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Managing modern irrigation projects in Lanka to achieve self-sufficiency



By Mahinda Panapitiya

M.S, Department of Agriculture & Biological Engineering, Utah State

University, Utah, USA, B.Sc (Civil Engineering), University of Peradeniya, 1974, Sri Lanka

The main objective of large-scale irrigation projects, developed during the last century under programs such as the Mahaweli Project, is achieving self-sufficiency in food production. However, currently the focus of those projects is achieving self-sufficiency only in rice production. I hope the concept explained below would provide a common platform for various ministries, responsible for food production to adopt a holistic approach for the country to become self-sufficient in food rather than only rice, using the fertile soil and limited water in our dry zone.


The total area under irrigation in the dry zone under the Mahaweli Program is more than 350,000 hectares. Most of those projects are large-scale irrigation systems. One of the main challenges faced by farmers dependent on such large scale irrigation projects, concerning self-sufficiency in food, is the non-availability of water at the farm gate at the right time, in the right quantity (‘on demand’ basis). This is because for their water needs, farmers have to depend on predetermined timetables decided by Irrigation Officials. These timetables are, in fact, theoretical assumptions made at the design stage of irrigation systems’ canal networks. This is a very pathetic situation in the modern irrigation sector because, in all other public sector services (such as drinking water and electricity), this ‘on demand’ facility is inbuilt.

Note that this ‘on demand’ facility had been built into our ancient irrigation technology through the decentralisation of the operation of canal systems to village levels via village tanks. In addition to rice, protein-rich foods were grown in areas referred to as Chena above the command areas of these village tanks. Rice was limited to valleys in irrigable areas under village tanks. Harvesting of sporadically distributed local rainfall in the dry zone, for the production of multiple types of crops, had been a natural outcome of that decentralised management approach. The main objective of that decentralised management approach was ‘to not allow a single drop of rain to flow to the sea without being put to use’ (King Parakramabahu).

Unfortunately, most of those village tanks were excluded from modern systems developed during the last century. It was a serious design error that affected the timely delivery of water to farms and the harvesting of local rainfall. It is not possible to reintroduce those village tanks now because farmers have already settled in areas that were utilised by the ancient system.


To rectify the mistake, an effort was made for the first time in 2000, to simulate the ancient decentralised management approach, focusing on self-sufficiency in food rather than only rice (‘Rehabilitation Programms of Large Scale Irrigation Projects – an opportunity to alter the farmers’ role in Water Resource Management’, Panapitiya D. Mahinda, S.K. Hewadeva), published and presented in a competition organized by IWMI and Institution of Engineers, Sri Lanka in 2007. It was introduced in Mahaweli Areas by allocating water to a group of farmers in bulk at the beginning of each cultivation season. Later the approach came to be referred to as the Water Quota (WQ) management approach.

WQ approach guaranteed the availability of water in bulk as well as on ‘on demand’ basis, at the head of each distributary level canal, feeding about 100 hectares serving small groups of farmers who, among themselves, cultivated a hectare of land. There are about 400 such distributary canal groups in the Mahaweli Project. By offering technical training on water measurement, a volumetric impression was created among farmers, on the seasonal bulk of water volume farmers are entitled to under each distributary canal. This management approach is an effort to simulate the ancient decentralised management system by transforming the operation of the distributary canals to play the role of village tanks. In the case of the ancient design, the volumetric impression came naturally to farmers without any training, because villagers could gauge the water volume in their individual village tanks visually.

After introducing the WQ approach cropping intensity increased to 165 percent. According to the World Bank report on the Mahaweli Restructuring and Rehabilitation project – MRRP (2003), WQ was recognized as the best water management approach for countries in South Asia (World Bank Report [2003], Aid Memoirs, MRRP Implementation Progress Review, June 2-12,2003). However, it is very unfortunate that after about 2015, the approach was not adopted by the new generation of Mahaweli Officials.

Self-sufficiency in foods

Because of water availability on ‘on demand’ basis under the WQ approach, farmers could be allowed to select the cropping combination to suit water availability and market. The agriculture divisions of the project management offices in those projects could publish possible cropping combinations to suit different soil types. It is up to the farmers, as a group, to select cropping combinations. Through this approach, it is expected that the farmers would be motivated to use local rainfalls as much as possible as a supplementary water source for irrigation. According to experience in adapting the WQ approach in System H, G, C and Uda Walawe, irrigation water usage could be reduced by at least 50 percent while farmer income enhanced by 50 percent ( Because of reliable water availability at the farm gate, the second generation of farming communities are also motivated to consider agriculture as their livelihood. For example, I met the son of a farmer in Uda Walawe who designed a drip irrigation systems for banana cultivation using instructions available on the internet. He also has his own supply chain to market his produce via the internet.

