War, Conflict and Water in Eastern Sri Lanka

A regular supply of clean, potable water is making all the difference to a town in eastern Sri Lanka still recovering from the recently ended civil war.


By the numbers

832,500
People provided with access to safe, piped water
171,500
People provided with access to safe sanitation

Figure amended from the Report and Recommendation to the President (2006)


Batticaloa, Sri Lanka—Just a year ago, the residents of this formerly war-wracked town in eastern Sri Lanka had to queue for water before dawn and again at night. Water only flowed from public pipes for 2 hours a day. Though the Batticaloa Teaching Hospital had a dedicated water connection that ensured uninterrupted water supply, the stench of overflowing septic tanks during the monsoon was unbearable.

“Most residents used wells for their household needs, but in this village, the salinity levels are higher than any other place [in Batticaloa],” says Hendriks Sasikala, coordinator at the Thimilaitivu Women’s Center, 3 kilometers (km) outside of Batticaloa. “The water is not fit for drinking or washing clothes as it is muddy.”

Batticaloa is a water-scarce area, and any water available is often unsafe. But the town has seen positive changes thanks to the Secondary Towns and Rural Community-Based Water Supply and Sanitation project, financed by ADB with a series of loans totaling $137.9 million.

The Batticaloa component included building a 55-km water transmission system; a water treatment plant with a capacity of 40,000 cubic meters per day; seven water towers; and 1,680 latrines. Today, as a result of the project, most of the town’s residents have safe and regular water supplies tapped to their homes.

Water connections cost around SLRs20,000 ($150) and are subsidized for the very poor, who receive monthly payments under a state welfare program. Sasikala adds that those who cannot afford a tapped water connection at home get water from a nearby neighbor who is connected.

Women on the frontline

“It is a relief to use clean water for drinking and washing clothes. This has eased my workload a lot.” 

—MH Marzana, low-income resident of Kattankudy, recipient of tapped water connection

Women are often on the frontline of water supply problems, since they are normally tasked to fetch water, carry it home in heavy loads, and take care of children suffering from waterborne diseases.

In the nearby town of Kattankudy—one of the most densely populated towns in South Asia—water connections have helped dozens of women whose husbands are migrant workers overseas. One of them, MH Marzana, receives remittances from her husband who is working abroad, and gets support from a state welfare program. According to Marzana, a local businessman helped connect her family to the water supply system by covering her connection fee.

“It is a relief to use clean water for drinking and washing clothes,” said Marzana. “This has eased my workload a lot.” 

Sanitizing the water

The project increased the quantity of available potable water by purifying water supplies. Fresh water was treated to ensure that it was safe for drinking, and wastewater was made safe for secondary uses.

At a water treatment plant at Vavunativu, chemist Buddhima Wanniarachchi checks water for quality. She holds up two containers to show the striking contrast between untreated water from the Unninchchai tank, and the purified product. One is muddy, while the other is clear.

The state-of-the art plant, which started operations in October 2011, treats for algae in the final stages—a feature that is not available in other water treatment facilities in Sri Lanka.

Thanks to this water filtration plant, the district’s water supply per month has increased to 150,000 cubic meters, up from about 45,000 cubic meters in 2011. The new plant presently provides around 10,000 water connections.

“The water is well chlorinated and absolutely safe for drinking,” says Karthegesupillai Vinothan, Chief Engineer and ADB Assistant Resident Engineer.

Meanwhile, a new wastewater treatment system has improved sanitation and reduced water usage at the 930-bed Batticaloa Teaching Hospital.

The hospital used to rely on wells that were often contaminated with septic tank waste. The problem was so bad, that visitors to the hospital could smell the sewage.

To solve this, the project implemented a sanitization process for septic waste that would turn it into gray water—water that can be used to nourish gardens or clean pavement—preventing the septic tanks from overflowing into clean water sources.

The process begins with a solid waste filter. Then, a grid remover cleans out stones and other solid particles. The wastewater then flows through an aeration tank and a sludge remover. Lastly, a clarifier filters the water, before it is treated with chlorine, and released into a lagoon behind the hospital.

“The change is unbelievable,” says the hospital’s medical superintendent Dr K Muruganandan. “Before, we used gully suckers to clear the septic tanks.”

Thanks to the new water filtration system, conditions have improved, and there is no foul smell at the new facility.

Opening the tap for business

Clean water not only helps households and hospitals, but can spur even larger economic investments.

“This project has helped tremendously to change lives. We now have a 24-hour water supply, which helped me begin this hotel project.”

—Muthukumar Selvarajah, chairman of the Batticaloa Inn and president of the Batticaloa Chamber of Commerce

“This project has helped tremendously to change lives,” says Muthukumar Selvarajah, chairman of the Batticaloa Inn and president of the Batticaloa Chamber of Commerce. The changes have made it possible for the businessman to operate a 45-room hotel, “We now have a 24-hour water supply [of water], which helped me begin this hotel project,” he says. Construction began in late 2011 and when complete by December 2012, it will be the district’s first star-class hotel.

As of 2010, according to statistics from the World Bank, 9% of Sri Lanka’s 20.8 million people did not have access to safe drinking water, while 8% of the population lacked access to improved sanitation facilities.

The project, which ran from 2003–2011, successfully reduced regional disparities in access to clean water and sanitation, by providing basic water services in the districts of Anuradhapura, Batticaloa, Hambantota, Polonnaruwa, and Trincomalee.

It has provided a total of 832,500 Sri Lankans with access to safe, piped water, and 171,500 with access to safe sanitation.

“The overall goal of the project continues to contribute to poverty reduction efforts and promote human development by improving access to safe water and sanitation for poor populations, decreasing waterborne diseases, and reducing the amount of resources spent in these activities,” said Rita O’ Sullivan, ADB Country Director in Sri Lanka.