When Worlds Collide #59: Seeking Clarity in Murky Waters

Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday newspaper on 24 March 2013

 Satellite image taken on 18 May 2010 by India's Kalpana-1 satellite: Southwest Monsoon beginning to deliver 'foreign rains' to Sri Lanka

Satellite image taken on 18 May 2010 by India’s Kalpana-1 satellite: Southwest Monsoon beginning to deliver ‘foreign rains’ to Sri Lanka

When it comes to collectively and rationally managing our freshwater, many Lankans seem to suspend their good judgement. Any passing conspiracy theory, no matter how far-fetched or implausible, is uncritically accepted and readily passed around.

Why do some people get so ‘drunk’ on water? Sure, everyone is entitled to their own opinions (and fantasies). But not to their own facts. When myths and paranoia shape activist agendas and influence (or inhibit) public policies, things go wrong.

As we marked another World Water Day this week (March 22), I wondered how we can seek greater clarity in these muddied waters.

Sri Lanka isn’t yet classified as a country with water scarcity by global definitions – at least when cumulative national values are taken. But there are local disparities in how freshwater is distributed.

According to Sri Lanka Environmental Outlook 2009, published by the Ministry of Environment, our average per capita availability of freshwater — 2,592 cubic metres per year — is adequate. (Countries begin to experience periodic or regular ‘water stress’ when this value drops to 1,700. Below 1,000, ‘water scarcity’ begins to affect economic development and human well being.)

In fact, the per capita value has already gone under 1,000 in cities such as Colombo, Puttlam and Jaffna. With population growth, more cities – like Kandy, Gampaha and Kurunegala – will also have low per capita water levels in the future.

Foreign Rain?

Practically all our water comes from rainfall, and we get plenty of it: an average annual rainfall of over 2,000 mm, much of it arriving in two monsoons. Thus, we are highly dependent on ‘foreign rains’ — carried in by seasonal Indian Oceanic winds — for our survival…

26 May 2012: When Worlds Collide #17: We are All Children of the Monsoon!

A good synthesis of current knowledge on water-climate nexus in Sri Lanka is found here

The monsoon systems are potentially sensitive to global warming, but exactly how it can impact rainfall volumes and intensity is still being understood. Dr W L Sumathipala, former head of the government’s climate change secretariat, was recently quoted as saying that water — the lack of it and too much of it — will become the biggest climate induced factor determining the way we live.

The past year, 2012, provided ample reminders of this. The South-west Monsoon arrived late and brought less rain. Much of the country was in the grip of a 10-month-long drought, which ended in November with torrential rains which then triggered floods. Meteorologists confirm that rainfall is erratic: extreme weather events are both more frequent and more intense.

Water, once delivered by rainfall, is constantly moved around by that enormous, solar-powered natural water pump called the water cycle. With all our elaborate structures and technologies, we only get to control a small part of it.

The Ministry of Irrigation and Water Resources Management estimates that 10% of Sri Lanka’s total rainfall volume is used for irrigation and 6% for domestic and industrial purposes, while about 23% flows to the sea as runoff (through 103 river basins and 54 small drainage basins).

Of the total water we capture and use, irrigated agriculture gets the lion’s share of 80%, much of it for growing rice. There is a declared national goal to reduce agriculture’s share of water use to 60% by 2016. At the same time, paddy production is set to increase by 10% by 2025, with the new rice areas all being irrigated. Might these goals clash?

Thirsty Rice

“The demand for agricultural water has to be balanced with the municipal and industrial water demands. In balancing these demands, the goals of public health, environmental protection, economic viability, and food security need to be carefully assessed,” wrote Chatura Rodrigo and Athula Senaratne, two researchers with the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS).

Their essay, titled ‘Will Sri Lanka Run out of Water for Agriculture, or can it be managed?’, was released to mark World Water Day.

The only way to achieve such balance is to increase the efficiency of water use, but progress has been slow. Growing rice in Sri Lanka remains needlessly water intense. An average of 20 tons of water is used to grow one kilo of rice. Astonishingly, three quarters of this is used to suppress weeds, and not to meet the rice plant’s own needs. (As the late Ray Wijewardene used to say, water was becoming the most expensive herbicide in our land).

Proven innovations such as the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) can reduce this waste. This eco-friendly method keeps paddy fields moist with leaf mulch, and more than halves the water to produce the same yield. SRI has been adopted in many countries in South and Southeast Asia, but Lankan farmers have been slow and even resistant to such change.

Profligacy is generally frowned upon in our society – except in irrigated water, it seems. Despite agriculture’s shrinking contribution to the GDP (now around 12%), the farmer is a ‘Sacred Cow’. He is rarely questioned or challenged, even when his ways are utterly unsustainable.

It isn’t just a question of pampered paddy. IPS points out that many farmers are now moving into intensive commercial agriculture, and “privately oriented land/water management strategies are rapidly being adopted”.

Private choices, but with far reaching implications on common property resources.

Groundwater Time-bomb

Groundwater extraction, though not specifically mentioned by IPS, is one such ‘private strategy’. So far, this practice is completely unregulated in Sri Lanka.

