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Sri Lanka: North-East Irrigated Agriculture Project

Last Updated: Sept 2008
Sri Lanka: North-East Irrigated Agriculture Project


In Sri Lanka, the entire North-East Province and border villages of adjoining provinces are affected by the long-standing conflict between the Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Until the war erupted in the 1980s, the region’s agricultural production compared favorable with that of other parts of the country, specifically rice, vegetables, fruit, and other cash crops. During the last two decades, however, farmers’ organizations have collapsed, irrigation systems been damaged, and displaced populations have experienced severe barriers to market. As a result, the people of Sri Lanka in this part of the country have suffered a substantial decline in agricultural production and living standards. Because of the long-running conflict, however, donors were hesitant to launch large-scale rehabilitation programs.


The primary goal of Sri Lanka’s North-East Irrigated Agriculture Project was to restore irrigation schemes and rural roads as a means of restoring food security for displaced communities. The project was designed as a simple community-based operation—and tailored to adapt to the constraints inherent in a volatile security situation.


The project managed to ensure food security for about 33,250 conflict-affected people in Sri Lanka—including displaced persons returning to their homes—in 396 villages in the project region. This was achieved by rehabilitating the productive capacity of about 370 small irrigation schemes, which brought 21,944 hectares of farmland back into cultivation.

- Production of rice, a staple food, increased by 90,113 metric tons.
- Access to farms and markets improved. This benefited 83,250 households (or 341,000 persons) in 375 villages through the rehabilitation of nearly 1,294 km of rural roads.
- New access to clean water benefited 19,400 families through the construction of new wells.
- Through 317 women’s rural development societies, the project supported almost 19,000 household-based livelihood support activities.
- 371 traditional farmers’ organizations were revived to care for the rehabilitated irrigation schemes, and
- The project created about 379 community centers in the villages.


Total project cost was US$131.6 million, including US$25.5 million from IDA, US$5.1 million from the Government of Sri Lanka and US$1 million from local communities. Since the conflict intensified during the 1980s, this was the first large-scale donor-funded rehabilitation program successfully launched in Sri Lanka’s troubled North-East region. IDA took on substantial risk by pioneering development assistance here at a time when the region was still under “in-conflict” status—even though some parts of the project area were not even under Government control. Ultimately, IDA conveyed both innovative and pragmatic approaches, which helped deliver much-needed support to the target beneficiaries.


This project enhanced Government credibility before the international community. Moreover, it provided an unprecedented opportunity for the North-East Provincial Council (NEPC) to build staff capacity for large-scale reconstruction. By the same token, project implementation helped donors regard NEPC as a capable institution. The project also enhanced the credibility of the World Bank as a responsive development partner in Sri Lanka, particularly for the people affected by the conflict. The project paved the way for an unprecedented dialogue, initially between the Bank, the Government, and LTTE for development planning and implementation in the region, and subsequently including other donors.

Next Steps

A US$65 million repeater project (NEIPII) was approved in mid-2004 to extend development assistance to another 85,000 conflict-affected people during a six-year period. Based on experience gained, NEIPII is shifting focus from restarting subsistence-level agricultural production to improving agricultural production and commercial agriculture. Meanwhile, however, the recent escalation of hostilities threatens to compromise progress.

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