Daily News February 11 2005:by Rajindra de S. Ariyabandu
Gathering to collect one of the most precious of natural resources
In spite of having over 50 legislative enactments and40 institutions dealing with the subject of water,there is no single piece of legislation to rationallymanage and allocate water resources in Sri Lanka. Withabundance of water, there was no great need for SriLanka to manage water use.However, this presumption is fast fading away withmore spatial and temporal distribution of rain andincreased competition among users.Available water for human consumption is fastdeteriorating with increased demand from other wateruse sectors and rapid uncontrolled pollution of waterresources.While legislation exists to mitigate most of theproblems related to water, they are scattered amongdifferent departments and institutions, confusing thepublic and diluting responsibility.Thus, it is imperative that there should be acomprehensive water resources policy and a legislationto help the public and improve effectiveness of waterresources utilization.While all this is very well understood and accepted bythe civil society, the process adopted to formulatethe water policy was heavily criticized. The processbegan as far back as 1996.In response to ADB funded technical assistance projecton 'Institutional Assessment of Comprehensive WaterResources Management', the government of Sri Lankadecided to establish a Water Resources Council (WRC)and a technical secretariat, the Water ResourcesSecretariat (WRS).Cabinet approved establishment of the two institutionsin July 1995. As water is a cross cutting theme,functional responsibility of WRC and WRS was given tothe National Planning Department (NPD) under theMinistry of Finance.WRC was an advisory body consisting of number ofSecretaries to line ministries dealing with thesubject of water, departmental and institutional headsrelated to water management, academics andrepresentatives of NGOs and farmer organisations.WRC was considered to be the supreme body responsiblefor making decision on water related issues. WRS wasthe technical secretariat assigned to carry out dutiesdirected by WRC.Water Resources Secretariat was a small organizationwith a Director and five deputy directors secondedfrom relevant organizations dealing with water.WRS was a temporary institution established to assistformulation of a National Water Resources Policy andan enabling legislation. Process of policy formulationwas through a series of consultation on guidance ofthe Water Resources Council.WRC was responsible for obtaining Cabinet andparliamentary approval for policy and legislationrespectively. With these objectives, the twoorganizations worked in tandem with good understandingbetween them. WRS was supported by the AsianDevelopment Bank, FAO and Government of Netherlands.Provisions available allowed WRS to obtain theservices of foreign and local consultants in theprocess of policy formulation. During the period from1996 to 2000 a large number of stakeholderconsultations were held to facilitate the policyformulation process.As a result of consultations and working within thegroup, a draft 'National Water Resources Policy andInstitutional Arrangement' was submitted to theCabinet. On 28th March 2000, Cabinet approved thedraft water policy.This opened up one of the most contentious debates on'management' of natural resources in Sri Lanka. Therelatively debate-free and fast Cabinet approval forthe water policy can be attributed to theresponsibility and commitment expressed by the thenMinistry of Finance.Subsequently, the responsibility of implementing thewater policy changed many times, with changes in theCabinet, government changes and changes in functionsamong Ministers.The sequence of responsibility changed from theMinistry of Finance, to Ministry of Water ResourcesManagement, Ministry of Irrigation and WaterManagement, Ministry of Water Management, Ministry ofPolicy Development and Implementation, Ministry ofAgriculture, Livestock, Lands and Irrigation, Ministryof River Basin Development, Mahaweli Development andRajarata Development and finally, Presidential TaskForce.One could well imagine the fate of this policy with amultitude of ministries responsible within a shortperiod of four years. Quick succession of Ministrieswith a varying bureaucracy delayed the process ofpolicy implementation. Rapid turn over of Ministriescreated two conditions.Firstly, it gave no time for the bureaucracy tounderstand the contents and implications ofimplementing the water policy and secondly, it gave no'ownership' to the policy.Therefore, the bureaucracy was ill prepared to defendpolicy contents in front of a better informed and aknowledgeable public. Situation was further aggravatedby the political hierarchy. They did not allow theprofessionals to defend some of the issues raised bythe public.Politicians always feared that any form of explanationon water policy would be detrimental to theirpolitical existence. As a result most revisions anddiscussions were held behind close doors without muchcivil society participation.Recent attempt by the Government to obtain approvalfor the revised water policy is a case in point. Asimilar process was followed in submitting the 'WaterServices Reforms bill' to the Parliament without anypublic debate. Results again were the same; SupremeCourt rejected the Bill and referred back for furtherconsultation.These are lessons we should learn from history.Formulation of policy or legislation for an oversensitized issue like water should be more open andtransparent.Though the role of Water Resources Council (WRC) wasadvisory, it functioned more like a consultationforum. The initial interest and momentum of WRC waslost when the policy formulation process was slow inmeeting desired results.WRC meetings became irregular and key members optedout of participation. Weakening of WRC gave moreresponsibility to Water Resources Secretariat. In myopinion this was one of the cardinal mistakes in thepolicy formulation process.Being unable to conceptualize the policy formulationprocess and role of institutions, Water ResourcesSecretariat (WRS) was allowed to take leadership bydefault. Created as a technical secretariat to WRC,Water Resource Secretariat did not have the mandate orauthority to decide on formulation of policy andlegislation.However, due to the political vacuum, WRS had to takethe leadership to meet donor covenants.This situation was further complicated in 2001, when adecision was taken to recruit additional professionalstaff including a Director General and Directors tomanage the 'Water Resources Management Project' (WRMP)through the Water Resources Secretariat. (ADB agreedto provide technical assistance for capacity buildingthrough WRMP).A significant mistake at this stage was to impose uponan "Interim National Water Resources Authority" toco-exist with WRS. In my opinion this arrangement wasmade to legitimize recruitments of professional andproject staff.The Cabinet emorandum dated 13th December 2000,clearly mentions that WRMP will be implemented throughthe Water Resources Secretariat/National WaterResources Authority (NWRA). Memorandum also statesthat Water Resources Secretariat will be replaced byNWRA by December 2001.There was no mention to an 'Interim Authority' and ADBsupport was for capacity building of NWRA and partnerorganization staff in water resources management.However, in the absence of any clear conceptualthinking, the WRS continued to be maintained withadditional professional and managerial staff. In theprocess of operation from 2001 to date, WRS has beenthe key player in policy formulation and preparationof draft legislation.Over the same period from 2001 to 2004, there had beenthree governments with different interests on waterresources management. While some politicians andbureaucracy disowned the policy others opted to makeuse of it to build their own empires.Both these approaches did not favour smooth process ofpolicy formulation. WRS remained the only organizationwith continuity in the policy formulation process.Hence, WRS functioned as the 'owner' of the NationalWater Resources Policy as well as the 'Secretariat' tovarious committees and political directions. This dualrole did not favour sustainability of WRS or thepolicy formulation process.WRS had to 'produce' number of 'draft policies' and'bills' to satisfy political interests. As at presentone could count upto 20 drafts of the water policy andover 8 drafts of the Water Resources Bill.This adds to the confusion of public and media alike.If one had been following the current debate on therevised water 'policy', there is a confusion amongsome key ministers, who refer to the current draftpolicy as the draft Bill.On the other hand, media itself is referring to manydifferent 'drafts' of the policy (both Sinhala andEnglish). Issue becomes more complicated as thereseems to be copies of the Sinhala policy, which do notcoincide with the English version of the draft. Allthis indicate a lack of conceptualization andprofessionalism in the policy formulation process.