Sri Lanka’s ground water fees

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.