A reliable supply of water is critical for agricultural intensification and yield improvement. Technological devices that lift, transport and apply water contribute to increased yield from improved crop varieties and high input cultivation. The increasing use of motor pumps is a significant contribution to the development of small-scale irrigation. The objective of this study was to identify and analyze the trajectories of technological innovations and uptake for agricultural water management in farming systems in Sri Lanka, with a special focus on identifying impacts, emerging issues and potential responses to the rapid proliferation of motor pumps in the intensification of agriculture in the country.

The Government of Sri Lanka promoted the rapid adoption of water pumps through interventions such as the development of groundwater wells for agriculture; provision of subsidies and credit facilities for purchasing micro-irrigation equipment; and government policies on tax, tariffs and extension support. At the same time, the high profit margin realized from cash crop cultivation motivated farmers to invest in water lifting and related technologies. Finally, water scarcity and restrictions on the use of surface water, i.e., canals, prompted a shift to using water-lifting technologies to pump groundwater. The use of water pumps in agriculture has expanded the area under cultivation; increased cropping intensity, especially during the dry seasons; changed the cropping pattern from low-return rice cultivation to high-return cash crop cultivation; and enhanced household incomes. Expanded and intensified cultivation has provided more opportunities for women to participate in agriculture, generating additional income, and enhancing their purchasing power and decision-making at the household level.

Some farmers do not have groundwater wells and water pumps because they lack the necessary capital to make the initial investment. Smallholder farmers, in particular, are reluctant to risk their limited income on new technologies. This may lead to the further marginalization of poor farmers. Inclusive intensification will require helping farmers to access irrigation technology, for example, through carefully targeted subsidies and access to credit. Using water pumps can provide benefits to both users and non-users, but uncontrolled groundwater extraction may also create new problems by putting enormous pressure on common property resources.

The government will need to take on a dual role to both promote the inclusive growth of small-scale irrigation, and to prevent and mitigate its negative environmental impacts. This second role may include establishing a regulatory system, setting standards for well construction, and monitoring and enforcing standards on extraction and water quality. There is an urgent need for institutional measures and governance arrangements to guide and regulate groundwater irrigation, especially in the context of intensive cultivation using shallow aquifers.


Aheeyar, Mohamed; Manthrithilake, Herath; Ranasinghe, Chathuranga; Rengaraj, Manooj; Gamagedara, Yasas; Barron, Jennie. 2019. Mechanizing water lifting through pumps: a case study in Sri Lanka. Colombo, Sri Lanka: International Water Management Institute (IWMI) 61p. (IWMI Working Paper 188) [DOI] | Fulltext (2.20 MB)