Sri Lanka water management: Multiple choice

Aug 08, 2011 (LBO) - It is said that inland reservoirs cover one tenth of Sri Lanka’s land area. Sri Lanka may possibly be the country with the greatest density of artificial reservoirs. It sure seems so from Google Earth, or from looking down from the Delhi flight on a clear day. I just got back from Minneriya, one of Sri Lanka’s “maha weva”s, originally built under King Mahasen (275-301 CE) and rehabilitated under the leadership of D.S. Senanayake and C.P. de Silva. One reservoir; many uses In the many conversations I’ve had over the years with the people of the North Central Province (NCP), the wev bandi rajje, one point comes across: the weva is the center of everything, economic to cultural. In their words, it is the “hadavata,” the heart. They care deeply about it and are willing to go to great lengths to safeguard it according to their lights. When one mentions Minneriya to the ESE [English speaking elites], the immediate association now is with elephants, especially the spectacular “gathering” that occurs every dry season. For the farmers, a full reservoir is a good thing. The Department of Irrigation has primacy then. It is the champion of the farmers. For the ESE, a contracted water body that yields a low-lying plain with grass for elephants is a good thing.
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The Department of Wildlife Conservation has primacy over what used to be under water. It represents the tour operators, the wildlife enthusiasts, and perhaps the animals. “The gathering,” as well as the unique and compact archeological remains of Polonnaruwa, hold potential for attracting large numbers of tourists to the region, and thereby to Sri Lanka. The one negative is the difficulty of getting there and back: the horribly congested highways up to Dambulla squeeze much of the pleasure out. Short of building expressways and making rail transport efficient and pleasurable (both too long-term to be of relevance), the workaround is domestic air travel. For some reason, use of the existing air strips at Hingurakgoda and Anuradhapura appear to have been excluded from discussion. The sole focus has been placed on seaplanes.
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Seaplanes need places to take off from and land. After much dispute, a location in the Dandugam Oya close to the Katunayake international airport has been selected for tourists wishing to avoid road torture. But one also requires other places for the seaplanes to land.
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The Minneriya farmer organizations are concerned about their weva being selected as the Polonnaruwa district seaplane port. Perhaps it will not be Minneriya, but Parakrama Samudraya, or Kantale. But then some other farmer organizations are bound to get agitated. Another dysfunctional dust up like that over the construction of the Aitken Spence hotel at Kandalama in the early 1990s appears imminent. Why object to seaplanes, I asked my friends. On the surface, there appears to be no contradiction between using a reservoir for irrigating paddy fields and using it as a seaplane port. The farmer leaders see three dangers. One is that the requirement to maintain a minimum level of water for the seaplanes will reduce the release of irrigation water. If the peak tourist season is the dry season, there well may be reasons to maintain water levels in ways detrimental to optimal irrigation outflows. This fear can be addressed by empirical evidence and guarantees. The second fear is that it will harm the established fishery. In Minneriya the fishers are not outsiders and their interests are seen as allied to those of the farmers. This again is a dispute that is amenable to evidence-based resolution. The other perceived danger is more abstract.
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It is the fear of the camel poking his head into the tent. First, it will be a pier for the travelers to deplane and emplane. Then, it will be a floating restaurant. Then, it will be hotel on the water or on the reservations. Tourism, with its ESE proponents, will trump agriculture. The tourist will be inside the tent and farmer out in the cold. Balancing multiple uses There is no doubt in my mind that tourism is the low-hanging fruit of the Sri Lankan economy. It has the greatest potential for producing jobs for our young people who cannot be supported by ill-paying agriculture and who do not want to be farmers. I also believe that the eco and cultural treasures of the NCP can be shared with the world in ways that will benefit the people of the area and also the endangered animals. I have little disagreement about domestic air transport as a workaround for the dysfunctional roads, though I remain to be persuaded that the answer is seaplanes only. Agriculture is the least productive of our economic sectors and there is no point in preserving it for its own sake: But Polonnaruwa district rice cultivation is different. Along with their counterparts in Ampara, the Polonnaruwa rice farmers are the most efficient in the country. It would be foolish to do anything to harm them. Therefore, we must find common ground between the farmers and the tourism promoters in Minneriya or whichever other inland reservoir is chosen as the NCP seaplane port. The last thing this country needs at this moment is a knock-down fight like the one that bedeviled Kandalama. We are not utilizing the full potential of the major irrigation works of the NCP and elsewhere; nor are we maintaining them properly-- and But that is another (though connected) story for another time.
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Unless we develop a scalable platform to resolve conflicts over different uses of the reservoirs, we will not be able to utilize their full potential. Outlines of a solution First, preempt conflict. If Kandalama and the recent fight over the Negombo lagoon teach us anything, it is that stealth implementation does not work. Insecure government officials advise politicians that consultation is futile and that the only way to get things done is by stealth.
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But they are wrong. When stealth implementation is discovered (as it always is), the affected constituencies feel betrayed.
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Their rhetoric and actions take extreme forms. Talking them down and finding common ground becomes so much more difficult because of the distrust caused by the stealth approach. Second, recognize the fear of those distant from the center of power in Colombo that they will get the short end of the stick in any negotiation. Right or wrong, this fear exists. It must be addressed. The following elements below are key to assuaging this fear. Third, bring economics to the center of negotiations. Today, most negotiations about repurposing land place economic gains and losses at the center. Rarely are tenants chased out in the first instance by thugs and huniyam, the dominant modes of the past. It is only when the monetary negotiations fail that the traditional methods are used. When land is taken for roads, the compensation is no longer trivial and is in most cases effective in clearing the trace, though prompt payments and quick implementation of projects can improve things further.
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Imagine that all the uses of the common resource, the reservoir, are priced even if imperfectly. It is not that everyone has to actually pay (which would be ideal), but that shadow prices at least exist. Thus, for example, one would know what a fisher has to pay to use the reservoir and one would know what it costs to allow a tourist jeep to use the dry reservoir bed during the gathering season. Perhaps the opportunity costs of those uses would also be calculated. Now, the conditions exist for reasoned negotiation among different uses. If for example, a minimum water level has to be maintained and would reduce the release of irrigation water by “x” amount, the losses to the beneficiaries of irrigation can be computed as can the benefits to the tour operators who want to land the seaplanes when water levels are low. Instead of a pure power-based negotiation, now there is potential for a hybrid negotiation that involves both tradeoffs with quantifiable numbers, as well as power.

Fourth, build a trusted platform for negotiation from the ground up, accommodating local values as well as the best insights of game theory and techniques such as interest-based negotiation. Fifth, restore law and order. All the buildings on the right-hand side of the road to Polonnaruwa adjacent to the Minneriya reservoir are illegal. In February, the Minister of Irrigation announced these illegal constructions will be removed. Six months have passed with no results.
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If the government allows laws to be flouted so blatantly, why should the stakeholders trust its word? The outlined solution is not specific to the management of water resources. But water management in Minneriya is as good a place to start from as any.
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