Will Sri Lanka Run Out of Water for Agriculture or Can it Be Managed?

In this special feature article to mark World Water Day today (22nd March), IPS researchers Chatura Rodrigo (Research Economist) and Athula Senaratne (Research Fellow) examine the usefulness of the ‘Integrated Water Resource Management’ approach as a solution to an impending water crisis.


Hydrologists and water resource economists have suggested that by 2030 one third of the world population will be based along river basins and the scarcity of water for agriculture will have a tremendous impact on their livelihoods. Overall, the world’s water demand will grow from 4500 billion cubic metres to 6900 billion cubic metres by 2030 – a 40% increase from the current water supply. Not only in the developing world but also in the developed world countries such a USA, Spain, Germany, and France, are already facing water scarcity for agriculture and have a limited supply of irrigation water for agricultural use. Therefore, policy makers around the world are now confronted with the challenge of formulating alternative strategies for water management to address these issues.



There is increasing evidence to suggest that water scarcity is likely to be aggravated further by the inevitable reality of climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggests that climate change affects all components of freshwater systems. As a result, water quality and availability will be major issues in the future. Today, close to 70% of the water in the world is used for agricultural purposes and of that, much is utilized by developing countries. Therefore, it is fair to say that, in the future, developing countries will be more affected by water scarcity for agriculture than developed countries. Climate change affects the intensity as well as the patterns of distribution of rainfall. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) suggests that climate change will affect livelihoods of the rural masses, especially in developing countries, by limiting the water availability for agriculture. FAO suggests that the increased intensity of droughts and floods can also lead to widespread crop damages, thereby further affecting the livelihood security of farmers.


Ground Realities


Sri Lanka is heavily dependent on agriculture and both rain-fed and irrigated agriculture form the backbone of rural livelihoods. Scientists have suggested that the overall rainfall received by Sri Lanka has decreased in many areas of the country. The established patterns of rainfall have changed and the distribution of rainfall in different parts of the country also appears to be undergoing changes. While the droughts cause delays in planting seasons and are responsible for crop damages, floods have been destroying mature crops awaiting harvest.


According to current statistics, the total cultivated area in Sri Lanka is estimated at 1.86 million ha. About 632,000 ha. of this area is irrigated; the rest is rain-fed. Irrigated agriculture is mainly comprised of major irrigation schemes. In addition, there are numerous minor schemes, which can be identified as semi rain-fed systems. They include over 15,000 village tanks scattered across the dry zone areas of the country. Irrigated agriculture in Sri Lanka has received a great deal of attention from policy makers over the past several decades, which culminated in the accelerated Mahaweli Development Program in the mid 1980s. Many steps have been taken to rehabilitate and restore ancient irrigation systems.


Majority of the irrigated land in Sri Lanka is used for paddy cultivation. The demand for water is high in paddy cultivation compared to many other crops. Water is essential for the preparation of land, and the planting and maintenance of the crop throughout the planting-harvest cycle. On average, the water requirement for irrigated rice is between 900-2250 mm per day. By 2025, paddy cultivation area is projected to increase by 28%, with the annual growth in the cultivated area of paddy rising to 1077 ha, compared to 836 ha in 1991. Sri Lanka’s dry zone is the main paddy producing area in the country and some parts of this area will face an absolute scarcity of water by 2025. Furthermore, research has suggested that paddy production in Sri Lanka will increase by 10% by year 2025 and that additional amount will be totally irrigation-based.


Applying the IWRM Approach


To manage these challenges, experts have stressed the importance of an Integrated Approach of Water Resource Management (IWRM) to face the rising threat of water scarcity. The concept of IWRM was first proposed about 60 years ago and was re-examined in the 1990’s. IWRM calls for a holistic approach where agricultural water management is considered a part of an overall strategy of natural resource management. The way in which water is managed for agricultural purposes is a function of different management practices that are closely associated with the management of other natural resources as well. Accordingly, management of water will depend on the actions taken by the different users of water and other natural resources. For example, the management of water for agriculture from an irrigation tank largely depends on the management of the catchment area of the tank. The actions taken by the users of the catchment area will affect the water storage of the tank; thereby determining the availability of water for agriculture.


Even though IWRM has been discussed as the most sustainable way of managing water resources, there is some criticism as well. While it is attractive on a conceptual level, the implementation of macro- and meso-scale water resource management projects has faced certain difficulties. Among the reasons for this are the heterogeneity of water users and poor institutional arrangements. Evidence shows that farmers in Sri Lanka are moving towards intensive commercial agriculture, and privately oriented land/water management strategies are rapidly being adopted. As a result, the emerging agricultural systems have ignored the traditional practices of integrated management of associated resources, such as catchment areas.


However, experts have suggested that innovative ways of IWRM can be used to meet the future demand of water in developing countries. One innovative idea is the concept of “virtual water”. Virtual water refers to the hidden or unobserved flow of water when commodities are traded from one country to another. The virtual water content of a commodity is the volume of water required to produce the commodity, which is measured at the original place of the production. This contains the sum of water use for that commodity at various stages of the production process. Therefore, if a country with scarce water resources is producing a particular commodity requiring a large quantity of water, then they could potentially import that commodity from another country that has relatively less water issues, and thereby save the water needed to actually produce that commodity in the country itself. Secondly, water-scarce countries can increase the efficiency of their water management practices through new technological/institutional strategies and water conservation. Thirdly, countries can use more efficient, economical, and environmentally- friendly approaches to prevent the pollution of water. Finally, naturally unusable water, such as saline and sodic water, can be treated to use for agricultural purposes with the use of new technologies. However, the application of these strategies should be compatible with country-specific needs and development agendas. With emerging technologies and private sector involvements, agricultural water management has become increasingly complex. Countries like the USA, China, Japan and Germany appear to have placed more faith on larger investments and modern technologies, while developing countries are focussing on adopting an IWRM approach.


Breaking with Tradition


There are significant efforts by governments over the past few years to establish new infrastructure, rehabilitate or renovate existing dams, reservoirs and canals, and promote agro wells and micro-irrigation technologies to meet the rising demand for agricultural water. Despite such efforts, however, the problem of water scarcity continues grow. In order to meet the future demands of agricultural water innovative approaches are needed. The demand for agricultural water has to be balanced with the municipal and industrial water demands. In balancing these demands, the goals of public health, environmental protection, economic viability, and food security need to be carefully assessed. The development of crop varieties that demand less water is one possible strategy to manage competing demands for water. The selective adoption of technologies appropriate for small farmers is another tool. Planning and coordinating irrigation water is also very important to save the excess use of water. Farmer organizations, local institutions, and state agencies such as the Agrarian Development Department, Department of Agriculture, Department of irrigation, and the Department of Meteorology all have an important role to play. They must work closely and share knowledge and information so that irrigation water can be better managed through an IWRM approach.




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