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Extreme weather forces Sri Lankans to rethink rice farming

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Fri, 18 Jan 2013 07:39 AM
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p>COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AlertNet) – The year’s end is usually a good time for wholesale rice suppliers in Sri Lanka. Customers are busy stocking up, particularly in wealthier urban areas like the capital, Colombo.

But for two years running now, some suppliers have struggled to keep enough rice on hand as the year draws to a close. Changing weather patterns – including droughts and flooding, and at times both in one year – mean supplies are increasingly uncertain.

“The weather has been so fickle that paddy harvests keep going up and down without any warning,” said one rice supplier at the Welisara wholesale supply centre, just north of Colombo.

The problems are affecting rice farmers as well – one reason an increasing number of them are now looking at adopting resistant varieties and even new growing cycles to accommodate the changes in climate patterns.

DROUGHT, THEN FLOODS

During the last half of 2012, predictions for Sri Lanka’s rice harvest were downgraded twice. In August, a mid-year assessment by the Socioeconomic Planning Centre of the Department of Agriculture warned that a 10-month drought was likely to result in at least 23 percent of an estimated secondary rice harvest of around 1.5m tonnes being lost.

Then rain finally came in early November, but rather than simply putting an end to the drought it brought two floods during the last two months of the year. The North, North Central, Eastern and North Western Provinces, all vital rice producing regions, were affected, with nearly 700,000 people cut off by the floodwaters and at least 52 killed.

Damages to crops as a result of the flooding are yet to be calculated, but reports from regional agriculture offices suggest they are likely to be significant.

In the north-central Polonnaruwa district, which accounts for between 15 and 20 percent of the country’s total rice production, fields have gone under water at least three times since early November. According to I.W.A. Imbullgodda, assistant director of the Department of Agriculture’s district office in Polonnaruwa, more than 10 percent of all cultivated paddy land in the district has been damaged.

“Now there is the very real threat of disease spreading (among the plants) because fields have been soggy for so long,” Imbullgodda said.

Similar crop damage assessments have been reported in the north-western district of Mannar, popularly referred to as the Rice Bowl of the North.

These harvest losses due to extreme weather are forcing farmers to take a serious look at adopting resilient varieties of rice seed and changing the traditional harvest cycle – something they have until now been reluctant to do.

'WE CANNOT GO ON'

“We cannot go on taking these kind of losses. We have to make some changes, otherwise we will go out of business,” said Muthubanda Karunaratane, a farmer from Polonnaruwa.

Perhaps the biggest impediment he faces is the weight of tradition and experience. For most of his four decades as a rice farmer, Karunaratane has cultivated according to the two customary cycles of planting and harvesting – one running from September to March and the other from May to August. Both depend on the monsoon rains.

“I am used to planting soon after the rains and harvesting as the dry months set in,” Karunaratane said.

That is proving less and less effective, he and other farmers say. But changing the cycles and giving up old varieties isn’t easy.

“The main issue has been (that) farmers are used to this planting cycle because that is how the wholesale buyers’ market works,” said Nimal Dissanayake, director of the Rice Research Institute.

In terms of other available crops, “there are varieties that will mature in 70 to 80 days, or can withstand longer spells under water or without water, but farmers have to begin to use them,” he emphasized.

Imbullgodda said one of the problems contributing to flooding of rice fields is the expansion of cultivation into every available nook.

“The fields become waterlogged because the embankments used for water runoff have been filled up and planted,” he said. “Farming needs to become much more scientific if it’s to withstand changing climate patterns.”

Dissanayake is confident that farmers like Karunaratane who have resisted changing harvest cycles or adapting newer seed varieties will come around to the new ideas.

“The current spate of harvest losses due to bad weather maybe is the best thing to happen,” he said. “No one can now deny that we need change and we need it fast.”

Amantha Perera is a freelance writer based in Sri Lanka.

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