Sri Lanka to harness wasted rainwater for crops and power

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Sri Lanka plans to store and use a billion cubic metres of rainwater per year, which would otherwise drain into the sea, in an ambitious effort to boost irrigation and power production.

The new water management system is being built in the country’s dry zone, which covers its northern and eastern areas. 

Home to at least a third of Sri Lanka’s population of 20 million, the mainly agricultural zone has been hit hard by climate shifts over the past decade, and is suffering severe water shortages. 

Experts say the project could harness enough water to fill two of the country’s largest reservoirs, Victoria and Randenigala. 

The $675 million project, funded by the government and donors, begins this month and is due to be completed by December 2024. 

One of the island nation’s largest water-related infrastructure projects in recent years, it envisages the construction of two new reservoirs and 260 km of new and upgraded canals linking existing reservoirs. 

The aim is to help the dry zone better manage its water supply for power generation and farming. 

“Rain patterns have been changing and the dry zone is getting less water now,” said S Shanmugasivanathan, a senior official with the Department of Irrigation. “We need to optimise water usage”. 

Mean annual rainfall across Sri Lanka is 2,000 mm, of which the dry zone gets half or less. Most of the farming done there relies on irrigation, using small water tanks that are filled from the region’s larger reservoirs. 

“With rain patterns now coming in short and intense bursts, we are faced with frequent incidents of floods interspersed with drought”, Shanmugasivanathan said. 

“During floods we have no option but to release the water, because there is no infrastructure in place to retain it”, he added. 

The new project would put to use some of the rain and floodwater that is now wasted. 

Water to combat poverty 

The plan to build new water retention infrastructure in the dry zone has been on the drawing board since the 1970s in the form of the Mahaweli Development Programme, which covered the country’s central hills and some of the north. 

The idea was to use the waters of the Mahaweli River, the longest in the country, to increase power generation capacity by about 260 MW and provide irrigation water to an additional 325,000 acres of land. 

But parts of the project were stalled by the civil war that ravaged Tamil-dominated northern and eastern Sri Lanka for a quarter of a century until 2009.

The new water management project is based on a modified and upgraded version of the original Mahaweli scheme, according to government officials and the Asian Development Bank (ADB), which is providing $453 million in loan funding. 

The ADB estimates that 70 per cent of the dry zone’s population depend on agriculture. The impact of weather extremes on farming in the region means average income there is 10 percent lower than in the rest of the country, it calculates. 

This news item was originally posted on Eco-Business. To read the original news item, click here.