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Draft Framework for a National Water Resources Policy with Special Reference to Groundwater

Dr. Kingsley A. de Alwis


The National Academy of Sciences of Sri Lanka (NASSL) is a multi-disciplinary body of distinguished scientists set up under Act of Parliament No.66 of 1986 with a mandate to act as an independent consultative body to the Government on inter alia “the management and rational utilization of the national resources of Sri Lanka”.

In accordance with this mandate, the National Academy has over the past three years been focusing specific attention on developing a national policy on the groundwater resources of Sri Lanka, their rational utilization and their preservation as a renewable resource. The aim was to end up with a national policy based on non-political scientific considerations that would therefore not only meet the immediate and long-term needs of the country but also be acceptable to all successive governments. This paper has been sent to the Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources for necessary action.

The background material used in formulating this policy was drawn from: (a) a workshop sponsored by the National Academy and supported by the Water Resources Board and the Civil Engineering Department of the University of Peradeniya on the topic “Groundwater in Sri Lanka – A Most Precious but Highly Threatened Resource” held in 2008; (b) a number follow-up workshops held by the participants of the same workshop under the sponsorship of the NASSL in 2009 and 2010; (c) the Project Completion and Validation reports of the ADB-financed Sri Lanka Water Resources Management Project aimed at drawing up a National Water Resources Policy; (d) a recent review of the history of water policy development in Sri Lanka by the ODI and (e) other papers mentioned in the Bibliography.

The outcome of these efforts has been this Draft Framework for a National Water Resources Policy with Special Reference to Groundwater. We trust that this Draft Framework could form the basis of a Government Policy Document which could be used for discussions with all major stakeholders involved as well as public consultations in order to come up with a generally acceptable national policy. It would be timely if a final policy document could be prepared in time for the next World Water Day on 22 March 2012. The theme for the following year is to be “Water and Food Security”. In a country such as ours which depends heavily on irrigation, prudent use of our water resources would be a major factor in ensuring food security for the people. The overarching factor in the wise use of our water resources would be a correct National Water Resources Policy.

Serious attempts by the Government to develop a NWRP have been going on since 1990 and have been supported by donor agencies such as USAID and the Asian Development Bank. It may be noted however that previous attempts to formulate a national water resources policy were not successful due to: (a) the (correct) perception that the exercise was donor driven, (b) the failure to consult with all the different groups of stakeholders, especially farmers and their representatives, and (c) the politicization of the process and consequent misrepresentations in the media portraying the policy as an attempt to sell the country’s water resources to foreign interests.

It is hoped that we could avoid these mistakes and work towards developing a policy that is home-grown and has the acceptance of all stakeholders and that, therefore, would not have to be changed with every change of government.

This document draws on:

  • previous work done by national and international consultants in connection with donor-assisted projects aimed at developing a national water resources policy;
  • recent reviews of the history of water policy development in Sri Lanka by the Overseas Development Institute (London) and the Asian Development Bank; and
  • the outcome of the Workshop held in Anuradhapura and the follow-up sessions mentioned above.

The aim of this document is not to come out with a fully-fledged National Groundwater Resources Policy (NGRP), still less a National Water Resources Policy (NWRP), but rather to list the essential elements that would form the framework for such a policy. Obviously, we need to first look at the elements of the NWRP that have been developed over the past 20 years as the basis for the NGRP.


The following background facts regarding the water resources and their use in Sri Lanka need to be taken into account in framing a national water resources policy.

  1. The large number of agencies dealing with the country’s water resource, often working at cross-purposes
  2. The increasing demand and competition for water resources
  3. Water rights linked to land rights resulting in complications in applying regulatory mechanisms
  4. Deteriorating water quality due to uncontrolled disposal of industrial and domestic waste
  5. Depletion and pollution of the water resource through uncontrolled deforestation, soil erosion and sand mining
  6. Lack of suitable mechanisms for water allocation among competing users
  7. Lack of accurate data on water resource including the lack of reliable data on low flows in rivers during critical periods and of temporal changes in groundwater resources in aquifers
  8. Absence of institutional arrangements to coordinate the use and management of water resources
  9. The absence of an integrated approach to water resources management at policy, institutional, data collection, resource allocation and operational levels.
  10. Failure to recognize the highly politicized nature of the water sector and to consult adequately with all the stakeholders have doomed all previous attempts to develop a national water policy
  11. The perception that previous attempts to formulate a national water policy have been driven by donors having their own agenda has also led to lack of public acceptance
  12. The lack of a political will to formulate a valid policy and implement it also made the whole exercise futile
  13. Resistance from entrenched bureaucratic interests that find it advantageous to continue with the present ad hoc decision making system in the water sector and their determination to protect their “territories” that also makes it well nigh impossible to develop and implement a national water policy, especially if it involves institutional changes
  14. There are no known fossil groundwater reserves in Sri Lanka and all groundwater here originates from rainfall and groundwater is generally used in conjunction with surface water. Therefore, a National Groundwater Resources Policy (NGRP) should necessarily be framed within the context of a National Water Resources Policy (NWRP).



