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Overview of the Project


Water scarcity is a growing concern throughout the world, affecting nearly one third of the population on every continent. The problem is particularly urgent in developing countries heavily reliant on agriculture, which can account for as much as 85-90% of fresh water usage.  Population growth, dramatic shifts in land use, competing demands for water and energy, and changing climatic conditions further exacerbate water scarcity. Against this backdrop, effective water management has significant implications for food security, economic growth, health, and political stability.

Historically, the world’s farmers have relied on traditional practices to manage water, but now find themselves challenged by new conditions that require adaptation. This project seeks to understand the factors that facilitate or constrain adaptive responses among farmers within the Mahaweli River Watershed of Sri Lanka. We draw upon the core disciplines of psychology, sociology, hydrology, and engineering to investigate farmers’ adaptive actions and how these decisions are affected by psychological, social, institutional, and environmental factors. The team will simultaneously examine water availability and rice yields in light of farmer behavior, changing rainfall and temperature patterns, land use changes, and water allocation decisions. These multiple streams of data will be integrated using agent-based modeling to generate a rich set of future scenarios to characterize how changes to social and institutional circumstances and in the natural environment may affect farmers and their capacity to manage vulnerability to water scarcity.

View images from our field work here.

Overview of Methodology

The research team will use a multi-level, multi-method approach to collect and synthesize data that incorporates the following:

  • Longitudinal surveys of farmers to examine perceptions of water availability and environmental change, adaptations to farming practices and other livelihood activities, and the adoption of new technologies and farming innovations.
  • Regional level drought indices—coupled with short- and long-term drought forecast methods—to characterize patterns of water availability and its impact on the agriculture and energy production.
  • Key informant interviews of decision makers and village leaders coupled with archival policy analysis to examine the changing structural, social, and economic conditions in which farmers live and make decisions.
  • Agent-based modeling as a key integrative tool to incorporate these multiple streams of data and to generate potential scenarios for changing patterns of cultivation, water demand and crop yields.

Study Area

Sri Lanka falls into the IPCC’s category of vulnerable small island nations under serious threat from various climate change impacts including droughts. Temperature data analyses by Basnayake et al. (2004) and Chandrapala et al (1996) have shown significant increasing trends during recent decades and mean annual precipitation has also decreased during the same period. Against the backdrop of these changing climatic conditions, Sri Lanka is exposed to a tremendous range of economic, socio-political and cultural circumstances that are common to agricultural nations in the South and Southeast Asia. The Mahaweli River Watershed is a microcosm of these stresses as it serves as a water resource for irrigation, hydropower generation, and drinking water supply via a series of dams and reservoirs in the mountains. The MRW is also the center of an ongoing national development program initiated in the 1970s that has relocated 300,000 landless families from the densely populated wet zone to the dry zone, occupying 510 sq.km of government land in MWR.



The Mahweli River Watershed spans over 10,448 square km feeding 1,003 large and small tanks used mainly for irrigation. The Mahaweli river traverses from the wet zone (mean annual rainfall, over 2,500mm) to the dry zone (mean annual rainfall between 1,200-1,900) though a constructed system of reservoirs, open channels, and tunnels diverting water from the water abundant upper watershed in the central highlands. MWR provides irrigation water to 3,650 sq.km of land in the Mahaweli systems.