“Footprints of GWP South Asia: from Mr Nanda Abeywickrama’s eyes” – a Founder Member of GWP- SASTAC

Mr Nanda Abeywickrama, (former Secretary, Ministry of Lands and Land Development (1978-88) and Director, International Co-operation (1988-94) also worked as a Special Adviser to the Director General of the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) from 1997 to 2005. In 1998, Mr Abeywickrama’s name was recommended by the then Director General, IWMI and appointed as a founding member of the Global Water Partnership Technical Advisory Committee for South Asia (SASTAC). Later, he held the position of Regional Chair of GWP South Asia (GWP SAS) from 2005 when the SAS Secretariat was moved to Sri Lanka under the hosting agreement with IWMI. He served as the Chair, GWP SAS from 2005-06 and weaned away from work gradually. Currently, Mr Abeywickrama is in his retirement living with his beloved wife in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

This conversation was held online on 15 June 2021, due to the ongoing Pandemic. Mr Abeywickrama was indeed happy to join the discussion and preferred to focus the discussion on the genesis of GWP SAS because his technical expertise and experience mattered immensely during the time of the inception of the partnership. His major contributions were towards developing Water Visions for the respective countries in South Asia, especially developing the Sri Lanka Water Vision 2025, which was the first task carried out at the regional level.   

Beginning of the South Asia Technical Advisory Committee (SASTAC)

In 1998, the Global Water Partnership (GWP) had foreseen the need for formulating a technical advisory committee for South Asia and reached out to the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), the former International Irrigation Management Institute (IIMI) for a nominee from Sri Lanka. In response, then Director General of IWMI, Dr David Seckler nominated Mr Abeywickrama as a member of this Technical Advisory Committee (TAC), named South Asia Technical Advisory Committee (SASTAC).

South Asia was one of the first regions to start with a TAC. Mr Abeywickrama served SASTAC from 1998 through 2002. The SASTAC consisted of eight members representing five countries of South Asia namely, Bangladesh (1), India (2), Nepal (1), Pakistan (2) and Sri Lanka (2). While being a special nominee from IWMI to SASTAC, he represented Sri Lanka on the committee together with Mr Mahinda Wickramage, General Manager, National Water Supply and Drainage Board (NWSDB), Sri Lanka. Dr M. A. Chitale (a former Secretary, Ministry of Water Resources of the Government of India and Secretary General of International Commission on Irrigation and Drainage (ICID) was elected as the Chair of SASTAC while it received funds directly from GWP earmarked to design future regional programmes.

SASTAC was a very novel mechanism and an experience in volunteering to share expertise in a consensual and non-adversarial mode for the common good of the Region.

Mr Abeywickrame was very thankful to Dr Chitale for his continued dedication and for encouraging the Country Water Partnerships (CWPs) to carry out projects by allocating adequate funds from the regional budget. Dr Chitale was thoughtful enough to look at issues from a country perspective and convinced the stakeholders to foster Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) in country programmes.  

One of the first tasks of SASTAC was to formulate the South Asia Water Vision 2025 which started with an exercise of developing country-specific water visions in 1999. This was an innovative approach both for SASTAC as well as for the member countries;  the exercise provided  an unprecedented opportunity to engage with a multiplicity of stakeholders at the country level and to find a niche for the Country Water Partnerships (CWPs) to integrate with national water resource management initiatives. Consequently, by the end of the exercise, each country had its own water vision.

The Country Visions were presented at the 2nd World Water Forum(2WWF) at the Hague in March 2000. The vision documents of Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka were fed into the regional water vision report named “Our vision for 21st Century-South Asia” (SASTAC, 2000) and the Framework for Action presented to GWP to pursue funding opportunities.

