Sustainable water resources management in Sri Lanka: present situation and way forward

by Senevirathne,   Assistant General Manger (Sociology), Sociology Section, NWSDB

Sustainable Water Resource Management

Sustainable water resource management has become a crucial factor for the socio-economic development of Sri Lanka that faces seasonal variation and competition among water users. One of the biggest concerns for our water-based resources in future is the sustainability of the current and even future water resource allocation. The latter part of this paper describes the current practices taken for water resource management with a view to updating sustainable strategies and putting them into practice.

It is true that making the sustainable development of our water resources is a challenge in Sri Lanka when considering the climatic changes, pressures from economic growth, the rising population, and increasing water consumption. The combination of these factors commonly results in increased water use, competition and pollution. Therefore, attention and concern must be given to collect, compile and gain knowledge from consumption, pollution and generate data of experimental value. This paper describes the main aspects of what has been learned in the process of supporting sustainable water resources management.


Although Sri Lanka does not face a water resources shortage in terms of quantity, there are growing trends of stress in terms of availability subjected to seasonal variation and competition among sub-sectorial water users.

There are 103 river basins in Sri Lanka out of which around 20 basins, each consisting of basin area of over 1000 sq. Km. The per capita water supply per year stands at 2.4 thousand cubic metres which is fourth lowest among the Asian and Pacific countries.

Sri Lanka has a high reservoir capacity particularly in the irrigation sub-sector as a percentage of annual water resource availability. The high water use coupled with a series of different state institutions mandated to develop sub-sectorial uses has evolved a process of allocating water to respective users without any concern to other sub-sectorial uses.

Water resources available in the river systems are extracted for development of irrigation, water supply, hydro-power, industrial uses, other economic uses such as tourism, water sports etc. As a result, water for environmental needs such as wildlife, eco-system maintenance and water for marginalized poor have been neglected.

The current level of piped water supply for meeting domestic needs stands at 42% of the total population through 320 water supply schemes and approximately 4500 pipelines operated by the National Water Supply and Drainage Board and the Community Based Organizations. Participatory approaches have been promoted in developing water supply schemes supported by the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank and Japanese funded projects.

The water keeps us alive and it plays an important role in supporting biodiversity for a wide variety of flora and fauna. We depend on our water resource systems for our survival, welfare and recreational activities. It is important to set up adequate water conservation strategies that incorporate principles of sustainability for a viable water resources management.

Impacts of Water Resources Management

As sociologists, we have reached a reasonable level of knowledge towards recognizing impacts on water quality and quantity from pollution and unnecessary groundwater and surface water withdrawals. These results can be due to most decisions in water resources management, have been governed by short-term economic and political considerations that lack the long-term vision required to implement sustainable water resources management.

In Sri Lanka, specific and well-targeted programmes should be funded to reduce the impacts on water quality and quantity. Overall, there are reasons to be hopeful as new water programmes are emerging that finally emphasize the application of more sustainable practices to reduce negative impacts. A task of water resource planners and managers is to identify and remedy the negative impacts from what we are doing today which will affect the generations to come in future.

As human populations continue to grow, these problems are likely to become more common and serious. Among these issues are assured access to a basic amount of water for human well-being and to sustain ecosystems, basic protections of water resources, and institutional recommendations for planning, implementation, management, and conflict resolution.

Water sustainability – a challenge

Poor quality water and unsustainable provisions of water limit national economic development and can lead to adverse health and livelihood conditions. Sustainable strategies coupled with a new environmentally friendly system would enhance existing natural water resources, demand management, and achieve higher efficiency which are part of the response to meet today’s increasing demands on our available water resources.

Achieving water sustainability is a challenge that will require education, awareness-raising and commitment to achieve effective implementation. Water sustainability begins by protecting water resources. We can advocate a wide range of measures to the protection of water sources; reduction of wastage both in infrastructure sector and water allocation among users.

New rules and regulations should be implemented toward protecting and restoring our water sources. We can adapt to emerging technical practices to secure and protect our existing natural water resources and use local knowledge as part of sustainable water resource development.

Conserving available water is a necessary measure, especially those in dry climates. It also identifies water sustainability measures which are aimed at raising people’s awareness of the scarcity and limited nature of the resource. In the environmental aspect, the sustainable component allows for the diversion of the unused volumes to sustain ecosystems and also minimizes the pollution releasing to lakes, rivers and groundwater.

To enhance sustainability of water resource management, doing relevant researches on challenges and barriers associated with practices of water-quality management is very much required. A number of related methodologies, applications, and policy implementation should be examined. Effective practices for using water resources will greatly benefit society, human livelihoods and the environment.

