Women “key” to water projects in Sri Lanka

Women could prove key to the success of Sri Lanka’s rural water and sanitation projects, experts and villagers say. As a five-year project to reduce time spent collecting water and to ensure safe drinking water jointly launched by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and Sri Lankan government comes to a close, its leaders are reflecting on the lasting benefits of their decision to incorporate women in an unprecedented way. “Usually women are in the backseat, but in this [project] we were right in front,” Indrani Silva, who heads the women’s association at Lanka Pokuna village in the north-central Polonnaruwa District, one of five rural areas involved in this US$263 million undertaking, told IRIN. Projects took place in eastern Batticaloa and Trincomalee, north-central Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa and southern Hambantota districts.

Upon completion at the end of 2011, an estimated 900,000 people will have benefited, and those involved say it is largely because the project’s policies took into account the importance of gaining the trust and involvement of local women. “[Women] understand the value of safe water. On top of that, they bear the traditional responsibility of collecting water, cleaning and cooking. You need them to be involved for any such project to have a chance,” Mookiah Thiruchelvam, ADB’s senior project officer overseeing the project, explained.

At the level of initial discussions with potential beneficiaries, 50 percent of participants and at least 25 percent of the government officials from the Water Supply and Drainage Board [ http://www.waterboard.lk  ] were women. This is not usual, Silva said.  “Usually these types of big projects will have no major involvement from the community, except for taking part in meetings. Even then the lead role is taken by men. Now this is our project; without the village women, this will not succeed,” she said.

Attanayke Mundiyanse Senevirathana, chief sociologist working on improving access to water in the Polonnaruwa District, says the men were primarily farmers and did not have the time to play a big role, let alone collect water. “It is the women who used to spend hours and walk miles to collect the water,” Senevirathana said.
In Talpotha, a village in Polonnaruwa, the women’s association is central to managing water distribution from a new pumping station and water-tank. A member of the association does a monthly round of the 172 new connections, tabulating usage and collecting payment. But during the dry season their role becomes even more mportant. “We go around requesting users to limit usage,” said Sheila Herath, the chairwoman of the association. “All of them are our members and we can easily convince them.”

 Economic benefits
ADB’s Thiruchelvam feels the next step is to use the time saved on collecting water to increase the income of the beneficiaries. “The women have regained three hours every day that were spent on collecting water,” he said.

 Among some rural villages, women’s associations have also proven to be effective in promoting new income generation. A loan from a local women’s association has helped Liyaduruge Siriyawathie, 45, to earn an additional Rs10,000 ($100) every month. She uses the time freed from walking kilometres to collect water to draw portraits and other designs that are sold. “For over two decades I did not have time to draw,” she said. Thiruchelvam said future water projects should take advantage of women’s roles and, importantly, the freed hours that used to be spent on collecting water. “We don’t calculate the productivity [gained]. It is time we started doing that.”

Meanwhile, experts believe similar water and sanitation initiatives involving women could prove instrumental in the conflict-affected north, where access to piped water [ http://www.irinnews.org/Report.aspx?ReportID=91643 ]  after two decades of war remains problematic. On average, only three out of 10 people have access to piped water in all the districts that fall within the Vanni, an area encompassing the two districts of Kilinochchi and Mullaithivu and parts of Mannar and Vavuniya districts in the north, according to the National Water Supply Board.  The ADB and the Sri Lankan government are implementing a comparable project, with a high focus on women, in the Vanni and Jaffna [ http://www.adb.org/Documents/PAMs/SRI/37378-01-sri-pam.pdf ] valued at $164 million, Thiruchelvam says.

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