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