FAO in Sri Lanka

Operation and maintenance of minor irrigation tanks - By Dr. Giuseppe Bronzoni


FAO and Sri Lanka

The relationship between FAO, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and Sri Lanka is a strong one, forged also in a time of war when essential agrarian infrastructure was damaged or destroyed.

Since the end of the armed conflict, FAO, with the financial support of the European Union and the technical partnership of Government Irrigation and Agrarian Development Departments, has conducted an intense effort of rehabilitation of minor and medium irrigation tanks, in the North and East of Sri Lanka.

Approximately, a number of 150 irrigation tank have been rehabilitated or are presently under rehabilitation, and more tanks will undergo rehabilitation in the next two years.

The objective of reconstructing productive infrastructure, damaged by decades of conflict and abandonment, is to contribute to the reintegration of displaced farmer families to productive life and thus to the transition of the Country from the post-conflict phase to a steady and long lasting era of peace.

FAO is possibly the organization that has rehabilitated the largest number of tanks in Sri Lanka in the past decade, demonstrating in this way its strong and responsible commitment with the people of this Country.

1.         Rehabilitation works are justified by the emergency phase.

The word “rehabilitation” should be understood here in a broad sense, including, among other:

  • the reconstruction of bunds breached by floods or by the walk of wild elephants or by explosions;
  • the restoration of the original transversal section of the bund, constantly subject to erosion, and its protection by turfing or rip-rapping;
  • the reconstruction or repair of sluices and spillways;
  • the piping or lining of irrigation channels and construction of turnout structures;
  • the removal of sediments accumulated within the water storage area (de-silting);
  • the increase of tank water storage capacity, by raising the level of bund and spillways;
    the reconstruction of access roads;
  • the protection, conservation and improvement of tanks’ surrounding ecosystems.

The direct intervention of FAO in extraordinary maintenance works of irrigation tanks was up to now justified by the vital necessity of having tanks and irrigation systems back in working conditions as a requirement for the reinsertion into socio-economic life of vulnerable rural population displaced by the war.

2.         The situation of emergency produced by the conflict and by the displacement of rural families is now over.

Taking direct responsibility of the rehabilitation of large numbers of tanks was totally justified during the time of the emergency when thousands of farmer families were returning to their lands, having eventually lost all their assets. At the present time, after more of five years from the end of the conflict, that situation of emergency is definitively overcome and the Country is steadily and positively focused on improving its social and economic prosperity.

Time has come to re-define the approach of Sri Lanka on the issue of operation and maintenance of minor irrigation systems: no more in a rush, under the pressure of an “emergency” situation, but calmly and steadily, through a long term, systematic, well planned, organized and sustainable approach.

A sustainable approach is possible only with a change in the very basic manner in which we think of irrigation tanks maintenance. The present approach is quantity based.  It is vital to change this approach to a “quality” approach: ordinary maintenance regularly performed, ecosystems surrounding the tanks conserved and properly managed, extraordinary maintenance properly planned and implemented, in a sustainable way. New ways and institutional mechanisms of ensuring proper maintenance to tanks need to be developed, tested and put in practice.

The quality based approach takes tank maintenance to the heart of the village with its specific eco system and social structure.

3.         Irrigation and the Sri Lankan Village

Irrigation tanks are deeply, intrinsically related with the essence of Sri Lankan culture, history, society, landscape and natural resources. Through centuries and millennia their number has increased and they now constitute a wide and organic network of minor, medium, major and giant tanks, perfectly permeating the topography, morphology and hydrology of the island.

Everybody knows the motto “God has created everything, but Holland was made by the Dutch” referring to the systems of drainage channels and pumping stations which allowed the Netherlands to incorporate into production thousands of hectares of land below sea level (the “polders”). Actually, that same kind of motto would absolutely fit also to Sri Lanka: “God has created everything, but Sri Lanka, as it is, with its enchanting tanks, paddy lands and forests, was made by Sri Lankans”.

Sri Lankans amazed the ancient world with their in depth scientific knowledge in building these intensive irrigation systems that also meshed in with the social system to become a focal point of the village. Access to water was also access to life in an agricultural society.  Access to water was provided by the village tank which we refer to as a minor tank. The number of minor or “village” tanks, including those in working conditions as well as those dilapidated or abandoned, is estimated between 12,000 and 16,000 (Panabokke, C. R.; Tennakoon, M. U. A.; Ariyabandu, R. de S.: “Small tank systems in Sri Lanka: issues and considerations”, IWMI, 2001).

 The evolution of the maintenance of irrigation systems in Sri Lanka is very well described by Panabokke, Sakthivadivel and Dias Weerasinghe in “Evolution, present status and issues concerning small tank Systems in Sri Lanka” (IWMI, 2002). The authors move from the ancient “Rajakariya system”, that is the collective effort of farmers under direction of the “Veldivane” (the executive of the paddy land), to the decline of the discipline of tanks maintenance under British rule. After independence, maintenance became responsibility of the “Govi karaka Sabha” (farmers committee council) created in 1958, then of the Farmer Organizations systems which came into operation in the late ‘80s, corresponding to the definitive collapse of the compulsory labor maintenance model. The introduction of the Cultivation Committee (CC) in the late ‘50s, as well as the issuance of the “Paddy Lands Act” (1950) initiated the process of progressive intervention of Government institutions in the managements of irrigation tanks. At present, the most important decision-making body for minor tanks is the “Kanna meeting”.

