Having 103 river basins, Sri Lanka is not a water-stressed country although it experiences water shortages with seasonal variations. Sri Lanka’s state policy, from time immemorial, has been to use water sustainably. It was King Parakramabahu who said that not a single drop of water that falls from the sky must not be allowed to flow to the sea unused.
However, by 2016 much has changed. Most of the small reservoirs have been overrun by the jungle tide or replaced by larger tanks. Because catchment areas are not protected and are denuded through deforestation, these larger tanks are subject to siltation, reducing their retention capacity. Heavy chemical use has also taken a toll forcing the government to focus on discouraging fertilizer use.

Water is extracted independently from waterbodies for agriculture, water supply for human consumption, hydropower generation, industrial uses and tourism, infringing on the rights of water for environmental needs such as wildlife and ecosystems maintenance.

Existing policy
Provision of drinking water is one of the priorities for the Sri Lankan state. Pipe borne water systems and protected wells supply water to 90 per cent of the urban population and 60 per cent of the rural population. Pipe borne water is supplied to over six million of the population at present. The government policy documents specify targets of achieving 60 per cent drinking water supply by 2020, which also encompasses the Millennium Development Goals.

The National Drinking Water Policy has nine Policy Principles states that a holistic approach for water source, water shed and catchment protection will be adopted to prevent pollution and depletion of the resource, to ensure adequate water supply through proper environmental conservation. According to this policy conservation will also include rainwater harvesting and use, reclaim and reuse, prevention of pollution and use of alternate sources for non-consumptive purposes; and promoting incentives for conservation and efficient use of resources through appropriate measures consistent with other policies and programmes.

The perusal of these policy principles and approaches are imperative as it is evident that water management somewhat deviates from aforementioned principles and approaches, as discussed in preceding chapters.

Flaws in policy
The current water policy is a bulk water allocation system. It confers ownership of water based on the right of extraction, which means that water belongs to whoever collects it. VK Nanayakkara in his Sri Lanka’s Water Policy: Themes and Issues (2009) points out that this extracted bulk water is left to the will of individual agencies resulting in a ‘free for all’ situation.
Agencies such as the Irrigation Department, National Water Supply and Drainage Board, Sri Lankan Electricity Board, Mahaweli Authority of Sri Lanka and Agrarian Development Department are competing with each other to develop water resources for their respective sub sectors.

According to Nanayakkara there are over 50 legislative enactments and a plethora of agencies numbering over 40 concerned with water resources, but there isn’t a single neutral agency to determine the appropriate balance between the demand for water and volume of water needed by the river system. Their water use infringes on the rights of water for environmental needs such as wildlife and ecosystems maintenance.

Under the ownership or user rights any water that is in private property whether it is a river that flows through a private property or groundwater, can be either used or abused by the owner. However this does not confer ownership in the full sense of the word as it only permits the use of water up to a permitted quantity. The public has an exclusive right to use of water, but it just cannot be owned.

However, in most cases the largest consumers are also left with the task of allocating water to others. For example, at Ambatale, the National Water Supply and Drainage Board (NWSDB), which controls the water purification plant, is also responsible for water allocation and in turn determines the balance water flow made available for downstream. Where irrigation structures are concerned, the Irrigation Department is responsible for controlling diversion to other uses. This has turned out to be abusive, especially evident in the 2015 drought season, where the people downstream had little water left with.
Extensive use of water by these authorities is contradictory to the government’s role as dictated in the National Drinking Water Policy, where it specifically states that the ‘government through the Ministry in charge of water supply will promote domestic water as the priority.’ In reality we don’t see this happening. Nor do we see that projects and ‘programs are approved according to government policy’, another objective the government is expected to fulfill according to the Drinking Water Policy.


In the policy statement delivered by President
Maithripala Sirisena addressing the eighth Parliament on September 1, 2015, he declared that in the hope of producing healthy food locally by promoting agricultural products to fulfil the nutritional requirements of the people, the government would work to provide drinking and agricultural water by implementing multipurpose development projects such as the Moragahakanda-Kaluganga.

However, often policy decisions are driven by political agenda. For example, water that is meant for the consumption of the Uva Province was diverted towards mega projects such as the Mattala Air Port, Hambantota Drinking Water Project and Uma Oya MultiPurpose Project. These politically driven projects do not only affect water resources, but also adversely impacts the environment in general.

