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Erratic monsoon keeps a parched Sri Lanka guessing

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Thu, 24 Apr 2014 08:02 GMT
cli-wea hum-nat cli-ada
A feeble monsoon in 2014 would hit Sri Lank’s staple rice production hard. Dry weather has already resulted in 7 percent of the harvest being lost. PHOTO/Amantha Perera
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COLOMBO (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Warm April weather is nothing new in Sri Lanka. Over generations, Sri Lankans have become accustomed to temperatures of up to 34 degrees Celsius during this month, when the sun moves directly overhead. They also know from experience that the baking heat will soon be eased by the arrival of the monsoon in May.

But this once-predictable cycle is changing. Weather experts, government officials, farmers and ordinary people seem unsure as to what the monsoon season is likely to bring this year.

While some updates from the Meteorological Department suggest the current dry spell will be broken soon, other experts and some government officials have warned the rains will not be enough to head off drought.

The government has yet to officially declare a drought, but Badra Kamaladasa, director general of the Department of Irrigation, told Thomson Reuters Foundation this week that Sri Lanka “is in a drought situation”.

On Wednesday, the South Asian Climate Outlook Forum, a group of global weather experts affiliated to the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), said monsoon rains could be below average in Sri Lanka and other parts of South Asia this year, if the El Nino weather pattern gains strength during the four-month monsoon season.

The WMO assessed earlier this month that an El Nino could develop around the middle of the year.

Some in Sri Lanka have proposed drastic action such as limiting the extent of paddy cultivation in an effort to reduce potential harvest losses.

“The difficulty in planning ahead is (that) no one is quite clear how much rain the monsoon will bring. Unfortunately harvesting plans cannot be changed in a day or two - that needs months of preparations,” said Ranjith Punyawardena, chief climatologist at the Department of Agriculture.

HARD HABITS TO BREAK

Weerakkodi Arrachchilage Premadasa, a farmer from the southeastern region of Tanamalvilla, about 250 km (160 miles) from the capital, Colombo, said he had suffered heavy losses in the past few years due to erratic rains.

In 2011, Premadasa lost the better part of his rice paddy due to drought, while in 2012 his 1-acre (0.4-hectare) plot was ruinously flooded by heavy rains.

“By the time we realise whether the rains are low or above-average, it is always too late. We need better weather forecasts and well in advance,” he said.

Around 350,000 tonnes, or 7 percent, of the annual rice harvest has been lost this season. The agriculture department has recommended a reduction of around 30 percent (120,000 hectares or 30,000 acres) in the area of paddy planted in an effort to limit further losses.

The department wants farmers to plant other crops like onions and potatoes that do not require large amounts of water.

“The problem is that - like most things to do with paddy - what they plant (and) when they plant is always tradition-based, and it is very hard to break (these habits), even with the potential of heavy losses,” climatologist Punyawardena said.

The government has introduced price controls to stabilise rising rice prices.

According to the Department of Census and Statistics, one third of Sri Lanka’s labour force of 8.6 million people derives its income from agriculture. Already at least 200,000 families have been affected by the lack of rains since November 2013.

The irrigation department said only one of 73 major irrigation reservoirs in the country was full by mid-April. Kamaladasa noted that reservoir levels are very low for the time of year, compared to average figures.

THREAT TO CASH CROPS, HYDRO-POWER

Key cash crops such as tea, coconut and rubber, also stand to suffer damages if the rains fail.

Ranga Pallawala, a board member of Climate Action Network South Asia, an alliance of over 100 civil society groups, said tea plantations have been forced to use water brought in by tankers for the first time this year.

“Tea is not an irrigated crop - it has always been cultivated using available water,” he said.

Tea exports reached over $1.5 billion in 2013, and according to Pallawala, more than 2 million Sri Lankans depend on revenue from the industry. Some plantation companies are predicting losses of above 40 percent of their annual harvest, he added.

Coconut plantations, meanwhile, have reported that palms are dying due to the dry weather.

“That is something that has been unheard of in the past,” said Pallawala. “Coconut is usually resilient against prolonged dry periods.”

The power sector is also worried about the negative impact of the unreliable monsoon.

“Rains play a major role in power production, because a large portion of that is dependent on hydro-generation,” said Asoka Abeygunawardana, executive director of the Sri Lanka Energy Forum and an advisor to the Ministry of Technology.

As of the third week of April, the Ceylon Electricity Board said only 11 percent of power generation was coming from hydro sources, and it was relying on expensive coal and furnace oil for the remainder.

The government normally aims to generate at least 50 percent of the country’s power requirements through hydro.

CONTINGENCY PLANNING

Experts say the monsoon has been erratic for a few years now. In the three seasons between 2010 and 2012, the main May-September monsoon fluctuated wildly. In Colombo, annual rainfall was 3,370 mm in 2010, falling to 1,774 mm in 2011 and rising to 2,465 mm in 2012.

Statistics issued by the Central Bank of Sri Lanka show that rainfall figures have become less stable over the past decade.

“We should plan ahead because weather and climate has serious impacts across human activities, and one can do better at managing the risk of extreme events if forewarned,” said Lareef Zubair, principal scientist at the Foundation for Environment, Climate and Technology Sri Lanka, a national think-tank.

Other experts suggested that fiscal planners should set aside contingency funds that can be used in the case of extreme weather events like failure of the monsoon.

“If you don’t need the funds in a given year, you can simply transfer them to the next. What we have seen in the past is that better planning eases impact,” said Sarath Lal Kumara, director of the government’s Disaster Management Centre.

Amantha Perera is a freelance writer based in Sri Lanka. He can be followed on Twitter at @AmanthaP 

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