Integrated water resources management: Creating a positive ripple effect

Friday, 22 March 2024 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


World Water Day 2024 is today

The last time El Niño affected Sri Lanka, between 2016 and 2017, more than two million people were affected. 19 out of 25 districts were hit hard, decimating two harvest seasons, and creating water scarcity for agriculture, drinking and household use. El Niño, which developed in the latter part of 2023 is currently resulting in extreme heat and dry weather conditions in the country. Complicating matters, La Niña too is waiting in the wings to take over, painting a grim picture ahead. 

As it stands, the dryer conditions are expected to continue with below-normal rainfall expected in the coming inter-monsoonal months—a scenario that will have a direct impact on communities, especially in the availability of water. As we celebrate World Water Day, it is more than evident that there is an urgent need, within and between countries, to unite around protecting and conserving our most precious resource—water.

The island is currently grappling with a widespread incidence of multidimensional vulnerability that transcends geographical boundaries. Sri Lanka’s first Multidimensional Vulnerability Index (MVI) recently published by UNDP Sri Lanka and the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI), report titled ‘Understanding Multidimensional Vulnerabilities: Impact on People of Sri Lanka’ outlines that water is the second greatest contributor to vulnerability after household debt. Nearly half of Sri Lanka’s population, 48.8%, lack disaster preparedness, a key vulnerability factor aggravated by accelerating climate risks, while 35.6% are vulnerable and deprived of water sources, compounding the impacts of the poly-crisis, raising significant concerns in the context of El Niño’s and La Niña’s potential impacts coupled with the effects of climate change in Sri Lanka. 

Water is at the core of Sri Lanka’s ethos—villages and communities were designed around water sources, and much of the country’s rural areas homed a hydraulic civilisation. A cascade system of tanks and diversion canals, with in-built efficient and equitable socio-technical water management methods, enhanced the long-term development of not only the water sources but also the surrounding natural resources on which the communities and their livelihoods depended. Yet, today, around one-third of the population is vulnerable and deprived of water sources. Communities in the Dry zone chronically struggle with water scarcity, and this is a particularly potent issue in the Northern region due to regional discrepancies in water equity and accessibility. 

On the Global Climate Risk Index, Sri Lanka ranks very high – specifically regarding climate change-induced risks to water. This predicts vulnerabilities in the country’s water infrastructure and security regarding quality, quantity, and salinity intrusion. Adding to the issue, according to FAO, Sri Lanka’s water stress is already at 90.8%1, which means that the country is consuming 90.8% of its total available renewable freshwater resources at present apart from environmental needs and is therefore categorised as “highly water stressed”. 

Ensuring an uninterrupted supply of drinking water during periods of drought; reduced quality of water from public point sources which scientific speculations link to the cause of Chronic Kidney Disease (CKDu) prevalent in some of the areas in the Dry Zone; limitations in the country’s water production capacity and stress on its water resources, and the partial treatment and water quality deterioration are some of the crucial issues that affect Sri Lanka. 

These issues have cascading impacts on not just drinking water, but also rural livelihoods, food supply, and our natural resource base with particularly dire impacts on women given their intrinsic relationship with water management. As Sri Lanka attempts to rebuild post-crisis, and gears up for early action, it is evident that integrated water resource management is central to our future collective efforts in attaining the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. 

Public health and prosperity, food and energy systems, economic productivity and environmental integrity all rely on a well-functioning and equitably managed water cycle. This means that water is a development accelerator. Ensuring reliable water access plays a catalytic role in enhancing the economic empowerment of women and youth, rural resilience, food security, reducing poverty, and promoting environmental sustainability and economic growth in the country. 

Integrated water resource management offers us an opportunity to give due attention to the interlinkages between surface and groundwater to the many socio-economic-environmental uses of water and is a more immediate and tangible solution to the water crisis. The Green Climate Fund financed, Climate Resilient Integrated Water Management Project (CRIWMP) implemented by the Government of Sri Lanka together with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in Sri Lanka, offers a blueprint for reviving Sri Lanka’s cascade system for water resilience, incorporating modern technologies and climate-resilient infrastructure, climate information services and agro-met advisories to create a more sustainable dry-zone eco-system and enhance climate resilience. 

Around 700,000 smallholder farmers across three river basins have benefitted from climate-resilient integrated water management solutions in 2023 alone. 15,383 hectares were cultivated (across multiple cropping seasons) with an average cropping intensity of 1.56. Collective farmer income in 2023 was US$ 15,866,480, which is a 75% increase from a year ago. Climate-smart agriculture technologies have enabled farmers to sustain their agricultural livelihoods despite the current economic crisis, and extreme weather events. 

Farmers take into account the seasonal weather forecasts, co-developed agro met advisory for determining the extent of paddy and other field crops that can be cultivated using village irrigation water in the tank. This can be done since farmers collect tank water level and rain gauge data regularly in project locations. This practice helps to optimise irrigation water use, minimise crop losses and save water for next season cultivation. 

Innovative solutions like Alternative Wetting and Drying (AWD) have enabled farming in both seasons (most farmers have not farmed during the yala season for almost a decade due to water scarcity issues), and an extra third season.

The significance of water as a vulnerability contributor in several districts highlights the importance of addressing water scarcity, quality, and access issues. When we cooperate on water, we create a positive ripple effect – fostering harmony, generating prosperity and building resilience to shared challenges. Interventions might include water resource management, infrastructure development, and community-based initiatives for water management. One of the key recommendations of the MVI is building climate-resilient water systems that safeguard equitable access to water resources in the face of climate challenges. Initiating greater investments in rural water infrastructure, and integrated water resource management initiatives are critical towards this. 

Sri Lanka is abundant in the solutions and technologies required to address the water crisis, with many documented lessons on data-and-community-based integrated water resource management. Development partners in the country, led by the Government, are coming together as a Water Platform, to synergise water sector development. The crisis-recovery process presents a great opportunity to build upon these solutions, leveraging multi-sectoral interventions, from national to local levels. 

The findings from the recent MVI Report and SDG tracking remind us that Sri Lanka is off-track on its journey to achieving water security and disaster resilience. The devastating consequences of climate change are already felt by our most vulnerable communities. 

As El Niño peaks and La Niña gears up, the possibility of widespread and calamitous climatic changes will only intensify. This is a clear and urgent call for action to enhance water resilience in Sri Lanka. There is a desperate need to act upon the realisation that water is not only a resource to be used and competed over – it is a human right, intrinsic to every aspect of life. This World Water Day, the world over must unite around water and use water for peace, laying the foundations of a more stable and prosperous tomorrow.


1FAO (2021). “Progress on level of water stress: Global Status and Acceleration Needs For SDG Indicator 6.4.2”