Sri Lanka overview

Sri Lanka is a middle-income country with a population of some 20 million people, of which approximately 78% live in rural areas. Coverage of improved water supply nationally is high – a recent Asian Development Bank report puts the national average at 82% (Asian Development Bank, 2010). In rural areas coverage is estimated to be 72%, but there are wide discrepancies and much lower rates in the eastern and northern parts of the country.

Administrative set up

The governance structure has four levels: central government, Provincial Councils, Pradeshiya Sabhas and village-level organisations. The country is divided into nine provinces and 25 districts, with districts further sub-divided into 326 divisions. Pradeshiya Sabhas are the lowest unit of government, and their jurisdiction largely coincides with divisional boundaries. There are 270 Pradeshiya Sabhas.

Main sector institutions

  • The Ministry of Water Supply and Drainage (MWSD) is the apex body responsible currently for urban and rural water supply in the country, while the Ministry of Irrigation and Water Management is responsible for regulation and control of inland water.
  • The National Water Supply and Drainage Board (NWSDB) is the principal authority providing safe rural and urban drinking water. It falls within the MWSD, and has been implementing Asian Development Bank-supported projects.
  • In NWSDB project districts, Rural Water Supply and Sanitation Centres (RWSSCs[1]) have been established in NWSDB offices, to support CBOs and Pradeshiya Sabhas, and also to provide advisory services to the general public.
  • The Community Water Supply and Sanitation Project (CWSSP) supported by the government and the World Bank, and housed until recently in the Ministry of Urban Development and Water Supply, also implements rural water supply projects, and is the second major model of community-based rural water supply provision. It works through a central office, district-level Rural Water Supply Support Units (RWSSUs) and Rural Water Supply Support Cells (RWSSCs[2]) in Pradeshiya Sabhas offices. The CWSSP formally ended in December 2010.
  • Responsibility for water service provision is vested with the Pradeshiya Sabhas, the lowest level of democratic government, although CBOs oversee scheme construction and maintenance. In CWSSP districts, Pradeshiya Sabhas have been strengthened with a small Technical Cell to provide post-construction support.
  • CBOs operate and maintain village schemes on behalf of the community, designs tariffs and collect money, but do not own the assets – and hence cannot raise a bank loan using assets as collateral.

Service Delivery Models

The rural water sector has gone through three broad phases: 1) provision through local authorities (1948- 1975); 2) technology-oriented provision through the NWSDB (1975-1993); and 3) community-based provision since 1993 through local bodies, supported either by the NWSDB or the CWSSP. Sri Lanka had two principal SDMs recognised in sector policy:

  1. The NWSDB model: the NWSDB designs schemes, using government and external funding to construct the systems (either alone or through CBOs), and then hands them over to CBOs for O&M – although asset ownership remains with the NWSDB.
  2. The CWSSP model: construction is outsourced to the private sector, but the CWSSP Project Management Unit has an intensive capacity building and awareness generation programme and a strong decentralised approach to implement a comprehensive package of sanitation, rainwater harvesting, hygiene awareness, environmental conservation and income generating activities.

In 2010, the two models were unified under a single Ministry, making the implementation approach more cohesive.

Key issues

With high coverage rates, Sri Lanka can be said to have ‘scaled up’, but it faces a new generation of problems, including source sustainability, institutional role clarity and rising demands for better quality water. Government agencies such as the NWSDB are facing a challenge to transition from being a provider to a facilitator, and to enable full decentralisation to Pradeshiya Sabhas and, through them, to CBOs. This is especially true when it comes to retrenching or seconding the large technical staff in the NWSDB to either Pradeshiya Sabhas or CBOs.