The Need for a Holistic Approach to Water, by Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne

Compassion in Action

The Need for a Holistic Approach to Water, by Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne

March 22 is World Water Day. This lecture, given in November 2006, is take from Volume 8 of the Collected Works of Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne and remains timely for today. Featured image from

Just over one year ago at the invitation of the Institution Of Engineers in Sri Lanka I delivered the Sanmugam Arumugam Commemoration Centenary Oration on “Science and Civilization in Sri Lanka.” Now again you have invited me to give the keynote address at this 32nd International Conference on Sustainable Development of Water Resources, Water Supply and Environmental Sanitation. This is an equally hard task for me as I am neither an engineer nor an expert on the subject. My only qualification to talk to you is that I love the rural poor very much and have been associated with them for over fifty years as a volunteer to help them to overcome poverty and powerlessness. In the process I have learnt a lot from them and gathered valuable experience about their problems and possible ways to find solutions. Furthermore I learnt very much about those who exploit and oppress them and devoted my whole life to experiment with non-violent solutions to bring true freedom to their lives. 

I would like to speak to you from a perspective I generally look at any subject. Here we are going to discuss Water – Water Resources, Water Supply, Pollution and Purification of Water, Institutional and Management Issues and so on. I am sure you are experts on all these fields and during the Conference Sessions you will share your knowledge on these subjects with one another. So without trying to speak about subjects I do not know much about I will try to look at water from my general perspective. In other words I will ask the following questions pertaining to Water: 

  1. How am I (the individual) related to Water?
  2. How is my family related to Water?
  3. How is my community in relationship to Water? 
  4. How is my (ecological) area in relationship to Water?
  5. How is my country in relation to Water? 
  6. How is my world in relationship to Water? 

Related to these six questions there are six other questions that come to my mind. Without answering these also we cannot get a holistic vision of the importance and use of water. 

  1. Is there any spiritual significance for water?
  2. Is there any moral significance for water?
  3. Is there any cultural significance for water?
  4. Is there any social significance for water?
  5. Is there any economic significance for water?
  6. Is there any political significance for water? 

We Sri Lankans are very proud of our ancient water and soil conservation ecosystems (irrigation systems). I think most of us look at the flawless planning, extremely efficient engineering feats, marvelous water distribution, conservation and management systems but forget the fact all these took place in a holistic system with a clear and an integrated vision of man, society and nature. 

We know from historical sources that Prince Anuradha constructed the first village tank, while it was during King Pandukabhaya’s period that the three tanks Jayavapi, Gaminivapi and Abhayavapi were systematically constructed. Then in the third century B.C., during the reign of King Devanampiyatissa, Arahant Mahinda brought Buddha Dhamma to Sri Lanka which really laid the foundation for the great Sinhala Buddhist Culture that evolved in this land. 

Starting with the Devanampiyatissa period and ending after the period of Parakramabahu the Great, a period of more than one thousand years saw the flowering of Buddha Dhamma in its spiritual, moral, cultural, social, political and economic dimensions of which our water systems were undoubtedly an integral part. Sri Lanka came to be known as Dhanyagara (Land of Plentiful Harvests) and Dharma Dweepa (Land of Righteousness). The Tank (wewa), Dagaba (Stupa), Village (gama) and the temple (Pansala) were the four symbols of our community life. 

In India or Sri Lanka as a guest comes to the house a clean glass of water is offered. When one leaves the house at an auspicious time someone is made to walk with a glass of water towards the house to become the first to meet him. If a woman with a pot full of water meets you as you leave the house that is supposed to be a sign of success in your journey. When a daughter is given in marriage her parents bring the right hand fingers of the couple together and pour water as a blessing chanting a gatha which says ‘May you be Blessed by the Triple Gem and the Devas’. On occasions when sutras taught by the Buddha are chanted sometimes all night by the monks, a clean pot of water is kept in front of the monks and one end of the thread which is held by the monks is inserted in the water and tied to the neck of the pot. When that ceremony which is known as the pirith ceremony is over we hold our palms together and receive the blessed water from the monks to drink and sprinkle on our faces. When we dig up and build a new well or a community water service project the first water we get from that source is filtered with a clean white cloth and taken in procession to the sacred Bodhi Tree in the temple and poured at the roots as an act of sacred worship. 

We always attached sanctity to water and treated it as something sacred. Our parents taught us never to spit on water or pollute water sources. Water is a part and parcel of our life and existence. It is more than a human need for us. Access to water is an inalienable Human Right. 