Expected outcome

Farmers enjoying water availability on ‘on demand’ basis, similar to other government services, could also enjoy water user rights, with a focus on agriculture, in addition to land rights. As a result, they are motivated to engage in agriculture with more confidence. The urge to diversify cropping patterns, deviating from the monotonous rice was a natural result of that motivation. Farmers could strengthen as a group, in negotiating with the private sector to engage in commercial farming as farmers are equipped with water user rights in addition to land rights. For example, farmers with water user rights on a volume basis available ‘on demand’, have the option of cultivating water-sensitive high-value crops without any risk. They would also have the option of growing perennial cash crops like coconut, fruit-bearing trees and sugarcane while cultivating other upland seasonal crops like leafy vegetables, tubers, fodder (, ginger and pineapple. Animal husbandry is also viable in these lands for milk production while supporting organic fertilizer production. Bee-keeping is also a possibility because it is ecofriendly. In fact, before modern irrigation networks were introduced in the 80s, focusing on rice alone, coconut was one of the main crops in the System H of the Mahaweli Project. Rice was limited to LHG soil areas in valleys.

From self-sufficiency in rice to self-sufficiency in food

I am an engineer with more than 40 years of experience in managing irrigation projects not only in Sri Lanka but also in other countries such as the US. I tried to market the concepts explained in this article from 2000 (,, but failed. I hope the present crisis due to COVID-19 would be an eye-opener for decision makers to pay attention, holistically, to such new concepts. Critical comments and opinions to refine the concept are welcome.


Why Small Farms will be the backbone of food security



The ecological axiom that: ‘Energy flow through a system tends to organise and simplify that system’, is abundantly clear in agriculture. As farms moved from small interdependent units, bounded by fences and hedgerows, to large cropping fields to accommodate machine management, we lose the biodiversity that once existed on that landscape and the biomass that provided the Ecosystem Services. This sacrifice was rationalised through the invocation of economic profit. The economic ‘profit’ gained by subsidies on fossil fuel and uncontrolled extraction from the Global Commons. The ‘development’ of agriculture has become a race to control the commodity market. The farmer ceased to be a feature of the farm. In a telling statement, the farmers of Sri Lanka sent the following statement to the CGIAR in 1998 :

‘We, the farmers of Sri Lanka would like to further thank the CGIAR, for taking an interest in us. We believe that we speak for all of our brothers and sisters the world over when we identify ourselves as a community who are integrally tied to the success of ensuring global food security. In fact it is our community who have contributed to the possibility of food security in every country since mankind evolved from a hunter-gather existence. We have watched for many years, as the progression of experts, scientists and development agents passed through our communities with some or another facet of the modern scientific world. We confess that at the start we were unsophisticated in matters of the outside world and welcomed this input. We followed advice and we planted as we were instructed. The result was a loss of the varieties of seeds that we carried with us through history, often spanning three or more millennia. The result was the complete dependence of high input crops that robbed us of crop independence. In addition, we farmers producers of food, respected for our ability to feed populations, were turned into the poisoners of land and living things, including fellow human beings. The result in Sri Lanka is that we suffer from social and cultural dislocation and suffer the highest pesticide- related death toll on the planet. Was this the legacy that you the agricultural scientists wanted to bring to us ? We think not. We think that you had good motives and intentions, but left things in the hands of narrowly educated, insensitive people.’

The diverse farm had to yield to production monoculture, which was made possible through the burning of fossil fuels. Ironically the burning of fossil fuels is the major reason for the current destabilised climate and threat to agriculture. One consequence of climate change is the predicted rise in global temperatures. If ambient temperatures exceed 40 degrees , which has become the reality in many places even today, food production will be compromised. All the food we eat originates with plants and plants produce using photosynthesis. Photosynthesis, or the capture of solar energy by plants, is done with chlorophyll, the thing that makes plants green and chlorophyll begins to break down after 40 degrees. Landscapes whose summer temperatures go beyond this limit will have smaller and smaller crops as the temperatures increase. The only solution to this oncoming crisis, is to begin introducing trees at strategic points on the landscape.

