Climate change and water governance | Sunday Observer

Climate change and water governance

25 August, 2019
Climate: Two extremes. The main operational framework for water sector operations remains within the ambit of sub sector laws and regulations.
Climate: Two extremes. The main operational framework for water sector operations remains within the ambit of sub sector laws and regulations.

The impacts of climate change are with us and ever increasing disaster events, almost an annual feature, need addressing, especially with respect to water which serves as the principal vehicle of conveyance. An attempt at formulation of a policy and law led through a donor initiative in early 2000 aborted due to a public hue and cry and lack of political support, unfortunately saw the baby being thrown with the bathwater.

A policy in limbo and no enabling law with business as usual has been the result with little initiative to at least begin a dialogue for change. However, the environment of a moratorium on dams and diversions, inter basin transfers, on all water infrastructure and full cost recovery no longer exists and the urgency of responding to climate change impacts without delay has overtaken any veritable hiccups in developing a responsive water policy that would have public and political acceptance.

It appears that there is renewed interest in restarting the policy process which is timely. However, there seems to be two separate initiatives by two separate arms of the state which can only be counterproductive, resulting in some confusion.

Sri Lanka has over 51 Acts and over 40 Agencies dealing with water, often resulting in duplication, confusion and inaction. The main operational framework for water sector operations remains within the ambit of sub sector laws and regulations. Unfortunately, the prescriptive model of a donor driven exercise prevailed and we seemed to have merely followed the Philippine model (ADB home ground) where the sector was first driven by the infrastructure institutions, the National Irrigation Administration (NIA) / Ministry of Public Works when dams were not a bad word, shifting to NEDA, the National Economic Development Agency when full cost recovery etc was the priority, as we did with our own efforts with the Ministry of Finance being the principal driver of the policy process in Sri Lanka.

With failure to address the many issues in the Philippines the policy direction transferred to be determined by DENA, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, which has been seen as inhibiting the development process due to protectionist not conservation attitude of such agencies. Exactly the de facto scenario in Sri Lanka, where in the absence of a clear policy direction on water resources and a failure of water agencies to come up with acceptable criteria and processes over overall control and regulation of the sector, is by default exercised by the Environment Ministry and CEA.

Land administration

Historically and legally the institutions and laws relating to land administration have as a prerogative determined the use and control of water resources. A rights regime that is land based though accommodating appropriative rights and decision making rights to water has been the basis of administration. Concomitant addressing of such issues in parallel are needed in any way forward in the water sector.

Nevertheless, some positive developments in ground water regulation have taken place, including some comprehensive basin studies being undertaken in a few basins and a more integrated effort to assess and map basin water resources. Even in a closed system sector such as water supply the NWSDB has ventured into safety planning giving due recognition to sources and source areas to ensure water security. An important initiative by the land sector in 2014 on developing the National Policy on Protection and Conservation of Water Sources with the participation of other sectors has been formulated and can have a major impact.

Some positive movement is also seen in the water sector operations such as amendments to the Irrigation Ordinance and Flood Protection Act which could reinforce efforts in adaptation and mitigation. These can provide positive input into overall basin water use but synergies will likely come only if coupled with an integrated catchment and basin allocation and sharing mechanisms.

It may be appropriate to understand what went wrong in the aborted water policy process to ensure that mistakes of omission and commission are not repeated. Lack of clear understanding of the context, a prescriptive mode adopted due to exigencies of catering to donor interests, articulation of some untested institutional arrangements that even envisaged oversight of typical activities already under the purview of even local authorities to ensure full command and control backstopped by law obviously met with the inevitable. It was a policy without established principles for water governance.


It appears that strategizing process is as important as form and content, especially given that, unlike earlier, communication has far expanded and social media avail intense interaction. The public and other stakeholders would have to be carried along all the way from the start.

a) Initially, the need to develop and establish clear principles of allocation and governance with perhaps codification of practices, rules, norms, rights, etc. This would give the framework for future policy development and can be agreed on without controversy.

b) Decide and agree on the conceptual model. If an Apex Body is envisaged, would it be a Governance model or a Management/Operations model as proposed last time. The term National Water Authority developed into a command and control model that would have inevitably led to atrophy of the existing technical institutions with staff flows seeking better prospects and addition of another transaction layer, administration hierarchy and costs to the already overloaded water sector. On the other hand a National Water Commission or Secretariat with technical support connotes a more decentralized/delegated mode with implementation outsourced to existing agencies. Any backstopping law would be an enabling one.

c) There would need to be provision for settlement of disputes perhaps a Water Tribunal. Water courts have been established in many countries and have existed for centuries in some countries.

d) It may be prudent to leave issues such as cost recovery, penalties, enforcement, even specific rights to be taken under the existing legislation, limiting it to policy guidance issues, especially, of allocation and governance. Often these serve as a red herring to have the much needed policy directions aborted. It was never about lack of legislation but regulation and enforcement.

e) One of the major difficulties in the water sector has been the issue of data with respect to, access, availability, integration and quality. It is clear that with the climate change scenario decision support requires immediate and accurate data.

f) From past and present experience there is a tendency to view with suspicion any donor driven policy exercise. It should be sold as a home grown product and be acceptable to the many detractors who view all foreign support as detrimental to national interests.

Concomitant with the policy process there seem some operational gaps that need addressing to ensure that the implementation processes and arms cover the whole gamut of water sector operations. For instance, there is no responsible authority for rivers and river and river resources management.


A clear scenario for post infrastructure development phase from command area operations to basin based eco system management. Though TVA have decommissioned some if its dams it has been unable to transform to an Ecosystem model. In Sri Lanka too the RVDB merely transited to an administrative/revenue unit from the earlier infrastructure management identity and eventually MASL too once the full development is over.

(The writer is Country Coordinator Sri Lanka Water Partnership and Former Director Planning - Ministry of Irrigation, Power & Energy).