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