Wise about Water: New research program for Sri Lanka seeks to better understand water use, agriculture and the environment

On World Environment Day, Dharshani Weerasekera , reflects on how Sri Lanka’s water resources will need careful husbandry to ensure high quality supplies are available to all. For most of us, especially in Colombo, the torrential rains of December 2012 and January this year were just an inconvenience. But their consequences elsewhere in the island […]

On World Environment Day, Dharshani Weerasekera , reflects on how Sri Lanka’s water resources will need careful husbandry to ensure high quality supplies are available to all.

For most of us, especially in Colombo, the torrential rains of December 2012 and January this year were just an inconvenience. But their consequences elsewhere in the island were devastating.

The resulting floods affected almost half a million people and displaced about 50,000 according to the Disaster Management Centre. Most of them were struggling to recover from the cyclone that struck a month before. In a cruel irony, the floods ended a long drought which had already ruined many crops.

Such calamitous combinations of events are mercifully rare. But for the engineers, scientists and policy makers responsible for managing Sri Lanka’s water resources, they are just one more headache.

In many respects Sri Lanka is very fortunate in having bountiful water resources. For the island as a whole, there is more than enough water to grow all the food we need, guarantee domestic supplies and support economic development. However in parts of the country, easy and equitable access to good quality water is still a pipe dream. Sri Lanka is not facing water scarcity, but rapid changes are taking place which are putting our abundant water resources and ecosystems under serious stress. It is becoming as clear as water itself, that management practices must change.

Sri Lanka has a long history as South Asia’s most venerable hydraulic civilization. But with economic development in high gear, demand for increased access, to high quality water is unprecedented. Indeed, these issues are of global concern. To raise awareness of such trends the United Nations has nominated 2013 as the International Year of Water Cooperation. It is also reflected in the theme for this year’s World Environment Day: THINK.EAT.SAVE.

This global recognition is in part influenced by the reality of climate change which is already affecting water availability in many parts of the world.. And that means our lifestyles, our food and our economy will be impacted.


Agricultural water use and productivity

So how are patterns of water use changing?  That is what the theme of this year’s World Environment Day is all about: trying to produce what we consume in a sustainable manner.   Agriculture is the biggest user of water in almost all economies. Globally it accounts for 70% of freshwater withdrawals. So looking critically at the quantity and quality of water used to grow the food we eat is of paramount importance if we want a sustainable future.

Sri Lanka’s farmers have traditionally used water both from communally run tanks and from wells. The cascading small tank systems of Sri Lanka’s Dry Zone have survived for millennia. Adaptability and community organisation are at the heart of this longevity. Enduring land use patterns, secure property rights and sophisticated rules of community management have ensured its unbroken history.

Community management made the system remarkably robust yet flexible enough to modify itself to each change. But even here change is afoot. In many areas of the island’s dry zone farmers are increasingly in favour of pumping groundwater from wells.

Cheap pumps, easy access to fuel and the convenience of water on demand have driven this transformation.  It has allowed growers to invest in perishable crops like vegetables, which, thanks to improved infrastructure, can now be speedily trucked to urban markets. Prices can be easily checked using mobile phones allowing farmers to judge when to harvest to get the best return on their investments.

The groundwater revolution has revived stagnating rural economies but raised concerns about equal access to water. The poorest farmers have found it hard to find the resources needed to cash in on the boom. Scientists are also concerned about water availability in some parts of the country. The effects of increased use of agrochemicals combined with groundwater pumping may lead to problems of contamination. The situation will require careful management.

For example, unviable groundwater extraction such as in the Jaffna peninsula is threatening the only source of freshwater there outside of the rainy season. The quality and quantity of this underground freshwater bubble, essential for Jaffna, is already affected. If unprotected, over-extraction will compromise the fragile balance between sea water and aquifer freshwater.


A new strategy

Sri Lanka’s historic expertise in water management gives it a head start in rising to these new challenges. Many talented water resources experts already work in the sector. In addition, the island is host to the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), one of the world’s leading natural resource research institutions. Partnerships between the institution and local universities provide a solid research base for improved water management. IWMI recently announced a new strategy for its work in Sri Lanka, underpinned by recent research emerging from these partnerships.  Four broad themes have been identified as key priorities: agricultural water use, climate change impacts (flood and drought management), sustainable management of natural resources and ecosystems, and creation and mobilisation of knowledge.

“The supply situation and patterns of use are changing all the time,” says Herath Manthrithilake, head of IWMI’s Sri Lanka research program. “The most demanding sectors such as energy and industry are pressurising traditional use – agriculture. Other legitimate but weaker voices on behalf of marginalised groups and the environment, are barely heard. We are already seeing extreme weather consequences of climate change.

“To balance fair access and distribution to all users with feasible provision, resource management must be integrated and as dynamic as the challenges it faces.  Sri Lanka’s new economic realities cannot be supported by ‘business as usual’ attitudes. The goal of our research program is to understand this changing scene and share the new knowledge it generates to enable the best decisions.”

For Sri Lanka, cooperation over water is a essentially a national tradition. The island’s ancient irrigation systems required people to work together for the common good. But a booming economy and climate change are now threatening this legacy.  As a larger picture of complex water use and misuse is emerging. The good news is, however, that sustainable management is possible through a locally appropriate approach and partnerships with common goals.  


Will the bubble burst?

Many regard changing patterns in water use as a threat. Talk of “water wars” or a “global water crisis” regularly pops-up in the world’s media. Certainly scientists and policy makers are concerned, but managed skilfully, there is enough water to deliver the future we want without undermining the ecosystems that support us all. That is why research is so vital. If we can better understand how water is used, we can ensure that the doom laden headlines of future scarcity do not become reality.

A water scarce Sri Lanka seems an unimaginable scenario. But without systems in place to ensure sustainability, the country could face potentially critical water resource situations.

Natural ecosystems, which include water bodies, are often undervalued and disregarded. But their economic value often goes unrecognised. Without them agriculture would collapse and their ability to regulate of extreme events would be lost. Wetlands, for instance play a huge role in mitigating floods by absorbing water during peak flows.

Robust policies and wise management are required to protect and use them without further harm. Gaps in locally relevant information must be identified and new knowledge discovered. This role of research cannot be overstated.

For Sri Lanka, better water solutions mean being better informed about our environments and having the right tools to make good decisions.

[hr top=”no”/]

Dharshani Weerasekera is an independent development sciences writer. This article was funded by IWMI, but the views expressed are the author’s own.


Funders & Partners:

Related Articles