Trees and all other forms of vegetation cool the environment around them through the transpiration process, which takes place in the leaves. The water absorbed by the roots is sent up to the leaves which release it as vapor, cooling the air around it. Measurements on trees done by research institutions worldwide, indicate that an average large tree produces the cooling equivalent of eight room sized air conditioners running for 10 hours, a cooling yield 0f 1,250,000 Bthu per day. Plantations of trees have been recoded to have daytime temperatures at least 3 degrees below the ambient. This is an important aspect of Ecosystem Services that needs to be considered for adaptive agriculture.

Small farms which produce food with low external energy and maintain high biomass and biodiversity, are the models of food production that can face the climate compromised future before us. Capital, resource and energy expensive agricultural systems could fail in a high temperature future and threaten global food security, we need options. One would be to encourage a consumption and distribution system that facilitates small farmers to enter the market. Another would be to realise the value of the ecosystem services of a farm and develop systems to measure and reward. We are all aware of the future before us. Now is not the time to stand blinking like a deer facing the headlights.

But placing trees in and around cropping areas becomes a problem in large cropping fields designed to accommodate machine management. The management of such trees and hedgerows requires needs that cannot be provided without human management. Agricultural landscapes will need management that will be adaptive to the changing climate. An example would be; small interdependent units bounded by fences and that increase biodiversity and the biomass while providing Ecosystem Services.

Investment in food security, should take climate change seriously. All new agricultural projects should address the heat thresholds of the planned crops. The Sri Lankan country statement at COP 21 stated that :

“We are aware that the optimum operating temperature of chlorophyll is at 37 deg C. In a warming world where temperatures will soar well above that, food production will be severely impacted.”

And that :

“We are aware that the critical Ecosystem services such as; production of Oxygen, sequestering of Carbon, water cycling and ambient cooling is carried out by the photosynthetic component of biomass. This is being lost at an exponential rate, due to the fact that these Ecosystem Services have not been valued, nor economically recognised.”

These statements cry out for the recognition of the role that small farms will have to play in the future. In a temperature compromised future, small farms with high standing biomass, through their cooler temperatures will continue to produce food in heat stressed periods. If such Ecosystem Services can be given a value, it will strengthen the economy of small farms and ensure local, sustainable food production into the future.

Small farms which produce food with low external energy and maintain high biomass and biodiversity, are the models of food production that can face the climate compromised future before us. Capital, resource and energy expensive agricultural systems could fail in a high temperature future and threaten global food security, we need options. One would be to encourage a consumption and distribution system that facilitates small farmers to enter the market. Another would be to realize the value of the ecosystem services of a farm and develop systems to measure and reward. We are all aware of the future before us. Now is not the time to stand blinking like a deer in sheadlights.

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Encouraging signs, indeed!



Derek and Manilal

Local entertainers can now breathe a sigh of relief…as the showbiz scene is showing signs of improving

Yes, it’s good to see Manilal Perera, the legendary singer, and Derek Wikramanayake, teaming up, as a duo, to oblige music lovers…during this pandemic era.

They will be seen in action, every Friday, at the Irish Pub, and on Sundays at the Cinnamon Grand Lobby.

The Irish Pub scene will be from 7.00 pm onwards, while at the Cinnamon Grand Lobby, action will also be from 7.00 pm onwards.

On November 1st, they are scheduled to do the roof top (25th floor) of the Movenpik hotel, in Colpetty, and, thereafter, at the same venue, every Saturday evening.

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Constructive dialogue beyond international community



by Jehan Perera

Even as the country appears to be getting embroiled in more and more conflict, internally, where dialogue has broken down or not taken place at all, there has been the appearance of success, internationally. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will be leading a delegation this week to Scotland to attend the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26). Both the President, at the UN General Assembly in New York, and Foreign Minister Prof G L Peiris, at the UN Human Rights Council, in Geneva seem to have made positive impacts on their audiences and, especially amongst the diplomatic community, with speeches that gave importance to national reconciliation, based on dialogue and international norms.

