A Brief History of Usage and Governance of Water Resources in Sri Lanka


A brief history of Usage and Governance of Water Resources in Sri Lanka Part 1.

Water use and management in Sri Lanka dates back to the pre-Christian Era, and over the millennia, the emphasis has evolved from being largely for irrigation purposes to regulation inclusive of residential, commercial, industrial and other uses.  The following description is therefore for ease of comprehension, divided into three time periods, pre-colonial, colonial and post-independence. 

Pre-Colonial State of Water Use and Regulation

Sri Lanka has had an enviable history of water conservation and irrigation technology dating from the early Iron Age. (1500-500 B.C.) The sequential growth of human settlements, animal domestication, and associated agricultural and infra-structural development (Tennant, 1860; Brohier, 1934; Deraniyagala 1992), and the construction of small tank cascade systems have been well documented. (Arumugam, 1956; Madduma Bandara, 1985; Jayawardene, 1997; Panabokke, 2009) What is even more noteworthy is the conscious emphasis on sustainable development through ‘composite ecosystems’ made up of the aforementioned small tank networks, human settlements, associated soils, animals, water-bearing aquifers and the environment in general. (Daniel, 2021)

Given that Sri Lanka remains a largely agrarian culture, unsurprisingly water management is almost synonymous with agriculture and irrigation. Remarkably, the irrigation and settlement patterns in the Dry Zone are very similar to those of southern India, thereby validating the theory the early Iron Age culture of Sri Lanka had been an intrusive culture from Peninsular India, with the arrival of ‘small bands of migrants in frail crafts’, bringing with them technological and cultural elements (Brohier, 1975), and also integrating with the pre-existing, stone-using communities. (Seneviratne, 2004).  This argument also supplants the earlier belief that the country had been invaded by imagined Dravidian or Aryan ‘races’, imposing their own farming and water governance systems. (Seneviratne, ibid, 2004)

Through the ages, Sri Lanka’s hydraulic societies, thanks to socio-cultural norms like the Rajakariya System, ensured that proper water management and water conservation, water storage systems through river diversions and inter-connected canals were adequately utilized and maintained for the benefit of the entire village populace. (Arumugam, 1956, Peiris, 2005)

Over the centuries, we also see a gradual transition from rainwater-dependent small and medium tanks to more elaborate irrigation networks culminating in trans-basin diversions of rivers originating in the Wet Zone. Examples: Kalawewe-Yoda-Ela system; Angemedulla-Parakrama Samudra System, and Elehera-Minneriya-Kantalai System. (Shand, 2002)

Two development models of ancient irrigation systems deserve mention here.

R.L. Brohier’s 4-stage Model (1956)

Stage 1.  Rainwater tank

Stage 2. Small village tanks

Stage 3. large reservoirs, each submerging several smaller tanks

Stage 4. Augmentation of a large reservoir by river capture(diversion) (Brohier, 1956)

The focus was on increasing storage reservoir size, while ignoring sluice size and type. (Wijeyawickrema, 2013)

G.L.O. Mendis’ 7-stage typology (1986)

This was a new paradigm replacing Mendis’s model.

Stage 1. Rainfed agriculture

Stage 2. Seasonal or temporary river diversion and inundation irrigation

Stage 3. Permanent river diversion and channel irrigation

Stage 4. Development of weirs and spillways on irrigation channels

Stage 5. Invention of sluices with access towers

Stage 6. Construction of storage reservoirs, equipped with sluices

Stage. 7. Damming a perennial river                                      (Mendis, 1986)

He further observed that the ancient hydraulic system of Sri Lanka was more than an agricultural tool, but a water and soil conservation mechanism, collecting surface run-off through a network of reservoirs year-round, to maintain soil fertility and cultivation of crops. (Mendis, 2016)

Water Policy during the Colonial Era.

The colonial and post-colonial eras have seen the progressive erosion of land tenure systems at the local village level. To begin with, the British abolished the existing Rajakariya system in the late 19th century, and then, superimposed administrative boundaries on the existing settlement patterns, simply ignoring local community-level organizations, and the overall village-forest mosaic that sustained the environment and the livelihood of the forming populations. (Abeywardene, 2018)

Under colonial rule, investment in irrigation development was limited, with restoration mostly limited to reservoirs, largely owing to personal interests of Governors in the restoration of these water bodies that lay neglected in the Dry Zone. (Shand, ibid 2002) Early restorations began in the early 1920’s and continued till independence in 1948, the Minneriya, Parakrama Samudra and Elahera reservoirs being the beneficiaries. Water distribution systems were left more or less unchanged. New settlements were created, based on two main canals (left and right bank) and a system of distributary canals that serviced the entire area below their command.

Post-Independence Water Use and Governance

The momentum of restoration was stepped up initially through a six-year programme (1947/48 – 195/-53) to complete settlement activities under the restored reservoirs. (Arumugam, 1969) The first of these, the Gal Oya Project was begun in 1948 by the first national Prime Minister, D.S. Senanayake, specifically to resettle in the Ampara and Inginiyagala areas the Kandyan peasantry that had been evicted by the British to set up their tea and coffee plantations. The project was completed in 1952.

