King Parakramabahu is reputed to have stated that not a drop of rain water should flow into the ocean without being used. He managed to mobilise his fellow men, and true to his words, built giant tanks to store and use water. Many others before and after him did the same with perhaps the same intentions. That is the story that can be witnessed over and over again as one traverses the dry zone of Sri Lanka. Thousands of years later we do benefit from such structures still. With such a rich heritage our task today is not to build but maintain and whether we are exactly doing that right too is a question.
Today however, as we write, parts of Sri Lanka that have figured prominently in the past glory of our hydro civilisation, are suffering from serious drought, parched land and dried up tank beds is quite visible. Figures vary, but the numbers affected supposed to be over 1 million across the 14 districts of the island. The repercussions are many apart from the immediate issues. This water shortage had led to the rest of the country scrambling for assistance by way of sending bottled water and plastic containers. We hear that plastic storage vessels are flying off the shelves in Colombo. Indeed it is good for some businesses and storage is supported and immediate needs are also being met. Pictures of affected communities waiting for their share of water are shown in media and though media stories address the emotional aspects, it is rare to read the actual situational analysis.
If I am to remind the reader I would say that 2013 was the International Year of Water Cooperation! This indeed is a sad development in our country. In the early days these dry lands were cultivable land and this had been achieved through irrigation schemes and other innovative inventions. Many engineering structures built exist to date and some still have the ability to elicit a ‘wow’ factor. These structures have stood the test of time and in that context it is extremely sad to see the current situation of an area with such a deep-rooted relationship to water fighting struggling to survive due to the lack of it.
Depending on bottled water from Colombo cannot be a morale booster to a spirited group of citizens. Yes, as an island nation we depend on the hydrological cycle, and if the rains fail to arrive we are at the mercy of natural weather. Yet the ancient structures bear testimony to the fact that men, at the time, indeed considered storage and strategic distribution beyond the times of rain. We understand soil better and should know better. They did not have the access to rain forecasting, meteorological modelling and modern technologies, yet they conquered and turned the country into the granary of the east. With all the modern insights and tools at our disposal it is a pity that we have to face such situations, and we should at this stage start distributing storage units.
El Nino and La Nina conditions may be better understood and such advanced knowledge is due to advances in science and technology. I can tune in to CNN and study the weather forecasts for the next five days perhaps for some of our areas. With such abilities when we have our own weather statements, they should be adding more details to what is commonly available, otherwise the news media make some of our institutes irrelevant or redundant.
“Much to be learned”
There is much to be learned from what our forefathers did, rather than trying to earn few more dollars by displaying their work to outsiders. Our present plight is no credit whatsoever to them.
A year back, we witnessed floods and gale force winds which claimed many lives, and today it is the exact opposite. While you cannot alter the weather it is what you have done in meeting the unexpected and your preparedness that matters. This is where perhaps our forefathers everything differently.
We have countries that have come up in spite of challenges through sheer innovation. We discussed the case of Singapore in the last column. Their solution was to work on reusing used water (NEWater) and they have developed systems that, they say, can rival water from the French Alps. In the picture you can see a student asking the visitors to a science centre in Singapore the same question – spot the difference if you can? To come to that stage, significant effort has gone into it but they have worked with a common purpose and a vision to ensure that Singapore will grow, and water availability should not be a constraint.
Another country is Israel. An Israeli citizen introduced drip irrigation schemes to the world. He was not out to conquer the world, but he was simply trying to understand an issue and worked hard to deliver a solution to his native country. Desert areas were turned into highly productive agriculture strips and we may now talk about oranges and avocadoes from Israel.
These are two very strong examples. Our situation is different and except for the Jaffna peninsula, we have 103 rivers crossing to the ocean from the central hills. Being an island nation, we have the ocean right around us. We have sadly moved from floods to droughts with ease and the major action when once this type of situation happens is a sort of social service. People try to beat each other in trying to help and are noble in deed as well as in thought, but the situation too demands analysis and action beyond social activism. Such engagements ensure that we simply do not go from one disaster cycle to another.
Drought is a disaster condition brought on by natural means. How can one build resilience for an eventuality? With the global climate as it is and the changes taking place, predictions are going to be ever more difficult. It is perhaps known, from historical data of Sri Lanka, that droughts are quite likely to happen in August. If one moves early, can one bring the suffering down? If the support structures were completed this year would there be a similar need for the same in the coming years is a question. What happened with similar situations earlier? What steps can be done? There are many.
Some time back in 2006, at a SAARC meeting taking place in Sri Lanka, a declaration was made which is quite usual after an event of this nature. The importance of this declaration is in rain water harvesting, which was identified to be an important attribute of efforts to improve the resilience of communities. The Kandy Declaration, which resulted from this summit, also emphasised the need for research, as well as action in being prepared. It had the following comment: “At the looming global water crisis, we have recognised that South Asia must be at the forefront of bringing a new focus on the conservation of water resources.” For this purpose, they directed the initiation of a process of building and encouraging of research, combining conservation practices such as rain water harvesting and water conservation. Tanks and cascade systems in the dry zones are essentially for rain water harvesting structures, albeit different from structures that are considered in the above. With retention of a certain percentage of rainfall, floods can be countered and the collection helps in getting through a resource-scarce period. As shown by the current events, no one is immune from sudden vagaries of nature and rainwater harvesting can help and not as giant tanks either!
The issue of water resource availability has been studied in depth and different types of water policies have been mooted, but have met with a varying degree of resistance, and none have seen the light of day.
When policies discuss the need for resource management, questions are asked as to why one should manage a public good? If it is coming down freely, then the availability cannot be taxed or monetised. Even the water distribution, which the state has undertaken the supply of, is subsidised. As users receive water at quite a nominal value, efforts on conservation are minimal.
Why new technologies and concepts do not enter into main stream Sri Lankan practices are mainly due to an economic factor. We ask the question “What is the cost and then upon a value the cost is always the reason for taking no more steps?” If it is not economical, there is no reason for implementing or moving forward. We need to take a hard look at the way we do things, compare ourselves with others, and implement a shift in our mental models as otherwise we will go from one event to another without making any progress whatsoever.
(The writer is a Professor of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka. With an initial BSc Chemical Engineering Honours degree from Moratuwa, he proceeded to the University of Cambridge for his PhD. He is the Project Director of COSTI
Coordinating Secretariat for Science, Technology and Innovation), which is a newly established State entity with the mandate of coordinating and monitoring scientific affairs. He can be reached via email on firstname.lastname@example.org.)