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Sunday, 10 July 2011

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Beware of pseudo water professionals



Prof. Ranjith Premalal de Silva

World Environment day was celebrated last week with wide publicity. Serious discussions surfaced as to whether our approach was for mere celebrations in commemorating a global day or to help society and the nation to add value in nature conservation or in improving natural resource use efficiency without harming the environment.

Water being one of the most important natural resources related to environment, needs to be managed properly for the present use and be protected for the future generations. Among the water sector institutions, National Water Supply and Drainage Board (NWS&DB) is the key main player related to domestic water use. It should be acknowledged that the quality of water supplied by the NWS&DB is well above the accepted standards for drinking water.

The reliability of the service and the maintenance of networks and metering devices are also commendable. However, it is doubtful whether the NWS&DB has a vision for water resources conservation and getting public awareness and participation for such national endeavours. NWS&DB should sponsor programs for watershed conservation, pollution prevention, water use efficiency improvement and safe water disposal mechanisms and should solicit public interest in conserving water resources.

NWS&DB has failed to take effective measures to reduce the non-revenue water which exceeds 40 percent on average. To recover the cost of the operations and maintenance including the waste of 40 percent, NWS&DB conveniently puts the burden on consumers who use the remaining 60 percent of water.

High salaries are paid for the top management of NWS&DB from the collected revenue from consumers to manage the services efficiently and the public should instigate action to make these high wage earners to be responsible for public funds. In addition, NWS&DB should not limit its services only to introduce a water sanitation policy but should also take the initiative to invest for implementing proper water hygiene, health and sanitation practices in our society.

Sanitation projects

Large scale sanitation projects are initiated and recommended by the NWS&DB in view of the benefits that can be derived from these large scale activities. A considerable amount of resources has been dedicated to promote sanitation awareness in society, rather than wasting resources on ineffective publicity programs.

This can be introduced to the primary schoolchildren with very little cost. As a responsible State sector entity, the NWS&DB should work with a prudent vision to develop the water sector rather than limiting its scope to a profit oriented business ventures.

Running an NGO in the water sector is a very profitable business since the international funding for water sector organisations are in abundance. Some NGOs are flooded with funds to initiate their action plans to advise the government to introduce water pricing and use economic instruments to manage water. On top of the range of star hotels are the venues for discussions/ workshops to develop strategies for advocating how the poor subsistence farmers can be taxed for the irrigation water under the guise of water conservation. The same group employs another agency under cover to launch a poster campaign in the city against such workshops claiming that the agenda at these workshops are a conspiracy to sell public owned water to the public.

These efforts are complemented by innocent socialist activist groups who do not understand the hidden agenda behind such efforts. There are a number of national and international organisations involved in the water sector, which anticipate crisis in water management, promote conflicts in water uses and users, and deliver programs posing a grave danger not only to the water security but also to the coexistence of our society and the nation. It is timely that we look at the agenda of these actors very closely to prevent them turning our water sector into a disaster.

In the recent past, discussions were facilitated based on one individual's own research output to prove that paddy farming is not profitable and farmers must opt for other cash crops to sustain farm income. This effort is to prevent us having our staple food produced and consumed in the country. Recent genuine advocacy efforts on the quality of our rice due to contamination by water polluted with pesticide residues can also be manipulated by interested parties to campaign against the consumption of rice.

Prudent policies

All these avenues create an environment to display the conflicts and chaos in the water sector and then highlight the need of their presence to resolve the burning issues which are shown to be beyond the control of the Government. Concepts of virtual water imports and exports are often misinterpreted to ascertain the need for diversified agriculture deviating from paddy farming.

During the previous regimes, the NGO battalions were very powerful in the political arena also due to their lavish spending on the corrupt politicians and often got commended for their services in the water sector. However, with the prudent policies of the "Mahinda Chintana" identify the approaches and framework for water management.

A number of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) is associated with bogus water professionals in exploiting research grants and aid packages from international donor agencies. Further, because of the global accreditation of these agencies due to the adherence to the neo-colonial agenda, local political patronage and specific involvements in trans-boundary issues at regional level, invitations for participation at international fora are always extended to these individuals and global funding resources are generally reserved for these individuals.

A summer holiday in Sweden every year during the Stockholm world water week is mandatory in their personal calendar in the guise of presenting our water sector problems to the international stakeholders. However, both these NGO and INGO groups have no justifiable claim to share the sentiments of the water environment today since they have never instigated a true dialogue with the local stakeholders in the sector.

Development of a water policy for the country is another area where these NGOs show their dominance. Efforts for introducing a viable policy framework for the country were hampered by the activities of these NGO groups or bogus water professionals sponsored by these groups. In place of a comprehensive national water policy for the country they managed to flabbergast the water sector with a number of fragmented policy outlines such as drinking water policy, water sanitation policy, rain water harvesting policy, water resources policy where each policy contradicts the others to play havoc in the legislature.

Gender issues in the water sector are other hot themes where several NGOs claim their stake in supporting society for gender equality. In our society, we do not find serious problems unique to women. Some NGOs fraudulently claim to be devoted to gender equity in the water sector and highlight the isolated incidents in the rural society and receive remittances from foreign donors for their activities which in fact create social problems and become a menace to the values and norms of the rural society. In water education too, the role of gender has been over-emphasized on many occasions and special funding provisions are made available to females for water studies.

Climate change research is also a very attractive research zone for pseudo water professionals. The importance of climate change in sustainable agriculture production for food security has been a prioritised theme for funding. In combatting problems created due to change in climate, it is of utmost importance to understand the true status of climate change with respect to observed changes in the climate in Sri Lanka. It has been a common observation that most of the local climate change research makes an attempt to prove the hypotheses of global climate change trends through a variety of methodological approaches.

Some of the research studies are the efforts of downscaling global climate change and general circulation models to represent Sri Lanka ignoring the impact of local and regional phenomenon on our climate.

In most of these models, the diversity of climate within the country is summarised into a few categories to represent only a few zones for the entire country. The strength that the diversity of climate inherits is often ignored in interpreting the results of these downscaled approaches.

Precipitation is highly variable in time and geographic location and the prediction of this critical variable by global models tends to be inadequate for use in evaluating the national consequences of precipitation changes on water resources. Different modelling approaches provide considerable variability in the results which cannot be combined to derive any meaningful predictions for the future, while the cost amounts to a colossal sum spent by the researchers.

In addition, evidence for the analysis of climatological time series and forecasting for long term futuristic climate status through extension of records of a very short period is commonly experienced in evaluating our local climate change studies. Time series expansion is a commonly used approach where attempts are made to evaluate some vital parameters from a limited data series to make a forecast for a totally different period in future.

The NGO sector has taken an unprecedented upper hand in dealings in the water sector due to the poor coordination of State actors responsible for the water sector in the country. There are a large number of State organisations operating with mandated activities in the water sector.

These include the Water Supply and Drainage Board, Water Resources Board, Irrigation Department, Mahaweli Development Authority, Department of Agriculture, Central Environmental Authority, Coast Conservation Department, Urban Development Authority, Agrarian Development Authority and Meteorological Department. However, most of these institutions work in isolation and there is no national plan implemented to organise coordinated activities among these institutions aiming at overall improvement in the water sector.

"Mahinda Chintana" Vision for the Future provides a sustainable platform understanding the historical perspectives, ground realities and future trends and scope to launch the much needed national coordination efforts for the water sector. It is the responsibility of the water sector professionals to launch such a comprehensive coordination network for the water sector of the country.

The writer is Professor of Agricultural Engineering, University of Peradeniya and Former Director of the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute.

The writer is attached to the University of Peradeniya.

 

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