National Water Resources Policy (NWRP) envisions the optimum, environmentally safe, sustainable development and use of Sri Lanka’s water resources for the benefit of the people.


When Sri Lanka had a predominantly rural economy dependent on rainfed agriculture, with few industries and only a limited population, integrated water resources management was not a pressing need. In the past few decades, however, this picture has changed dramatically. The demand for water is fast catching up, and in some cases exceeding, the sustainable supply in every economic sphere and unregulated exploitation is threatening depletion and degradation of the country’s water resource base.

With the transformation of the agrarian society into an industrial-urban society, the main issue facing the water sector is to meet the growing sectoral water demands i.e. domestic, industrial, irrigation and hydropower while maintaining the ecological health of our water bodies. Although Sri Lanka has a high rainfall on an annual average basis, the wide variation in its regional and temporal distribution causes severe water stress, especially in the dry zone.

Competition among water users, lack of compliance with pollution control regulations, and unregulated land use are threatening critical watersheds. Lack of data and information for real time water planning is an impediment to rational and equitable water allocation. Absence of legal provisions to safeguard water rights discourages user-commitment in the protection and conservation of water resources. Degradation of river environments due to sand and clay mining, waste dumping and inflow of waste-water and industrial effluents are major issues in river health and water resources conservation.

Opportunities for further development of water resources being limited, expensive and fraught with socio-environmental issues, a greater part of the future demand would have to be met from improved water-use efficiency and re-allocation of already harnessed water resources. Issues that could emerge with such allocations need to be addressed. Existing legal provisions for this purpose are scattered across a number of legal enactments and implemented through different functional agencies, and are grossly inadequate to deal with the looming problems in the water sector.

The alarming evidence of environmental degradation has prompted the government to take some measures in the past decade to reform the natural resources management structure of the country. A National Water Resources Policy is therefore needed if effective measures are to be taken to:

  • regulate water allocations,
  • prepare plans for integrated water resources development, management and conservation,
  • introduce new legislation to recognise and grant the rights of water users,
  • empower stakeholders by clarifying the decision-making process for sharing the already harnessed resources.

The National Water Resources Policy will concern itself with the following water resources:

  1. Rainwater
  2. Groundwater
  3. Rivers and Streams
  4. Man-made Reservoirs
    • For drinking water supply
    • Multi-purpose uses (agriculture, power generation, domestic use, fisheries, aquaculture, recreation and industry)
  5. Lagoons

Marine waters are excluded from this policy.


The overall objective of the National Water Resources Policy is to ensure that Sri Lanka’s water resources are developed in an integrated manner, efficiently managed and equitably allocated among stakeholders to meet the needs of society and conserve the environment.

In reaching the overall goal, the Policy is intended to:

  1. Ensure the water security of the nation;
  2. Conserve and recognize the value of the scarce water resources;
  3. Establish flexible equitable water allocation criteria which would promote social harmony among competing users;
  4. Recognize water rights of current and new users;
  5. Promote adherence to minimum water quality standards in the sources of supply for different categories of water users;
  6. Promote sustainable management and development of both surface and groundwater resources and related infrastructure;
  7. Ensure that national, provincial and local interests are harmonized in the management of water resources;
  8. Promote stakeholder participation in decision making through a transparent approach for good governance;
  9. Recognize equitable allocation of water for competing demands and for other social activities, while maintaining the basic environmental needs;
  10. Conserve, develop and manage watersheds to ensure optimum land use in relation to social well-being;
  11. Encourage public-private partnerships in the management of the resource.



