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Sri Lanka’s recent history has been deeply affected by an ongoing ethnic conflict and warfare. In 2001, a cease fire was signed to end fighting in a civil war that lasted 18 years. This has left the country with widespread poverty, government instability, and a climate in which numerous human rights abuses are committed. As in other developing countries the World Bank’s recipe is to guide the country towards water privatization as part of the economic reforms. The proposed Water Services Reform Act, presented in October 2003, will allow the government to “hand over control of primary water sources like rivers and reservoirs to water supply companies who then decide whom they should charge and what price.” This has sparked strong public protests.
The concept of charging for water is a foreign concept to the people of Sri Lanka. The traditional view regards water as belonging to all people and beings (including animals). This view holds water to be sacred, a precious gift from nature that is to be used with care and respect. Thus, ancient irrigation systems were constructed to provide free access of water to humans and animals. These systems used and reused water. Some of these ancient irrigation systems were restored during the last century in rural areas as small farmers worked collectively to share water and develop their communities.
The people of Sri Lanka have held onto this traditional view of water. Past attempts to charge fees for water have sparked public outcry. This included resistance to a proposed “water tax” in the mid 1980s and a policy to charge for water by issuing “water entitlements” in 2000. Both of these initiatives were abandoned by the government after massive public protests that included people of diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds.
Not only does privatization go against the traditional view of water in Sri Lanka, it raises grave concerns for those in poverty. Many Sri Lankan people are already too poor to meet their minimum requirements for food. Privatization will deprive the poor from access to water. Elsewhere, where privatization has been introduced, it raises grave environmental concerns, has undermined workers’ rights, and created a complicated system of charges to the users. The people’s right to water will not be protected under a privatized regime. Instead our water must be protected as a common asset for the current and future generations.
 Sri Lanka: Worries rise with ‘water reforms’
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