The International Water Management Institute (IWMI) noted in 2005 that there were around 50,000 agro-wells in our dry zone, many of them built during the two preceding decades. That boom was triggered by a subsidy for brick and concrete-lined wells introduced in 1989. It was aided by many aquifers being close to the surface, which made digging of shallow wells and drilling tube wells relatively cheap.

In a 2005 policy brief, IWMI cautioned that groundwater overuse could make water levels to drop so far that small farmers won’t be able to access the water at low cost. It could also lead to serious health problems from groundwater pollution.

“Much is at stake. But there is also a great opportunity to learn from –and avoid — the mistakes made in other countries,” IWMI said.

Balancing Acts

Groundwater misuse is not just a dry zone or agricultural concern. The pressures are even greater in cities and towns. Last year, the Colombo Municipal Council’s Chief Medical Officer confirmed that Colombo’s groundwater is contaminated with sewage. There is no data yet on the groundwater quality in other cities.

Yet the first attempt to regulate groundwater use last year – by introducing a license – was vehemently opposed. Environmentalists protested without even debating the issues involved. As a result, the private, haphazard and indiscriminate extraction of groundwater continues and expands – to everyone’s peril.

Dr Rohan Samarajiva, Head of LIRNEasia and infrastructure specialist, said at the time: “What we need at this point is a fact-based discussion of what the appropriate solution is. Not simple-minded protests about charging for water.”

Alas, discussions of water policy in Sri Lanka are too often emotionally charged. Water sector professionals are intimidated by vocal activists with good media access to amplify their alarmism. Time bombs are ticking away while romanticised notions block real debate.

Policy makers, researchers and activists must rise above their entrenched positions. We also need good research data and analysis, pragmatic policies informed by such evidence, and a truly consultative process that involves all water users — and not just the loudest.

That’s the only way to tackle formidable challenges in water management, made more complex by climate uncertainties and rising human aspirations. The UN-designated International Year of Water Cooperation, in 2013, provides a useful window.

UN Year of Water Cooperation

Follow me on my blog: http://nalakagunawardene.com, and on Twitter: NalakaG

Advertisements

About Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 25+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing. There's NOTHING OFFICIAL about this blog. In fact, there's NOTHING OFFICIAL about me! I've always stayed well clear of ALL centres of power and authority.
This entry was posted in Agriculture, Climate change, Communicating Development, Conspiracy Theories, Environment, Environmental management, Environmental policy, Public health, Sri Lanka, Sustainable Development, Water management and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to When Worlds Collide #59: Seeking Clarity in Murky Waters

  1. Dr.C.S. Weeraratna says:

    The total amount of water we receive in the form of rain is around 100 billion cubic meters per year. Out of the total water received by the island, around 40-60% escapes to the sea as run-off. Thus, around 40-50 billion cubic meters of water finally ends up in rivers, reservoirs and sea although we often speak of the famous dictum of King Parakramabahu I, The total amount of water received in the form of rainis around 100 billion cubic meters per year. Out of the total water received by the island, around 40-60% escapes to the sea as run-off. Thus, around 40-50 billion
    cubic meters of water finally ends up in rivers, reservoirs and sea although we often speak of the famous dictum of King Parakramabahu I, according to which “let not even one drop of water that falls on the earth in the form of rain be allowed to reach the sea”

    Conservation of water is important in our efforts to provide water for irrgation/dometic consumption etc.

  2. Dr.C.S. Weeraratna says:

    The total amount of water we receive in the form of rain is around 100 billion cubic meters per year. Out of the total water received by the island, around 40-60% escapes to the sea as run-off. Thus, around 40-50 billion cubic meters of water finally ends up in rivers, reservoirs and sea although we often speak of the famous dictum of King Parakramabahu I, The total amount of water received in the form of rainis around 100 billion cubic meters per year. Out of the total water received by the island, around 40-60% escapes to the sea as run-off. Thus, around 40-50 billion
    cubic meters of water finally ends up in rivers, reservoirs and sea although we often speak of the famous dictum of King Parakramabahu I, according to which “let not even one drop of water that falls on the earth in the form of rain be allowed to reach the sea”

    Conservation of water is important in our efforts to provide water for irrgation/dometic consumption etc.

  3. @Dr. C. S. Weeraratna,
    History (including oft-repeated words of King Parakramabahu) is a matter of human construct and interpretation, but water cycle is driven by the laws of physics. We either play by these laws or get outplayed by them…

  4. Feizal Mansoor says:

    It is unclear why you focus primarily on the water requirements of our farmers, who after all are living as best as possible what remains of a traditional life, when foreign concerns like India’s Dabur are potentially going to be exporting millions of litres of deep groundwater in the face of local protests? What about the encouragement of the Dole enterprise with a water hungry crop? Overall even the report you sent us to focus on farmers without dealing at all with the unregulated commercial exploitation of water. Your focus needs to be more balanced.

