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Integrated Water Resources Development: The Way Forward for Sri Lanka to tackle the Climate Crisis

UNDP Sri Lanka

The last time El Niño affected Sri Lanka, between 2016 and 2017, more than 2 million people were affected—first by flooding and landslides, and then by a severe drought. 19 out of 25 districts were hit hard, decimating two harvest seasons, and creating water scarcity for agriculture, drinking and household use. El Niño currently in its development phase, is forecasted to peak towards the end of 2023 in the Asia Pacific region, and the impacts are projected to be more pronounced from January to May the following year. And if the situation continues, we must be ready to embrace a similar, if not worse, scenario that will have direct impact on communities, especially in the availability of water. Today is a particularly opportune time to bring this issue to the limelight as Sri Lanka hosts the fifth Forum of Ministers and Environment Authorities of Asia Pacific, with the aim of contribute to the outcome of the sixth session of the UN Environment Assembly happening in 2024, on the theme ‘Effective, inclusive and sustainable multilateral actions to tackle climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution’.

As the torrential rains submerges much of Colombo and the western regions of the island, much of the dry zone is crippled by drought-like conditions. A particularly worrying sign as Sri Lanka is currently grappling with a widespread incidence of multidimensional vulnerability that transcends geographical boundaries. Sri Lanka’s first Multidimensional Vulnerability Index (MVI) recently published by UNDP Sri Lanka and the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI), report titled ‘Understanding Multidimensional Vulnerabilities: Impact on People of Sri Lanka’ outlines that water is the second greatest contributor to vulnerability after household debt. Nearly half of Sri Lanka’s population, 48.8%, lacks disaster preparedness, a key vulnerability factor aggravated by accelerating climate risks, while 35.6% are vulnerable and deprived in relation to water sources, compounding the impacts of the poly-crisis, raising significant concerns in the context of El Niño's potential impact coupled with the effects of climate change in Sri Lanka. Observations from FAO and WFP on this drought-like condition in the country’s agricultural heartland suggests that food insecurity might further heighten towards the latter part of the year.

Water is at the core of Sri Lanka’s ethos—villages and communities were designed around water sources, and much of the country’s rural areas homed a hydraulic civilization. A cascade system of tanks and diversion canals, with in-built efficient and equitable sociotechnical water management methods, enhanced the long-term development of not only the water sources, but also the surrounding natural resources on which the communities and their livelihoods depended. Yet, today, around one-third of the population is vulnerable and deprived in water sources. Communities in the dry zone chronically struggle with water scarcity, and this is a particularly potent issue in the Northern region due to regional discrepancies in water equity and accessibility.  On the Global Climate Risk Index, Sri Lanka ranks very high – specifically regarding climate change-induced risks to water. This predicts vulnerabilities in the country’s water infrastructure and security regarding quality, quantity and salinity intrusion. Adding to the issue, according to FAO, Sri Lanka’s water stress is already at  90.8%, which means that the country is consuming 90.8% of its total available renewable freshwater resources at present apart from environmental needs, and is therefore categorized as “highly water stressed”. Ensuring an uninterrupted supply of drinking water during periods of drought; reduced quality of water from public point sources which scientific speculations link to the cause of Chronic Kidney Disease (CKDu) prevalent in some of the areas in the Dry Zone; limitations in the country’s water production capacity and stress on its water resources, and the partial treatment and water quality deterioration are some of the crucial issues that affect Sri Lanka. 

These issues have cascading impacts on not just drinking water, but also rural livelihoods, food supply, and our natural resource base with particularly dire impacts on women given their intrinsic relationship with water management. As Sri Lanka attempts to rebuild post-crisis, and gears up for early action for El Niño, it is evident that integrated water resource management is central to our future collective efforts in attaining the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. It means that water is a development accelerator. Ensuring reliable water access plays a catalytic role in enhancing the economic empowerment of women and the youth, rural resilience, food security, reducing poverty, and promoting environmental sustainability and economic growth. 

In moving forward, Sri Lanka requires a two-track approach. First is to invest in our infrastructure. As infrastructure development usually requires more funding and time, in parallel, integrated water resource management should be promoted, tapping into Sri Lanka’s 4,000-year-old cascade systems. Integrated water resource management offers us an opportunity to give due attention to the interlinkages among surface and ground water to the many socio-economic-environmental uses of water and is a more immediate and tangible solution to the water crisis. The Green Climate Fund financed, Climate Resilient Integrated Water Management Project (CRIWMP) implemented by the Government of Sri Lanka together with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Sri Lanka, offers a blueprint to reviving Sri Lanka’s cascade system for water resilience, incorporating modern technologies and climate resilient infrastructure, climate information services and agro-met advisories to create a more sustainable dry-zone eco-system and enhance climate resilience. 

The significance of water as a vulnerability contributor in several districts highlights the importance of addressing water scarcity, quality, and access issues. Interventions might include water resource management, infrastructure development, and community-based initiatives for water management.  One of the key recommendations of the MVI is building climate-resilient water systems that safeguard equitable access to water resources in the face of climate challenges. This can be achieved by initiating greater investments in rural water infrastructure, and integrated water resource management initiatives. These investments should then be underpinned by regular assessments on water productivity to enhance knowledge and implement policies that can advance equitable water allocation in the country. 

Sri Lanka is abundant in the solutions and technologies required to address the water crisis—there are many documented lessons on data-and-community-based integrated water resource management. Development partners in the country in consultation with the Government, are coming together as a Water Platform, to synergize water sector development, while technology and automated solutions to increase water consumption efficiency are already available. The crisis-recovery process presents a great opportunity to build upon these solutions, leveraging multi-sectoral interventions, from the national to the local levels.

The findings from the recent MVI Report and SDG tracking remind us that Sri Lanka is off-track on its journey to achieving water security and disaster resilience. The devastating consequences of climate change are already felt by our most vulnerable communities. 

As El Nino peaks, the possibility of widespread and calamitous climatic changes will only intensify. This is a clear and urgent call for action to enhance water resilience in Sri Lanka.  

View the original on UNDP website here.

  • SDG 13