The National Water Resources Policy is based on the following principles:

  1. All citizens of Sri Lanka are entitled to have access to water for preservation of life as a basic human right.
  2. All water resources, excluding rainwater, belong to the people, but may be held and managed in trust for them by local and national bodies elected by them.
  3. Rainwater is considered part of the land on which it falls and will belong to the person or institution owning or having legal rights to use of the land.
  4. In situations of limited supply, traditionally accepted water use rights for drinking and sanitation will take precedence over all other claims on the resource. Maintenance of livelihoods will be next in the order of precedence.
  5. The unit for planning the development and management of water resources will be the stream or river basin.
  6. Where basins are spread across local government boundaries, their utilization and management would be the responsibility of next higher level government concerned. Trans-basin and multi-basin development and utilization of water resources would be managed by authorities set up for the purpose.
  7. Government or Community organizations would be responsible for the distribution of water to users. This responsibility may be contracted out to private organizations where the government or community organization concerned deems it appropriate.
  8. Water rights will be recognized, with regulations governing allocations in line with national priorities.
  9. In order to ensure the sustainability of publicly funded water development projects, whether for domestic use, irrigation or commercial purposes, responsibility for the maintenance of the systems would ultimately be handed over to the water users. In the case of large water development projects, the government would support the formation of user organizations for this purpose.
  10. The development of water resources would take economic, social and environmental sustainability into account.
  11. The responsibility for maintaining the quality of a water resource, according to the uses to which it is put, should rest with the users either individually or collectively as the case may be. External polluters of water sources shall be liable under the law to appropriate penalties.
  12. Groundwater extraction will be monitored and appropriately regulated through the relevant institutions in groundwater sensitive areas.
  13. Management of water resources will be devolved or decentralized as provided in prevailing Constitutional provisions.
  14. Water resources should be shared among the demands of major competing uses including domestic use, irrigation and drainage for agriculture, animal husbandry, fishery, aquaculture, power generation, industry, tourism and construction in a balanced and integrated manner.
  15. Where there are competing demands for limited water resources, the quantity of water available after satisfying the demand for domestic supplies and livelihood maintenance would be allocated on the basis of national priorities and economic rather than financial returns.
  16. In situations of water scarcity, fiscal, and if necessary legal, punitive measures would be taken to prevent wastage and luxury consumption of water.
  17. All developers of water resources including state agencies will need to obtain the approval of the National Water Resources Authority (NWRA) which would be set up to regulate the development and use of water resources.
  18. The State will actively promote the integration of gender concerns in policies, plans and programmes in water sector activities.



6.1 Ownership

The water resources in Sri Lanka, including surface water and groundwater, are considered a public good that belongs to the people.

6.2 Water Rights

i. Riparian rights, prior rights and customary rights to water will be recognized.

ii. Water rights will be transferable subject to regulation and zoning stipulations based on national interest.

iii. Appropriate instruments will be used to regulate large scale water users in order to safeguard small scale users.

iv. Third party rights to water will be recognized.

6.3 Role of the State

i. Facilitate development of water resources to the extent possible.

ii. Foster the participatory approach as a key principle in conservation, development and management of all water resources in a sustainable manner.

iii. Promote open and transparent approaches in all its endeavours in managing the nation’s water resources and water rights of the people.

iv. Ensure adequate water for environment and social needs at all times.

v. Establish policy, legal and institutional frameworks for Integrated Water resources Management.

vi. Transfer appropriate water management responsibilities to stakeholders and user groups, to the extent possible.

6.4 Development and Management

i. A National Water Resources Management Plan will be developed as the framework for future development and management of water resources

ii. Implementation of the National Water Resources Management Policy will commence on a phase-in basis.

iii. Connected river basins, sub basins, aquifers or parts thereof will be the unit of implementation of the National Water Policy.

iv. Decentralization of management of water resources will be in accordance with the Constitution of the Country.

v. The government will from time to time gazette water management areas on the recommendation of the National Water Resources Authority.

vi. Appropriate management measures will be introduced to regulate the use and sustainable utilisation of groundwater.

vii. Rainwater harvesting will be promoted, especially in areas where safe drinking water is an acute problem.

6.5 Conservation

All measures will be taken to minimize excessive use of water through demand management and by promoting economic efficiency and accountability of water use in all sectors. Watershed management through extensive soil and water conservation, catchment area protection, preservation and increasing of forest and increasing forest cover will be promoted.

The National Water Resources Policy recognizes the importance of water quality management and will introduce anti degradation measures to minimise contamination of water bodies due to point and diffused sources of pollution.

6.6 Water Allocation

The system of water allocation will be based on a participatory decision making process representing all stakeholders with technical input on optimal operation for meeting anticipated seasonal and multi-seasonal water demands for various regions and sectors, and the environment

Allocation of water among different users will be in accordance with the water resources management plans prepared for the each river basin region, river basin or aquifer. River Basin Committees (RBC) will process and monitor requests from the eligible users for allocation. In doing so, they will ensure efficient and equitable water allocations among stakeholders including provisions for environmental requirements.

6.7 Priority in Allocation

Water resources management measures will be introduced to reserve water for allocation to different uses such as domestic, agriculture, and irrigation, aquaculture, and hydropower generation, and industry, commercial, environmental and cultural needs. However at times of water shortages, priority will be given to meet the basic water requirement of drinking and sanitation.

