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Sri Lankan farmers use traditional rice to beat salinity

Sep 08, 2008

In coastal and inland areas of Sri Lanka, soil salinity caused by climate change is increasingly causing problems for crops. Farmers instead of cultivating hybrid rice are now trying out the indigenous varieties, which are better suited to saline conditions.

Kattakaduwa: Rohana Rosairo has hung a sprig of paddy rice over his front door, a good omen for prosperity from the first harvest he reaped a few weeks ago from a long unused field.


Rosairo's field, across a dirt track from his home, was just a mass of weeds until April when he cleared the plot and planted seed paddy.

"My father used to grow rice here, but he stopped a long time ago," he said. High salinity levels had made growing rice difficult.

Like Rosairo, nine other men in the northwestern district of Puttalam decided to farm ancestral land that had not been cultivated for over 25 years.

They are all fishermen who usually ply the nearby Puttalam lagoon but found the irregular livelihood insufficient to sustain their families. The would-be farmers qualified for assistance from the UN Development Programme (UNDP) through a disaster management project supported by France.

"Our objective is to find out what crop varieties can be cultivated under climate stress situations such as soil salinity," said Ramitha Wijethunga, UNDP's national programme officer for disaster management. "Based on the results here, we will promote this type of mitigation practice in other parts of the island."

Hardier than hybrids

The underlying premise is that indigenous strains of paddy rice are hardier than the newer hybrid varieties grown island-wide, making them better suited to the saline conditions prevalent in areas where rainfall is low.

Soil salination caused by climate change is on the rise both in coastal and inland areas of Sri Lanka and many farmers have abandoned once lush fields.

The National Federation for the Conservation of Traditional Seeds and Agricultural Resources provided four types of rice with which the farmers of Kattakaduwa could experiment. The grains were selected for being more resistant to insects and disease than the hybrids. They also respond well to organic fertilisers, making the farmers less dependent on costly chemical inputs.

Farmers were advised that although yields would be comparatively lower, the less common varieties, which are considered more nutritious, would command higher prices.

However, not all the farmers enjoyed Rosairo's success. He harvested 34 kg from his quarter-acre field while others had much less. "Some of them did not sow at the right time, some planted the seeds too closely, some used too much fertiliser," said district disaster management officer, Subashini Abeysinghe.

"We made many mistakes because we were farming for the first time," agreed Amalraj Anthony. "But our biggest problem was getting water at the right time."

The district falls in the island's dry zone and water is in perennial short supply. Small ponds provided a source but eventually dried up in the searing heat. Costs ballooned when the farmers had to hire diesel pumps to draw underground water.

In the next stage of the project, UNDP will support the farmers' efforts to have their irrigation ponds deepened.

"We are keen to plant in the next season too because we feel that we can get a good income by growing rice. But without water, we can't do anything much," Rosairo told IRIN. The agency also plans to promote salt-resistant vegetables to be interspersed with rice.

Agronomists have noted that established crop cycles have been disrupted by changes in rainfall patters, rising temperatures and more frequent droughts that also contribute to making the soil more saline.

In addition, annual sea surges during storms and the December 2004 tsunami dumped salt water on arable coastal land. UNDP hopes the project will be a model for managing at least one of the effects of climate change.

Source : IRIN
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