Water Champion Badra Kamaladasa on Nurturing Irrigation in Sri Lanka

Article | 9 September 2015

Badra Kamaladasa, former Director-General of Sri Lanka’s Irrigation Department, talks about her role as a female leader in Sri Lanka’s irrigation sector.

As the department’s first woman Director-General, Badra initiated institutional reforms, including the establishment of regional centres to accelerate planning of new irrigation projects and the rehabilitation of existing schemes. She improved the management system, upgraded facilities and services, increased the capacity of irrigation personnel, and established field offices to give farmers easy access to irrigation services. She also launched collaborative programs and strengthened partnerships with other departments and agencies.

Badra also initiated the archiving of plans, drawings, and other important historical documents to preserve Sri Lanka’s century-old irrigation knowledge for reference of future generations.

You started young in the irrigation sector. What challenges have you faced as a woman in what is primarily a male field? How did you address them?

When I started as a young engineer, my job then, serving in the national irrigation institute, involved a lot of travelling, which took a considerable amount of my time away from my family, especially my three children.

I brought my children on my travels whenever it was possible. I received a lot of support and understanding from my fellow officers and co-workers, and they made it comfortable for me and the kids. My children also understood how important my responsibilities at work were.

I was lucky enough to have a husband who is sensitive to my career goals. I was also lucky to have my husband’s family around when the children were young. Often they looked after my children whenever I had to be away and could not take them with me.

Is Sri Lanka’s irrigation sector a woman-friendly environment?

Yes it is, but while equal opportunities are ensured for women in the irrigation sector, there are subtle issues that women face due to cultural barriers. When I was younger, senior professionals looked after me, sometimes even offering assistance in my professional growth. However, this changed when I got older.

As senior officers, women may face aggression or intimidation from subordinates. When they do not like your decision, they would often label it as the decision of a woman. The best thing to do is to respond rationally.

A woman needs to establish an image of herself as a capable senior professional by shouldering the same responsibilities as men. We need to show strength. Without asking for equal treatment, women need to take equal responsibilities.

As former Director-General of Sri Lanka’s Irrigation Department, what accomplishments are you most proud of?

We were able to complete two large reservoir projects, Deduru Oya reservoir and Rambaken Oya reservoir, which were delayed for many years. We improved productivity by adopting a new management system and increased the capacity of our young engineers and technical personnel through training, particularly on recent developments in the sector. We have also started archiving valuable documents and plans for preservation and future use.

Most satisfying for me is having the support of the many people inside and outside the Irrigation Department in pursuing our goals as an organization.

You have broken down barriers for women. What special skills and talents do you think women bring to the sector?

I think women’s participation brings more cooperation among irrigation stakeholders. Women can play an important role in forging closer collaboration with the agricultural sector and various institutions to improve sector productivity.

Today, there are more professional and technically qualified women leaders in the irrigation sector than when I entered, while there is also a rapid increase in women involved in active farming. However, opportunities for women as farmer leaders are still limited due to cultural and social barriers. I feel that more women in the professional and technical ranks will encourage more women to become farmer leaders too. There is certainly more room for women’s leadership.

Women leaders in both government and farmers’ organizations can build a collectivist mind set effectively. Women’s caring nature will improve the status of marginalized groups, including women and children.

How would you advise young women who are starting out their careers in the water sector, particularly in irrigation?

Young women should realize the value of time management early on as they may have to divide the time between family and work, unlike their male counterparts. Women also should understand that they need to summon up the courage to show that they can equal their male colleagues.

What more needs to be done in Sri Lanka’s irrigation sector? Do you foresee any challenges that the sector might face?

The Irrigation Department, being the main organization responsible for master planning of water resources in Sri Lanka, needs stronger laws and policies to perform its role.

Investments needed in sustaining the already developed irrigation infrastructure are crucial. Priority is given normally for new constructions over management of existing system when investment decisions are made. This needs to be corrected.

Is there something else you wish to accomplish?

Sri Lanka’s irrigation heritage goes back to the 5th century B.C. and the peculiar issues related to the irrigation of antiquity draws the interests of scholars for further studies. I am planning to carry out research about my country’s rich irrigation tradition and document the timeline of irrigation development works carried out in the country, particularly from a technical view point.

About the champion

Water Champion Badra Kamaladasa is the former Director-General of Sri Lanka’s Department of Irrigation and currently the Chair of the Sri Lanka Water Partnership.

Badra graduated as a civil engineer from the University of Moratuwa in 1978. She obtained her Master’s degree in Development Technologies from University of Melbourne in 1994. Having obtained membership from the Institution of Engineers Sri Lanka (IESL) in 1983 she became a fellow in 2010.

After a short spell at the Urban Development Authority, Badra joined the Irrigation Department in 1979. After serving 33 years in the Irrigation Department holding various posts she became the Director General of Irrigation in June 2012. In this 112 year old national technical department, she was the first female to assume this post after 33 male predecessors. She retired from government service in January 2015.

Badra continues to provide direction and guidance to the work of the Sri Lanka Water Partnership, a stalwart partner of the Irrigation Department, focused toward projects in the irrigation sector.

Badra is married to an engineer and is the mother of three boys.

The Water Champions series was developed to showcase individual leadership and initiative in implementing water sector reforms and good practices in Asia and the Pacific. The champions, representing ADB's developing member countries, are directly involved in improving the water situation in their respective countries or communities. The series is regularly featured in ADB's Water for All News, which covers water sector developments in the Asia and Pacific region.