Climate Change, the Sri Lankan Farmer’s nightmare

10 Mar

“Vaanmuhil valaathu peiha…”

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May the rains fall correctly in the right seasons… goes an ancient Tamil prayer. The Tamils have always been an agrarian community and still are, in most areas of Sri Lanka and India. The rains however did not fall ‘correctly’ this season.  Drought has hit Sri Lanka and the worst hit areas are the North and East.

“Our harvest this season has been particularly bad due to the drought. We are very far from our targeted achievement in harvest outputs and fear food insecurity. However we are confident the Central Government will step in to supply the deficit,” says P. Ayngaranesan, Minister of Agriculture of the Northern Provincial Council.

The Minister of Agriculture of the Central Government, Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena is not worried. “We have enough bumper stocks to supply the shortfall already. We don’t foresee the need to even import, at the moment,” he said.

Sri Lanka is usually self-sufficient in its rice production although it both imports and exports rice. According to a recent report released by the Socio Economics and Planning Center of the Department of Agriculture, if the next paddy season (May- September) is normal, there will be enough from this year’s harvests alone to feed the nation till the end of January 2015. If the next season falls to the worst levels forecast, the combined harvests would still be enough to feed the nation till early December 2014, they maintain.

In the North however, rice prices have already started to rise steeply. A kilogram of parboiled red rice, traditionally consumed in Jaffna is now Rs. 89 as opposed to Rs.65 just a month ago. According to P.Ayngaranesan, his ministry is taking steps to avert exorbitant price hikes by buying up all the harvested grain through the state’s co-operative stores. The idea is to enforce price controls.
“However the initiative is not as successful as we had hoped. During the war years, the Northern co-operatives made a name for themselves as corrupt so the Government Agents refused to release funds to them to buy paddy when requested. I have been in talks with the GAs however, and they are slowly releasing funds now, which means we are buying the rice but not as much and as fast as we had hoped,” says Ayngaranesan.

He said they might try to cap the price at Rs.90/kg but were reluctant to take that measure as yet, because traders might get used to that ceiling price and not bring it back down even if the potential shortfall was made up for. “We also don’t want to fear-monger in case it gives rise to hoarding of the rice by the traders – which thankfully hasn’t happened yet,” he added.

 Rice bowl of the North

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The worst hit district is Mannar, the ‘rice-bowl’ of the North, which for some years now has been a ‘begging-bowl’. Unfortunately for Mannar, it is situated such that both extremes of flood and drought affect it the worst.

“Mannar is dependant on outside water; rains from Anuradhapura and Vavuniya fill our Giants Tank (a major reservoir). So if there is no rain, we have no tank water. Conversely if there is too much rain, our province gets the most flooded. We are the basin into which the surrounding area’s waters flow,” says P.Atputhachandran, Deputy Director of Agriculture (DDA), Mannar district.

According to him, 15,154 hectares was the target to be cultivated around the Giants tank area but only 2000 of it was achieved. Most farmers seeing the drought conditions either didn’t cultivate or gave up half-way. The total target area of cultivation in Mannar was 20,815 hectares, out of which only 4800 were actually cultivated. Of those cultivated, farmers reported only a 25 percent yield across some of the worst hit areas. They however mostly said that this was enough to recover costs if not profits, so they hadn’t ‘lost’ anything.

An Aid worker in the area didn’t agree. “They are only thinking of their material input costs, not they and their family’s labour costs, when saying there was no loss.”

Quite a few farming families (and these are the worst affected) have only 1-2 acres of paddy-land and depended on quite a bit of their produce for their own consumption, thus taking care of a significant portion of their food expenditure. Those who didn’t cultivate at all fearing the drought or those who gave up half-way are now dependant on store-bought rice. The price being likely to increase steeply is going to affect them badly.

The fields dependant on rain alone for their water have frazzled. However, farmers who had access to irrigation from tanks or wells, reported that the 25 percent yield was enough for their own consumption. “Usually I could expect 40 sacks of rice (50kg per sack on average) from one acre of land. This time the returns were 11 sacks per acre. Considering that I nearly gave up half-way and didn’t apply weedicide and pesticide as needed, the yield is better than what I had expected,” said one farmer.

On the ground, the people of Mannar, a hardy lot, are not panicking. Farmers who had not cultivated or lost their cultivation shrugged when asked about their food security. “We will just have to buy from the market, what to do?” Asked if they had sufficient income to buy from the market they shrugged again and smiled.

“Debt has become a way of life to these people” says another Aid worker familiar with the terrain. “As to why they don’t appear devastated, it could be the shock of trauma or resilience after too much trauma; it is hard to say. They have been through a brutal war, came back with nothing to a devastated landscape and have been consistently hit with droughts and floods since resettling. They are past the stage of wailing about their problems.”

While Aid agencies working in the sector fear for the food security of the more vulnerable farmers, there are yet farmers who also reported profits, and scoffed at the lack of initiative of others dependant only on rain. “I spent my own money to put in a well on four acres of land I lease,” said Yogaraja, from Vattakandal, Mannar. “That was a good investment. I managed to water my fields adequately and expect a profit of Rs.30,000 per acre. Farmers whinging about rains failing are too used to NGO hand-outs.”

Others didn’t agree. V.Malliganthan, an agri-expert working in the area noted that this farmer was in the vicinity of a feeder tank of Giant’s tank. People who didn’t have access to tank water like these have had to suffer.

