There’s lots of water in Sri Lanka. But there are still plenty of economic and political challenges and tradeoffs involved in allocating a resource that is plentiful but nevertheless limited.
There are some things in life that you don’t really think about until they’re not there: Clear nasal passages, comfortable shoes, your favorite pillow. And there are other things – in a related vein – that you just take for granted: Nosebleed prices for a latte at Coffee Bean, five fingers that can make a fist, earnest solicitations from three-wheeler drivers who can tell how badly you are in need of a massage. Water straddles both of these categories. You turn on a tap, you flush the toilet, and don’t think about it until, well, there’s no water. (Fun fact: Humans can survive around eight weeks without food. But they can’t survive more than five or so days without water.)
There’s a lot that can go wrong with water. Sri Lanka receives around 105 cubic kilometers (imagine 105 billion boxes, each 1m x 1m x 1m, full of water). 60% of that water, all in the form of rain, evaporates.
30% is runoff into gutters and fields and drains. And the rest – just 10% of what sounds like a lot of water to begin with – is water that we can actually use, for everything from irrigating rice paddies, to generating hydropower, to hosing down our children, to icing our whiskies. If too much of that 10% is poisoned by poop or used to drown dry earth, room temperature gin and tonics and no more bubble baths will be the least of our worries. The International Water Management Institute (IWMI, pronounced “eem ee”), located in the outskirts of Colombo in Battaramulla, is overflowing with big brains pondering how to engineer the sustainable use of land and water – with the ultimate objective of improving “the management of land and water resources for food, livelihoods and the environment,” IWMI says.
Funded by an international alphabet soup of 60 governments, foundations and other donors, IWMI is part of a consortium of 15 global research centres that focus on a range of agricultural and environmental issues, from potatoes and rice to livestock to biodiversity.
The Good News
The World Economic Forum – of Davos power broker conference fame – every year puts together a report that assesses the likelihood and potential impact of a range of risks facing the world. In 2013, water supply crises were deemed the fourth most-likely risk (out of the 50 posited) – and were viewed as the risk with the second-highest potential impact. (Severe income disparity, chronic fiscal imbalances and rising greenhouse gas emissions were viewed as more likely; only major systemic financial failure was ranked as having a greater potential impact.) The chances of a major water supply crisis are high – and the impact would likely be enormous.
That’s bad for much of the world. But Sri Lanka is an island, in more ways than one. On a per capita basis, Sri Lanka receives about three times the volume of water as the global average, according to Herath Manthrithilake, a 40-year water veteran at IWMI. So there’s enough water to go around. Maybe even more importantly, more of that water is clean than it used to be: According to the United Nations, the percentage of the population of Sri Lanka with access to drinking water increased from 67% in 1990, to 91% in 2010. While there are a few trouble spots in the drier parts of the country, Sri Lanka’s economic and business environment doesn’t appear to be under threat from water-related challenges.
The Less-Good News
But when things are good, people tend to take them for granted: And that’s bad. “If the [water] management regime is not changed [in Sri Lanka], there will in the longer term be the need for compromises, also for business and the wealthier segment of society,” says Jeremy Bird, the director general of IWMI. He points to significant pollution of ground water, the rising salinity of ground water, and the overuse of underground reservoirs as a few of the major sources of water stress.
More specifically, drawing too much water from underground reservoirs, called aquifers, happens if too many people tap into them, and use water more rapidly than it’s being replenished. Figuring out the sustainable yield – how much water can be used without damaging the long-term sustainability of the aquifer – “requires not only the science and the monitoring, but also it requires the regulatory framework and institutional structures to be able to implement that, and say to an industry, see, this is what you can safely extract,” Bird says.
But even if there is an institutional framework – that is, rules on the books to regulate use – “the question is whether it’s implemented sufficiently,” Bird says. That necessitates knowledgeable, fair and clean regulators, characteristics only occasionally associated with government employees in a position of power.
In the meantime, water sources can be polluted or abused in a lot of ways. The nitrogen in fertilizers and the residue of pesticides leak into ground water. Polluted water used for irrigation can make the food that is irrigated by dirty water dangerous for consumption. By the coast, a frighteningly high percentage of human waste finds its way into waterways, which pollutes aquifers – some of which have been overextended by the burgeoning tourism industry. The rise in the sea level caused by climate change is an additional danger to the water supply. Meanwhile, broad-based macroeconomic growth and population growth – water use historically grows at around twice the rate of the population, according the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization – exerts demand-side pressures over time.
