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Sri Lanka's ground water fees
22 Oct, 2012 05:35:43
By Rohan Samarajiva
Oct 22, 2012 (LBO) - Protests are starting against the announcement that everyone pulling ground water will have to obtain a license. The sad thing is that there are no public-interest or environmental groups speaking up for the critically important ground-water layer that regulating ground water will help conserve.
It is not that evidence is lacking on the irreversible harm caused by indiscriminate drawing up of ground water. India’s groundwater crisis is well documented:

Sri Lanka is a water-surplus country and we have not been pulling water out of the ground as rapidly as our neighbor. But do we want to wait until things get really bad? Or are we going to have a civilized discussion about a simple policy being announced by government officials with foresight?

I laid out the basic argument in my recent book: ApataGalapenaArtikaKramaveda.

Private property rights are not absolute. Just because we own a piece of land, we cannot control everything above that land. We cannot control all that is below that piece of land.

Minerals under a piece of land do not necessarily belong to the owner of the land. In the same way, ground water under one’s land is not that person’s alone.

Ground water is a common resource. One person drawing out excessive amounts can harm all others in society. India is considering giving powers to collective entities, such as local-government authorities, to control the taking of ground water:

We should not do things simply because other countries are doing them. But we are already experiencing problems. Earlier this year, the Chief Medical Officer of the Colombo Municipal Council confirmed that Colombo’s ground water is contaminated with sewage. Ground water in other areas has yet to be tested.

So is it that the opponents of ground-water regulation want to spread typhoid?

The problem requires a multi-faceted solution. Government must ensure that everyone gets clean drinking water. It must connect all urban buildings to sewerage systems and ensure that our waste does not contaminate precious ground water resources. For the first time in years, we are in a position to say that the government is making concrete progress on both these fronts.

In addition, we must remove incentives to favor extraction of ground water over piped water. The only way treated water can be provided over a pipe system on a sustainable basis is to charge for it. Ideally the capital and operational costs will be covered; at a minimum, operational costs will be recovered. Gradually, government has been installing water meters and imposing use-based charges on what once used to be a fully subsidized service.

But what is the natural reaction when people see that they have to pay for water? They start drawing water from wells. And it is not only people drawing water to cook. Big industrial operators start pulling out water in large quantities. The aquifers get depleted.

What we need at this point is a fact-based discussion of what the appropriate solution is. Not simple-minded protests about charging for water.

Rohan Samarajiva heads LirneAsia, a regional think tank. He was also a former telecoms regulator in Sri Lanka. To read previous columns go to LBOs main navigation panel and click on the 'Choices' category.

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9. Mohan Seneviratne Oct 24
Thank you for raising a very valuable and important subject on water resources.

As a life long practioner in Water Resource Conservation, Sri Lanka is lagging other countries when it comes to protecting its most valuable resource. We take for granted that we are blessed with ample water and hence no need to protect it.

The Government needs to take a multifaceted approach as you state and this includes conserving the water used by industry, commercial buildings and hotels including water recycling for air conditioning systems.

Licenses are a way of at least developing a database of what and how many wells are out there.

Recently I was in Bangladesh and in Dhaka there are 1700 textile mills drawing so much water that the water table is falling by 1 - 2 metres. And also because of lax regulations polluting the environment through discharge of industrial effluent that is only semi treated at best.

We dont want to end up like that so the government needs to pull its socks and come up with a far reaching legislation.

Mohan Seneviratne

8. Rohan Samarajiva Oct 22
I do not have a scheme. All I am suggesting is that (a) ground water is a common resource that must be safeguarded (b)there is no reason to not use economic instruments as part of a comprehensive solution.

The transaction cost issue is significant. One way to handle it is to exempt residential wells so the focus can be placed on industrial users. Another is to levy a fixed annual fee, rather than use-based fees (which is what the govt was thinking about, as I understand).

7. Niro Oct 22
@6 RS
Your shortsighted scheme is akin to 'rob Peter to pay Paul'.

You will need a lot of manpower to implement and enforce a tax collection scheme on water consumption.Its a good idea if you support creating unproductive govt jobs.

6. Rohan Samarajiva Oct 22
Any user fee can be interpreted as a way of increasing government revenue. But it is incontrovertible that what is "free" is wasted. Why not use economic incentives as part of a multi-faceted solution to the problem of preserving the common ground water resource?

One solution to the problem of government wasting the revenue from the new scheme is to dedicate it all to water supply schemes, so that we can increase the percentage of homes supplied with safe, piped drinking water.

5. Niro Oct 22
Is this a another ploy to fill up the state coffers? (unlike water wells, coffer has dried up!)

Personal usage should not be taxed, but industrial or agricultural usage need to be fairly taxed. Would such a scheme fly with the vast majority of people who's livelihood is farming? - considering rice is a water intensive crop?

4. Prasad Oct 22
As always this is wrong implementation. This may be just a copy of India.
What we should do is to protect the tree layor in all areas and let rain water penitrate to the deep soil. Instead government is cutting trees in upcountry and allowing people to make houses.
Even if you go to "Sri Pada" you will not find any part of jungle without a house.

First, govenment should lay a concreat policy in water protection. Then look for exploitation of protected resorce. What they are doing now is just to add a tariff to general public and collect money for them to weast on their way of doing things. Government will come up with "DOG TAX" stating all animal protection is also under government and will tax 5000 per dog. Provincial councils and RDA will fight then to say stray dogs are on other roads then theirs to each other to avoid tax.

Are they mad or are we mad? that is the question!

3. well pollution Oct 22
Govt should tax /punish factories that are located in residential areas that collect liquid waste in cess pits that pollute neighbouring well water thereby making it undrinkable and poisonous to humans.
2. Sinhala Man Oct 22
No, Chris. I think that this guy knows what he's talking about. He's written a book in Sinhala and he's talking about how "big industrial operators" exploit rural areas for commercial profit - they will ultimately deprive those drawing water for cooking. Also, we will soon begin to realise that we're poisoning all the water on the globe by not properly disposing of electronic waste.

Just think that one out. Rain water may continue to be largely free of contaminants, but this just isn't "my field". I'm relying on common sense. The world is over-populated owing to advances in medical technology. Other technologies must also keep pace, and education - in vital areas such as this.

How to do this? In this country, particularly, spending on education down in real terms, Defence (what a euphemism for "war"!) allocation up 25% AFTER the civil war we created is over! I'm NOT in "Colombo 7"; I'm in Bandarawela, and we are painfully aware that water from this area will be taken (five years from now) to Hambantota under the Uma oya scheme. I've begun giving myself this "Sinhala" handle because many started saying that my comments came from a Tamil. Only human beings are racist.

Yes, we end up saying things that appear "off topic". I've been trying to say these things, in Sinahla, to common people here; they just don't understand. "Tele-dramas" all the time, no thinking. Conveying ideas to non-users of computers (the vast majority in the country) is an Augean task - come to think of it there WAS a river for Hercules to divert in to the stables! Even those connected to the Internet: how does one get them to read articles of this sort? How many guys are e-mailing articles of this sort? And to how many can I e-mail? Mind boggling problems.

1. Chris Oct 22
Typical comment of a Colombo 7 aristocrat type who is immune to the hardships of the poor village people. This water surplus country has loads of people without access to clean drinking water and in some villages people have to go at least a couple kms to a well with drinkable water.Good to talk of environment if our peoples needs are taken in to consideration first. Why no talk of the 7500 Rs a year tax on a well.