Consumption Patterns

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Rice is the staple food of the area, and that is not likely to change. “Many families are used to cultivating at least their own consumption’s worth of yearly rice. The poorer families consume only rice & curry for their three meals a day as it is often the cheapest option. Now that the crops have failed and they have to buy from the market, it is still unlikely that they will shift to another food. What is out there cheaper than rice, to act as a substitute?” noted one social worker.

While there might not be other food products cheaper than rice at the moment, within rice itself, there are varying varieties with differing prices. However, it is not foreseen that the people, known to be stuck in their ways would change their consumption patterns.

“There are rice varieties that can be grown in 2 – 2.5 months instead of the current 3.5 – 4 month varieties we are used to,” says Shaila Banu, the Deputy Director of Agriculture (DDA), Vavuniya district. “The government is recommending we grow the shorter-term varieties for the next season as they would require less water. However our people are used to red rice and will not easily change their consumption pattern.”

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Even in Mannar, which harvests a variety of hybrid rice, their DDA does not think a change is possible in the short term. “For some decades now, we have switched to hybrid rice due to their better yields,” says P.Atputhachandran, the Mannar DDA. “In Jaffna for example, they still cultivate the traditional red rice breeds of Mottakaruppan and Murunkan, which are more drought resistant. So they fared better than us. The government told us to cultivate the shorter term rice too but farmers are still going for the 3.5 month keeri samba (hybrid white rice) which they are used to now, for their consumption.”

Short term rice is not the only option the government is offering either. It is also urging farmers to switch to other crops like blackgram and cowpea for the next season.  In the meantime, it has also come up with another innovation; an intermediate paddy season.

“Traditionally we have only two seasons. The Maha bhogam (major season) from October to January and Sirrum bhogam (small season) from May to August says Atputhachandran. “Some rains have fallen recently however and the water thus collected might evaporate from the tanks if we wait till May, so the government is introducing an ‘idda bhogam’ (intermediate season). We have given seed paddy to farmers to start planting on the 25th of this month (March) to take advantage of what available water there is.”

Spectre of Climate Change

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As the seasons come and go, only one thing is loomingly clear; climate change. Many a Northern farmer, even knowing that the season was bad, celebrated Thai Pongal, the mid January harvest festival in their temples and fields. Thai Pongal, a centuries old agrarian Tamil festival is supposed to occur well after harvest. Instead, it now falls well before harvest. To some Northerners, this is a good indication of climate change having taken place over centuries.

According to Professor Mihunthan, Senior lecturer of the Faculty of Agriculture, Jaffna University, climate change is a huge problem affecting the agri-sector of Sri Lanka. “Climate change is a global phenomenon, not a Sri Lankan phenomenon; but the problem is, we are far behind many other countries in developing scientists and technology to combat the issue. Today, agriculture can’t be done other than in conjunction with meteorology and climatology. In Tamil Nadu for example, climate scientists forecast to their farmers what crops to grow for the coming seasons, based on climate patterns, which they are able to predict with 75 percent accuracy. We urgently need services like that here too,” he said.

L.Chandrapala, the Director General of Meteorology however insists that Sri Lanka already has climate scientists working in tandem with the department of Agriculture and other stakeholders to predict seasons. “Every year, we have two Monsoon Forums, held just before the start of each season, to share with relevant stakeholders our findings. The Departments of Agriculture, Irrigation, Electricity and Mahaweli Authority are all invited. It is then their job to pass on the information to the average citizen that they are in charge of,” he said. “And yes, at the last Monsoon forum, we did predict less rainfall than was expected for the season. Sri Lanka receives 30 percent of its rainfall from October to December. Last year, we got only half of that expected 30 percent,” he added.

Water Conservation and the way forward

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Kilinochchi’s famous Iranamadu tank

Badra Kamaladasa, the Director General of Irrigation, contacted for her views, said that Sri Lanka had reached saturation point when it came to major reservoirs, although her department was continuing to help provincial councils build minor tanks around the country. “The only way to combat the problem of drought is to store water but Sri Lanka is a small country with limited land resources. To build a major reservoir would mean to either inundate forest land (which we are not allowed to do anymore) or displace settlements of people.  An idea which we have not explored yet however is the potential to tap into ground water reservoirs, as some other countries have successfully done. Studies have not been done on whether this is feasible for Sri Lanka yet, although we do have a serious problem with water conservation in times of drought.”

Irrigation of tanks comes under the provincial councils and the North recently had a well publicized flare-up from within on the diverting of Iranamadu tank water from Kilinochchi to Jaffna. Jaffna does have reserves of ground water, but they have been heavily polluted – mostly due to indiscriminate use of agrochemicals.

P.Aygaranesan, the Northern Province’s Minister of Agriculture, Livestock, Irrigation and Environment said that it was wrong for the Kilinochchi farmer’s water to be diverted to Jaffna when that farmer was limited already in his farming capacity by the water. ”When we in the government agri-sector actually destroy the excess paddy the kilinochchi farmer plants citing not enough water, we have no right to take the water he already has. We had an expert committee to review this; five of the experts said one thing, ten another. The ten recommended not to tap into Iranamadu, to find another solution. These are problems we have internally in the North but we are working on them and are confident we can find solutions to them.”

In closing, he said that the way forward for the Northern Province was to adopt with the times and engage in the latest technologies of eco-friendly farming; “Especially in farming, the world is changing. There are new systems of irrigation which require less water. New systems of agriculture with less weedicides and agrochemicals, or at least more eco-friendly ones. The solution is to step up and change too instead of stick to what we know of as traditional farming.”

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