Sri Lanka: Swings and roundabouts; A narrative on water policy development (#350)

Due to temporal and spatial variability of rainfalls, Sri Lanka experience local scarcity. Furthermore, most water resources are used for irrigation, and little is left for industry and domestic use. Action was taken towards policy reform but these reforms were, however, nationally desired but externally designed, leading to failure since they did not account for the Sri Lankan context. This case study thus illustrates the crucial importance of national anchoring of policies. 


With per capita water resources availability of 2,400 m3 and average annual rainfall of 2,000 mm, Sri Lanka does not face immediate water scarcity. However, owing to very high temporal and spatial variability, some districts in Sri Lanka experience prolonged dry periods. Most of the developed water resources are used for irrigation, and just a small fraction of domestic and industrial needs. 

It is estimated that 80% of rural drinking water supply comes from groundwater while surface water supports the majority of urban water use.

By the 1990s there was broad agreement on the need for policy reform. Water policy reforms – nationally demanded but designated by external actors – have generated intense controversy and become both a tool and a victim of national politics. Together these factors have led to the failure of major policy reforms, leaving an uncertain future for water resources management in Sri Lanka.

This case study tells the difficult story of a set of Asian Development Bank projects which were designed to streamline water resource management arrangements and introduce demand management to the country.

In spite of a decade of investment and effort these arrangements have not been implemented. This failure is largely attributable to a lack of understanding of the Sri Lankan context: a multi-party system with governments often held together in fragile coalitions, strong cultural values attached to water, a vocal civil society fearful of water privatisation, and a politicised media willing to exploit controversies.

The outcome of this controversial process was the suspension of ADB funding in 2004. The legacy of this failure has concerning future implications for water resources management in Sri Lanka: learning lessons, and implementing these lessons, is now of critical importance both for Sri Lanka and for other countries implementing similar processes.