WATER – The Existential Challenge.
Posted on August 8th, 2017

R Chandrasoma

It is pardonable to suppose that biggest existential threat to the peoples of this ancient Island comes from bungled politics and the incohesive social dynamic that is thereby entailed. While one must not underestimate the strength of these disruptive forces, there is a far more formidable threat that is hardly noticed by our intellectuals and political leaders. In plain language it is the growing shortage of ‘drinkable water’ that results from a combination of factors – the principal of which can be enumerated as follows. Our Planet is warming and fresh-water systems are under threat due to expanding planet-wide desertification. Human population growth is still exponential and the per-capita demand for water continues to rise as a direct consequence of ‘urbanization’ or ‘modernization’. Last –but not least – the planetary dynamics that control the weather seem to be ‘out of kilter’ (in the opinion of leading systems experts) – and we may be entering a ‘hot phase’ of the kind not uncommon in our planetary history. Unlike in previous episodes of this kind, our collective water-usage is so huge that a real threat exists to the sustainability of the kind of planetary exploitation that is heedless of realities.

Let us be more focused and practical. Sri Lanka has ‘moist’ parts that are seasonally deluged and most of the water flows back to the ocean. There is also the so-called Dry Zone where the supply is seasonal and the technique of ‘water storage’ in artificial or natural reservoirs called ‘Tanks’ has been practiced since antiquity. The notion that excess water from the wet zone can be profitably diverted to buttress water-stocks in the Dry Zone was familiar to the early Sinhala Rulers and steps in that direction were taken with a degree of success that matched the engineering expertise available at the time. The need today is for ‘potable’ or ‘drinking water’ for the huge populations that live outside the wet zone and agricultural use must be regarded as secondary. As stated earlier in this article, the fearsome ecological challenge is the likely desertification of the ‘dry zone’ due to a succession of ‘failed monsoons’ – in the North, East and the North-Central regions of our Island. A fore-warning of this likely disaster will be the sustained loss of agricultural productivity – with paddy-lands un-worked and rice imported from foreign lands to feed our burgeoning population.

The critical question is this – are we seeing the beginnings of a ‘desertification’ of the dry zone of Sri Lanka in consonance with the  global trends in this direction? We must treat this possibility with all seriousness and our best engineering expertise needs to be exploited to thwart this natural but fatal threat. We are fortunate in having a central mountain-mass that intercepts and receives the abundant moisture carried by the monsoonal winds. This water must not flow back to the sea if that fatal desertification mentioned earlier is to be avoided. This truth – in its ancient dressing – was known to that prescient sovereign Parakrama Bahu the Great. Times have changed but the fatal truth about water remains unfazed. The Science Editor of the Guardian Newspaper Robin Mackie  has recently presented the case with force and eloquence. He writes – ‘Water is the driving force of all nature,. Unfortunately for our planet, supplies are now running dry – at an alarming rate. The world’s population continues to soar but that rise in numbers has not been matched by an accompanying increase in supplies of fresh water. The consequences are proving to be profound. Across the globe, reports reveal huge areas in crisis today as reservoirs and aquifers dry up. More than a billion individuals – one in seven people on the planet – now lack access to safe drinking water’. Our once green and wet Isle may become hot and dry.

One Response to “WATER – The Existential Challenge.”

  1. Dilrook Says:

    The first step to preserve water is to end tea plantations and South Indian colonization of the Upcountry Wet Zone. This not only contributes to drying water resources and limiting the flow of water to the Dry Zone but also pollutes the water.

    Sri Lanka already has water wars since 1940s. The Gal Oya settlements created friction between communities leading to the 1956 riot. Development of waterways (Mahaweli, Maduru Oya, etc.) always triggered ethnic backlash. During the war, some of the bloodiest civilian killings outside the capital city took place in sharing water (Wedikanda, Dehiattakandiya, Mahavil Oya, Welioya, etc.). Even after the war, water crises resulted in death and destruction (e.g. Weliweriya, Uma Oya, Gin Ganga).

    Division of the island nation or devolution of water management powers will result in limiting water to certain areas. At some point, it will become attractive to the people of Dry Zone.

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