Oct 05, 2009
The people of Sri Lanka are battling the drastic effects of changing weather patterns. Some parts of the country are severely crippled by a heavy monsoon, while others are in the grip of water scarcity and drought, writes Amantha Perera.
Colombo: As the world awaits with bated breath the much-anticipated outcome of the upcoming Copenhagen Climate Change Summit in December, the impact of which will reverberate across the globe, Sri Lanka, like many other countries, has been reeling under sharply contrasting weather conditions.
That is, parts of the island have been experiencing high rainfall, especially on the western side, while others, towards the southeast, are still baking under the stress of over six months of drought.
Suduwella Ariyarathana, a paddy farmer in Ampara district in the southeast, was forced to rejig his cultivation schedule due to lack of water. “I only got water for 15 days. We had to accelerate all other work like putting fertilizer, insecticide. I am lucky if I get even half of the yield I got last year.”
He fears that he might incur more loses because he has to buy seed paddy to cultivate the next season’s crops, since the drought has resulted in poor harvest, and he does not have enough crops to set aside as seed. Ariyarathana said the failed harvest would not allow him to leave aside the paddy needed as seed.
Late September into October is an important period for the northern and eastern parts of Sri Lanka. It has been so for generations. That is when the north eastern monsoon roars in from the Bay of Bengal and brings with it life-saving rains.
The rains bring relief from the months of scorching sun, the dust and the heat. Farmers would set fire to their land, turn over the earth, repair earth bunds and wait for the rains.
Others would wait anxiously for the first dark clouds to gather over the horizon, knowing full well that any failure or delay could mean drastic changes to their lives.
This year, however, the rains are a mixed bag. While those in the southern parts of the eastern province would welcome the rains, having been hit by one of the worst droughts in recent history, others in the northern parts of the country are jittery that the rains could result in floods in massive camps that hold over 260,000 civilians displaced by the last bout of fighting that finally ended Sri Lanka’s two and a half decades of ethnic war.
The war ended in May when government forces crushed the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) with the death of its leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran.
Around mid-August heavy rains that poured over Vavuniya and Mannar districts caused flash floods in the camps, flooding some low-lying areas and toilets. The floods quickly eased, but fears have persisted that the monsoon that brings with it more intense rains could be extremely difficult to handle.
This situation contrasts sharply with Ariyarathana’s district, located 300 kilometres east of the capital Colombo, hit by a six-month drought. The last major rains that came to Ampara in April failed to deliver substantial waterfall.
According to the Meteorological Department, Ampara received about 490 millimetres of rain in the first nine months of this year – a drop of nearly 300 mm compared to last year.
"That is a big drop; it is a cyclic drop in rainfall, but still it has had a really big effect," said Ranjith Jayasekera, the department’s district director for Ampara.
“The weather patterns have changed dramatically due to climate changes, and we haven’t even factored in the full impact of these drastic changes,” he said.
Most of the reservoirs and irrigation canals have run dry in the district. The main reservoir in the district – the Senanyake Samudraya – is less than eight percent full, making it difficult to release water for human consumption, let alone for agriculture in one of Sri Lanka’s main rice- and sugar cane-growing districts.
Water retention tanks and canals in the district hold less than 10 percent of water, according to Saman Weerasinghe, the district engineer for Ampara for the Irrigation Department, the government authority overseeing reservoirs and release of water. “We have to wait till the monsoon sets in to release water for agriculture,” he said.
Water scarcity is having a serious impact on the farmers in Ampara, and Ariyarathana is not alone in his dilemma. Other farmers in the district were forced to shift to growing vegetables when the rains failed.
“I started to grow pumpkin and gherkin when my paddy failed. They are much more resistant to drought, but very expensive,” said Paragahakale Gunasekera. He has used water drawn from pumps and pesticides to make sure the weakened crop does not easily fall prey to insects.
“They cost money. You can do this for one harvest cycle, but more than that will be too expensive.”
With the scarcity of drinking water, some people have resorted to buying water from sellers who travel to jungle areas during early morning hours and collect water from weak sprouts.
Those with wells still containing water hide their buckets in the night to make sure no one draws the precious resource without their knowledge.
All of them are waiting for the rains to change their lousy luck.
Heavy rains create havoc
The opposite could be true of the over 260,000 internally displaced people (IDP) who now remain at welfare camps in the four districts of Vavuniya, Mannar, Trincomalee and Jaffna.
The havoc caused by the August rains has left many of the relief workers assisting the IDPs feeling nervous.
“We have to be prepared for the beginning of the monsoon,” said Mego Terzian, deputy desk manager in Sri Lanka with ‘Medicines Sans Frontieres’ (MSF), in the humanitarian aid organisation’s health update released on September 24. The MSF official fears that the rains will bring "a rise in the number of diarrhoea cases or other waterborne diseases.
MSF has reported high rates of suspected typhoid fever among the IDPs seeking medical attention from them. So far, there has been no major spread of diseases in the welfare camps, which expanded rapidly as civilians fled the war zone in their thousands beginning in December 2008.
The United Nations has warned in its emergency reports that rains could wreak havoc once again in the camps. If rains hit hard, some facilities could be rendered useless, added the international body.
Climate change and the weather
Experts have blamed drastic shifts in weather patterns on climate change.
“While individual storms and floods cannot be linked to climate change, the science is clear that more frequent and more severe extreme weather events are already and will be an increasing consequence of climate change,” said the World Wide Fund, a leading environmental lobby group, in a press statement released on September 28, when the latest round of UN climate change talks opened in Bangkok.
This two-week series of discussions is preparatory to the December summit, which is expected to forge an international climate change agreement that will replace the Kyoto Protocol.
While more concrete efforts are being anticipated to address this environmental phenomenon, the UN Country Office in Sri Lanka has given assurances in a situation report released in mid-September that “the shelter and water and sanitation sectors continue to define areas vulnerable to high groundwater and other potential hazards during the monsoon that may require water and sanitation facilities, as well as shelters/tents, to be temporarily or permanently decommissioned.”
“It is also necessary to identify the number of affected IDPs, the Sri Lanka Army’s capacity to relocate them to alternative contingency sites and undertake preparatory works in such locations,” it said.
Heavy preparatory work has already begun to improve the drainage at Menik Farm, the sprawling IDO site with over 240,000 persons, according to the UN.
These are no doubt costly undertakings. Yet the climate costs to individuals like Ariyarathana are even more burdensome, and could become heavier amid increasingly unpredictable weather conditions that refuse to go away.
Not while climate change continues to be a global concern.