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As extreme weather hits harvests, food buffers could help - experts

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 24 Jul 2013 11:00 GMT
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A farmer in Sri Lanka’s central Kurunegala District harvests rice. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Amantha Perera
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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – A wry smile is the only answer  Mudiyanselage Punchibanda gives these days when asked how much harvest he expects from his rice paddy.

Punchibanda has made a living from rice farming for nearly 30 years, all of it coming from a half-acre (0.2 hectare) plot he owns in Pinnamankada, the remote village where he lives in northern Polonnaruwa district, about 240 km (150 miles) from Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital.

A few years back, the 47-year-old farmer could readily give a figure of 1,500-2,000 kg of paddy rice each a year.

“Now I can’t. I have no idea how the weather will turn and impact the harvest,” he said.

In the last three years Punchibanda has been at the receiving end of wildly changing monsoon rain patterns. In early 2011, he lost his entire harvest to massive floods. He recovered by mid-2011, when higher than usual rainfall allowed him to irrigate a bumper harvest. But in 2012, he suffered again through a 10-month drought.

Although Punchibanda’s family of four never went hungry, he remains in debt to local money lenders for 40,000 Sri Lankan rupees (about $300) and has had to mortgage his land.

Now he once more anticipates that his harvest will be good.

“But you never know: the weather keeps changing, like a chameleon keeps changing his colours,” Punchibanda said.

PRODUCTION UP AND DOWN WITH THE WEATHER

The farmer’s fluctuating harvests are reflected on a national level, where rice production has moved up and down depending on the weather, according to experts.

“The farmers bear the brunt of the impact of unpredictable weather patterns, more so when most of them depend on the harvest as their main annual income,” said L.P. Rupasena, deputy director of research at the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Training and Research Institute in Colombo.

While rice farmers constitute a large number of those bearing the losses, others also fall victim to the weather, Rupasena said.

Vegetable farmers around the town of Tanamalvilla in the country’s southeast, had to postpone planting for six months between April and October last year because the expected rains were repeatedly delayed.

In 2012 the overall rice harvest fell by 6 to 10 percent because of losses suffered in the middle of the year due to drought and, later on, floods. This year the overall harvest is predicted to be good, thanks to the availability of water and the favourable weather.

“Assuming normal weather during the secondary season, the 2013 aggregate paddy production is anticipated at 4.1 million tonnes,” the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation said in its latest update on Sri Lanka.

BOOSTING BUFFER STOCKS?

Experts like Rupasena now advocate a more effective use of buffer stocks and the adoption of climate-resistant crop varieties to ease the vagaries caused by changing weather patterns.

The state-owned Paddy Marketing Board currently maintains rice stocks sufficient for about a month in case of emergency. But Rupasena thinks this is inadequate.

“If you are to use the buffer stocks to maintain market stability and food security, then the stocks have to be larger,” he said, adding that Sri Lanka could look at the way India uses its buffer stocks to keep prices and supplies stable.

Rupasena pointed out that rice prices still remain high due to last year’s losses, despite predictions of a good harvest this year. Buffer stocks could help temper price extremes, he said.

“Buffer stocks can have an immediate impact on prices,” he said.

The use of climate-resistant varieties of rice is not very widespread in Sri Lanka, where farmers like Punchibanda still prefer traditional varieties. Scientists at the Rice Research Institute say that the climate-resilient varieties need more testing by farmers in real-life to gauge their true potential.

CROP INSURANCE

For the time being, the government has this year launched a crop insurance scheme worth 1 billion Sri Lankan rupees ($7.6 million) against losses due to natural disasters. Funds from for the scheme come from a national corporation tax and a small levy on fertiliser.

The insurance is expected to cover around 100,000 farmers against losses.

Recent research has shown that Sri Lanka will have to contend with still greater impacts of changing weather patterns in the future.

“In South Asia, climate change shocks to food production and seasonal water availability appear likely to confront populations with ongoing and multiple challenges,” a recent World Bank report warned.

Parts of South Asia, including Sri Lanka, are likely to experience extremely warm months during the dry season, the report said.

According to Darshani De Silva, an environment specialist at the World Bank, while awareness of changing climate patterns is increasing in countries like Sri Lanka, policy changes lag behind.

“Countries have been taking note of the issue for at least a decade or so, but (it has) never been at the right level of decision-making. This is where a change in thinking is immediately needed. Climate change impacts and variability should be integrated into macroeconomic projections,” she said.

Rupasena feels that it is the lack of such action that leaves poor farmers like Punchibanda at nature’s mercy over and over again.

“If you want to tackle this problem, then you have to change as fast as climate is changing, preferably faster,” he said.

Amantha Perera is a freelance writer based in Sri Lanka.

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