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Water is life

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Water is increasingly becoming a flashpoint in Sri Lanka as consecutive droughts hit precious resources. The latest standoff erupted in Thambuththegama last week after hundreds of farmers protested Government plans to divert water away from a regional tank for a drinking water project. The ensuing clash between farmers and police saw over 50 farmers arrested and the Government halting the project.

Hit by several seasons of drought farmers demanded that they be given first pick of water in the tanks. They argue that not having water to farm will harm more people than potential power cuts and other deprivations and appealed to have public water policies changed to give prominence to farming activities above those such as hydro power generation. Farmers argue that power generation can be shifted to thermal power but crops have no alternatives. Clearly water has become the new flash point.

Water is a key development ingredient that impacts on a variety of factors that sustain and enhance life. As a critical natural resource, the issues connected with managing it are inherently diverse and complex. They involve questions of allocation and distribution, equity, conservation, pricing, regulation, education, participation, and sustainable use.

The pressure on water resources is compounded by Asia’s limited freshwater endowments, which are among the world’s lowest. South Asia, home to over a sixth of the world’s population, has the lowest level of water resources per capita. Its per capita availability of water has dropped by almost 70% since 1950. During the past 50 years, per capita availability has declined by 60% in North Asia and 55% in Southeast Asia. Sri Lanka has been luckier than most of its South Asian neighbours but as it becomes more vulnerable to climate change new fault lines are appearing. The greatest of these is for Sri Lanka to upgrade its national water policy to give it a holistic approach.   

In the past, few projects were derived from a comprehensive water resource strategy. Even fewer took account of other water uses in the project area. The emphasis was mainly on the productive use of water resources, with little attention paid to managing the resources themselves. To meet the increasing challenges of water scarcity, pollution, and degradation of watersheds and ecosystems, water and related resources need to be managed in an integrated manner.  

That much is obvious but, as the Thambuththegama incident proved, difficult to implement given that Sri Lanka’s governments are notoriously incompetent at policy consistency. This is partly because balancing micro and macroeconomic issues can be conflicting. For example importing fuel for thermal power generation can have serious impact on the trade deficit, reserves and public expenditure but its effect will not be immediately visible to a farmer. This gap in understanding puts them in direct collision course with governments, who in turn, pacify them with short term measures to garner votes.

Governments need to promote decentralisation, building capacity, and strengthen monitoring, evaluation, research, and learning at all levels, particularly in public sector institutions. However, participation is the centrepiece of any water service endeavour. The most successful experiences in water use are based on involving the people who consume the water. Excluding them from participation has tended to make solutions to sustainability elusive. Just ask the Thambuththegama farmers.

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