Facing Water Challenges in the Walawe Basin, Sri Lanka: A WWDR3 Case Study

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In an area hard hit by the 2004 tsunami, integrated approaches and community management of resources are examples of the tools being applied to reduce poverty and environmental degradation.


Focus Areas

Water supply and sanitation, IWRM

Geographic Scope




Background and Significance

The Experience: Challenges and Solutions

Healing the wounds

The worst disaster of recent times, the Asian tsunami of 2004, devastated the coastal regions of the Walawe basin. Prior to the tsunami, Hambantota district, which forms the downstream portion of the Walawe basin, accounted for 5.5% of the fishing fleet and 12.9% of total marine fish production in Sri Lanka. In addition, about 93% of the people working in the fisheries lived in coastal areas, which greatly increased the tsunami’s impact on the sector.

Official statistics indicate that the tsunami affected 16,994 families, caused more than 3,067 deaths and left 963 people missing in Hambantota district. Total damage to the district was estimated at US$220 million. More than 90% of the fishing fleet and 3.9 million m2 of farmland were affected. Today, most of the fishing fleet and housing have been restored, together with public infrastructure.

In addition to the rebuilding, several developments in policy and institutional development can be observed. A disaster management law was enacted in 2005, and institutions have been strengthened. Also, community participation in disaster management is now actively promoted in the Walawe basin. Through such activities, flood-prone areas and vulnerable families in the coastal plains have been identified. Emergency action plans have been developed with the participation of the communities involved.

Poverty reduction, showing signs of improvement: Poverty is a general problem in Sri Lanka. Although the share of the population living on less than US$1 per day was only 5.6% in 2001–2004, 41.6% of the population lives below US$2 per day. In the poorer areas of the country, such as the east and south, where the Walawe basin lies, the poverty rates are higher than the national average. The percentage of population below the poverty line ranges from 13% to 33% in the Walawe basin, while the national average is 15.2%.

In the last 50 years, thanks to major investments in rice production, provision of health facilities, safe drinking water and improved sanitation, the infant mortality rate has been reduced and life expectancy has increased. Studies in the Walawe basin indicate that water resource development has helped reduce poverty levels. However, despite a declining percentage of poor households over the last decade, current statistics indicate that Sri Lanka is not on track to achieve the MDG target on poverty by 2015; poverty remains a major challenge.

Safeguarding public health

Some areas of the Walawe basin were almost unpopulated for centuries due to malaria. Government-sponsored campaigns to address the problem have made noteworthy gains. For example, the number of cases was 591 in 2006, down from 210,000 in 2000. Furthermore, while malaria claimed 76 lives in 2000, no deaths were reported in 2006. On the other hand, the incidence of water-related diseases such as Japanese encephalitis, leptospirosis (rat fever) and dengue have increased significantly in recent years. Reports show that leptospirosis resulted in 150 deaths from January to September 2008, including patients from the Walawe basin. Furthermore, Ratnapura and Hambantota districts in the Walawe basin are identified as being high risk areas for dengue, where the incidence of disease has increased by 35% over the corresponding period in 2007. In 2008 there were 18 dengue-related deaths. Continuous and persistent national and international input is needed to combat these water-related health problems.


The Sri Lanka National Water Development Report (UNESCO-WWAP, 2006a), prepared for the second World Water Development Report, concluded that a substantial amount of international investment had been made in infrastructure development. However, funding in several water-related subsectors, such as irrigation management, water quality monitoring, pollution control and water related research, is not adequate. Serious investment in research and capacity-building is considered the most urgent priority, as it will make the earlier investments sustainable.

The knowledge gap in the water sector is a constraint for water resource management. Although noteworthy changes in climate and weather patterns are being observed, scientific conclusions about trends and future scenarios are not being drawn. Recent studies have exposed the inadequacies of the existing databases in this regard. Similar gaps exist concerning water-related issues. Although water quality problems are believed to be responsible for some ailments peculiar to agricultural areas in the dry zone, it is not clear what type of pollution is causing them, and hence effective action to control the pollution is not being taken. The gaps in databases and research outputs constitute a constraint on mobilization of the community, policy-makers and decision-makers to meet water challenges. These issues, as well as deficiencies in access to data and its dissemination, are highlighted in the earlier World Water Development Report case studies cited above.

In summary, the major challenge in the Walawe basin is to address environmental problems while assuring the sustainable socio-economic development essential for alleviating poverty. Successful but isolated water sector innovations in the basin give hope for the future; however, nationwide problems, such as gaps in capacity and the knowledge base as well as the absence of any comprehensive water policy, seriously handicap the country in its ability to address current challenges and make the adaptation needed to cope with future pressures from climate change and climatic variation.

Results and Impact

Lessons for Replication

Testimonies and Stakeholder Perceptions


See also

Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Mahaweli Development. Forthcoming.Walawe River basin (Sri Lanka) Case Study Report.

UNESCO-World Water Assessment Programme (UNESCO-WWAP). 2006a. Sri Lanka National Water Development Report (in full). Water, a Shared Responsibility: The United Nations World Water Development Report 2. Paris/Oxford, UNESCO/Berghan Books. http://unesdoc.unesco.org/ images/0014/001476/147683e.pdf UNESCO-World Water Assessment Programme (UNESCO-WWAP). 2006b.

Sri Lanka National Water Development Report (summary). Water, a Shared Responsibility: The United Nations World Water Development Report 2. Paris/Oxford, UNESCO/Berghan Books. www.unesco.org/water/wwap/wwdr2/case_studies/pdf/sri_lanka.pdf

United Nations-World Water Assessment Programme (UN-WWAP). 2003.Ruhuna Basins Case Study. Water for People, Water for Life The United Nations World Water Development Report. Paris/Oxford, New York, UNESCO/Berghan Books. www.unesco.org/water/wwap/ case_studies/ruhuna_basins/ruhuna_basins.pdf

External Resources

United Nations World Water Development Report 3


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