In other words I am trying to look at water as an integral part of our existence. Same is true for all our families, communities, nations and the world. This holistic vision of water always brings to our mind that from the conception of our life in the mother’s womb when, maybe 99% of our physical body was water, at birth 90% and as an adult 70%. At the end of our life it comes down to 50% when no longer we can sustain this body. Thinking of this scientific truth brings to our mind another scientific fact that water cannot exist alone and it is always combined with earth, air, and heat in space. Everything in this world, both living and nonliving, therefore, being composed of these five great elements, we see a physical interrelationship and an interdependence between everything that exists. In our Buddhist Culture we believe that our consciousness (Vinnana), causes the mind-matter (Nama/Rupa) condition to arise. These in turn give rise to the six sensory organs (Salayatana). From these organs we receive through light, sound, smell, taste, touch and thoughts, communications from outside which create thoughts and feed our inner consciousness. 

You may have read the book The Hidden Messages in Water by the eminent Japanese scientist Dr.Masaru Emoto. “Using high speed photography he discovered that crystals formed in frozen water reveal changes when specific, concentrated thoughts are directed towards them”. “ .. human consciousness can have an enormous impact on the world around us. Clouds consist of water in the gaseous state, and so it responds especially quickly to our will. Traditionally speaking, anyone who says that consciousness has an effect on the physical world risks certain ostracization for being unscientific. However science has progressed to a point where the failure to understand consciousness and the mind limits our understanding of much of the world around us”. (quoted from page 86 of the book-2001) 

Dr.Masaru Emoto continues to make the following statement (pages 51-52 of the book.) “The defiling of our earth is the result of an unrelenting hunger for convenience and the fulfillment of greed initiated by the industrial revolution. This has led to lifestyles of mass consumption that seriously threaten the global environment. 

“We have embarked on a new century, a time in history when we must make serious changes in the way we think. Only the human can resonate with the rest of the world, and this is why it is so essential that we change our thinking, so we can live in harmony with nature and not go on destroying the earth. What vibration we give to the earth and what kind of planet we create depends on each one of us as individuals.” 

Dr.Emoto’s discovery that molecules of water are influenced by our words, thoughts and feelings was quite consistent with what our ancients believed and practiced through various customs associated with their daily life and whatever they did for their livelihood. I have participated in many community practices like ceremonies and mass meditations associated with bringing rain to drought affected areas. We were always successful if we did them with conviction and feelings. Reading through ancient history from the time the very first irrigation tank, Basawakkulama was constructed to the time our forefathers constructed the massive tanks like Kalawewa, Minneriya, Parakrama Sagara and Parakrama Samudra and networks of distribution systems, we come across numerous stories of events where the scientific and engineering skills have been combined with spiritual, moral and cultural practices. 

Recently I read a book written in Sinhala titled “Ape wewen pan dothak” ( A handful of water from our Tank) – A scholarly study of the Sinhala Tank by K.M.I. Swarnasinghe, published by Chaga Prakashana, Pannipitiya. In this excellent scholarly study I found the most comprehensive and concise information about both these aspects, Science and Technology and Spirituality in the context of our ancient Sinhala Wewa. I think the members of the Institution of Engineers in Sri Lanka should read this book if you have not yet done so. If possible the author should be persuaded and helped to bring out an English and Tamil translation as well. This book covers the History of Sinhala Wewa, Builders of wewas, Consumption and management of the water system, Parts of a wewa and the technology associated with it, Customs and Religious practices associated with the wewa, Folk tales, poems, special language etc associated with the Wewa etc. 

We cannot possibly deal adequately with the topic of your Conference without dealing with the use of water for agriculture. Whatever experts may say about the contribution of agriculture to our GDP, I firmly believe that we should produce our own food. We have done so in the past and we should do so in the future. There is a concern about the pollution of ground water supplies due to excessive use of chemical fertilizers. This means that we should be concerned with the farming practices as well. I am glad to note that organic farming is being encouraged. 

The point I am trying to make is that without a holistic approach to the subject of water including spiritual, mental, emotional, cultural, social, political and economic aspects, fragmented approaches to the problem of water will take us nowhere. When the approach is holistic the people come into the picture not as consumers but as the decision makers to lay down policies, choose technologies and even organize the institutional arrangements for conservation, use, cleanliness and economic aspects of water. This is how our forefathers dealt with water up to the end of the twelfth century. Then due to foreign invasions the Raja Rata was depopulated and the land went under forest cover and our culture and civilization was destroyed along with the unique tank and irrigation systems which provided water for our daily use as well as agriculture to acquire three harvests. 

