Rebuilding life after the Tsunami, Sri Lanka


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Rebuilding life after the Tsunami, Sri Lanka



Focus Areas

Geographic Scope




Background and Significance

The climate of Sri Lanka is tropical and heavily influenced by monsoons that bring rain throughout the year. The mean annual rainfall volume is approximately 120 km3. Rainfall totals range from under 1,000 mm to over 5,000 mm. Sri Lanka’s groundwater resources are considered minor compared to its surface water resources. The estimated groundwater potential in Sri Lanka is 7.8 km3 per annum and is widely used for domestic, small-scale irrigation, industrial and other uses. However, in recent years, due to increased irrigation and population growth, both shallow and deep aquifers have been subject to over-extraction. Consequently, the drying up of domestic wells during dry periods has become more common.

Communities have exploited the use of natural resources, such as sand and coral, on a commercial basis. Development pressures have also led to the reclamation of estuarial, lagoon and marsh waters and the unrestricted disposal of untreated sewage, leading to major pollution problems. The main threat to natural ecosystems, however, is population growth and migration, reducing the available habitat for ecosystems to thrive. Some other threats to the island’s biodiversity are natural disasters, soil erosion, sedimentation and large-scale sand mining.

National capital investment in irrigation and drinking water supplies, as a ratio of total capital investment, declined from 7.7 percent in 1993 to 2.2 percent in 2003. Since the 1980s, the irrigation sector has stressed better water resources management and planning, which partially justifies the declining trend of the proportion of public investment, especially in the construction and restoration of irrigation infrastructure. However, there is still need for investment in the water sector. Moreover, about 70 percent of the urban population is served by piped water systems, whereas drinking water for rural populations are mainly supplied by dug and tube wells. However, studies have shown that deep wells in fractured crystalline rock yield water containing excessive amounts of fluoride, which can lead to dental problems (fluorosis) among children.

Furthermore, the pollution of surface and groundwater resources by industries is a grave concern. For example, Kelani River, which is the main source of drinking water for over 2 million inhabitants in the capital city Colombo, is polluted by industries. Groundwater pollution has also been detected in well-water in mixed residential and industrial areas. The Central Environmental Authority and local government authorities are given the responsibility for controlling industry related water pollution.

The Experience: Challenges and Solutions

In order to address these issues, the Ministry of Environment was established in 1990. This was followed by the creation of two legal instruments, namely the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and Environment Protection Licence (EPL). All approved development projects are required to obtain EIA and EPL clearance. These legal instruments ensure the integration of environment protection measures into development projects at the early stages of planning. Environmental concerns are being addressed through ongoing government programmes with active support from NGOs. However, the limited annual budget of the Ministry of Environment necessitates external sources of funding for any substantial progress to be made.

Considering the limited nature of Sri Lanka’s water resources, demand management has become a necessity. Demand management in the irrigation sector involves the adoption of a cultivation calendar and an irrigation schedule. Active community participation in decision-making is customary in Sri Lanka, and farmers, through their institutions, participate in the planning processes with formal irrigation officials. Community participation in irrigated agriculture is now common in Sri Lanka, although this was accepted as government policy only after the mid-1980s. Since then, farmer institutions have been included in the formal institutional structure. In the water supply sector, public participation in rural water supply schemes is substantial, and communities contribute by sharing costs and management roles.

For drought and flood mitigation, a number of structural and nonstructural measures have been taken. Reservoirs built for irrigation purposes also serve as flood protection and drought mitigation. Flood warning systems are unfortunately missing in a great number of basins. Furthermore, flood-forecasting models fail to simulate real-life situations, due to the poor mathematical algorithms employed. Efforts to minimize the possible damages of water-related disasters include raising public awareness and arranging insurance schemes for those who are frequently subjected to floods and other natural disasters.

Results and Impact

About half of the Sri Lankan population struggles to survive on an income of less than US $2 per day. Hundreds of thousands of children suffer from malnutrition. However, the use of high-yielding crops, more fertilizers, better pest management practices and improved irrigation infrastructure have contributed to an increase in food production. As a result, Sri Lanka is on track to achieving the hunger-related MDGs. Industrialization and poor agricultural practices are threatening the quality of surface and groundwater. Although water-related legislation exists, the fragmentation of institutions, unclear responsibility, a lack of accountability and inadequate resources prevent the satisfactory implementation of provisions for controlling water pollution. Water-related disasters also present a great concern, as their financial and social damages put a heavy burden on the island’s already fragile economy. Early warning systems are lacking in many basins, and forecasting models fall short of making accurate predictions.

The great challenge lying ahead is to improve the quality of life for inhabitants without jeopardizing ecosystems. The establishment of River Basin Organizations for the better management of valuable resources will help to alleviate poverty and environmental degradation.

Lessons for Replication

Additional funding sources need to be constantly sought if any substantial progress is to be made. This is crucial in this case, since the funds of the National Ministry of Environment are limited.

Flood warning systems should be implemented in all locations with even a moderate flood risk, since prevention is better than cure.

Testimonies and Stakeholder Perceptions

The Experience at a Glance

Implementing Agency(ies)


See also

Other case studies in Sri Lanka
  1. Facing Water Challenges in the Walawe Basin, Sri Lanka: A WWDR3 Case Study

External Resources

Case study summary


 Sri lanka.pdf

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