Swings and roundabouts: a narrative on water policy development in Sri Lanka

Swings and roundabouts: a narrative on water policy development in Sri Lanka

Why did ADB-assisted water resource management fail in Sri Lanka?

This paper narrates the story of a set of Asian Development Bank (ADB) projects in the 1990s which were designed to streamline water resource management arrangements in Sri Lanka.

The projects sought to assess institutional capacity, develop a single overarching policy and law to govern water resources and to institute a single apex body for coordinating water-related activities. However, in spite of a decade of investment and efforts these arrangements have never been implemented.

The authors argue that this failure is largely attributable to a lack of understanding of the Sri Lankan context characterised by:

  • a multi-party system with governments often held together in fragile coalitions
  • strong cultural values attached to water
  • a vocal civil society fearful of water privatisation, and
  • a politicised media willing to exploit controversies
The guiding principle of the projects was that Sri Lanka’s water resources management should be holistic and efficient. This new policy introduced a number of unfamiliar approaches to the sector, some of which were highly controversial, including the idea of entitlements (ownership rights to water) and water tariffs to introduce demand management.

Coming after controversial attempts to institutionalise land reforms in Sri Lanka, and high profile cases of water privatisation elsewhere in the world, these moves were seen by some civil society groups as steps towards commodification and privatisation of water resources.

The focus on efficiency and increasing tariff were seen a threat to paddy cultivation and small farmers, causing public anger, while endogenously-designed strategies for water conservation were ignored as possible alternatives to entitlements and demand-management.

Combined together these factors generated major civil society opposition to the whole policy reform process, even though parts of the policy could have brought real benefits to poor people through more integrated and sustainable water management.

Controversy surrounding the policy process was used as a political tool by both politicians and the media. When a coalition government with a strong Marxist element opposed to the ADB-supported process took power, it initiated a parallel ‘indigenous water policy’ development process further complicating the situation.

Water policy development in Sri Lanka, the paper concludes, is thus a classic case of natural resources management under a multiparty system of governance where water has been used as a political tool.
  1. How good is this research?

    Assessing the quality of research can be a tricky business. This blog from our editor offers some tools and tips.