The members of South Asia - Water Vision for the 21st Century development committee:

  • Chairman: Dr M. A. Chitale
  • Members from India: Dr P. S. Rao, a Management Consultant (former IIMI) and Mr D. B. Gupta represented India and the whole activity was coordinated by Dr Ramesh Bhatia, an Economist (former IIMI) and a GWP TEC Member 1996-1999 (GWP), technical expertise nominated by GWP from India.
  • Member from Bangladesh: late Mr Quamrul Islam Siddique, former Chief Engineer of Local Government Engineering Department (LGED), Bangladesh (Partnership, 2014)
  • Members from Pakistan: Mr Shams-Ul-Mulk and Mr Sadar Tariq
  • Member from Nepal: Late Mr Iswar Raj Onta, then Vise Chair of GWP Nepal
  • Members from Sri Lanka: Mr Nanda Abeywickrama and Dr Hiran D. Dias
  • Bhutan was not a full member of the committee and attend occasionally for consultations.

Formulation of the Sri Lanka Water Vision 2025

Mr Abeywickrama was instrumental in assembling a committed group of professional stakeholders to develop the Sri Lanka Water Vision starting in April 1999. The Sri Lanka team was assisted by a Consultant, Dr Hilmy Sally, a former IWMI Researcher. This was a time when the concept of IWRM was quite new, and sectors involved in water management were working in their sectoral compartments. Institutions have not even made projections on water availability or scarcity, the trends in changing demand patterns or of the potential governing and management structures.

The inaugural Stakeholder Workshop convened in April 1999, was a breakthrough in assembling sectoral, academe, private sector NGO and international organisational stakeholders to a dialogue across the table to address cross-sectoral issues and to pursue a common goal. The group managed to persuade stakeholders from all sectors and disciplines into a consultative mode. Senior representatives from government Ministries and Departments, non-profit organisations, the private sector, academic institutes, and public-spirited citizens were invited to the in-depth discussions carried out throughout the process.

GWP’s clear mandate and advisory services contributed immensely, to bringing all these sectors together as it had set up its themes as water for food, water for health and water for the environment as underpinning factors to buttress the IWRM concept within the broader canvas. The final succinct Vision Statement “a Society that values the sustainable use of its water resources to achieve the goal of an environment conducive to balanced social and economic development” agreed upon by the stakeholders clearly reflects the success of this exercise.

“The development of the Sri Lanka Water Vision 2025 was a novel experience, since the country previously has not had any clear concepts or experience regarding the way forward in the water sector,” said Mr Abeywickrama and continued to explain the process that the Team had undertaken in developing the vision 2025.

The consultations considered factors such as the annual, seasonal and spatial availability of water in the country, the sectoral consumption needs, the potential growth of each sector, the competing demands, the projected population for 2025 together with urbanisation trends and the management and governing structures needed to promote and deliver IWRM.  An important concept was the identification of the over-emphasis hitherto placed on the allocation of water to meet needs of the agriculture sector in the country and the need to recognise the emerging demands of the domestic, industrial and environmental sectors in an evolving knowledge-based economy.

The background thematic papers dealing with sectoral, sub-sectoral and cross-sectoral issues undertaken by the team were an eye opener for all stakeholders and they all started contributing their knowledge and experience to the consultations in a free and open manner despite the conventional sectoral biases.

Following several rounds of in-depth dialogues, the Sri Lanka Water Vision 2025 document was accepted by all the stakeholders and was presented at the Second World Water Forum held at the Hague in the Netherlands in March 2000. The summarised version was printed in English and translated to Sinhala (local language) to encourage multi-stakeholder engagement in water governance in the country.  

A considerable portfolio of innovative work was accomplished over the intervening years, especially in the South Asia Region: funding for the promotion of Area Water Partnerships (AWPs) at the local level under each CWP proved to be a success in creating IWRM awareness at the grassroots level.

Nevertheless, the whole exercise intended to use the Country Water Visions to prepare region-wide thematic programmes and activities, could not be accomplished effectively within the limited time frame and resources, due to the absence of regional networks and professional bodies unlike say in the Mediterranean or ASEAN Regions and the difficulty in arriving at consensus among regional thematic leaders and from the donors to develop and implement such programmes. This has been a challenge both for GWP SASTAC as well as for its successor GWP South Asia. 