The Uda Walawe Irrigation Project (1954) was a ‘highly ambitious socio-economic and engineering project envisaging a modern profitable agricultural sector, a classic example of viewing development as a mere set of technical and social engineering endeavours without due thought to the local customs, heritage, socio-economic wellbeing etc. (Molle and Renwick, 2005)

The Mahaweli Ganga Development Programme (1970) the largest multi-purpose project to date, was given a boost in 1977 as an Accelerated Mahaweli Development Plan, funded largely by the UNDP and FAO.  The objective was to provide irrigation and power to 7 administrative districts, under systems A-M, in the North and North Central provinces. 

Overall, these grandiose megaprojects aimed at ‘modernizing’ agriculture and irrigation, ignored the existing and functioning communal units comprising the village(Gangoda/Kudi), the water tank(Wewe/Kulam) and the temple, church or mosque.(Sanga/Kovil/Palli).  Moreover, these endeavours basically subsumed the existing small tank cascade systems and the distinct drainage basin and terrain features. 

There has been much advocacy in recent years, for a non-political Jana Sabha type system of administrative units based strictly on ‘local ecology, geography and hydrology, an entity that will empower the locals to run their daily lives.’ (Daniel, ibid, 2021)

Water Governance

Government water policy since the 1960’s has revolved around two agencies, one with a macro, project-based mandate (National Water Supply & Drainage Board) and the other, playing a more local, service-based regulatory role (Water Resources Board) The main features of each are listed in bullet form.

National Water Supply and Drainage Board. (NWSDB) http://waterboard.lk

  • Established: 1970
  • Ministry: Urban Development, Water Supply and Drainage
  • Mandate: provide sustainable water and supply solutions
  • Current initiative:  On-going and New Projects Corporate Plan 2020-2025, planning design of pipelines, water treatment plants and pumping stations
  • Composition:  12 Regional Support Centres

Water Resources Board (WRB)

  • Established: 1966
  • Ministry:  Irrigation, Water Resources Management and Disaster Management
  • Mandate:  harness, develop and frugally utilize groundwater by regulating water usage, working closely with stakeholders like communities, central and local government departments, national and international organizations, and the scientific community, and ensuring the availability and sustainable management of water, particularly groundwater.
  • Current initiative:  long-term groundwater monitoring project, assessment of water quality and groundwater level variations in highly sensitive aquifers. Area  studies almost all fall within the Dry Zone.

The foregoing discussion deals largely with water governance in the Dry Zone, as it pertains to irrigation, residential, commercial, industrial use, farming and hydropower.  Though classified as falling within the Dry Zone, the Northern Province, specifically the Jaffna Peninsula, has certain unique features; sub-terranean Karst topography, water usage practice dependant largely on lift irrigation rather than gravity irrigation practiced extensively in the other Dry Zone settlements, etc. These and other related issues and challenges are discussed in a separate section- Northern Province Water Resources and challenges, under the Education tab.


Abeywardene, N., et al (2018) Ancient Water Management and Governance in the Dry Zone of Sri Lanka, until Abandonment, and the Influence of Colonial Politics during Reclamation.

Arumugam S. (1956) River Basin Development of Ceylon

Brohier R.L. (1934) Ancient Irrigation Works of Ceylon

Brohier R. L. (1975) Food and the People. Lake House Publication

Daniel, C. (2021) The World’s Greatest Ancient Water Civilization. https://www.newsfirst.lk/2021/08/29/the-worlds-greatest-ancient-water-civilization-a-special-editorial/

Jayawardene, R. (1997) Ancient irrigation and Early Historic Sri Lanka.

                             Economic Review, Vol. 23

Kanagasunderam, Ajit. (2016)The Gal-Oya Project 60 years on. Lanka Web, Oct. 16th.   http://www.lankaweb.com/news/items/2016/10/10/the-gal-oya-project-60-years-on/

Madduma Bandara, C.M. (1985) Catchment Ecosystems and Village Tank Cascades Systems in the Dry Zone of Sri Lanka: a Time-Tested System of Land and Water Management. Springer Dordrecht

Madduma Bandara, C.M. (2009) Village Tank Cascade Systems of Sri Lanka: a Traditional Technology of Drought and Water Resource Management.

Mendis, D.L.O., (1993) Historical Perspective – the Ancient Water Conservation Ecosystems of Sri Lanka: A discussion of some Environmental Issues.

Mendis, D.L.O. (2007) Ancient Water and Soil Conservation Ecosystems of Sri Lanka – Some Aspects. Paper presented at the National Seminar on Water and Culture

Mendis, D.L.O. (2017) Water Heritage of Sri Lanka

Molle, F., Renwick, M. (2005) Economics and Politics of Water Resources Development. Uda Walawe Irrigation Project, Sri Lanka

National Water Supply and Drainage Board (NWSDB) http://www.waterboard.lk/

Molle, F., and Renwick, M. (2005) Economics and Politics of Water Resources Development. Uda Walawe Irrigation Project, Sri Lanka

National Water Supply and Drainage Board(NWSDB) http://www.waterboard.lk/

Northern Provincial Council Department of Irrigation http://np.gov.lk/department-of-irrigation

Panabokke, C.R. (2012) Evolution of the Indigenous Village Systems of Sri Lanka. Paper presented at the National Science Foundation of Sri Lanka Symposium

Peiris, Kamalika, (2005) Irrigation and Water Management in Ancient Sri Lanka. The Island, September 21

Shand, Rick (ed) (2002) Irrigation and Agriculture in Sri Lanka. Institute of Policy Studies


Tennant, Emerson (1860) Ceylon: an Account of the Island, physical, historical, topographical

Water Resources Board Sri Lanka (WRBSL) http://wrb.gov.lk/

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