More than the Portuguese and the Dutch the British contributed very subtly to the destruction of our civilization from the nineteenth century onwards. However we must be grateful to the British scholars who recorded the story of this great water management system. We should be ever grateful to the great scholar Joseph Needham and our own scholars Dr. R. L. Brohier, Engineer S. Arumugam Dr.Siran Deraniyagala and Engineer D.L.O. Mendis just to name a few whose works I have read. In an introduction written for Engineer D.L.O.Mendis’s book Water Heritage of Sri Lanka, Dr.Siran Deraniyagala gives an excellent summary in the following words (page xx, para 2): 

“Hence one may reasonably propose that the distinct water management systems of Sri Lanka had their origins in technological developments that occurred during the proto historic Early Iron Age at 1000 to 500 BC. It constituted the springboard for what followed during the Early and Middle Historic periods up to the end of the first millennium AD: the development of a water management system that in its technology and organization has been unparalleled in its sophistication elsewhere in the world. The famed scholar Joseph Needham bears witness to this assertion.” 

In spite of a largely self-reliant, people-centred, ecologically viable and sustainable system which was historically proven to be correct, our engineers and political decision makers preferred imported transferred technology or hydraulic engineering over our traditional knowledge of water and soil conservation ecosystems, soft technology we had mastered over more than a thousand years. The result was the corruption and finally the destruction of ancient irrigation systems. I read a paper presented by Engineer D.L.O.Mendis at a Pugwash Conference in 1995 where he refers to the non-availability of scale one mile to an inch maps showing in great detail the ancient irrigation works, most of them lying abandoned in the jungles that time. Over a period of eighty years the British surveyors completed this extensive topographical survey. These maps showed small, medium scale and large reservoirs, river diversion anicuts and channels, including trans basin diversion channels, cultural sites and religious monuments. 

I remember as laymen our using these one inch maps in a number of places where we had farms like Ruwan Madura about 18 miles into the jungle in Vavuniya (1968) and the 500 acre farm we established in Thanamalwila in 1972. It is regrettable that the Survey Department for whatever reason does not publish these maps and they are said to be not available even for reference. They are now replaced by metric sheets compiled from aerial surveys. In these sheets it is said that all our ancient sites and monuments comprising our ancient cultural and economic heritage are not shown. It is also said that the ancient irrigation systems are not given a place in the much vaunted National Atlas of Sri Lanka. 

If these maps were available and used in all our schools to teach the students about the topography and ecology of their area what a tremendous impact that would have had to link them with their traditional past and the present environment. For as the Indian savant D. D. Kossambi said: “To learn about the past in the light of the present is to learn about the present in the light of the past”. 

In the beginning of my speech you may remember I mentioned the twelve perspectives from which I am used to look at any subject because I strongly believe that we should take a holistic look at our situations. Taking the above examples that I cited, one can detect an inferiority complex on our part where we underestimate our abilities and under value what we have inherited. Also we have become believers in macroeconomics, macro planning and macro-projects and ignored the micro-politics, micro planning, micro-economics and micro-projects. We also have established top-down, centralized command systems ignoring people’s participatory bottom-up management organizations. All these and many more servile borrowed systems have developed a very dependent mindset especially in our planners, bureaucrats and politicians. Their slavish mentality has gone down to the helpless people making this great nation to be dependent and controlled by a handful of self-seeking local and foreign multinationals openly or secretly supported by powerful politicians. 

I belong to a people’s participatory development organization known as Sarvodaya. We work in around 15,400 village communities representing all racial and religious groups in all the districts of the country. As a part of our self-development programme we help villages to satisfy their basic human needs (which we believe are also their basic human rights) in which water takes priority next to the environment. Among different ways we help them to get water, Gravity Water Systems are one. Our engineers with the village people study the perennial sources of water for several months, test everything pertaining to the perennial source, the water flow, volume and speed, purity and so on. Locate places for the purification systems, storage tanks, distribution tanks, standpipes, material costs, skilled labour costs and so on. People collect as much material as they can, donate as much money as they can and do all the unskilled labour as Shramadana (gift of labour). When the whole project is completed and handed over to the Water Management Committee of the Village Sarvodaya Shramadana Society along with the tools kit to maintain it with the village people who got trained in the process. Also a total education pertaining to water including spiritual and cultural aspects, economics of water management are given to the people. When a private individual who was not a member of the Society tried to illegally tap the water the society went to courts and got a ruling to control the catchment area and the entire water system. If villages have a system of Grama Swaraj or Village Self Government, for which Sarvodaya was campaigning for over four decades, that is the best political form to conserve, use, sustain and keep the purity of the system. 