Installation of the GWP South Asia - Regional Water Partnership (RWP)

In 2002, GWP Organisation, as a policy wanted the more mature Regional TACs and to convert them to regional bodies. In response, South Asia established its own Steering Committee (Regional Council) to replace SASTAC. Each country nominated two representatives to the Regional Council (RC) headed by the Regional Chair. From there onwards, the SASTAC’s responsibility of providing technical support to regional programmes was moved to the RC. The first GWP South Asia (GWP SAS) Regional Secretariat was established in Bangladesh with a Regional Coordinator under the supervision of Eng. Q. I. Siddique. The Chairmanship as well as the Regional Secretariat was to move from one country to another, every two years. During this transition period in 2002, as India was declining from the Chairmanship of SASTAC, and the Regional Secretariat was moving to Bangladesh, Mr Abeywickrame took over the Chairmanship of GWP Sri Lanka (Lanka Jalani/Sri Lanka Water Partnership (SLWP) which he had initiated at the very outset with GWP guidance and local stakeholder support which he enjoyed by virtue of his previous assignments.

“My view is that by 2002, SASTAC, was not mature enough to be converted to a Regional Water Partnership; it could have been given a few more years to strengthen the network,” he said. According to Mr Abeywickrama, the CWPs could have had some more time to invest in their programmes at the country level and in their activity plans on the Country Water Visions prepared by consulting the different sectors. Further, it was the time when SASTAC had just begun organising regional forums as regional initiatives and those could have been continued for a further period allowing adequate networking.

“The GWP’s frequent change of emphases on themes and priorities led the RC to develop the activity plans based on the GWP Global Strategy that changed with time and was mostly driven by donor priorities and funding availability. South Asia with its unique set of problems and opportunities could not align solely on a common global strategy, but on one of its own, but still consistent with the global GWP goals” he further explained. He said, the sudden change in the structure sadly has weakened the once flourishing network.

In 2005, when it became Sri Lanka’s turn to host the RWP, Mr Abeywickrama was elected to the position of GWP SAS Chair while Mr Dixon Nilaweera was selected as the Regional Coordinator. During this period, the Chairmanship of Lanka Jalani (SLWP) was handed over to Ms Kusum Athukorala and Mr Ranjith Ratnayake joined as the Country Coordinator for Lanka Jalani.

My views and propositions:

“GWP is a very forward-looking entity which encourages networking on IWRM voluntarily and independently. It has provided a room for people to participate regardless of the discipline, position or the organisation they come from. It facilitated an open forum for exchange of views and structured things informally facilitating all participants and stakeholders to share their ideas without any restriction. There was a lot to learn from the way GWP was functioning and the 3-4 themes that were prioritised and consistently followed up were able to introduce structural governance changes and build the capacities of institutions. Most importantly, the network was able to mobilise stakeholders from different disciplines and walks of life and to bring them to a common platform.”

Further explaining the GWP’s strength as a network and its multi-sectoral approach that encouraged free exchange of views and  of information among different sectors in the early days of SAS, he said, “South Asia inherits weaknesses in areas such as lack of knowledge brokering and sharing lessons learnt, lack of awareness of potential funding opportunities, too much politicisation in the water sector and fewer opportunities given to the marginalised and grassroots level organisations , widening the gaps and destroying the network. GWP’s unique nature enabled to bridge these gaps”.

He had some advice to the current members of SAS, that he felt needed to be emphasised, “GWP SAS must allow new blood into the CWPs and to the regional body to bring fresh ideas and experiences and should not allow just a few individuals to monopolise the entities for extended periods - if not, the institution could get atrophied. Institutional mechanisms should be built in to the process for enlisting new comers and  for  rotations and retirements. If not, the whole idea of a vibrant and innovative network would be defeated.. The seniors who contributed immensely to building the organisation should take the initiative to pass the baton and goodwill to a new generation and guide them to bring fresh thinking experience and activities into the network.

He continued further and said “the Water Visions that we have developed with the multi-stakeholder engagement are still valid for adaptation and implementation. Therefore, GWP SAS should try to work with the respective governments to achieve the vision. That does not necessarily mean GWP should work along with the governments, but it should contribute to improving existing policies and encourage initiatives through constructive criticisms while retaining GWPs’ neutrality. GWP SAS should extend invitations to the universities for collaborations and should try to invest in youth and bring talented youth to GWP operations.