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Kamal Dahanayake

Just as water gave life to his career, so will it cure the suffering of Sri Lanka’s poor and needy.

Tapping into Sri Lanka’s salvation

January 2018

Kamal Dahanayake, a civil engineer and senior project officer in the Sri Lanka Resident Mission, has been absorbed with solving water issues for over 25 years.


It wasn’t even planned, he said. By chance, one of his senior colleagues in the University of Moratuwa, who had joined the National Water Supply and Drainage Board, invited him to visit some of their water projects. “Because of this opportunity, I gained a lot of interest,” he explained. So while in school, Kamal began to focus his research on the water sector, and soon after, he was employed by the same national agency, where he stayed for about seven years.

He also worked for an engineering consultancy for 12 years, though not continuously as he spent some time doing consultant work for ADB and the World Bank. Interestingly enough, his projects under the engineering firm were also mainly for both donor organizations, and throughout this time he coordinated with the water board. 


Not surprising then that with sufficient experience with both government and consultancy work Kamal sought the next step in his career progression. His “ambition” was to join ADB and become part of the financing side helping water solutions happen. “Water,” he reasoned, “is an essential need and without it, people suffer.”

It has been five years since he started working for the resident mission in 2011. As focal for water and urban, his daily tasks involve interacting with partners for projects and supporting new project processing done by a team in headquarters. According to him, despite his still somewhat short stay, he is proud of how he has been able to continue the good work of his predecessors and how he has been able to expand the relationship with the government. This 2018, Kamal is looking forward to increasing the portfolio and doing more urban development projects – not just water – like traffic management, surface drainage, and solid waste management. He said, “With the development of the country, we need better towns and cities that are environment friendly, and have less traffic congestion and good living spaces.”

“When you start working in the water sector, you get a lot of satisfaction by providing safe water to people, because it's a basic need. People are very happy when they have water for their day-to-day living. ”

Kamal Dahanayake
Senior Project Officer (Urban and Water Supply-Sanitation)
Sri Lanka Resident Mission

What motivated you to join ADB?

Kamal: One reason I joined the bank is because I like the water sector and ADB is the dominant partner for water supply and sanitation in Sri Lanka. Once I joined ADB I found it was very good place to work, from the knowledge I get and the people I meet to the working environment. It was very comfortable, especially because I know all the partners in Sri Lanka, such as the water board, and I knew about the projects and the areas in Sri Lanka where water is concerned.   

Describe the water situation in Sri Lanka.

Kamal: I think water in Sri Lanka is comparatively better than other South Asian countries. Our average rainfall is about 2,000 millimeters in most areas so water is not a scarce thing, but safe drinking water is always a challenge. Also, when you start working in the water sector, you can get a lot of satisfaction by providing safe water to people, because it’s a basic need. People are very happy when they have water for their day-to-day life. I also work in rural areas, not just urban areas, especially when I was with the water board. One of my first appointments was in a rural area where water was scarce. People suffered a lot. At that time ADB came and provided a lot of support to that area, so that’s also one reason why I became impressed with ADB.  

What projects are you currently working on?


Kamal: ADB has been providing continuous support for the water sector in Sri Lanka for more than 25 years, and because of this the water board looks to ADB for challenging projects. Water is still a big concern since piped water supply about 20 to 30 years ago – I don’t have the exact figures – only about 20% to 25% of the people had that privilege; now it is 46%. There’s still a long way to go, and so the water board is targeting 60% piped water coverage by 2020. It’s not an easy task.

The special thing with ADB support is we always go for challenging projects with the water board, and the water board is also keen to work with ADB on challenging projects. One example of this is the project we had before during the 30-year-long conflict in the Jaffna area. At that time most of the donors were reluctant to work in those conflict-affected areas. But ADB always worked with the government in those areas to provide water and other facilities.


When it comes to water scarcity now, an example is this serious issue in Jaffna. We are working with the government to provide a sea water desalination solution.


In Colombo, our capital city, the water system is more than 100 years old and because of that there are so many leakages. Five years ago, the nonrevenue water was 48%, almost half of the water was lost. ADB intervened and provided a loan. It’s a difficult project, but it will save a lot of water. The goal is to reduce nonrevenue water to 18% by 2022. We are working on this section by section and we have already completed six zones. Basically, we have demarcated zones within towns, so a smaller area, which we also call district metering areas or DMAs. Colombo is divided into about 75 zones, and we have completed six, where we have checked and improved the nonrevenue water such that it is now less than 18%. We are continuing to improve other areas in Colombo as well.

Apart from this, I’m also handling the Dry Zone Urban Water and Sanitation Project. Again this is targeting conflict-affected areas where there is water scarcity. This started after the 30-year civil war ended in 2009. By the end of 2017, it will be completed.


What makes this upcoming desalination plant in Jaffna special?


Kamal: While small desalination plants do exist, this new ADB project will be the first large desalination plant in Sri Lanka, and for ADB as a whole. It’s very significant. But it was a challenge, because everybody was reluctant to accept this option since it was seen as a high technology, high cost option. High technical capacity is also needed to maintain this. And because it would be the first of its kind, we had to work about one and a half years, researching, studying, and convincing ourselves as much as the government. 

Even though there was a project in Jaffna already, unfortunately the water source that we tried to obtain from was no longer available. This was the Iranamadu Irrigation Tank. Before the project, the farmers agreed in writing to share the water with the town; but when we started implementation, they opposed it. We had no option but to go for desalination. Now, it looks like a very good project. The water will come from the Jaffna peninsula. Of course convincing the people about desalination was a big task. Next, the challenge was to identify a very good contractor for that. We brought some of the government officers to desalination plants in other countries so they understood what would happen and that it wasn’t difficult to implement.


When not working, how do you spend your time? What do you like to do?


Kamal: My only interest is my family. I have two daughters, 14 and 17 years old. I always try to spend as much time with them and my wife. My spare time is spent with them. I try to balance my life between work and family. I enjoy seeing what they can achieve with the support I give to them. Likewise, they are happy knowing I’m happy with my job. That is their satisfaction.

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