Lankan rice farmers buffeted by flood,
drought By Amantha Perera
COLOMBO - Last year was one of extremes
for the small Sri Lankan village of Verugal. Lying
on the island's northeastern coast, Verugal began
the year with incessant rainfall. Between January
and February 2011, the east coast received a
year's worth of rain, which destroyed more than
7,000 hectares of rice crops in Verugal and about
17% of the country's annual rice harvest. Some
villages were cut off for weeks on end.
was working in a life jacket for over two weeks,"
said Ponnabalam Thanesvaran, head of the Verugal
divisional secretariat and the highest-ranking
government official for the region.
as the rains abated around September, Verugal fell
foul of nature's wrath once more, this time
weathering the flip side of the coin: drought.
Thanesvaran told Inter Press Service (IPS) that
between September and
October his main task was providing drinking water
to remote villages, some of which had been cut off
by floods just nine months earlier. "It was
incredible how, within less than a year, we had a
flood and a drought," he observed.
run-up to next month's United Nations Conference
on Sustainable Development, Rio+20, local experts
are pushing for increased efforts to get the
message on changing climate patterns out to the
most affected and least informed populations -
like rice farmers in rural Sri Lanka.
Countrywide pattern Sri Lanka's
rice harvest fell to around 3.9 million tonnes
last year from 4.26 million tonnes in 2010, Nimal
Dissanayake, head of the country's premier Rice
Research and Development Institute (RRDI), told
IPS. The bulk of harvest losses have been
attributed to the floods, but Dissanayake said
drought was also responsible for low yields.
From heavy losses in 2011, the country is
slated to experience a record harvest this year as
extreme weather events ease, the Food and
Agriculture Organization said this month.
"The world rice harvest for 2012 is
expected to surpass the strong showing of 2011 as
the erratic climate conditions caused by La Nina
dissipate and farmers increase their plantings,"
the forecast said.
Thanesvaran told IPS
that many of the farmers in Verugal were expecting
better crops this year, a sentiment similar to
that expressed by others in the adjoining
Polonnaruwa district, which also suffered grave
losses during the floods.
"This time, all
seems well," predicted Karunaratne Gamage, a
farmer from the rice-producing Madirigiriya area
in Polonnaruwa, mainly because weather patterns
have been stable.
But experts like
Dissanayake feel there is adequate research to
indicate that changing weather patterns have
severely impacted rice production in Sri Lanka and
should be dealt with very seriously.
change in rice production has, and will continue
to have, an impact across the country. According
to the Census and Statistics Department, a typical
Sri Lankan household consumes 36 kilograms of rice
per month, making it the single most popular food
item by a wide margin. For rural families, rice is
a staple for all three meals of the day.
Research by the Sri Lanka Foundation for
Environment, Climate and Technology, which carries
out extensive research and analysis on climate
change and its impact on local crops, says the
influence of changing rain patterns on annual rice
yields over the past two decades has been
"significant". Research shows that during the El
Nino/La Nina Southern Oscillation periods, rice
harvests were seen to fluctuate. (Both terms refer
to changes in Pacific Ocean current patterns.)
During the El Nino phase of rising
temperatures, research indicate that rice
production during Sri Lanka's October-March
harvesting season rose, while it fell during the
secondary harvesting season from April-August.
This pattern shifted during the cooler La Nina
phase, resulting in cyclones and floods, not only
in Sri Lanka but in other parts of Asia as well.
Dissanayake believes this is because
farmers in Sri Lanka use rain water for rice and
rely on a weak water management system. "Last
year's secondary harvest was better, because the
flood waters [helped] the planting," he said. "The
problem is that farmers don't understand the
gravity of the situation. They are still used to
waiting for the rains, and for the government to
release water from the reservoirs," he said.
Gamage admitted that, on the ground, there
is limited knowledge of changing climate patterns
and adaptation strategies.
that there is something strange [going on] with
recent weather patterns, but beyond that, there is
not much knowledge or planning [around] possible
The RRDI has developed rice
varieties that can withstand severe weather
changes, but Dissanayake said they are currently
being used only in areas that have been deprived
of water for up to three months. He lamented that
farmers have little or no interest in using new,
weather-resistant strands of rice.
Regardless of rainfall, farmers continue
to use seeds that take up to five months to mature
during the main harvesting season, or three months
during the secondary season.
told IPS that rice was considered a "poor man's
crop", one that brings in meager profits and fails
to attract big business. As a result, "there is
not much money invested in new technologies or
adaptation methods," he said.