6.8 Cost Recovery

The administrative costs incurred by the NWRA in performing regulatory functions will be met by the STATE. However, such costs will be recovered from users in the case of bulk water allocations

6.9 Management Areas and Plans

Based on water resources issues and management needs and on the recommendation of the NWRA water resources management areas will be declared. Comprehensive water resources management plans will be formulated in collaboration with partner agencies for declared areas. Sustainable groundwater management will be encouraged through identification of distinctive characteristics specific to different aquifers. Groundwater sensitive areas will be declared as “Groundwater Management Areas”.

6.10 Data and Information Management

The NWRA will establish a well developed system for water related data for planning and management of the resources. A database needs to be established allowing the storing, transferring and dissemination of data and information to improve the data collection mechanism and its reliability. Technical assistance will be provided to the respective water resources management agencies to improve their data bases. Information and data sharing will be based on agreements between custodian agencies.


The National water resources policy provides a three tier institutional arrangement to be responsible for its implementation, namely, National Water Resources Authority, National Water Resources Council and the Water Resources Tribunal.

7.1 National Water Resources Authority

The NWRA will function as an apex agency to implement the policy. It will be a mall body, and work in collaboration with partner agencies to carryout delegated functions. The NWRA will not engage in project implementation activities but function as a regulatory body. Since the National Water Resources Authority has to be an independent agency devoid of sectoral interests it will not be placed under a line ministry but would come directly under the head of state

7.2 Water Resource Council

WRC will be an advisory coordinating body on water resources management. Its membership will consist of representatives from Government, academia, private sector, NGOs and representatives of River basin organizations (RBOs). WRT will be an independent appeal tribunal coming within the purview of the Judicial Services Commission.

7.3 Water Resources Tribunal (WRT)

As far as possible, disputes in the allocation of water and conflicts between users and NWRA will be settled through negotiations. In the event of failure to reach settlement, the matter will be referred to the WRT for final decision. WRT will be an independent appeal tribunal coming within the purview of the Judicial Services Commission

.7.4. River Basin Committees

The establishment of River Basin Committees will be facilitated by the NWRA in identified river basins or their clusters. RBCC in consultation with the NWRA will be responsible for the formulation and monitoring of water resources management plans at basin and regional levels. RBCC will be the pivotal unit in the water resources management policy and be the critical link to provincial, divisional, local government and other stakeholders at river basin level.


The multidisciplinary approach needed for Integrated Water Resources Management is promoted through inter agency coordination. Comprehensive plans for declared areas to address water resources issues will be formulated with the involvement of partner agencies and stakeholders. NWRA will facilitate agreement on respective responsibilities in the implementation of the plan at basin level.


The NWRA in exercising its mandate will promote research, training and capacity building of water sector agencies to meet IWRM goals. Facilitate mobilising partner institutions such as Universities, Research organizations, Govt. departments, private sector institutions and NGOO for consultation and awareness to promote stakeholder commitment for water resources management. NWRA will commission water-resources-related research.


The outcome of nearly two decades of efforts to formulate a generally acceptable National Water Resources Policy (NWRP) has been, to all intents and purposes, nil – and the process itself remains in limbo. Furthermore, the manner in which the policy development process was implemented has resulted in raising antagonisms to the very idea of a national policy on water and has politicized the whole issue. The major mistakes in formulating the NWRP include the following:

a. The policy formulation exercise was donor-driven. A national policy must necessarily be “home-grown” as a response to local needs and not be undertaken in order to obtain external financing.

b. Inadequate attention was paid to the cultural and social milieu in which the policy would be implemented. Sri Lanka has a long history of hydraulic development and water management. Although the traditional systems of water management have been replaced with less disciplined and more bureaucratic arrangements, the farmers’ ethos and attitudes towards water are strongly ingrained in their traditions.

c. There was a failure to recognize all the stakeholders in the water sector and involve them in developing the water policy. This was especially true of small farmers who constitute nearly sixty percent of the population and whose livelihood depends on the availability of water for irrigation. Other stakeholders who were ignored included civil society organizations, entrenched long-established players in the sector such as the Irrigation Department, the media and political groups, whose ultimate opposition to the draft policy could have been neutralised or at least mitigated if adequate advocacy accompanied the policy formulation process.

No matter how carefully a national water resources policy is formulated, however, there will always be vested interests who see some issues that affect them or their clients. These include paddy farmers who resist any perceived attempt to impose some discipline on their profligate use of water, polluters who are presently getting away scot-free, entrenched bureaucrats who oppose any encroachment of their territory through changes in institutional arrangements in the sector and of course politicians fishing in troubled waters, misrepresenting the what is being attempted and making political capital of any dissatisfaction they could exploit.