  5. @Feizal Mansoor,
    I did make it clear why I focus on farmers because “irrigated agriculture gets the lion’s share of 80%” in Sri Lanka (which is higher than the global average of 70%). ALL others use the balance 20%, even though that smaller use may be more visible to activists who live in or close to cities…

    By the way, today’s farmers are not as hapless or innocent as they are portrayed to be. Successive govts have pandered to their whims so they are a demanding, pampered lot. Many are short-term exploiters of natural resources. It is politically incorrect to criticise farmers, I know, but somebody has to say this!

  6. I think the criticism against water privatization cannot take so simple. We are not against all sort of pricing. There is no argument that water need to be regulated. However, Natural water should be free. However, when it comes to the farm land or to the household through a man-made infrastructures there is a cost. I am not against charging a cost for the maintenance of such infrastructures. But water decisions should be taken in a participatory and transparent way. I strongly believe water should be in the public hand and decisions should taken in a democratic way.

    We should stop ground water pollution and overuse. Why the big businesses in the western province have a free right to pollute ground water? Certainly we should stop using ground water for businesses. With regard to the farmers, we should distinguish farmers who cultivate in hundreds of acres and those who cultivate only their small plots. We should not mix up with those companies who cultivate large banana, sugar cane as farmers. For example Dole company tap ground water in water scarce Monaragala, Buttala and Thanamalvila for zero cost. Why they get free water?

    • Rohan Samarajiva says:

      Is Dole actually tapping ground water in Moneragala, Buttala and Tanamalvila at the present time? Why are we mixing up hypotheticals and reality?

      Six months ago, I tried to initiate a formal discussion on this emotive subject, based on a news release that decried water pricing as a way to regulate overuse of ground water but had no success. A whole chapter in my Apata galapena artika kramaveda book addresses this issue and I focused on it at a public meeting held in Anuradhapura late last year. Why can we not organize a similar discussion in Colombo with the groups that object to water pricing? Isn’t water too important to be a emotive football to be kicked around whenever anyone in government tries to do something about it?

      • Feizal Mansoor says:

        There is absolutely nothing hypothetical about Dabur Lanka’s plans to extract deep groundwater from Kotadeniyawa, mix it with imported concentrate and export 3.36 million litres of finished product a month. There are going to be no jobs for the denizens of Kotadeniyawa as Dabur requires English speakers, the process is in any event apparently mostly automated. As Dabur Lanka is a BOI company which is a 100% owned subsidiary of Dabur International, a Channel Island company, which is itself owned by Dabur India, no doubt they will export their profits to the Channel Islands too. So what do we have? A foreign company making a 100% purchase of private land, extracting the water resources of the region, taxing an already overstressed electrical infrastructure which means they will be burning both more coal and more diesel, and leaving their refuse behind. I mean if the government wants to turn Sri Lanka into India’s toilet at least they should stop shouting that they are our friends.
        Anyway if, as someone says above at least 40% of rainfall runs off in to the sea without being used, perhaps as a nation our focus should be on making better use of that instead of beginning discussions of pricing.

  7. For this discussion to be more meaningful, good if someone can tell us what definition is accepted in Sri Lanka for ‘small farmer’ (food crops or cash crops).

    Here’s what I found in a 2010 UN-FAO regional analysis:
    “Although there does not exist a commonly accepted definition of small farmers, in some countries (or regions) of Asia the percentage of small holdings (below 2 ha) could be up to 90 percent of the total holdings in the country. The share of area operated by small holders in the total agricultural area of the country varies from one country to another. But in most Asian countries total land cultivated by small holders represent a sizable portion of agricultural land in the country.”
    http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/templates/ess/documents/meetings_and_workshops/APCAS23/documents_OCT10/APCAS-10-28_-Small_farmers.pdf

    The same document notes, on p9:
    “Sri Lanka Agricultural Census 2002: Estate or Plantation sector: Is an agricultural holding of 20 acres (8.1 hectares) or more in extent. In the case that different parcels add up to 20 acres, the holding is not considered an estate because the estate should have at least one parcel reaching 20 acres in extent. Similarly, a holding with 20 acres or more of purely paddy land is not considered an estate. Small Holdings Sector (peasant): are those holdings not falling into the category of estates.
    Marginal or Inactive Holdings: are those holdings reporting an area of less than 40 perches (0.11 hectares) and having an agricultural production mainly for home consumption.”

    A decade later, is this still accepted? Or is there a better one?

  8. Good to read the stimulating article and responses. I agree with @Rohan Samarajiva. We need transparency and open discussion involving all stakeholders including rural and urban, domestic and industrial water users. This could prevent the lobby for sustainable management of water resources being fragmented by individual and small group concerns. A unified movement for the common good is vital to prevent the vested interests of groups with purely short-term commercial interests from over-exploiting Sri Lanka’s water resources, at the cost of long-term food security. Education and raising awareness of the facts and risks cannot be over-stressed. Communication is the key.

  9. Pingback: When Worlds Collide #61: Climate Change – Adapt Now or Perish Later! | When Worlds Collide, by Nalaka Gunawardene

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s