no political will  as yet to make them functional.   We have :

  1. A National Water Resources Council, supported by the Water Resources Secretariat, have been established to address all water related issues in a holistic manner. This Council will be a high level advisory body comprising government agencies and all stakeholders
  2. A Ministry for Water Resources has been established which will oversee the Water Resources Council, the National Water Resources Authority and the Water Resources Tribunal.
  3. A Water Resources Law and a master plan for water use are being developed. A national water resources policy will be developed in order to make optimum use of this resource and to resolve competing demands between irrigation and power generation.

However they exist only on paper. There is a dire need to expedite the functioning of these bodies . The discussion on the National Water Resources Policy must be open ended, but the framework document should be used as the baseline of public discussion. Sri Lanka is a small island with a cone shaped topography that ensures the downward flow of water from our mountains. Preserving the quantity and quality of this water should be a national priority, all deposits of uncontaminated fossil water deep underground, should be indentified as a national resource and should remain in that state for eventualities in the climate uncertain future.