by P.G.Punchihewa Ph.D.
(The writer who belonged to the former Ceylon Civil Service has served as Government Agent of Moneragala and Kalutara among other senior public service assignments. He retired as Secretary to the Ministry of Coconut Development and served in Jakarta as Executive Secretary of the Asia Pacific Coconut Community)
Nearly two million people in at least 22 districts out of 25 are reported to be affected by the continuing drought. Among the districts are Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Mannar, Vavuniya, Trincomalee, Kurunegala, Puttalam , Jaffna ,Kilinochchi, Mullativu ,Matale and Moneragala. Most of the large, medium and small tanks in the dry zone have partially or completely dried up and in certain instances peasants are abandoning their villages for want of water for their daily use. It is a pathetic sight to see thousands and thousands of fish wriggling, struggling for survival in the mud pools of the tank beds. The last drought experienced had been forty years ago but as it is, the present one could be unprecedented. According to the World Food Programme the water levels in reservoirs as reported in September this year was 18% compared with 47% last year.
Following are some of the large reservoirs in some of the affected districts:
Anuradhapura – Padaviya, Mahavilachchiya, Mahakandarawa, Nuwarawewa, Nachchaduwa, Huruluwewa and Rajangana; Polonnaruwa -Kaudulla, Minneriya, Giritale and Parakramasamudraya; Mannar –Yodawewa; Moneragala – Muthukandiyawewa; Mullaitivu -Muthiyankaddu; Trincomalee – Kantale; Puttalam – Inginimitiya; Kurunegala – Magallawewa, Hawatuna Oya; Kilinochchi – Iranamadu
Each of these reservoirs except Muthukandiyawewa in Moneragala District commands an area exceeding 1,000 ha.
In 2015 three districts, Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Kurunegala alone contributed nearly one third of paddy production of the island. The same year recorded a 129.5 rate of self-sufficiency in paddy production for the country.
Ancient irrigation system
There was a time when Sri Lanka took pride in its irrigation system. Judge C.G.Weeramantry in the famous Gabcikovo–Nagymaros case, quoting Arnold Toynbee refers to the ‘amazing systemof water works, how hill streams were tapped and their water guided into giant storage tanks, some of them four thousand acres in extent from which channels ran to other larger tanks. Below each great tank and each great channel were hundreds of great little tanks each the nucleus of a village’. He also quotes King Parakramabahu who laid the principle that not even a drop of rain water must be allowed to flow into the ocean without being made useful to man .Justice Weeramantry adds that according to the ancient chronicles these works were undertaken for the benefit of the country and out of compassion for all living creatures .The later Brahmi inscriptions increasingly refer to the donations of tanks to the Sangha. The sites where the cave inscriptions of the period from 1st century BC to 3rd century AD surprisingly overlap where the small tanks had existed .Thus arose the concept of the tank ,the dagaba (symbolizing the Buddhist ethos) and the village; (wawai, dagabai, gamai) three village level institutions intertwined and supporting one another; the tank symbolizing the material needs and the temple providing the spiritual and educational needs of the community. While the major tanks fed the smaller tanks the main role of the small village tank was to meet the multiple requirements of the people of which the main use was to provide water needs for two cultivations, Maha and Yala. In addition, their other requirement’s included domestic use, washing and bathing and meeting the needs of livestock, religious rituals and clay extraction for pottery and other needs. Also both migrant and resident water birds found the small tanks a safe haven.
Referring to the small tanks, according to Dr.C.R.Panabokke, ‘perhaps the most important function of the small tank was to recharge the shallow phreatic water table of this hard rock. It is this recharge of the phreatic water table which throughout the dry season that sustains the fresh water supply in the domestic wells located within the gangoda of the village hamlet without which village settlers could not have maintained their quality of life.’
The traditional hand dug domestic well located in the village gangoda below the small village tank had provided the village domestic requirements for several centuries despite their relatively low yields and seasonal water level fluctuations .
The Sangha and the influence of Buddhism
The influence of the Sangha over the rulers and the masses was great. Immediately after the introduction of Buddhism, Mahinda Thera in enunciating the Buddhist principle of compassion for all living creatures advised the King Devanampiyatissa
“O great King ,the birds of the air and the beasts have as equal a right to live and move about in any part of the land as you. The land belongs to the people and all living beings. You are only the guardian of it.”
The rulers, who followed, adhered to the advice given by the Thera. ‘Kings of Sri Lanka like Amandagamini 79-89 A.D, Silakala 524-537 A.D, Aggabodhi IV 658-674 A.D. and Mahinda III 797 -801 A.D. ordered that no animals should be slaughtered,’ says Professor Dhammavihari.
Abstaining from killing is the first precept of the five which laymen are expected to observe. Rulers and the masses abhorred killing of animals. There is no reference in the Sinhala and Pali literature or in rock inscriptions where the rulers encouraged killing of animals.
The reservoirs built by the ancient rulers were not meant for fish breeding for human consumption. It is possible that the villagers living close to them would have engaged in fishing in these tanks but never did the state, patronized fishing.
But now we observe the reverse is happening .Recent Governments which are duty bound by the constitution to protect the Buddha Sasana is openly encouraging and assisting the people to break the first precept.
The Ministry of Fisheries and Aquatic Resource Development is tasked with the development of marine brackish water and fresh water fisheries and the National Aquaculture Development Authority (NAQDA) under the Ministry is to contribute to the improvement of the socio-economic conditions of rural societies through alleviation of poverty by increasing freshwater and brackish water fish production .The breeding of fish is one the functions of NAQDA. The earlier slogan “wewai .dagabai and gamai” has now dropped the dagaba and stands as “wewak samaga gamak.”
The ancient rulers who built them would never have thought that a resource they gifted to the nation with compassion is being abused and is not serving the original purpose for which they were built. Whether there is a correlation between the drying up of reservoirs and their abuse is anybody’s guess.
Now the country is short of both rice and fish! The government is expected to import 500,000 M.T at around 100,000 M.T a month and the private sector from May this year has imported about 400,000 M.T.