Sarvodaya Rural Technical Services Section completed 327 Gravity Water Schemes to benefit 24,141 families with a population of 147,103 during the last twenty five years at a total cost of Rs.213,558,908.00. Sarvodaya did not receive one cent from the government. This self-help technology helped the villagers to bring water sometimes from sources as far as fifteen to twenty kilometers. To this day to my knowledge none of the bureaucrats who advise the government on water policies has ever visited and seen what people have achieved. They only go on a merry-go-round with the political bosses and World Bank and Asian Development Bank and so on to write project proposals to get loans. These people have a great survival capacity even after retirement while increasing the foreign debts. For over 25 years Sarvodaya Economic Enterprises Development Services has experimented and developed a system of development finance where the people themselves are the masters of their savings and investments. Through this system without getting into the World Bank, Asian Development Bank ‘debt trap, our people can continue to have control over their Basic Human Right to Water. 

Sarvodaya involvement with village communities with regard to water is not only gravity water schemes. As 72% of Sri Lankans use ground water both wells for drinking water and agro wells are constructed in Sarvodaya villages in very large numbers. Clean water holes, small waterfalls, small water collection facilities, small village tanks and sometimes medium size village tanks are renovated, constructed and maintained by the village society itself. Rainwater harvesting tanks are another popular activity for collection of water in rural areas which Sarvodaya promotes. 

When the Tsunami tragedy occurred on 26th December 2004 Sarvodaya was the first to go to the affected 12 districts and use her experience immediately to put into action its Five R Programme, namely, Relief, Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Reconciliation and Reawakening. The Sarvodaya programme included 12 integrated sectors including Water and Sanitation, Health and Preventive Care and Environmental Management and Ecology. While local people as well as the international community gave the movement unstinted support Sarvodaya was able to complete water, sanitation and environmental projects in four districts within six months in addition to work in other twelve sectors in all districts which still continue. I want to emphasize the fact that with the participation of people in freedom, miracles can happen in any field. Our foremost attention should be paid to the Awakening of the individual, the family and the community to the importance of water in their life. When the necessary scientific data with regards to the ecological factors and the alternative technologies that can be used are placed before the community they are able to make the right choices, according to my view. 

(As the participants of this conference will be visiting some projects in the Kalutara District I like to invite them to visit Lagoswatta near Katukurunda Police Training School where we have built with the participation of people whose houses were washed away a new Eco Village on the above mentioned principles. We have named the village Damniyamgama which means a village where natural laws are not violated.) 

Looking at the country as a whole I think even though belated we have to get back to the ancient path of traditional water management systems at least in principle and incorporate those with the modern. We have to take a scientific and holistic view of the country as a whole as our forefathers did in the past and consider when and where we went wrong. Maybe we have to go to the times when the British undertook the task of restoring some of the large as well as medium and small tanks. Then the colonization projects with new settlement schemes by restoring major ancient reservoirs were implemented adopting the hydraulic engineering perspective. In spite of the fact that Udawalawe and Lunugamvehera were failures as most believe, why are some people pushing the Moragahakanda Project which will erase forever the remains of Parakrama Sagara? A supreme Court Judgement by Hon.Justice A.R.B.Amerasinghe stopped the Eppawala Phosphate mining business which would have exhausted the deposit in thirty years as opposed to the possibility of its sustainable use for over a thousand years. It was the courageous stand taken by people led by the Eppawala high priest Ven. M. Piyarathana Thero, that stopped this project. If this is allowed to be implemented by local and multinational companies who have notorious records of how they raped poor nations of their natural resources to make profit our most precious ancient Kalawewa Jai Ganga water and soil conservation ecosystem built about 15 centuries ago, still functioning, truly a wonder of the world will also be destroyed. 

I remember when the accelerated Mahaweli Development Project was promoted and advertised we were told that we can sell electricity to South India. Isn’t it funny that in today’s papers (2006.11.08) there was a news item that we are going to buy electricity from South India. Please ask yourselves what went wrong. 

