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The Sri Lankan government is using tsunami reconstruction projects to open the door to water privatization, warns one of the countrys leading advocacy groups for rural people.

The coalition government approved a new water resource bill and policy on Dec. 30 just four days after the catastrophe that killed at least 30,000 Sri Lankans and wiped out the homes and livelihoods of a million more.

The Movement for National Land and Agricultural Reform (MONLAR) says the government fast-tracked the policy not to facilitate relief efforts, but to comply with the conditions attached to an Asian Development Bank loan. In 2001, the ADB agreed to finance water reform in Sri Lanka if the private sector was involved. The government had until March 2005 to develop a policy or lose the loan.

The plans, released in January, call for a US$150-million investment in new and existing water infrastructure, including wells and pipelines.

It is questionable as to whether this is designed to support the affected people or whether it is actually for the purpose of attracting foreign water companies, said MONLAR co-secretary Sarath Fernando. Districts that were hardly affected by the tsunami at all, such as Colombo, have been included in the plans.

The World Bank, International Monetary Fund and other global financial organizations have been pushing for privatization in Sri Lanka since the early 1990s. But MONLAR and other groups cite widespread evidence that in developing economies, private-sector involvement actually further marginalizes the poor and vulnerable.

Sri Lankans have been resisting water privatization for nearly a decade. In their culture, water is sacred and should be freely accessible. The island nation has a centuries-old network of communal wells and irrigation systems. Privatization could destroy these traditional water management methods.

In 2000, the government produced a national water policy statement that was withdrawn following massive public protest. MONLAR and its partners say they will continue to fight the latest controversial water bill until it too is shelved.