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Sri Lanka Waits in Vain for the Rain

The lack of a national water management policy is hampering Sri Lanka's efforts to tackle recurring droughts. Credit: Amantha
!y Amantha Perera
C"L"#!"$ #ay %& '&() *PS+ - Stuck in mid-day rush hour
traffic, commuters packed tight into a tin-roofed bus in Sri Lankas capital, Colombo,
peer expectantly up at the sky that is beating a savage heat down on the city.
o one speaks, but it is clear they are all waiting for the same thing! for the heavens to
open up and provide some relief from the scorching weather that is slowly cooking this
island nation.
"ver #$$ km east, in the agricultural district of %mpara, farmers and rural folk wait
e&ually expectantly for the elusive monsoon, already a few weeks late in coming.
'ater levels at the Senanayake Samudraya tank, which holds the bulk of the districts
water needs, are dangerously low, having dropped below 30 percent of the
reservoirs capacity at the end of (ay, according to the department of irrigation.
%ll over the country, low-level anxiety over the water shortage is slowly giving way to
panic. 'ith each day that the rains do not fall, food shortages increase, poverty
worsens and the economy lurches in uncertainty.
Strangely, the government is yet to officially declare a drought situation, even though
water levels in most ma)or reservoirs * which supply close to +, percent of the
countrys electricity needs * are alarmingly low.
o rain, no rice
-iven that over ./ percent of Sri Lankas population
lives in rural areas, with a large percentage engaged in
rice farming, a drought threatens the country to its very
0arvest losses mounted in the first half of this year,
leaving farmers and officials fearful that a predicted
weaker-than-average southwest monsoon season will
exacerbate the situation.
1t is not looking very good,2 warned 3a)ith
4unyawardena, chief climatologist at the department of
agriculture, pointing out that the main rice harvesting
season, which concluded in %pril, recorded a loss of 5.
percent compared to last year.
%ccording to a recent update from the 6ood and %griculture "rganisation of the 7nited
ations 86%"9, Sri Lanka only produced #.+ million metric tons of paddy during the
main harvest in #$5+, compared to around #.: million last year.
;he 6%" predicted that overall paddy output on the island in #$5+ was likely to record
a 5< percent loss from the previous year, with an expected production of =.: million
metric tons * eight percent less than the five-year average yield since #$5+.
'eerakkodiarchchilage 4remadasa, a farmer from ;hanamalvila in Sri Lankas
southeastern 7va province, told 14S he had already lost half of his two acres of paddy
to the drought. >1f the rains dont come, or are too weak, 1 will have to mortgage the
house,2 he said.
0igh demand and predictions of further losses pushed rice prices up by #= percent
this past %pril.
(eanwhile, a report compiled last month by the 'orld 6ood 4rogramme 8'649,
together with Sri Lankas ministries of economic development and disaster
management, detailed the countrys precarious situation vis-?-vis erratic weather,
including the droughts potential impact on food security and livelihoods.
1n affected regions across the northern, eastern and northwestern provinces, over
.,:,$$$ persons out of a total population of :.= million have been identified as food
insecure, double the #$5= figure. 1n addition, 5: percent of all households in over 5/
districts in those same regions were consuming low-calorie diets.
The problem is that
this is not a one-off
drought, this is the
third big drought in
three years." -- Rajith
Punyawardena, chief
climatologist at the
department of
"ver ,. percent of the affected population are farmers who rely heavily on irrigated
water for their livelihoods and daily subsistence. %n unbroken string of extreme
weather events since #$55 has heightened food insecurity and severely impacted
rural populations resilience to natural disasters like droughts and floods, the report
@xperts say the northern province, which accounts for 5$ percent of the national
paddy harvest, is particularly vulnerable. 1t lost over ,$ percent of an estimated
=$$,$$$-metric-ton harvest in %pril, according to Sivapathan Sivakumar, the provincial
director for agriculture.
0aving borne the brunt of the islands protracted civil conflict, which finally closed its
bloody =$-year chapter in #$$<, the people here have shouldered about as much
hardship as they can take. % possible debt-trap, caused by repeated losses in harvest,
has them on the edge, Sivakumar added.
'e have to come up with a ma)or assistance plan to help them,2 the official told 14S.
%ccording to the )oint '64-governmental report, the northern districts of (ullaitivu and
Ailinochchi have been hardest hit, with +< percent and =5 percent of their respective
populations identified as food insecure as a result of drought.
7rgent need for national planning
;hose who are monitoring the situation say the drought will bring more than )ust
hunger. %lready food shortages are taking a disproportionate toll on low-income
households, who have no safety net against harvest losses and rising prices.
1n the districts surveyed by the '64, a full /$ percent of households were spending
over ,/ percent of their monthly income, about #$ dollars, on food.
4overty levels in these areas are also rising, with families reporting damage to
agricultural land, limited employment opportunities as a result of scarce yields and
significant reductions to their income.
;he average income in these areas is reported to be =. percent lower than the
national poverty line Bof #< dollarsC for the month of (arch,2 the report found.
1n some areas, there was a big gap between expected income and actual income. 1n
the northwestern Aurunegala district, a relatively rich region, actual income was .,
dollars, :5 percent below the expected income of 5<$ dollars.
1n the northern Davuniya district, actual income for the month of %pril was ,. percent
below expected income.
;he '64 has recommended the immediate commencements of six months of
emergency assistance to the worst affected populations, but officials say this is easier
said than done.
;he problem is that this is not a one-off drought, this is the third big drought in three
years,2 4unyawardena told 14S. >'e need a national plan to assess and deal with the
impact of extreme weather events.2
% drought between Eecember #$55 and "ctober #$5# affected 5.: million people in
the same regions currently enduring the dry spell, according to assessments by the
1nternational 6ederation of 3ed Cross and 3ed Crescent Societies. Euring that time,
total harvest losses were feared to be between 5/ and #$ percent.
So far, the only drought-related move has come from the ministry of agriculture, which
has recommended that =/ percent of the ..<,$$$ hectares of land under paddy
cultivation be used for crops that re&uire less water.
Fut 4unyawardena believes that paddy farmers steeped in traditional farming
practices are unlikely to change their methods or crops &uickly. Such a move, he said,
>needs time and a bit more work.2
%s 4remadasa, the farmer from the 7va province, pointed out, >6armers like me need
advice at the start of the planting season so we can plan accordingly. 'e get some
information, but we need more detailed updates.2
Similar long-term planning will also be re&uired to cushion the blow a weak monsoon
could deliver to the countrys energy sector.
;he Ceylon @lectricity Foard reported that as of the last week of (ay, hydro power
was only meeting 55.: percent of the countrys energy needs, compared to +, percent
during previous monsoon seasons.
'ater experts told 14S there is an urgent need for an integrated national water
management policy that takes note of fluctuating rain patterns.
1t will allow for national-level planning of water resources, identifying and prioritising
needs and acting accordingly,2 Ausum %tukorale, who chairs the Sri Lanka 'ater
4artnership, told 14S.
Such a policy, she said, would allow for the kind of countrywide planning that is
woefully lacking right now.
7ntil the government puts its best foot forward, the people of Sri Lanka can do little
more than look to the skies and pray for the rain to fall.