In the case of Lunugamvehera project started with an estimated cost of US$ 30.5 million was escalated to cost US$ 106 million two years after implementation started without considering an alternative upstream site at Huratgamuva against the advice of the Planning Ministry engineers. The corresponding benefits were probably exaggerated to justify the increased foreign borrowing. In all these dealings then and now the public is kept ignorant. While the bureaucrat who pushed this deal is said to have retired from public service and joined the World Bank, the adverse environmental impacts of the project increase with each passing day. 

In your conference programme I saw a number of specialist sessions listed on various important subjects. Now I will touch upon a subject which is not included there. That is who owns water, who controls water, who wants to convert water into a tradable commodity, who wants to make water a lucrative money making business and at whose cost. This is the real issue we have to address taking into account what is already happening in the world at this time. 

In this connection I wish to draw your attention to an advertisement in the Daily News of October, 9, 2006 published by the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Mahaweli Development. It is for “Entertaining Public Views” on a draft “National Water Resources Management Policy”. I am very glad that public views are being sought. However most people in our country are not experts in interpreting official documents. Statements in the advertisement, such as the following, need further elaboration. 6.1 Ownership All water resources including rainwater surface and ground water in Sri Lanka is a public asset. 6.2 Water Rights 6.2.2 Water rights will be transferable subject to regulation and zoning stipulations based on national interest. 

While this attempt at obtaining the views of the public is to be commended, it is by no means adequate. An opportunity should be given to people’s organizations at the community level to discuss this policy statement in depth. 

In the FRONTLINE – India’s National Magazine – of April 21 2006 the Cover page carried a picture of a child holding the two palms to a standpipe and drinking water. This reminded me of the pintaliya, a pot of clean water kept on the roadside to quench the thirst of anybody walking past. In India also there were Jal Mandir or Piyaas, free water stands people could use. Under the picture was the Headline “THIRST FOR PROFIT : Water, a common resource of humanity , is the latest target of private greed.” 

In a well researched and documented Cover Story the writer P.Sainath very forcefully states “The corporate hijack of water is on and if the current trend continues, India’s water supply sources will be in private hands before long… Worldwide, water privatization could be a multi-trillion-dollar industry in the future. It has produced massive failures, colossal corruption, and huge misery for the poor. A corrupt Indian elite, too, will rake in big bucks.” 

In the following sub-story titled Private Water, public misery the writer asserts “A river is sold to a private party in Chhattisgarh, a soft- drink major is battling local residents in Kerala. In Maharashtra, water supply for an entire town is private business. The corporate invasion results mainly in the poor being denied water.” 

Once and for all we have to understand that the five great elements in our body or in any thing else, namely, the Earth, Water, Air, Heat and Space cannot be tradable commodities. They cannot be privatized. Water is a Human Right which cannot be denied and taken away by multinational corporations well entrenched with the lending agencies, dealing with water as a commodity. They have their counterparts in Sri Lanka who are well equipped to propagate their point of view that leads to privatization of water resources. 

I like to say, before I conclude this address, that though you all are professionals you also have a great responsibility towards your own personality awakening, towards your family, the community, nation and the world. This awakening will not occur until and unless you grasp the three fundamental causes or the three negative energies that create all the suffering in all of us. They are Greed, Ill-will and Ignorance. In today’s world these three evils are so well organized in the world as never before. They have coined beautiful words like globalization, free market economy and so on to cover up their evil intentions. These are so well institutionalized by the world’s largest financial controllers led by the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, Pan American Bank and other subsidiary organizations like governments, central banks and multinational corporations. There many publications that have come out recently which have been authored by scholars who in fact have served in these institutions. At least try to read Al Gore’s book, ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ on Global Warming. Al Gore was twice the Vice President of the United States. To understand how the World Bank contributes to perpetuate poverty in the world and continue to keep common people powerless please read MORTGAGING THE EARTH – The World Bank, Environmental impoverishment and the Crisis in Development, by Bruce Rich, a senior attorney and Director of the International Program of the Environmental Defence Fund. 

Finally, I appeal to you please don’t allow greed to interfere with what you think is best for the earth and humanity. We have been brought to this sad state in Sri Lanka as well as in many other countries because of politicians, businessmen, bureaucrats and technocrats who allowed greed for wealth and power to control their precious lives. They always ended in grief. 

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