Impact on environment
Hydropower generation – Kithulgala Mini Hydropower Project: In the upper reaches of the Kelani River, hydro-electricity producers decide the water quantity. Here, the government’s policy on power generation clashes with its policy to improve eco-tourism, not to mention its water policy. This is evident in the Kithulgala Mini Hydropower project, which received wide media coverage in 2015. It was the site of the major motion picture ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’ and the Mini-hydropower project also tolls the death knell to the whitewater rafting business that reportedly draws 100,000 tourists. The 35 MW dam will cut through two of Kelani River’s main tributaries.

But more importantly it results in pollution of the riverine system. Kariyawasam and Thoradeniya in Impacts of Mini Hydropower Plants: A research design through preliminary studies, the paper presented at the Proceedings of eighth International Research Conference, KDU, observes that downstream flow of water is either considerably reduced during certain periods of the year or completely eliminated through damming. It results in water shortage for both drinking and irrigation practices.

The lack of proper, neutral water allocation mechanism has resulted in the increasing urban population infringing on water resources originally allocated for agricultural use, Nanayakkara has observed. He uses Mohamed Aheeyar’s example, the water conflict between the Anuradhapura Water Supply Scheme and the irrigation requirements of the Thuruwila Farmers. He argues that with urban expansion, new appropriation of water for commercial agricultural, industrial or hotel use is a given, disrupting earlier appropriations.

This is contradictory to the National Water Policy principle which dictates that ‘abstraction of water from the rivers and streams for domestic purposes will be carried out in recognition of (without prejudice to) downstream needs.’

Uma Oya Multipurpose Development Project: The high profile Uma Oya Multipurpose Development Project has caused a host of environmental problems such as groundwater depletion, risk of landslides, water contamination, ground subsidence, property damage, soil degradation and soil pollution due to its tunnel construction work.

The tunnel runs from Puhuloya up to Karandagolla and Alikota-ara, a geologically unstable area. Over 1,200 families have been directly affected due to the project. Due to ground water depletion, local wells have run dry affecting both drinking and agricultural water sources. The residents lack drinking water and are forced to depend on water distributed by the Government Agent.

Traditional water consumers of the Bathmadilla and Soranathota schemes that are mainly dependent on Uma Oya for irrigation are adversely affected by the project. Some have been forced to abandon their agricultural lands altogether. Over 1,200 farmers and 3,000 water consumers have been affected in Welimada and Rantembe due to water shortages.
Experts claim that Oma Oya water is contaminated with fertilizer run-off and diverting the water to Hambantota would help the spread of CKDu (Chronic Kidney Disease of Unknown Etiology) in Hambantota. The policy on fertilizer subsidy indirectly affects drinking water policy of Sri Lanka, as it is suspected that the high content of heavy metals in the waters of North Central and North Eastern provinces is the result of fertilizer run-off. The decision to provide money for the farmers instead of providing fertilizer would have been environmentally beneficial if the state policy further pushes for a total, gradual phasing out of chemical fertilizer.

Pollution – Coca Cola Incident: There are over 6,000 industries located along the Kelani River, most of which generate effluents that are released to the river. These industries generate thousands of jobs and therefore it is impractical to relocate them. Although these industries are expected to adhere to EPL standards, there is no guarantee that they would, indicating that the government’s industrial policy objectives are in conflict with its drinking water policy objectives.

In fact, the Coca Cola oil spill incident may have gone unnoticed had water consumers not detected the contamination and brought it to the notice of the Water Board. Although the Coca Cola Company was fully aware of the accident, they reportedly made no effort to inform the relevant authorities.

On August 17, an explosion at the facility of Coca Cola Beverages Sri Lanka in Biyagama resulted in an oil spill into the Kelani River. The explosion took place during construction work carried out by a private company and the oil leaked into the river through their rain water drainage system. Approximately 400,000 people drawing water from the water supplied from the Kelani River were affected by the spill.

The Water Board received over 200 complaints regarding the contaminated water passing through the Ambatale intake that provides 500,000 cubic litres of water to Dehiwala, Kaduwela, Maharagama, Maligakanda and Kolonnawa. Although the company took responsibility for what happened, in a bid to avoid high payments, Coca Cola pressured the government to settle the matter out of court.

But this is not an isolated incident. As said before Coca Cola is one of 6,000 industries that discharge effluents into the Kelani River. Domestic and industrial solid waste as well as agro chemical run-off is another major source of pollution. To make matters worse, the lack of proper sewage system and poor sanitary system in urban slums has led to faecal contamination of inland water bodies. Although the National Drinking Water Policy looks strong on paper, the major flaw of the Policy remains in the absence of an independent authority to manage and allocate water resources.