Can policies quench thirst of the poor

by Rajindra de S. Ariyabandu

The water policy debate still goes on. Here, we refer to the National Water Resources Policy which caught the public eye and created so much controversy during 2002 -2003. Today we have two draft water polices (from two ministries) attempting to manage the same water resource within Sri Lanka. To the public, the number of policies is of little consequence as long as they get their water at home (water security) and in the fields for cultivation. Besides these two policies there are number of other polices and a great deal of legislation (50 Acts and over 40 institutions) dealing with water in Sri Lanka.

However, Only 71% of the population in the country has access to safe water. In rural areas situation is worse with 40% of the population not having access to safe water. Nevertheless, the state is committed to provide safe water to all its population by 2025 (meeting the UN’s Millennium Development Goals). Being a signatory to UN General Comment No. 15 of 2002 on ‘Economic, Social and Cultural Rights’ the state is responsible to safeguard the rights of all its citizens to adequate safe water for livelihoods. UN general comment recognizes that ‘right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is the prerequisite for realization of all other human rights’. Though human rights to water is not enshrined in our constitution, state is obliged to act as the trustee and custodian for water resources. Can existing and draft water polices fulfill this obligation?

Sri Lanka is often referred to as a water rich country with a per capita water availability of nearly 2400 cubic meters (less than 1700 cubic meters per capita being considered as critical). However, there are wide variations in spatial and temporal distribution of rainfall and more than 50% of rainfall escapes as run off. Considering environment water needs, there is still lot of potential for developing more water resources (most recently being the Weheragala reservoir in the Manik Ganga basin). Developing water resources certainly increases the availability of water for ‘beneficial use’. Most developed water will be used for agriculture while some will be used for domestic, urban and industrial use. Issue therefore, is how do we maintain equity and what is the priority in water allocation. Do the existing water policies or the proposed draft policies offer a solution? While macro level water allocation between agriculture and power takes place at the Mahaweli Water Management Panel, there are no micro level water allocation policies or clear priorities.

National Water Resources Policy

The draft National Water Resources Policy attempts to provide a water allocation system through establishing ‘property rights’ to water. While recognizing that water is a limited resource, it attempts to improve water use efficiency plus attain equity at the same time. Improving efficiency in water can be achieved only if water is allowed to be used in most water productive uses i.e in high value low water consuming crops or for industrial use. This will negate the equity concerns in water use. Moving water from agriculture to industry or introducing high-value crops will deny access to water for small farmers, poor and disadvantaged. The proposed draft policy attempts to achieve this balance by introducing "appropriate instruments" (possibly water permits). Permits are only given to ‘bulk water’ users, policy implies that while bulk water user rights will be protected by ‘water permits’ rights of small water users will be ‘safeguarded’ through this mechanism. Unfortunately, policy does not illustrate clearly how rights of small water users can be protected. This can leave small water users in a greater risk of losing access to water they already enjoy. Experience from other countries (Tanzania, in similar resources situations) indicate that access to water enjoyed by poor through existing traditional and negotiated rights have been lost when ‘formal rights’ are bestowed. This will directly threaten ‘rights to water’ as enshrined in UN general comment. The state as the trusty to safeguard the rights of its citizens will not be able to abdicate its duties by only protecting the rights of ‘bulk water’ users. Therefore, policy will have to mention explicitly how rights of poor can be protected, not only with safe water for drinking and sanitation but also for livelihoods. It is now recognized that water for reasonable livelihood use should be provided to all people without hindrance to live a life in dignity.

Another issue that needs attention in the draft policy is prioritizing water allocations. Water allocation policy during times of water shortage is clear. It mentions that domestic water will be the priority at time of scarcity. Unfortunately, importance to livelihood water needs during times of scarcity is not recognized. Further, the policy does not mention explicitly, allocation priority under normal situations. Irrespective of the environmental conditions, water for drinking, sanitation and livelihood needs has to be protected. Thus, it becomes a duty by the state to ensure unhindered provision of water for life sustaining activities.

Policy underpins the onus of maintaining equity and efficiency that is vested with River Basin Committees (RBC), a new institutional arrangement at local level. While it is always good to empower local organizations to manage natural resources, RBCs as envisaged in the policy will be premature, given the political and bureaucratic situation in the country. River Basin Committees or River Basin Organizations are viable organization dealing with water allocations and management in countries like Australia (Murray Darling River Basin), where all water users are more or less homogeneous in their respective livelihoods.

We in Sri lanka are far from this situation with different stakeholders in a river basin comprising of varying livelihoods, wealth and political power. Certainly, we should not discard the concept of RBCs as local institutions for water resources management in a river basin. However, implementing such democratic institutions can come when we as a country are more mature in sharing natural resources for a common good.