The foregoing paragraphs have outlined the draft of a possible national water resources policy covering all water resources. It will require the collection of a large amount of background information and the execution of a number of supporting studies and many consultations with stakeholders before it can be fleshed out into a full-fledged policy document. Furthermore, previous attempts at defining a national policy for all water resources have met with considerable political and public resistance. It was therefore agreed at the Workshop on the Groundwater Resources of Sri Lanka held in Anuradhapura in March 2008[1] to use the information and results of the discussions at that workshop to work towards developing a draft framework for a national groundwater resources policy, rather than trying to undertake the framing of full-fledged national policy covering all water resources.

Do We Need a Separate Policy for Groundwater?

Many countries including our neighbours, Bangladesh and Pakistan have introduced water resources management policies. They do not deal with groundwater separately but include it in an umbrella policy. Sri Lanka too should have an overarching policy covering both surface and groundwater. However, many interest groups, particularly entrenched bureaucrats in the water sector, fear that their territory is at risk when any new institutional arrangements are proposed and keep opposing any attempt to develop a national water resources policy. Nor does the government show any interest in framing a water policy. On the other hand, scientists, and professionals in the field could at least work out the basic requirements of such a policy so that when hopefully some day an enlightened set of politicians are elected who see the need for a water resources policy, there would be a framework for them to work on.

The following is an outline of the draft policy framework for a National Groundwater Policy for Sri Lanka. It should be considered within the context of the Draft National Water Resources Policy above.


Knowledge of the groundwater resources of the country would be an indispensable prerequisite for their use and management. Inventorying the main aquifers which constitute the groundwater resources will, therefore, be given high priority and be carried out as a public function by the Water Resources Board (WRB). Collation of all available information on groundwater and setting up and maintaining a database of groundwater resources and their utilization will also be carried out by the WRB.


Groundwater extraction from critical aquifers (i.e. aquifers where the drawdown is in danger of exceeding the recharge rates) will be regulated in order to ensure a balance between extraction and recharge. Legislation for this purpose will be presented in Parliament. The Water Resources Board will be charged with identifying such critical aquifers, determining permissible extraction limits, monitoring extraction rates and implementing the regulatory functions involved.

Provisions made in the Draft Water Resources Management Act.

The draft Water Resources Act provided for the declaration of sensitive areas of groundwater on the basis of depletion, contamination and pollution. Part V of the draft act gives the minister authority to declare groundwater sensitive areas by publishing a notification in the Gazette on the recommendation of the Authority, if he satisfied that (i) there is a risk of depletion or contamination of groundwater due to over extraction or (ii) there is a risk of groundwater pollution. After the declaration the authority would determine the safe yield of aquifer and may within that area or part thereof declare that:

a. bulk users of groundwater will be subject to a water use permit procedure similar to the application to surface water resources as provided as provided under part 111 of the Act.

b. the groundwater sensitive area will be subject to a planning procedure as prescribed by regulation,

c. additional measures as may be prescribed by regulations shall be enforced in respect of such Groundwater Sensitive areas.

In the proposed law it was provided that, within a groundwater sensitive area, well owners had to install measuring devices and keep records on water abstracted and used. Further, well owners were required to provide information on the quantity and quality of the water abstracted.

Undeclared Areas

It had been provided in the draft law that even in the absence of an area being declared groundwater sensitive area. The draft law contained some provisions to manage groundwater even in areas that had not been declared sensitive. Some of the proposed measures were:

  • In drilling of wells for commercial purposes it was necessary to obtain a drillers license paying a fee
  • The driller employed by the license holder needed to prove his experience in drilling operations.

The pollution of groundwater by agricultural and industrial pollutants will be made a punishable offence. Discharge of effluents into recharge areas, drainage ways or streams will be allowed only where the effluents are adequately purified and the polluter would be responsible to pay for the purification of the polluted water before its discharge. Any damage to the environment caused by such discharge will also be the responsibility of the polluter and any cleanup or mitigation measures would be at the polluter’s expense. These measures will be implemented in co-ordination with the Ministry of the Environment and the Central Environment Authority


Where feasible, the development of parallel water supply systems for non potable uses (groundwater, domestic rainwater harvesting) would be encouraged in urban areas, through pricing mechanisms and restricting or rationing the use of potable water for non-essential uses such as watering of gardens, car washing, etc.


All available expertise in this subsector would be harnessed to ensure the optimum utilization of groundwater resource