Steps toward sustainable resource management

 Water Resource Management functioning in line with sustainable practices includes the following;

  • Water Resources Management be held responsible for effective and efficient water use by people, both current and future. This can be done in the following manner;
  • by collecting and storing water in sufficient quantities to meet needs throughout the period
  • by treating used water for reuse
  • by introducing and operating key sustainability principles and practices etc.
  • Conducting researches to explore new facts and resolve problems related to today’s water consumption
  • Getting the institutional support to carry out studies and experiments
  • Developing a framework for an ecologically sustainable Water Resources Management Program for the long term

 Partnership with stakeholders

To support in sustainable practices, institutional responses at different levels are also needed. It should also include well-documented user consumption and water quality requirements, accurate use data, the quality of water, and the extensive engagement of all water users and other relevant stakeholders. Sustainable water management entails several considerations; water management, nature preservation, land use, farming practices, and introduction of new technologies in life sciences. Hence, sustainable water resources management requires the partnership of public authorities, private institutions, multi-disciplinary professionals, users and stakeholders.

 Future of Water Resource Management

The challenge today is ecologically sustainable water management in which human needs for water are met by storing and diverting water in a manner that can sustain or restore the ecosystems. In Sri Lanka, rising water use is a result of increasing demand to support irrigated agriculture, urban development and for domestic needs of the people. Sound water management requires a better understanding of the opportunity cost of water and greater coordination of strategies and technologies to be able to go on par with current and future water demands. Social tools and assessment methods will have to be developed from researches which will be a new approach to water resource management.

In order to move towards sustainability and productivity of irrigated systems, the NWSDB focuses mainly on,

  • the availability of water, its location, quantity, quality and existing institutional framework
  • cost, direct, indirect, or created outside the service area of the project or plan
  • the appropriateness of existing and new technologies to cut down various costs and negative environmental impacts arising out of water projects
  • developing a certain degree of demand management strategy

Indeed, our quality of life is closely linked with water quality. It points to the need for demand management mechanisms to encourage more efficient water use and promote more equitable access. Therefore, the NWSDB strives to coordinate how people use water while encouraging innovations in water-saving technologies.

Therefore, everyone involved in water management and development has an obligation to ensure that these schemes should provide sufficient quantities and qualities of water, while protecting the environment. The strategies developed and employed can be better public and community control of water services, repairing old water systems, using less water for agriculture by using drip irrigation, sharing water sources among different users, increasing water conservation and focusing resources on watershed management.

To conclude, as far as the NWSDB is concerned, water productivity could be achieved by installing new efficient equipment and applying appropriate technological and institutional incentives to optimize water usage among different groups in the country. Thus, improving the efficiency of irrigation, agricultural production and water use is fundamentally important to improving economic growth, sustainability and reducing poverty in Sri Lanka.       

 Way forward

 Today, the availability of water for drinking and other uses is a critical issue in many parts of the country. Water for drinking and personal use is only a small part of society’s total water needs. In addition to that, most of the water we use is for agriculture and industry. Therefore, the same water is desired simultaneously by different sectors within a single society.

In Sri Lanka, the influence of climate, the different needs and distribution of water resources have created problems among immediately competitive users, each claiming to protect their own water source. As a result, constructions of several water supply schemes that were undertaken by the NWSDB, with huge investments, had to be withdrawn owing to the source problem, misuse of water and considering the cost of energy and other costs.

Water has a priceless value, but water supply problems are increasing due to climate change and it has a major impact on irrigation system in Sri Lanka. It is required significant water resources for irrigation and present water shortages in the country. Thus, the water problem assessment encompasses a reliable assessment of water availability, water quality, water needs and water shortage.

Water shortages are caused by poor management of water resources and increasing water usage, driven mainly by irrigation and agriculture in Sri Lanka. Sometimes people in communities, farmers and industries are all mismanaging water resources. Development of new sources of water beside its efficient use, together with new technologies, should be an important component of the country’s national water plan, run by the NWSDB.

As populations expand and their food needs increase, the competition for limited water supplies will intensify and so will conflicts among water users. Hence, it is vital to look into irrigation water costs and costs of safe drinking water and to employ modern techniques to determine an appropriate technology for more effective water usage among communities.

There is no single and simple solution to water problems. Therefore, water supply technologies must be fully utilized to distribute water on demand during different periods to different groups. A further alternative and favorable idea is to consider groundwater availability when allocating surface water for irrigation. Thus, working on new technologies would cut operation costs, reduce environmental impacts and broaden water supply applications of the NWSDB.

Finally, in order to ensure the conservation of water resources and maximum use of treated water, the NWSDB has to develop a strong participatory development model to accommodate stakeholders’ views and expectations from planning to operation and maintenance stages.

Author: RWSN Secretariat

RWSN is a global network of rural water supply professionals. Visit to find out more

3 thoughts on “Sustainable water resources management in Sri Lanka: present situation and way forward”

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: