Sri Lanka’s water policy: themes and issues
Fresh water resources in Sri Lanka remain a free public good with the State acting as the trustee and custodian of the resource. Although the country is blessed with a seemingly plentiful supply of water, it encounters severe problems of temporal and spatial scarcity. Nearly five decades of efforts at formulating a national water policy with a view to introducing a bulk water allocation system have failed mainly due to a lack of understanding of the basic issues confronting certain elements that constitute the basic policy. This paper presents selected key themes and issues which help stimulate the formulation and adoption of an improved water resource policy statement. The author argues that what is important in the case of water is not the question of ‘ownership’ of water but regulating the user rights of this common property resource, particularly since such use is always in a state of flux. In the course of its movement in the hydrological cycle, it can only be owned when it is captured in a receptacle or in an impounding tank or as treated water in a reservoir and water conveyed in an irrigation channel. But, it is this very right to abstraction of bulk water from its natural state that is not defined and left to the will of individuals and agencies – virtually resulting in the creation of a ‘free for all’ situation. While the domain of water is characterized by over 50 legislative enactments and a plethora of agencies numbering over 40, there isn’t a single neutral agency to determine the appropriate balance between the demands for off stream consumption and the volume of water flows needed by the river system. The objectives of this paper are: to clarify the meaning of the terms ‘ownership’, ‘user rights’, ‘common property rights’, and ‘right to water’; to analyze and suggest refinements to several water policy themes and issues such as ‘bulk water entitlements’, ‘groundwater management’ and ‘user conflicts’; to outline the roles of institutions for clarity in implementation; to suggest elements that should constitute a future water policy. A better understanding of the issues relating to this finite and vulnerable resource will help clarify the policy concerns that are constantly overlooked – intentionally or unintentionally - in the domain of water. Does Sri Lanka have the right water resource policies for the twenty-first century? Such concerns prompted policyholders to attempt several policy reforms in Sri Lanka’s water domain during the last five decades. Several United State Agency for International Development (USAID) and Asian Development Bank (ADB) efforts culminated in producing a ‘national water resources policy and institutional arrangement’ document with a water policy approved by the Cabinet of the Government of Sri Lanka in March 2000. Yet, public concerns expressed on certain sensitive issues, and the lack of consensus due to the changing hands of the subject of policy development among various successor ministries, resulted in the demise of this water policy formulation effort.Length: pp.113-126
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