Very interesting analysis of issues related to the maintenance of irrigation tanks is contained in the work of Silva and Vidanapathirana “Major irrigation and settlement systems in Sri Lanka: some policies in operation and maintenance” (Sri Lankan Journal of Agrarian Studies 5 (2) 1984). After observing that the socially cohesive farming communities which in ancient times were accepting the ethics of irrigation maintenance do not exist anymore in Sri Lanka, the authors bring up the crucial question:

“… in this objective situation, how should policy planners approach the subject of operation and maintenance of major irrigation schemes?”

The Authors then analyze the issue of the cost of irrigation water. They express the necessity of understanding the real economy of Sri Lankan small farmers, in order to assess the feasibility of introducing the cost of maintenance of irrigation systems as component of the cost of production; or, in case operation and maintenance is provided by Government or other entities, the opportunity of eventually charging farmers for the cost of the service.

The Authors recognize the investments done during the last years by external aid agencies in the rehabilitation and construction of irrigation systems in Sri Lanka. At the same time, they note and warn about the fact that donor or lending agencies usually require concrete commitments from government and beneficiaries about sustainability, since sustainability is the responsibility of State and Society.

4.         Why operation and maintenance is a crucial issue.

Ensuring proper maintenance and sustainability to Sri Lankan minor irrigation systems (“village” tanks) is of vital importance, at least for three reasons:

a)         Because minor tanks are essential for Sri Lankan rice production.

According to Census and Statistics Department, out of a total 772,626 Has of paddy sown for Maha season 2014-15, 203,836 Has were under minor irrigation schemes (26%). During Yala season of 2015, 312,979 Has were sown and out of them, 79,189 Has (25%) were sown under minor tanks. Average yield under minor tanks was 3,478 Kg/Ha (= 1,407.5 kg/Ac) at Maha season and 3,663 Kg/Ha (= 1,482.87 kg/Ac) at Yala season.

The extent of Paddy land under minor irrigation schemes harvested for Maha season 2014-15 was 195,768 Has, with a calculated production of 271,000 MT, which represents 23% of Maha season 2014-15 total production of 2,876,987 MT.

The extent of Paddy land under minor irrigation schemes harvested for Yala season 2015 was 73,983 Has, with a calculated production of 680,881 MT, which is 24% of Yala season 2015 total production of 1,144,929 MT.

On the other hand, it is also necessary to remark that Yala cultivation, which relies almost completely on irrigation water stored in tanks during the rainy season, contributes to 28% of total Sri Lankan Paddy production (1,144,929 MT over a total of 4,021,916 MT).

It is therefore possible to affirm that proper Operation and Maintenance of minor irrigation tanks is crucial to ensure the present levels of production, because:

•           1/4 of Sri Lankan paddy land lies under minor irrigation schemes;

•           1/4 of Sri Lanka paddy production is obtained under minor irrigation systems;

•           28% of Sri Lanka paddy production is directly related to the availability of irrigation water stored in the tanks network.

b)         Because irrigation tanks network has role as adaptation measures to cope with climate change.

Research conducted by the International Water Management Institute (Eriyagama, N.; Smakhtin, V.; Chandrapala, L.; Fernando, K. “Impacts of climate change on water resources and agriculture in Sri Lanka: a review and preliminary vulnerability mapping”, IWMI, 2010) indicate that climate in Sri Lanka already changed:

  • During the period 1961 – 1990 air temperature increased by 0.016°C per year;
  • During the same period mean annual precipitation decreased of 144 mm, compared with the previous 30 years period.
  • By the year 2100 temperature may increase of 0.9 to 4°C and rain pattern would also change in quantity and spatial distribution.
  • It is estimated that by the year 2050 irrigation water requirement for Maha season would increase by 13 to 23%.
  • Coconut and tea crops would be drastically affected by reduction of 100mm of monthly rainfall.

Face to the above described situation, it is recommended to Sri Lanka to:

  • “concentrate on smart investments and NO-regrets adaptation interventions”;
  • create “resilience” to climate change among vulnerable groups;
  • keep addressing “current development needs”.

Among adaptation interventions, rain water harvesting as well as the restoration and maintenance of the irrigation tank system are identified as top priority.  These tasks should be undertaken simultaneously with the sustainable development of ground water resources, increasing efficiency of water use and the adoption of micro-irrigation technologies.

Furthermore, it is urgent to understand, at national level and with river basin and watersheds wise approach, the impact of climate change on water resources and what is the real present contribution of the whole tanks water conservation network to the hydrological balance of the country and how this contribution would eventually improve if all existing tanks were restored and reintroduced into the nationwide water conservation network.

