MAHAWELI RIVER WATERKEEPER
Ensuring clean, abundant water and a healthy watershed for people, elephants, and other wildlife
It is an honor for us to have been designated the official Mahaweli River Waterkeeper by the Waterkeeper Alliance, which works to strengthen and grow a global network of grassroots leaders protecting everyone’s right to clean water.
This is the first time in Sri Lanka that a river, or for that matter any surface water body on the island, has a designated Waterkeeper. This means we will have the added challenge of ensuring this pioneering and innovative initiative succeeds. We are using our elephant conservation as an entry point to protect the Mahaweli River watershed, an important water source for both humans and elephants.
Mahaweli: Sri Lanka's Largest River
The Mahaweli River basin is the largest basin in Sri Lanka accounting for almost one fifth of the country's total area. The river flows into the Bay of Bengal.
Threats to the watershed include agricultural pollution, sand mining, hydropower dams, deforestation, poorly planned land use, and water shortage. These have collectively resulted in the degradation of watershed conditions, a decline in water quality, a loss of wildlife habitat and populations, and an escalation in human-elephant conflicts.
The increasing negative impacts from unsustainable water resource use by rural communities are taking a toll on wildlife—especially the elephants in the Wasgamuwa region in the Central Province of Sri Lanka.
Water War: Elephants vs. Humans
An adult elephant requires from 100 to 300 litres of water per day. During the dry season water can become scarce meaning both people and wildlife—especially elephants—compete for whatever water is available. When elephants’ access to water is blocked they turn to raiding village wells and storage tanks, often breaking into homes to steal stored water.
Water (and crop) raiding by elephants and the harsh retaliatory measures taken by people whose lives and livelihoods depend on a source of fresh water feeds a vicious cycle of violence.
Each year, about 80 humans and about 250 elephants are killed due to human-elephant conflict, contributing to a decline in Sri Lankan elephant numbers and further threatening the species, which is already categorised as 'Endangered' on the IUCN Red List.
Our Role as the Mahaweli Waterkeeper
As the Mahaweli River Waterkeeper, we will play a critical role in developing a long-term, sustainable, community-based conservation and management programme for the river. We will be an ambassador for the Mahaweli River, promoting the urgent need to protect and manage the river for future generations. We will educate and create awareness in the communities that are dependent on the river, and will mobilize community support and participation for its protection, empowering people to take action on their own behalf.
As Mahaweli River is one of the most utilised rivers in Sri Lanka, we will conduct a comprehensive and systematic study to assess the impacts of the human activities on the river, as well as on the river’s ecosystems. The results will be used to advocate for improved management and protection of the Mahaweli River watershed, and to implement action-oriented strategies that will conserve its natural fauna and flora, and ensure the river's waters are managed in a sustainable manner.