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Article No 30
Recycling water policies
Hemantha Withanage Executive Director, Centre for Environmental Justice
Despite the fact that Sri Lanka receives a heavy rainfall and inherits massive freshwater bodies, drinking water is becoming a scarce resource in Sri Lanka too. Sri Lanka had water in many rivers and lakes suitable for drinking in many parts of the country. Ground water was completely clean.T
hree decades later, while most running water has become polluted, ground water in most urban areas and some rural areas is polluted with either industrial effluent, pesticides or sewage. Unfortunately the Central Environmental Authority and such other agencies failed to trap these polluters.

In such a situation the draft National Policy on Drinking Water and Policy on Sanitation proposed by the National Water Supply and Drainage Board (NWSDB) which appeared in national newspapers on December 29, 2008 is an important step. However, the proposed policy is not very much different from the controversial Water Service Reform Act submitted to the Parliament in October 2003.

The National Water Resources Policy and the Act of regulations funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in 2001 passed by the Cabinet of Ministers during the Chandrika Bandaranaike Government was shelved after a massive public protest. The same was recycled during the Ranil Wickramasinghe regime in 2003 which was dropped after Supreme Court hearing the cases filed by several groups. Subsequently, the controversial loan provided by the ADB was cancelled. It is a known fact that the same policy is being recycled under the “Nawam Project” of the World Bank under “Mahinda Chinthanaya”.

The similarities of the several policy documents mentioned above show the roots are same and perhaps the same authors are instrumental to all water policies. In a nutshell all policies believe water is owned by the State; People must have transferable water rights; water is an economic good and therefore it is a commodity. All the policies propose full cost recovery. These policies are reluctant to accept water as a human right. It is the same recipe found in the new Drinking Water Policy too. This is the language used by international water mafia, International Financial Institutions, World Water Council and water partnerships around the world.

The new policy seems to push people for pipe water. However, Sri Lanka has a country side that need not be connected to pipe borne water. It is therefore not necessary to give access to pipe water to meet the Millennium Development Goals in Sri Lanka.

Colombo Water utility is one among the most successful city water utilities in Asia. NWSDB water meets the quality standards which covers 32% of the population with 308 water utilities. However, its income is not adequate to meet the production costs. Recent expansion of the staff and the new offices was a controversial issue that leads to the increase of the production costs.

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka has over 140 water bottling companies whose water is expensive than cows’ milk. Only 12 companies have obtained SLS standards certification, which means that the quality of bottle water has not met the required standards.

The new policy provides provisions to transfer water utilities to other parties. Section 5.3 of the new policy says “Service providers shall not transfer the assets ownership but could transfer to O & M whatever appropriate”. This may result in the transfer of the Operation & Management not only to Community Based organizations (CBO) or a local authority as mentioned in the policy, but also to a foreign investor too. We have been opposed to bringing in any Foreign Investors since the beginning of the preparation of a National Water Resources Policy in Sri Lanka in 2001. Once again we are opposed to bringing in foreign investors and the new policy should rewrite its language in order to show that there is no transfer of assets or the O & M to a foreign investor.

While the policy proposes a process to set up tariff for NWSDB operated water under section 5.4, there is no control over CBO operated water utilities or private water bottling companies. As we have noticed CBO water tariff is much higher than that of the NWSDB. Please see the table below.




Kandy MC

CBO in Kegalle

CBO in Puttalam


























The above table shows that CBO’s take more profits. I wonder to what extent even the consumers have a say in setting water tariff under CBO maintained water utilities. Therefore, there should be a transparent mechanism to set up tariff for CBO maintained water utilities too. While they have a maintenance fund set up under the ADB funded water project, they also earn massive profits with no return to the environment from where they pump free water owned by the public.

Democratization of water is an urgency of the day. Similar to previous policies, the role of the public in democratic decision-making, regulation and handing over assets is not clear. May be not all agree to hand over assets to CBOs and local authorities. So, proper democratic and free and prior informed consent is required before handing over these assets.

Water is a human right. Every citizen and all living beings have a right to water. Considering the water scarcity and due to climate change and other impacts, groups engaged in local water rights and an international instrument on the right to water agree that water is a human right. So Sri Lanka should not have a water policy that does not consider water as a human right.

Referring to water as an economic good in this policy (section 7.1) is the basis for commodification of water for making money out of this public service. Private water companies use this view and deny water rights to poor and marginalized groups. People’s uprise against Bechtel Water Company in Bolivia and number of other countries is due to this principle. Therefore we strongly believe water should be treated as a common ‘good’ with an economic value.

Similar to previous controversial policy papers the new policy also proposes to recover Operation & Management cost, Replacement Cost, Capital Cost and a reasonable return of investment and any water taxes imposed by the Government. As proposed under the new Drinking Water Policy some water utilities will be completely funded by grants or Government investments. There is no justification why there is capital cost recovery in all water projects. Reasonable returns on investment means profits. Making profits out of water service is making water a commodity which is against the community aspirations. Reasonable return is not a tangible term. This can be abused in a non transparent manner.

The policy section 7.3 also hints that there could be direct taxes on water in the future. This is a scary development which was subjected to heavy criticism since 2001.

The proposed policy expects automatic tariff increase corresponding to the electricity rate increase. However, it is hard to understand why such adjustment cannot go through a suitable approval process.

Certain approaches and policy provisions in the proposed Drinking Water Policy are very important. Among them the provisions to control water pollution and disaster preparedness are important actions. Since climate impacts are much more serious on the water sector, special climate change proofing and resilience research should be conducted in the sector.

We have learned that the NWSDB still uses old asbestos pipes for water utilities. We are aware that they remove them only when there is a repair. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) and other agencies, using Asbestos is not suitable. Therefore we believe all asbestos pipes should be removed to enable a quality water service.

I believe that sanitation is a neglected subject in Sri Lanka during the last three decades. Colombo canals are full of sewage and most sewage outlets and industrial and domestic outlets are connected to them. This is the situation in other cities such as Kandy and Galle. The proposed Sanitation Policy is less controversial. However, the policy is lacking in promoting less water consuming toilet items for household as well as public places. All relevant authorities should provide adequate public toilets.

Despite the attempt of the IFIs and water corporations, 90% of water utilities are run by the national governments worldwide. Privatization of the water sector is a controversial subject around the world. As a result of the world economic crisis, most developed countries have realized that current economic and financial model of the developed countries is not right. Private sector collapse in the so called developed nations have led the people to suffer when they are involved in essential services such as water.

Privatization is not only a failure but also discredits the unfounded claim that the public sector is doomed to fail. Reclaiming of public water is the discourse in many water struggles around the world, particularly in defending water as a human right and democratization of water governance. Handing public own water utilities to third parties while NWSDB plays a regulator’s role is a matter that should be considered with public interest. All citizens should wake up and see whether we will lose another public utility very soon.


This article was also appered in the Island newspaper on the 21st January 2009..

21 January, 2009

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