Water: Who owns it? The case for Sri Lanka

By Ruth Greenaway 

Each year Christian World Service develops a study series for Lent focusing on the creative ways in which partner groups are responding to issues of poverty, and injustice in their own social, political contexts. Water: who owns it? is the title of a new CWS documentary film that examines the effects of harsh economic policies on farmers in Sri Lanka. This video/DVD tells the story from the perspective of Monlar, a longstanding CWS partner.

Monlar, the Movement for National Land and Agricultural Reform, was established in 1990 in support of farmers. At the heart of Monlar is Sarath Fernando. In this film he contributes a keen analysis of how economic policies are making people poor in Sri Lanka and in developing nations in general. “The experiences of the past years and the emergence of movements against globalisation worldwide … has convinced us that “another world is possible.” In a climate where civil unrest has also placed strain on government resources, and communities at large, Monlar is working to ensure that peace and sustainable economic justice go hand in hand.

Since the late 1980s, under increasing pressure from the World Bank, globalization and free trade, the Sri Lankan government has ceased both to subsidise the cost to farmers of fertilizer for rice production and to guarantee a market price for rice. Instead there is now support for cheaper imported rice. This change in policy has resulted in an unprecedented increase in poverty and a breakdown in rural economies. For rural families, this has meant coping with severe poverty and a lack of food security, resulting in malnutrition, anaemia and low birth weights. All in all, these have been desperate times and an uncertain future for the many rural communities that make up half the population.

Whilst rice farming has continued out of necessity, it has become increasingly costly to farmers in a number of ways: tight controls on water irrigation, greater expense, increased competition and no guaranteed income. Farmers are losing out, often spending more on production than they get in return; for some, taking their own lives seems the only way out of this poverty trap.

Monlar is working to reverse this situation by advocating for a return to more small-scale paddy production, traditional methods, and a return to planting indigenous seed. This vision encourages communities to work together and to explore methods of agriculture that are less labour and water intensive.

Training and advocacy programmes promote an alternative development strategy for the eradication of poverty. In recent years, women have been at the forefront of capacity building for local communities. The Movement of Mothers to Combat Malnutrition is one example of collective leadership among women. In 16 years, Monlar has given a voice to farmers and built up its membership to over 70 affiliated organisations.

Monlar is working as a catalyst for change. To date it has lobbied not only the Sri Lankan government, but also held discussions and forums with key representatives of the World Bank. CWS emphasises the importance of addressing issues of food security and the right of families to determine their own future based on equitable, just relationships, and opportunities to grow sustainable livelihoods.

Water who owns it? is accompanied by written material for discussion about the increasingly crucial question of access to water as well as a Bible study, prayers and ideas for action. This resource is available free for parishes, schools, and community groups. To order a copy contact cws@cws.org.nz. Please state when you would like to borrow a copy and whether you require video or DVD.

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