Sri Lanka
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in Chapter 10
10 The Other Side of Town

When Sri Lanka tried to apply IWRM policies under the auspices of USAID and the Asian Development Bank in 1993(Dahdouh-Guebas et al., 2005), over 115 stakeholder consultation meetings were held with various local, provincial and national government agencies, water managers, three NGOs, the private sector and major water users to hash out problems and policy goals. Water was priced for the first time; user rights were established through a permitting system that encouraged trading toward ‘higher-value' uses and regional water organizations were replaced with a unitary river basin ministry.

Despite government attempts to follow IWRM to the letter through an evidently open and inclusive policy development process, the eventual package was lambasted by newspapers, local NGOs and farming cooperatives for being devised in a top-down manner that didn’t include them in any meaningful way, and for being published in English instead of any of the local languages. Critics felt that policymakers were insensitive to the indigenous understanding of water as a natural right and a public good and that the whole process was concocted to acquire further funding from donor organizations rather than forwarding any national water interests. Public backlash was so strong that the government backtracked and eventually withdrew the proposals, and to this day Sri Lanka lacks a coherent national water policy. The fallout has made public conversations about pricing water politically impossible, and later attempts by western NGOs to advise the Sri Lankan government were meet with fierce protests by activists who view them as nothing less than the soft-arm of foreign interests trying to privatize domestic water resources(Colombage, 2014).

US Assistant Secretary Blake handing over water pumps to formerly displaced farmers in Sri Lanka