In a recent interview to the media Prof Peiris affirmed the value of dialogue in rebuilding international relations that have soured. He said, “The core message is that we believe in engagement at all times. There may be areas of disagreement from time to time. That is natural in bilateral relations, but our effort should always be to ascertain the areas of consensus and agreement. There are always areas where we could collaborate to the mutual advantage of both countries. And even if there are reservations with regard to particular methods, there are still abundant opportunities that are available for the enhancement of trade relations for investment opportunities, tourism, all of this. And I think this is succeeding because we are establishing a rapport and there is reciprocity. Countries are reaching out to us.”

Prof Peiris also said that upon his return from London, the President would engage in talks locally with opposition parties, the TNA and NGOs. He spoke positively about this dialogue, saying “The NGOs can certainly make a contribution. We like to benefit from their ideas. We will speak to opposition political parties. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is going to meet the Tamil National Alliance on his return from COP26, which we will attend at the invitation of the British Prime Minister. So be it the NGO community or the foreign diaspora or the parliamentary opposition in Sri Lanka. We want to engage with all of them and that is very much the way forward”


The concept of a whole-of-government approach is indicative of a more cohesive approach to governance by government ministries, the public administration and state apparatus in general to deal with problems. It suggests that the government should not be acting in one way with the international community and another way with the national community when it seeks to resolve problems. It is consistency that builds trust and the international community will trust the government to the extent that the national community trusts it. Dialogue may slow down decision making at a time when the country is facing major problems and is in a hurry to overcome them. However, the failure to engage in dialogue can cause further delays due to misunderstanding and a refusal to cooperate by those who are being sidelined.

There are signs of fragmentation within the government as a result of failure to dialogue within it. A senior minister, Susil Premajayantha, has been openly critical of the ongoing constitutional reform process. He has compared it to the past process undertaken by the previous government in which there was consultations at multiple levels. There is a need to change the present constitutional framework which is overly centralised and unsuitable to a multi ethnic, multi religious and plural society. More than four decades have passed since the present constitution was enacted. But the two major attempts that were made in the period 1997-2000 and again in 2016-2019 failed.

President Rajapaksa, who has confidence in his ability to stick to his goals despite all obstacles, has announced that a new constitution will be in place next year. The President is well situated to obtain success in his endeavours but he needs to be take the rest of his government along with him. Apart from being determined to achieve his goals, the President has won the trust of most people, and continues to have it, though it is getting eroded by the multiple problems that are facing the country and not seeing a resolution. The teachers’ strike, which is affecting hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren, is now in its fourth month, with no sign of resolution. The crisis over the halting of the import of chemical fertiliser is undermining the position of farmers and consumers at the present time.


An immediate cause for the complaints against the government is the lack of dialogue and consultation on all the burning issues that confront the country. This problem is accentuated by the appointment of persons with military experience to decision-making positions. The ethos of the military is to take decisions fast and to issue orders which have to be carried out by subordinates. The President’s early assertion that his spoken words should be taken as written circulars reflects this ethos. However, democratic governance is about getting the views of the people who are not subordinates but equals. When Minister Premajayantha lamented that he did not know about the direction of constitutional change, he was not alone as neither does the general public or academicians which is evidenced by the complete absence of discussion on the subject in the mass media.

The past two attempts at constitutional reform focused on the resolution of the ethnic conflict and assuaging the discontent of the ethnic and religious minorities. The constitutional change of 1997-2000 was for the purpose of providing a political solution that could end the war. The constitutional change of 2016-19 was to ensure that a war should not happen again. Constitutional reform is important to people as they believe that it will impact on how they are governed, their place within society and their equality as citizens. The ethnic and religious minorities will tend to prefer decentralised government as it will give them more power in those parts of the country in which they are predominant. On the other hand, that very fact can cause apprehension in the minds of the ethnic and religious majority that their place in the country will be undermined.

Unless the general public is brought aboard on the issue of constitutional change, it is unlikely they will support it. We all need to know what the main purpose of the proposed constitutional reform is. If the confidence of the different ethnic and religious communities is not obtained, the political support for constitutional change will also not be forthcoming as politicians tend to stand for causes that win them votes. Minister Premajayantha has usefully lit an early warning light when he said that politicians are not like lamp posts to agree to anything that the government puts before them. Even though the government has a 2/3 majority, this cannot be taken for granted. There needs to be buy in for constitutional reform from elected politicians and the general public, both from the majority community and minorities, if President Rajapaksa is to succeed where previous leaders failed.

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