Clean drinking water

A lifeline in Anuradhapura amidst economic instability 

August 24, 2023
Anuradhapura - Clean drinking water
UNDP Sri Lanka


In Sri Lanka's historic city of Anuradhapura, where stories of struggle and resilience are etched into the lives of its people, two women, H.A.P. Kusumalatha and U.J. Somawathi, navigate the challenges of economic instability compounded by the impacts of COVID-19 and Sri Lanka’s poly-crisis in 2022. While their journeys slightly differ, they share a common thread: the power of clean and sanitary drinking water made possible through private- and public-funded initiatives.

H.A.P Kusumalatha, a 49-year-old single mother residing in Ikiri Weva, Anuradhapura, has fought against numerous odds to provide for her two children. Despite earning a meagre wage as a daily wage labourer, she single-handedly raised her daughter, now married, and her 13-year-old son, who battles both liver complications and thalassemia (a genetic blood disorder caused by a lack of haemoglobin), the latter of which is passed down to him from her own predisposition. The medical expenses associated with her son's treatment often strain her limited resources, and access to clean drinking water was once a pressing concern for Kusumalatha's family.

In the past, unclean water sources in Anuradhapura contributed to the rising cases of chronic kidney disease and deteriorating quality of life for many residents, including rising hospitalisation and mortality rates. However, over the past decade, certain projects have ushered in a game-changing solution: clean water from wells and lakes—which needed to be visited and used by the locals themselves—piped directly to households. For Kusumalatha and others like her, this initiative relieved a significant burden, as they were no longer reliant on themselves solely. This is a positive for all in Anuradhapura, and is also reflective of the support that comes through from institutions if there is enough pressure and necessity for certain resources.  

Nevertheless, the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent poly-crisis in 2022 wreaked havoc on Kusumalatha's livelihood. As a daily wage earner, the lockdown measures left her without work, exacerbating her already precarious financial situation. Through the Samurdhi welfare programme, she received a modest assistance of LKR 5,000 for three months; however, it was insufficient to meet her family's needs. The soaring prices of food plunged them into periods of hunger, with Kusumalatha often sacrificing her own meals to ensure her son's sustenance or simply surviving on days of leftovers. Despite her resilience, Kusumalatha found it difficult to envision a stable future amid the uncertainties that continue to grip Sri Lanka.

In Nochchiyagama, Anuradhapura, U.J. Somawathi, a 65-year-old widow originally from Matale, has weathered hardships alongside her son and two grandchildren. Farming has been their means of survival, cultivating others' lands as they lack property of their own. While the Rs. 150-a-day pay rate has remained relatively stagnant over the years, their situation marginally improved with the arrival of clean drinking water through the piped supply.

Somawathi's family, like many others in the area, faced tremendous challenges during times of crisis. The lack of resources and rising food prices pushed them to pawn cherished possessions, such as Somawathi's long-held gold chain. They received some assistance (i.e. roofing tiles) from the Samurdhi welfare programme when her father was alive, but their recent pleas for support have gone unanswered. Now, Somawathi mentions being all-too-familiar with relying only on herself and the skills she passes down to her children, so they can earn money the same way she did. However, even those aspects remain dim for the grandmother, as she understands the power of education and is yet hopeless about the quality of education her children have and are currently receiving. Hoping for better times, Somawathi dreams of a brighter future for her grandchildren, yearning for a stable government that could usher in positive change for generations to come. While acknowledging the potential for change, she reflects on their current access to clean drinking water, a far cry from the contaminated and disease-ridden supply they endured in the past. Just as this introduction transformed their lives, Somawathi and her family hope that other challenges they face will be less burdensome in years to come through institutions that have the power to change their situation.

As Anuradhapura grapples with its socio-economic realities, the provision of clean and sanitary drinking water has emerged as a lifeline for its residents. It is a signifying measure of upliftment, one that garners the possibility of sustainable and dignified livelihoods. While these two women's stories exemplify the profound impact of water infrastructure projects, the need for comprehensive support, especially during times of crisis, remains essential. The challenges they face, from medical expenses to insufficient income, necessitate holistic solutions to improve their lives and secure a better future for their families.

In the quest for stability and progress, Anuradhapura and its resilient inhabitants look to the horizon, yearning for a gentler tomorrow where clean drinking water becomes not only a necessity but also a symbol of hope and resilience. 

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the individual. This interview was conducted in June 2023 and the individual was a respondent of the National Citizen Survey 2022-3.