The Gal Oya irrigation project is located in a region that suffered from high levels of ethnic violence. In 1980, Sri Lanka’s Gal Oya irrigation scheme had the reputation of “the most difficult and disorganized irrigation scheme in the country.” The main reservoir was only 25% full, leading to crop failures and the fear that water conflict may arise. Experts from Cornell University, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and Colombo’s Agrarian Research and Training Institute determined that the system was faltering just as much from social as it was from physical deterioration. Water allocation suffered from a lack of transparency and grievances lodged about water shortages went unresolved.
Cooperative farmer organizations were created that would reinvigorate the channels downstream. Farmers were encouraged to become organized at the field-level into field channel groups (FCGs) of 10 to 20 farmers per channel. These were organized at the next level up into ‘distributary canal organizations (DCOs), made up from representatives elected by consensus from the FCGs who received water from the same canal. Above this were area councils for each branch canal, then a project committee for the main Gal Oya canal, each level similarly represented by farmers chosen by consensus at each level.
Within weeks of implementing this new approach, 90% of farmers in the pilot area covering more than 2,000 hectares were voluntarily undertaking the programme, which they had helped to develop themselves. They cleared channels, some of which had not been cleared for 15 – 20 years, rotated water deliveries so that tail enders would get a fair share, and saved water when possible to donate to farmers downstream, which involved cooperation between two ethnic groups, the upstream Sinhalese and the downstream Tamil farmers.