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A world centred on water

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Water, or rather the lack of it, is beginning to define Sri Lanka. For centuries Sri Lankans found ways to manage its water resources competently, making water-centric industries such as agriculture, plantations and hydro-electricity the backbone of the economy. But this has become increasingly challenging with frequent droughts and floods, making it imperative that policymakers focus on better water management so all Sri Lankans can have access to this precious resource. 

Access to water is a basic human right. Without water no life can exist. As the effects of global warming and climate variability become more evident, water takes centre-stage as an unfolding global crisis. Increasingly, we hear of cities with depleting water supplies, agricultural lands rendered arid by a lack of rainfall, and communities suffering from diseases caused by poor water quality.

Problems are especially acute in South Asia, where this is complicated further by the challenges posed by a lack of options for sustainably managing water, in terms of equitable access or available technology. Dense and increasing (ageing) populations, expanding agricultural sectors, and the pollution of waterways are other issues that South Asia, including Sri Lanka, grapples with. 

A deep look at the issues around ensuring water security and managing water resources is therefore of critical concern. The Government must consider the critical nature of water when devising development plans and economic and social policies and programs. 

For an island nation like Sri Lanka, the prospect of depleting water resources and fresh water availability is especially serious. In Sri Lanka, where an estimated 27% of the population is employed in agriculture and as much as 70% of people have some link with it, water has sacred significance. Even though Sri Lanka has traditionally had large water resources, this clearly needs to be harnessed better. Water conservation is intrinsically linked to environment protection, poverty, industries, agriculture and even gender.

Already, the country faces numerous challenges related to managing water, such as persistent droughts and changes in rainfall affecting agriculture, coral and sand mining, marine pollution, energy and irrigation demand, and groundwater pollution. Water in Sri Lanka is associated with complex management challenges, with nearly 40 statutory bodies responsible for water resources. This means that beyond supplying water for paddy farming, Sri Lanka still has limited processors to ensure the efficient use of water, treating polluted water and protecting water resources including forests.

The lack of a comprehensive strategy and a coordinated approach could have a severe impact on Sri Lanka and its people, as population and development pressures threaten limited fresh water resources. Already large tracts of forest cover has been lost to Sri Lanka and with it many of the regions that hold and nurture rivers and river basins.

Water conservation is of course based largely on people. Gender inclusiveness is essential for water security, and gathering data and facts is a vital aspect of designing policies and programs that improve equity along gender lines. The first step in achieving this is through the collection of better data so as to tackle myths and support evidence-based policymaking. People can also change their consumption patterns such as reducing their carbon footprints so the pressure on water resources is limited.

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