Rural Water Supply Policy

The common citizen associates the water policy to, ‘selling of water’ ‘taxing of water’, ‘cost recovery’ etc. But how many of us know that there are other policies, such as the "Rural Water supply and Sanitation Policy" that has been in practice over the past decade. A policy does not have to be a written document to be practiced. A consistent framework that oversees intended beneficiaries can be a policy. However, sustaining such frameworks for future beneficial use needs to be approved as a policy, preferably by the cabinet of ministers (as practiced in Sri Lanka).

The framework that was followed by the National Water Supply and Drainage Board (NWSDB) in supplying water to rural areas in Sri Lanka is an exemplary policy. This practice became institutionalized only in 2001 as the "National Policy for Rural Water Supply and Sanitation Sector" (RWSS) was a result of work by NWSDB and the Community Water Supply and Sanitation Project (CWSSP) in providing water to the poor in rural Sri Lanka. The ‘policy’ recognizes water as an economic good and has a value attached to it. This is certainly due to its preoccupation of being a water supply agency which puts a price on water for cost of delivery. However, it also recognizes water as a ‘basic human need’ which warrants equitable allocation. To this extent RWSS policy acknowledges the significance attached to water with respect to "human needs". This policy could have been further strengthened if it recognized water as a "human right".

Provision of water to rural areas in Sri Lanka follows the principle of Demand Responsive Approach (DRA). While DRA is a concept that was introduced by the World Bank to approach a wider section of community on a sustainable basis, it has its own draw backs preventing greater effectiveness. DRA is inherently biased towards cost recovery. This can eliminate poor and the marginalized. However, experience gained from implementing RWSS projects over the past decade has improved its performance with respect to effectiveness of outreach.

Approach adopted under DRA takes into consideration the importance of information to select a technology-based on ‘informed choice’. Community Awareness, Community Mobilization and Participatory Planning process under DRA takes more than a year. In wider application of DRA for rural water supply else where in the world, Sri Lankan approach has been considered as exemplary mainly due to preparatory time prior to implementation.

How have rural communities benefited through this policy? Research conducted in some rural water supply schemes in Sri Lanka, reveal the poor have benefited most through RWSS projects implemented using DRA. Poor who depend on wage labour for livelihood sustenance had to sacrifice lot of time for fetching water. Provision of water supply schemes have provided them with the extra time which they can now deploy in labour work. Three to four hours per day spent on fetching water has been saved due to rural water supply projects. There is a three fold increase in per capita water use among the poorer groups in rural communities while among the wealthier groups per capita water consumption has increased eight fold. Increase in water consumption among the poorer groups were for sanitation needs while home gardening and water based small scale industries were common among the wealthier groups, besides increased water for sanitation. Hence, water security of rural communities have increased due to rural water supply projects implemented through DRA.

However, increase in water security has a cost. Poor have to pay dearly to obtain household water supply. This could vary from consumption substitution to economic substitution and in extreme conditions even mortgaging permanent assets (i.e land). Substitution among wealthier groups could limit only to adjustments in spending or reallocation of expenditure i.e postponing house repairs. Poor sometimes spends up to 85% of their monthly income to obtain household water supply while wealthier groups spend about 30%.

Costs involved in obtaining rural water supply has sometimes denied poor people, access to water. Funds obtained by the state to serve the poor, are denied due to certain policy drawbacks. On the average 5% of most deserving rural poor do not get access to water due to inherent weaknesses in DRA policy (independent research has indicated more than 10% community drop outs due to economic reasons).

Can the state ignore this section of the population and achieve Millennium Development Goals? Is the state abdicating its duty by the people to provide and protect the rights to water for all its citizens? This is when water becomes a "social good".

We need to recognize when water is an ‘economic good’ and when it is a ‘social good’. Water being a peculiar commodity it has both these features depending on the use and user. It is an economic input when water is used for commercial production in industry but it is a social good when it satisfies basic need of human beings. In essence, policies have to recognize this fact and treat water both as an economic and a social good depending on the circumstances. It is only then the rights of poor in attaining water security will be fulfilled while satisfying the needs of the rich as a productive asset.

Finally, let me conclude this article by suggesting that we need to change our approach in dealing with rural communities at least in water supply. Rather than being satisfied with one community as a whole we need to look at sub communities and smaller groups to identify the poorest of the poor.

Most of our water policy development approaches have been project based. Projectized policy reforms are not sustainable due to lack of resources to maintain the project cycle. Therefore, policy formulation should be essentially a local affair (like what happened when India formulated its water policy in 1987). Foreign assistance can be or should be sought for generating data and information, conducting public awareness and pilot testing the policy reforms process.

Policies should ensure that poor improve their access to water and not distance them from the resource.



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