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KYOTO — Sumika Perera is in the midst of a fight against the Sri Lankan government and international lending agencies, which are trying to privatize her country’s water.

One pillar of the Sri Lanka Poverty Reduction Strategy, which was agreed upon in 2002 by the government and the World Bank, is the promotion of a public-private partnership in the water supply, sewerage and sanitary service sectors.

A new water resource act is now stalled in the country’s parliament, according to Perera, who for the last 20 years has been working for the Women’s Development Foundation, a nongovernmental organization to improve the livelihood of women.

“(People) have launched a big nationwide campaign against the policy,” Perera said. “Although the government is now withholding the policy due to strong protests, (it does not mean that) it has scrapped the idea altogether, because the government signed the agreement.”

The first protests over the plan came in around 1996, when the World Bank recommended the idea in tandem with reforms for the agricultural sector. Citizens opposed the move, arguing access to water is a natural right and that allowing water to become a commodity would deprive millions of poor people of that right.

“Water is life,” Perera said, “and cannot be commercialized.”

It is not the first time that Sri Lanka has been divided by a water issue. In 1983, the government tried to impose a tax on water taken from irrigation systems, dealing a blow to many people, especially farmers.

Some farmers were imprisoned because they did not pay the levy. But their strong protests led the government to abolish the measure the following year, Perera said.

Her NGO does not specifically deal in water-related issues but is participating in the ongoing World Water Forum because it believes the issue will profoundly impact its efforts to help families become self-sufficient.

The traditional life of farmers has collapsed since 1977, when the Sri Lankan government introduced a market economy, liberalizing some markets and encouraging farmers to produce cash crops like tobacco, Perera said.

Chemical fertilizers were introduced to boost production, and people unable to recover the costs of purchasing expensive fertilizer had to sell their land, she said.

“To earn their living, some women in rural areas went to the Middle East to work as housemaids,” Perera said. “But that has led to the separation of families and little care for the children” who are left behind.

Domestic industries, including weaving, were also affected.

“Lots of goods came from other countries, and now women can’t sell their products,” she said.

To support these women and the lives of farmers, her organization has launched a program to encourage women to engage in organic gardening, producing fruit and vegetables.

“Producing their food requirements in these home gardens, they do not have to spend money, and (just) a small contribution of family labor is sufficient,” Perera said, adding that the project has now spread to include 36 rural women and community groups around Kurunegala, where her organization works.

But even this effort can be undermined depending on how water issues are handled. Perera expressed deep concern that privatizing water will force people to pay for the water they use for domestic agriculture.

“It would only deprive the poor of their essential right to water.”

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