Eastern Sri Lanka reeling from weather extremes



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28 Sep 2011 14:36

Source: alertnet

// Amantha Perera

A worker walks among rice paddies in Sri Lanka. ALERTNET/Amantha Perera

By Amantha Perera

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AlertNet) – Eight months back, Ponnambalam Thanesvaran was not only using a boat to get to work, but wearing a life-jacket for fear of being swept away by raging flood waters.

On two occasions in January and February, Thanesvaran, a government agent for Verugal Division – a remote area in eastern Sri Lanka – found himself surrounded by flood waters for close to two weeks, along with his staff and the small population he served as the top public official.

Between  December 2010 and early  February, the region, about 270 km (170 miles) from the capital Colombo, received a year’s worth of rain.

The situation could not be more different now.

Thanesvaran once again feels trapped – but this time by a growing expanse of parched desert.

“There has been no rain here of any significance since the February floods,” Thanesvaran told AlertNet. His main task these days is transporting badly needed water to remote villages.

Meanwhile, about 200 km (125 miles) south of Thanesvaran, in the Thanamallvilla area, Modestus Fernando, a Catholic priest who runs a children’s home is facing similar problems.

Villagers, desperate for water, now dig large holes in the dry riverbed, submerge metal drums with open bottoms and wait overnight for water to seep in.

“Some even guard them overnight. That is how we bathe here now,” Fernando said.

THREAT TO RICE

Eastern Sri Lanka is experiencing wild swings in rain patterns, a change experts link to climate change. Because the eastern and central regions of Sri Lanka are considered the island’s granary, the changes could have a huge impact on rice production.

During the floods, Thanesvaran’s village lost over 7,000 acres of rice crop, and in the adjoining Batticaloa district the entire harvest was lost, according to the Agriculture Department. It calculated total losses from the floods at around 700,000 metric tons, out of an estimated harvest of 2.7 m metric tons.

Experts now say more attention needs to be paid to the effects of climate change on rice harvests and action must be taken to minimize the effects.

“Paddy is the major crop and very important for the food security in the country,” said Amila Balasuriya, a researcher with the Poverty Impact Monitoring Programme at the Centre For Poverty Alternatives (CEPA), an independent Sri Lankan research organistion.

There are over 800,000 rice farmers in the country, Balasuriya said.

One of the biggest obstacles to recommending effective interventions is the erratic nature of rainfall in Sri Lanka, said Nimal Dissanayake, director general of the Rice Research and Development Institute (RRDI).

These days, “it is either floods or drought, nothing in moderation,” he told AlertNet.

VARIABLE MONSOONS

Data gathered by the Ministry of Agriculture shows that there have been large variations recorded in the last 50 years in the rainfall patterns of the northeast monsoon – the lifeblood of Sri Lanka’s main rice harvesting season.

Research carried out by CEPA showed that the number of prolonged drought periods, as experienced in Sri Lanka’s east currently, are also growing, as are the periods where temperatures exceed 35 degrees Celsius.

These high temperatures, which result in low rice yields, normally occur during the secondary rice harvesting season between April and September.

This year, an early large shortfall of rice, as a result of the flood-affected first harvest, is expected to be made up with a bumper second-crop harvest that is expected to be 40 percent above the average of the last five years, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

CEPA’s Balasuriya said one of the first steps toward ensuring food security in rice in Sri Lanka should be to popularise fast-growing rice varieties that have been developed by the RRDI.

Government authorities and specialists have discussed the possible impact of climate change on national agriculture, Balasuriya said. However, the lack of an implementing agency to coordinate activities among different ministries is hampering quick action, he said.

“(We need) better coordination among the institutions,” the researcher said.

Amantha Perera is a freelance writer based in Sri Lanka. 

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