Why we need a proper groundwater policy

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By Eunice Ruth

Protecting rivers and streams is the first requirement for sustainability, not only for surface reservoirs and aquifers but also for groundwater resources. The rate of groundwater recirculation is relatively low due to the rapid increase in the rate and volume of groundwater discharge as a result of population growth. In addition, the use of irrigation water for agricultural purposes and the use of groundwater for industrial purposes had increased.

Groundwater is water that stores approximately 30 per cent of the freshwater that has accumulated below the surface of the earth for millions of years but has a very low annual precipitation rate. One of the reasons for maintaining the surface water and sustainability of groundwater is the high availability of sustainable water resources in the Central Hills and the increase in annual moderate rainfall in Sri Lanka is higher than other countries in the world. Natural and human activities affect the quality and quantity of groundwater and currently a growing trend of adverse effects from human activities is observed. There are six main types of groundwater classification in Sri Lanka and these aquifers are found in various parts of Sri Lanka.

According to the report ‘Evaluating the Legal Mechanisms and its Functionality of Groundwater Management in Sri Lanka, National Audit Office’, the Water Resources Management Project implemented with assistance from Asian Development Bank in 1992 had emphasised the need of implementing a credible water policy for Sri Lanka. However, the objectives expected from such a policy could not be achieved until 2014 when the Ministry of Lands and Land Development drafted a National Policy. 

Also, the need to formulate a water policy had also been raised at workshops conducted by the Sri Lanka National Science Foundation in 2008 and 2010. However, it was observed that a groundwater policy, based on the quantity and quality of groundwater in the provinces had not been formulated.

“The total number of tube wells built by the National Water Supply and Drainage Board (NWSDB) covering 25 districts in nine provinces of Sri Lanka during the last five years was 1,263 and more than Rs 727 million was spent on the construction. About 40 per cent of the tube wells constructed in the 25 districts were confined to four main districts; Kurunegala, Polonnaruwa, Vavuniya, and Nuwara Eliya. While it was expected that groundwater levels that can be absorbed per day has increased in Kurunegala, Polonnaruwa, and Vavuniya over the past five years, a gradual decrease in that level in the Nuwara-Eliya District was observed. Mullaitivu, Mannar, Ratnapura, Moneragala, Kandy, and Badulla districts also observed a gradual decrease in their daily water intake, compared to 2015. Gampaha, Puttalam, Moneragala, Hambantota, Vavuniya, and Mannar Districts are observed having high monthly groundwater production during the testing of 62 major water supply schemes implemented by the Water Resources and Drainage Board in 16 major districts,” the report stated.

Although various experiments have identified the need for action plans as a long-term management strategy for identifying point and non-point sources of groundwater pollution, it was observed that the results are limited only to the relevant research papers. It was observed that the use of groundwater also is high in rural water supply schemes and export processing zones, and it was observed that taking action was minimum for the recharging of groundwater.

Accordingly, it was observed that the establishment of a legal system that prioritises the need for groundwater development as well as the need for water conservation could contribute to the achievement of sustainable groundwater management by the year 2030.

National Policy on the Protection and Conservation 

Gazette Notification No. 1894/3 issued dated 22 December 2014 has been published in the National Policy on the Protection and Conservation of Water Resources in Sri Lanka, their catchment areas, and reserves. Although the Water Resources Board has been identified as primarily responsible for the use of groundwater or groundwater resources for drinking water projects and or for agricultural purposes under this policy, it has been observed that there has been insufficient attention to groundwater conservation in the operational mechanism.

Although the Water Resources Board was the institution that had been identified as the Groundwater Management Authority, in accordance with the National Policy on Protection and Conservation of Water Resources in Sri Lanka, their beneficial Areas and reserves through the Gazette Notification No. 1894/3 dated 24 December 2014, it had not been prepared and activated, a National Policy on Groundwater Management up to the date of audit.

The Water Resources Board Act No. 29 of 1964 was amended by Act No. 42 of 1999 and the functions of the Board were replaced by the new Act. It is observed that groundwater development has been given priority over groundwater conservation in the elimination of issues such as afforestation and control of the soil erosion which have affected the conservation of groundwater. It was observed that despite the implementation of several national programs, designed for the conservation of groundwater, the achieving of the desired performance indicators was not sufficient. It was observed that evaluating the contamination of the waterways, salinity, and maintenance of the sources of water and also the post reviewing of laboratory analysis reports, which are important in the conservation of groundwater, was inadequate.

Accordingly, it is observed that groundwater development has been given priority over groundwater conservation, which is a major function of the Water Resources Board, in deviating from the Act on matters relating to afforestation and protection of the stability of the soil. 

Methods of Improving Groundwater Recharge

It was stated that regulations are being prepared for groundwater development and management at the river basin level. It was observed that, adequate regulations had not been formulated and implemented by the date of the audit.

Since groundwater recharge is a mandatory process and the rate at which it occurs naturally is insufficient, tactics have to be used to improve this process. Accordingly, increasing water drainage and leakage, cultivating plants and improving the flow of water were identified as the methods to improve the groundwater recharge.           

Sustainable Groundwater Management

Meanwhile, the International Water Management Agency has made several recommendations to Sri Lanka for sustainable groundwater management. Accordingly, registration of all groundwater wells, monitoring of coastal aquifers as there is a possibility of mixing the salt, monitoring of agrochemical contamination of aquifers and identification of possible corrections and removal of soil salts especially in areas where groundwater is used as drinking water can be done. Further, encouraging and improving strategies and socio-economic relations on basic management and water use patterns in groundwater renewable areas, taking necessary steps to coordinate and improve various government institutions and non-governmental organisations and water scarcity arrangements to increase public awareness on the capacity of the aquifer, usage of water and risk to the environment.

Recommendations 

Auditor General recommended establishing and implementing groundwater policy based on the nature and quality of groundwater levels in the provinces of Sri Lanka, ensuring the precise responsibility for groundwater management and implementing and establishing objectives based on groundwater development and conservation.

Further, it was recommended that increasing the focus on groundwater conservation as the water resources board’s contribution to groundwater management is important. Giving priority to the Northern, North Western, Uva, and North Central Provinces in planning groundwater conservation measures, obtaining a chemical analysis of groundwater, and implementing the relevant recommendations as there is an evolution of various human activities that change the chemical composition of groundwater, can improve the quality of groundwater.