As elaborated above it is clear that in this era of climate change, the maintenance of minor irrigation tanks is a necessary task which cannot be trusted only to the availability of international aid or to priorities lists established for local political interest.

Introducing a solid and functional system for operation and maintenance of minor tanks would be a “no-regrets adaptation intervention” which will directly contribute to the national struggle to cope with variations of climate.

c)         Because rural communities are living an era of critical change

In Sri Lanka, as everywhere in the world, rural communities and rural societies in general are going through drastic changes. Thanks to the astonishing progress of communication technology, information is now widely accessible to rural population. On the other hand, a deep gap still exist between rural and urban areas in terms of availability and quality of services, such as education, health, transportation, water supply, wastes disposal, government technical assistance, credit facilities. Rural youth are now more aware of their human, civil and social rights and less disposed to assume the risk of being farmers, which often means accepting to live an existence of sacrifice and dependency from urban areas. Rural youth rather abandon their places of origin, migrating to towns where life is restless and air polluted, but at least jobs are available and conditions can be created for receiving a salary at the end of the month.

Operation and maintenance of minor tanks cannot be obtained anymore by rural communities at the same conditions as in the past, through compulsory, voluntary or eventually scarcely paid labor. On the other hand, it is now crucial to create decent living opportunities in rural areas for the youth, in order to prevent the exodus of the young generation to towns.

In the present planetary climate change context, the implementation of ordinary and extraordinary maintenance works of minor tanks has to be envisaged as an environmental service, consisting in ensuring tanks functionality as runoff water conservation structures and therefore performing their climate change adaptation function. Such an environmental service should be duly recognized, regulated, supervised and paid by the society as a whole. This payment would compensate the work done to properly maintain and operate the tanks. Companies or cooperatives of young people should be promoted and created in order to undertake these maintenance works.

5.         Way ahead: issues to be analyzed

In April 2011, the FAO implemented European Union Food Facility (EUFF) project, which had accumulated the experience of rehabilitating 54 village tanks in a period of two years in Trincomalee and Batticaloa Districts, carried out its “Exit Strategy Workshop”. Concerning the issue of maintenance and operation of minor tanks, proceedings of that event report the following recommendations, which still today are valuable and can be proposed as themes of reflection:

a)         Selection and prioritization of tanks at District level:

  • Present selection system needs to be improved.
  • Databases and geographic information systems of all existing minor irrigation tanks (in working conditions and abandoned) and related Farmer Organizations (FO) and Communities should be created at District level, under Department of Agrarian Development (DoAD).
  • A number of tanks should be prioritized every year by DoAD for extraordinary maintenance works, according to necessity.


b)         Basic and ordinary maintenance by Communities and Farmers Organizations (FO):

  • All FO and Communities should receive training on Operation and Maintenance, each FO or Community should elaborate its own Operation and Maintenance Plan, specific for their tank, and they should establish ordinary maintenance checklists.
  • DoAD should support and monitor Communities and FO’s compliance of O & M plans.

c)         Maximum amount of works contracts awarded directly to FO.

  • Maximum amount of works contracts for direct award to FO should be revised according to updated Construction Sector market prices index.

 d)         Quality of rehabilitation works:

  • Survey and cost estimate for extraordinary maintenance works should be adequately funded, planned and given enough time to be conducted in a detailed way.
  • Decentralization of national or external budget at regional or district level would expedite survey and rehabilitation of minor tanks.
  • DoAD should dispose, at district level, of adequate earth movement machinery in order to be able to react promptly to emergency situations, such as floods.
  • DoAD should prepare and adopt a new revised design and construction handbook for minor irrigation tanks as standard design norms manual at national level.
  • DoAD, eventually in cooperation with the Construction Industry development Authority (CIDA, former ICTAD) should keep a registry of poorly performing and low capacity contractors, at district level. On the other hand, contractors should be properly trained and qualified to perform construction and rehabilitation works in minor, medium or major tanks. Lists of qualified and well performing contractors should be prepared and only from these lists should be drawn names of contractors to be invited to bids.
  • FOs should be trained by DoAD on appropriate construction technology and adequate workmanship, as a condition to be eventually directly awarded a rehabilitation works contract.

e)         Farmers Organizations autonomy.

  • The kind of relation presently existing between DoAD and FOs can induce some level of dependency of the latter from the first. Self-determination of rural communities should instead be promoted and developed.

f)         Catchment area protection.

  • Catchment area of the tanks has to be protected by legal means, to prevent illegal cultivators encroaching land for “chenai” cultivation.
  • Soil erosion in the catchment area needs to be kept under control, in order to avoid losing tank’s storage capacity for siltation.
  • In general, minor tanks surrounding ecosystems need to be protected and developed.

6.         As a conclusion.

Sri Lanka found in FAO a committed and responsible partner during the time of emergency and war. Thanks to this partnership, thousands of displaced and vulnerable farm families were finally able to restart a decent productive life.

Sri Lanka will as well find in FAO a partner in the effort of creating resilience to climate changing conditions and, at the same time, an adapted environment for a sustainable agricultural production.