The New Humanitarian Annual Report 2021

  1. Home
  2. Asia
  3. Sri Lanka

Water shortages grip southeast

People transporting water on tractor trailer in Sri Lanka's Ampara District
(Courtesy of Perambara)

A new cottage industry has emerged in Sri Lanka's southeastern Ampara District - mobile water sellers, plying their trade on bicycles with large water barrels tied to their backs.

With the end of this year's seasonal rains in May, Ampara, about 350km southeast of the capital, Colombo, is in the grip of a serious water shortage likely to last until November, affecting lives and livelihoods - not just in Ampara, but in surrounding communities as well.

Each morning men on bicycles now travel into the jungle to locate water springs and bring the water to populated areas.

According to residents, the going rate for drinking water is about 25 US cents per 25 litres.

Others fortunate enough to have water in their backyard wells are also selling it, while hiding their buckets at night to prevent theft of the precious resource.

"I have to go to work and can't go out looking for water," Priyanga Nishan, a resident of Ampara, told IRIN, explaining why he now had no choice but to purchase water.

"If I wanted to have bath I would have to walk about 5-6km. But even that stream is sure to be muddy and not even half a bucket deep," he explained.

Crops hit

"I have 1.2ha of sugarcane, but the drought is very bad, and the harvest poor," said A Siripala, a sugarcane farmer from Higurana, one of the largest cane-growing areas in the island, who estimates his losses this season at about $1,500.

The district's two main crops are sugarcane and paddy and Siripala noted that two of the main water canals, Ekkgal Oya and Namal Oya, had dried out completely, forcing farmers to abandon their cultivation activities.

So bad is the situation that on 3 September, about 500 villagers in the Damana area, south of Ampara town, blocked the main road with burning tyres to protest against the lack of water.

A dried out field in Ampara District

Courtesy of Perambara
A dried out field in Ampara District
Wednesday, September 2, 2009
Water shortages grip southeast
A dried out field in Ampara District

Photo: Courtesy of Perambara
Farmers in the area have been badly affected, but the full fallout has yet to be seen

Reservoirs almost empty

According to irrigation officials, reservoirs in the district barely had any water, making it difficult to release water regularly or to accurately predict supplies for farming and daily needs.

Saman Weerasinghe, Ampara District Irrigation Department Regional Director, said the main reservoir in the district - the Senanayake Samudraya - was only 8 percent full, while most of the major canals and reservoirs held less than 10 percent of their capacity.

"We can release water for drinking, but even that will be difficult if the drought continues," he said.

Given prevailing conditions, water is now being released from irrigation tanks once every fortnight in the district, insufficient to meet the needs of farmers such as Siripala.

"Unfortunately we will have to bear this till October and November, when the next monsoon cycle [expected in September] will fill the tanks," Weerasinghe said.

"It all depends on what the monsoon brings," he said.

The last big rains in March and April did not deliver, officials at the Meteorological Department said.

"The rains were not as strong as in the past years. That's the cause for the drought now," Ranjith Jayasekera, Ampara District director for the Meteorological Department, told IRIN.

In the first eight months of 2008, 790mm of rainfall fell in the area, while over the same period this year, that figure stood at 490mm.

And while the district did experience a few light showers in early August, Jayasekera predicted that the heavier rains would not arrive until mid-September.

"We expect this type of drought every four years, and this falls into that pattern," he said.

But such analysis does little to console Siripala and Nishan. "If they knew, why didn't anyone tell us?" asked Siripala. "Even now they can't tell if it is going to rain or not."

Access to water on the island is generally not so problematic.

According to World Bank estimates, the majority of Sri Lankans - 86 percent - had access to improved water sources, up from 76 percent in 1990 and 82 percent in 2000.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

Share this article
Join the discussion

Right now, we’re working with contributors on the ground in Ukraine and in neighbouring countries to tell the stories of people enduring and responding to a rapidly evolving humanitarian crisis.

We’re documenting the threats to humanitarian response in the country and providing a platform for those bearing the brunt of the invasion. Our goal is to bring you the truth at a time when disinformation is rampant. 

But while much of the world’s focus may be on Ukraine, we are continuing our reporting on myriad other humanitarian disasters – from Haiti to the Sahel to Afghanistan to Myanmar. We’ve been covering humanitarian crises for more than 25 years, and our journalism has always been free, accessible for all, and – most importantly – balanced. 

You can support our journalism from just $5 a month, and every contribution will go towards our mission. 

Support The New Humanitarian today.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian

Support our journalism and become more involved in our community. Help us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.