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Another Disaster! Sri Lankan Government Using Tsunami to Privatize Water

By Sarath Fernando

Co-Secretary, Movement for National Land and Agricultural Reform                                                                                          
The plans prepared by the Sri Lankan Government for rebuilding the nation after the tsunami on 26th December 2004, released on 15th January 2005, include a massive programme of water infrastructure development to support the process of water marketing by the private sector.

The Asian Development Bank had already agreed to finance such a water infrastructure programme some time ago, on the condition that private sector was then brought in to provide the services.  The ADB is now insisting that the deadlines previously set for legalizing water privatisation should be met on time, in spite of the massive disaster that has destroyed the lives and livelihoods of thousands of people in the coastal regions.

For this purpose, on 30th December 2004, the Government got Cabinet approval for a water resources policy and a draft bill that intends to legalize the privatisation of water.

According to the Memorandum of Understanding between the Government and the ADB signed during the mission of ADB water specialist Thomas Panella in June 2004, the Government must table the water resources bill in Parliament by 18th March 2005, or the ADB loan will be cancelled.  Similarly, the Government must proceed to implement the policy by 13th May 2005.

People of Sri Lanka have been resisting water privatisation since 1996, when it was first proposed by the World Bank.  Consecutive governments that attempted to introduce legislation and institutions for water marketing have had to withdraw because of massive people's protests.  All governments have subsequently promised that there would be no privatisation or marketing of water, but this promise is now being violated again.

The tsunami has provided massive international financial support, obviously for the purpose of providing immediate relief and rebuilding the lives of the affected people, but the plans prepared by the Government clearly show that they give much higher priority to carrying out their previous plans as agreed earlier with the international financial institutions.

This is clearly visible in the post-tsunami water infrastructure development plans, which include both the reestablishment of present water supply schemes and the implementation of new water supply schemes.

The plans include the following infrastructure development:

Construction of dug wells: $6 million                             

Construction of tube wells: $10 million                                                                                      

Establishment of pipe-borne water supply in Hambantota: $12 million                                   

Establishment of pipe-borne water supply in Colombo, Gampaha & Puttalam: $6 million

Establishment of pipe-borne water supply in Matara: $10 million                                           

Establishment of pipe-borne water supply in Ampara: $15 million

Establishment of pipe-borne water supply in Trincomalee & Batticaloo: $10 million   

Establishment of pipe-borne water supply in Galle: $10 million                                     

Establishment of pipe-borne water supply in Kalutara: $6 million                          

Establishment of pipe-borne water supply in Jaffna & Mullativu: $15 million                  

Establishment of sanitation sector programme: $50 million                                           
Total: $150 million                                              

It is extremely questionable as to whether this infrastructure is for the purpose of supporting the affected people, or whether it is actually for the purpose of providing the infrastructure necessary to attract foreign water companies to come and start marketing water in Sri Lanka.

For instance, even districts that have hardly been affected at all, such as Colombo and Gampaha, have also been included in the plans.

According to official figures, about 1.2 million families in Sri Lanka have incomes of less than $15 per month.  Almost all small farmers in Sri Lanka are extremely poor and indebted.  The overwhelming majority of the fisherpeople whose lives were completely washed out by the tsunami and must therefore now begin their lives again, are also extremely poor.  In the city of Colombo, 52% of the population live in slums and shanties.  Can these people pay for their water at prices determined by big water companies?

The danger of water privatisation and the new draft bill leading to international water companies using the available water resources for export and for other profit-making enterprises depriving the poorest people in the country of their essential requirements is very serious.

Water privatisation and marketing with the internationally-pushed principles of full cost-recovery, would have in any case been a massive social disaster in Sri Lanka, and it could also lead to total destruction of the traditional systems of ecological water management.  Utilizing one of the biggest disasters in history to create an even bigger disaster must be prevented.

We appeal to all the people of the world who are resisting these processes of water privatisation to join with us in preventing it happening in Sri Lanka.