The Tradeoffs and the Politics
The allocation of water resources – even in water-rich Sri Lanka – is a competitive, highly political process involving myriad tradeoffs. For example, hydropower is a key power source for electricity-poor Sri Lanka. Using water to generate electricity doesn’t preclude the use of the same water for other purposes, such as irrigation and drinking. But water located upstream is generally more valuable than the same water downstream – and water supply during periods of peak demand is finite. “The competition for water often relates to the timing of that water release. Hydropower responds to certain peak demands – and that may be at the same time as when you want to irrigate,” Bird says.
Channeling more water to hydropower, to generate more power, may somewhat reduce Sri Lanka’s seemingly endless rounds of electricity prices hikes. But more water directed to hydropower means less water for farmers who depend on water to irrigate their crops. And that means less food is produced – and, ultimately, higher food prices, which is about as popular as high electricity prices.
On a local level, who gets access to water – and how these dynamics play out in a practical sense – is a complex process. Drawing from data about reservoir levels, rainfall, irrigation needs, and power demands – which is fed into models that assess optimal reservoir levels, potential power generation, and potential irrigation diversion – a water management secretariat figures out who gets how much water. During dry periods, relatively more water will be allocated to drinking water. Farmers make planting decisions based on how much water they’ll have access to. “The balancing that’s done is through a participatory process that’s unique to Sri Lanka,” says Manthrithilake, who heads up IWMI’s Sri Lanka water efforts.
Politics rears its head in other dimensions of water management as well. Water used for irrigation isn’t metered, which means that farmers have no real incentive to conserve water. So the cultivation of rice, a mainstay of Sri Lanka’s agricultural sector that is also an enormous consumer of water, is in effect heavily subsidized – an equivalent to a tax on other water consumers. In the context of competing, and rising, demand for water – even if it’s not so scarce, as in Sri Lanka – rice cultivation may become a luxury. But since it is a major source of employment, government support of rice cultivation, and agriculture in general, becomes a political necessity. Water, of course, is at the centre of this entire equation.
Direct seeding, rather than the flooding approach to rice cultivation, is one way to reduce water usage in rice cultivation. But if less water is used, more weeds grow in rice paddies, requiring more workers to keep the fields weed-free. In turn, this boosts the price of rice – another politically unpalatable compromise.
Searching for Solutions
In some areas of the world where water isn’t scarce, the notion of water management and conservation is still findings its way into the popular consciousness. Part of the problem is that in some countries, consumers don’t pay for water based on usage – a household may pay only a very modest flat fee based on, say, property value, regardless of the volume of water usage. More frequently, water prices cover costs of the provider, but aren’t high enough to incentivize consumers to use less water.
“You see the introduction of energy saving devices and light bulbs, and more efficient plans, because the price of electricity is so high. But [in many parts of the world] you don’t see that parallel yet with water,” Bird says. Metering systems to measure water usage may be expensive and difficult to implement. Also, consumers used to water so cheap that it’s almost free may balk at the implementation of differential charging bands for water.
IWMI focuses on coming up with long-term answers to water management challenges, and on applying lessons learned in one part of the world to the challenges in another. Some of them are shockingly common sense: For example, promoting the harvesting of rainwater via rooftop collection (in Sri Lanka, in the ubiquitous enormous black rubber Arpico barrels) can be an important complement to the water supply, particularly in dry areas.
Other solutions, like the notion of differentiated water treatment contingent on the anticipated use of the water, are just in the early days of being discussed. “We treat all our water regardless whether we drink it or flush it down the toilet,” Bird says. “There is talk now about having dual systems. Why would you treat drinking water in the same way as toilet water?” Water treatment is expensive – and some countries are looking at separating treatment into different systems.
On another front, IWMI is pioneering the commercialization of the conversion of solid fecal sludge – better known as poop by six-year-olds and other people who aren’t water experts – into fertilizer. From one perspective, waste, including waste water, is viewed as a resource, and its reuse is encouraged. IWMI has been developing a process whereby human waste is collected, composted, dried, compressed, and then bagged and sold as fertilizer. The business model for the product, which works as well as commercial fertilizer, is under development. Once it’s ready, Bird says that IWMI will step out of the way to allow for the private sector to figure out how to make money doing it.
Finally, in March, IWMI launched a major new initiative focused on research on Sri Lanka in particular. The research program will focus on improving agricultural water use, improving the management of floods, droughts and climate change, the sustainable management of nature resources, and developing the capacity for sharing insight and knowledge on these issues. Water issues in the north and the east of the country are a particular focus.