Water Wars Farmer-NWSDB Conflict

The stage is set for the battle between the protagonists for ‘water for irrigation’ and ‘water for drinking.’ Who will win the war? The battle is all about claims to surface water, water found naturally at ground level, such as in rivers, or water diverted to tanks for irrigation from rivers, like the water from the Mahaweli River which feeds tanks in the dry zone of the North Central Province (NCP) in particular, ipso facto for irrigation purposes.

However, the NCP is also an area which has the highest prevalence of chronic kidney disease of unknown aetiology (CKDu) which, if not controlled, results in the death of the patient.

The National Water Supply and Drainage Board (NWSDB) Deputy General Manager, NCP, Vajira Wijeratne speaking to reporters in Anuradhapura on Tuesday (31 October) said that there are 13,000 CKDu patients reported from the NCP, the majority of whom are from the Anuradhapura District.

The NWSDB is a strong protagonist for the promotion of drinking water, taking the consumers’ side whereas the Irrigation Department is pro farmer. Nevertheless, the role of the farmer and that of the water consumer in the dry zone of the country are interchangeable, given the fact that all farmers are water consumers and all water consumers may not necessarily be farmers.

CKDu is generally caused by drinking ground water which has been contaminated with heavy metals or cooking with it. Certain individuals believe that surface water should be used for irrigation and not for drinking.

Nevertheless, certain NWSDB officials from arid Chilaw, speaking to this reporter on conditions of anonymity on Thursday (2 November), thought otherwise. They claimed that ‘water for drinking’ will win this war, though current realities at the ground level give a different picture.

A good example was the recent Asian Development Bank (ADB) funded project to divert water from the Iranamadu Tank in Mullaitivu to arid Jaffna, to provide it with drinking water, thereby freeing it from being dependent on ground water, considered to be a health hazard, because of the hardness of water in the Peninsula.

However, the project was checkmated by the Mullaitivu farmers, which resulted in the ADB going in for a desalination plant. ADB Country Director, Shri Widowati speaking to reporters in Colombo recently said that already tenders for the construction of a desalination plant worth between US$ 60-70 million for the Jaffna Peninsula is under evaluation. She said the tender is expected to be finalized this year with construction completed in two years. When on stream it will supply fresh water to part of the Jaffna Peninsula, she said. (Ceylon Today, 25 August).

Desalinated water

ADB Sri Lanka Resident Mission Urban and Water Supply-Sanitation Senior Project Officer, Kamal Dahanayake speaking to reporters last week said that desalinated water is as good as surface water obtained from rivers and tanks as opposed to ground water, but the question is the cost involved, including capital cost and maintenance cost, especially electricity cost and replacement cost of costly membranes which trap heavy metals found in hard water.

Howbeit, NWSDB Electrical Engineer (Polonnaruwa) Sahan Tharanga Kularatne speaking to reporters from his office on 30 October said that they utilize the reverse osmosis (RO) method to treat ground water in Kilinochchi and Jaffna, where Calcium (Ca) is found in large quantities. (Ceylon Today, 1 November)

“It’s costly, but the national policy is that such extra costs cannot be recovered from the people of Kilinochchi and Jaffna,” he said.

Kularatne, however, said that even prior to the implementation of the RO projects in the North, no cases of Ca deposits found in the kidneys of the people of Kilinochchi and Jaffna have been reported.

However, the cost of RO alone is Rs 20 a litre, equivalent to the NWSDB’s selling price of a unit (1 cubic metre) of water in Polonnaruwa, whereas the cost of production (without RO) is Rs 11 a unit. RO is not utilized when supplying treated water to the people in Polonnaruwa (by the NWSDB).


Meanwhile, the ongoing ‘irrigation-drinking’ conflict was brought to the fore by the NWSDB’s Mannar-Vavuniya Project Manager Velautha Udayaseelan. Speaking to reporters on Wednesday (1 November) in Mannar, he said that they cannot tap the ‘Giant Tank’ in Mannar to provide pipe borne water to the people of this District because of protests by farmers, similar to that experienced in Iranamadu.

He said that farmers wanted the water for irrigation and not for drinking and their will prevailed. As a result, the Irrigation Department, which seemingly had soft water subsequently backed off, allowing the farmers to have their way and say.

Dahanayake also said that the battle between ‘irrigation and drinking water’ is also seen in Medirigiriya, Polonnaruwa, which has the highest number of CKDu patients in the NCP, numbering 1,400. Despite this tragedy, the adjacent Kaudulla Tank, is taboo to be tapped for drinking purposes, with precedence for that water also given for irrigation.

Nonetheless, Udayaseelan lives in hope.

He said that once the Upper Malwatu Oya Project is completed, he would be able to provide surface drinking water, bereft of heavy metals, to the people of Mannar. “The priority of the Upper Malwatu Oya Project is drinking water first and irrigation second,” he said.

Udayaseelan’s optimism, that, finally, the NWSDB and the water consumer will prevail over the will of the Irrigation Department and the farmer, going forward, is a reflection of the confidence that the NWSDB officials in Chilaw also showed. (See above)
Meanwhile, Dahanayake, recalling a conflict between the farmer and the NWSDB/consumer vis-à-vis water, said that under the Accelerated Mahaweli Development Scheme, the Thuruwila Tank in Anuradhapura was earmarked to provide water for drinking.

“In the 1990s, the farmers went to the Supreme Court (SC) against this decision. However, the SC upheld the view that the priority for the use of the Thuruwila water is for drinking,” he said. Prior to the Accelerated Mahaweli Development Project, drinking water for Anuradhapura was supplied by the Tissa Wewa and even bathing in this historical tank was taboo.
However, with the advent of Thuruwila, times have changed, as observed by this reporter, during a media tour of the NCP, Mannar and Chilaw, organized by the ADB, and people were observed bathing in the Tissa Wewa.

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