Towards a developed water resources management plan
Water resources: absolutely essential for national sustenance
WATER RESOURCES: I salute the Secretary to the Ministry of
Agriculture, Irrigation and Mahaweli Development for displaying courage
to publish the draft National Water Resources Management Policy (NWRMP)
even though the draft needs substantial review.
The policy development process in Sri Lanka has a chequered past. In
March 2000, National Water Resources Policy and Institutional
Arrangement was approved by the Cabinet.
However, public may remember how the water policy was made the red
herring by all successive governments, particularly during times of
The current draft too may face the same fate unless policy proponents
understand the principle, contents and logic presented in the policy.
Justification given in the draft policy clearly identifies the
growing competition for water among different stakeholders. Therefore,
what we need is a rational water allocation policy considering the
limited nature of the resources.
Often we find statements to say "when Sri Lanka had a predominantly
rural agro based economy with few industries and only a limited
population; Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) was not a
It is fashionable to use such quotations where IWRM is presented as
the panacea for all water use problems. Once Mahathma Gandhi said that
there is "enough water for one's need but not for one's greed", thus it
is how one manages the limited quantity of water that matters in future.
Increasingly, IWRM is being proposed as the way forward. I have no
qualms about IWRM as a 'concept'. Technically it is possible to accept
IWRM as a means to manage limited water resources but is it practically
possible? Integrated water resources management is nothing new to Sri
Lanka, however, current wave of IWRM began in mid 1990s with the Global
Water Partnership (GWP) taking a lead role to promote IWRM in the
One of the key concerns in IWRM is consensus among stakeholders. The
concept assumes consensus, openness and inclusiveness in decision making
with respect to rational allocation of water among stakeholders. All
sounds good in theory. Practically it is the most difficult.
Especially, in South Asian context, even intra institutional
consensus is difficult not to mention of inter institutional agreements.
This was evident in the very temple of GWP in South Asia.
GWP South Asia regional office had to be discontinued due to poor
consensus, understanding and inclusiveness among its own stakeholders.
Therefore, it is always good to understand the issues and relevant
actors in water resources management before boarding the IWRM bandwagon.
Current list of policy principles presented in the draft policy have
undergone many changes over time due to political sensitivity. In the
process of change some policy principles have lost its dimension as
principles governing water.
For instance, the first two policy principles in the published draft
policy are 'statement of facts'. It says "water is a limited resource"
and "water is a basic need" these are unchallengeable facts.
In the confusion between principles and statements, policy has
sacrificed the 'human rights' aspect of water to 'basic needs'. This can
have implications in allocations priorities. One of the fundamental
problems in the draft policy is the attempt to avoid some of the
For instance, policy appears to be shying away from the new
institutional arrangement. It has used many words to cover up what is to
be the "National Water Resources Authority" (NWRA).
Similarly, groundwater regulation, a function identified with NWRA is
delegated to a "relevant institution". Currently there is no institution
to regulate groundwater use.
Original water policy (approved in 2000) explicitly mentions that
NWRA will regulate groundwater use through a system of 'entitlements' or
'permits'. If the current draft policy assumes a different mechanism
then it should be presented upfront without trying to cover up through
The underlying principle of the original Water Policy of March 2000,
was to establish property rights to water which could then behave as a
'commodity'. Civil society challenge against the water policy in early
2000 was due to establishing ownership to a 'common property'.
Policy development process has failed to realize the importance of
the 'human rights' aspect of water. This is reflected in the present
Being a signatory to the UN general comment No. 15 of 2002, on "UN
committee on economic, social and cultural rights", water has to be
recognized and respected as a 'human right' which is indispensable for
leading a life in human dignity. Policy drafters have paid scant respect
to this convention or had no knowledge on the UN covenant.
The draft policy considers water as a "public asset" ignoring the
importance of water as a common good. Definition for 'ownership of
water' is much debated.
Over the long process of policy development, definitions given to
ownership of water changed from, State ownership (2000), basic need and
natural capital (2003), fundamental right (September 2004), public
property (February 2005), common resources (April 2005). Such is the
diversity of confusion. Ownership to water can determine whether it is a
'commodity' or a 'social good'.
Currently, water is 'scarce' resources, it has a utility value but
ownership rights are not established. With established ownership rights,
water can become a full fledge commodity, which can then be transferred
or traded provided there is a demand in the market.
This was the thinking behind the original policy of 2000. Some of
these elements are still present in the current draft policy. If
ownership is established, water rights can be transferred through a
mechanism of 'entitlements or permits'.
The draft policy avoids mentioning either of these measures but say
through 'appropriate mechanisms'.
Further, I am doubtful whether a 'public asset' can be transferred
without the approval from public. All this confusion and ambiguity is a
result of poor understanding on the contents of the policy.
This is the most important section of the policy but the draft does
not appear to give adequate attention to a clear strategy for water
allocation among different users. It appears that the policy proposes an
allocation mechanism for all water users including innumerable small
scale water users.
However, I would assume that allocation mechanism proposed in the
draft policy refers only to "bulk water" users.
Small scale water users will have their own arrangement to allocate
water from bulk users. Draft policy stresses the importance of
participatory decision making process among all stakeholders.
It is very good if this can be as simple as it sounds. Thuruwila
water conflict in Anuradhapura, clearly illustrate the difficulty of
arriving at consensus among water providers (irrigation verses domestic)
though both are expected to serve the public.
Draft policy has singled out River Basin Organizations (RBOs) as the
'focal point' for implementing the water resources plan. It has
entrusted the RBOs to ensure efficient and equitable allocation of water
This to me is very idealistic. Given the dynamics of local
institutions how feasible is this preposition? What is the current
status of Kala Oya River Basin Committee? Those involved in policy
formulation will have to take stock of all these before thinking of new
institutions for water allocation.
The draft policy brings back the same three tire institutional
arrangement which was highly contested during post 2000 policy debate.
Creating another authority for water resources management is very
sensitive given the traditions of water institutions in Sri Lanka.
Although this institution is expected to coordinate and regulate
water resources with a small staff, in reality this is not possible.
Past experience suggests that when such institutions are assigned
under subject specific ministers, they become huge gigantic monsters
with a staff of no less than 1000-2000.
This is the political reality of our country. NWRA was once thought
as the 'Apex body' for water resources management (common feature in
South East Asian water sector reforms). What would be the position of
other water related institutions if NWRA is the water 'Apex body' in Sri
Will NWRA function as the umbrella organization? All these are
questions for the concern water professionals. Therefore, while
establishing an institution to regulate and coordinate water resources
is good in theory, practically it will create more confusion and
opposition than coordination.
Certainly, we need a water resources allocation policy. We need to
get our water allocation priorities right under both normal and disaster
situations. Water resources have to be identified as a common resource
with the State as the custodian.
Water allocation has to be governed by a well developed water
resources management plan. Priority will have to be given to surface and
ground water resources assessments including a comprehensive demand
Macro level water allocation policy should be the responsibility of
the State (in partnership with other stakeholders) according to a
defined allocation plan while micro level water allocation can be
through RBOs or Community Based Organizations (CBOs) where appropriate.
However, it is advisable to test the new allocation and institutional
arrangement in a few selected river basins before recommending to the
country as a whole.