PANSALGOLLA, Sri Lanka (AlertNet) – Gamhevage Dayananda, a Sri Lankan rice farmer, used to earn a decent living off his two acres of paddy rice. In January, however, floodwaters destroyed the irrigation network that fed his village’s rice fields, taking his livelihood with them.
Unusually heavy rains battered villages like Pansalgolla, about 250 kilometres east of the capital Colombo, in early January and again in February. During the January deluge, engineers were forced to open the sluice gates on water reservoirs used to irrigate paddy fields after the water in them rose to dangerous levels, threatening the structure of the tanks.
In Pansalgolla, the released water crashed into the village’s irrigation network and flooded paddy fields. A 40-feet-deep ditch, filled with muddy water, now stands in a triangular area where the irrigation channel, a dirt road and rice fields used to be.
Today villagers are forced to cross the ditch on an improvised ferry made of used tar barrels.
“The fields are gone and the water channel is gone. In their place we have a large tank,” said Dayananda, 37.
“I have no means to make an income for one year now,” he added. “The floods have taken away everything. No one warned us that rains would be this big. Usually we rejoice when the rains come, now it is like a mass funeral here.”
The damage to the irrigation network in the small village in Polonnaruwa District is indicative of the havoc wrought on a national scale by the two floods – a problem that could affect rice production and food costs in Sri Lanka, experts say.
Climate scientists and weather experts warn that more extreme weather, such as the heavy rains Sri Lanka received over the last two months – a year’s worth of rain fell between December and February – likely will become more common in the future.
“Global weather patterns are changing and we need to be mindful of them and perhaps take necessary precautions,” said Gunavi Samarasinghe, director of Sri Lanka’s meteorological department, as the floods raged in the country’s east in January.
The destruction of water channels – a lifeline for paddy rice farmers – has been felt hardest in Sri Lanka’s eastern districts of Ampara, Batticaloa, Polonnaruwa and Trincomalee, and north central Anuradhapura District. Referred to as the rice-bowl of the nation, together the districts account for over one fifth of the country’s total paddy land.
Worried about the threat to the country’s rice production, Sri Lanka’s government has said it will cover the estimated $50 million (5 billion rupees) in damage to the region’s reservoir and irrigation network.
Larger reservoirs and networks suffered $30 million in damages while smaller ones suffered around $20 million in damage, Irrigation and Water Resources Management Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva said at a news conference.
“Around 500 tanks have been affected,” he said. The country’s treasury has agreed to release the funds needed for repairs, the minister said.
Irrigation engineers were only beginning to assess the damages to irrigation tanks from the January flooding when the new wave of floods hit this month.
Egalla Sumandasa, regional director of irrigation for Polonnaruwa district, said engineers were left with no choice but to release water in order to save the over-filled reservoirs.
“If a tank (embankment) breaks, it will be a catastrophe. (It would put) thousands of lives at risk and towns and villages too,” he told AlertNet in a phone interview. “When the spill levels were reached, we opened the gates. We had to secure the tanks, sacrificing the irrigation channels.”
The district’s largest reservoir, the Parkarama Samudraya (Parkarama Sea), for instance, covers an area of 20 square kilometres – one indication of the potential size of the problem if a reservoir was breached, he said.
“If we did not release water from the tank, there would be no Polonnaruwa town left by now,” he said.
As water was released from both large and small reservoirs in the region, connecting channels – like the one in Pansalgolla – suffered, he said.
In the small coastal village of Verugal, in Trincomalee district, January floods destroyed over 9 kilometres (5.6 miles) of irrigation channels, according to the government divisional secretariat there. As in other areas of the four districts Verugal suffered even more extensive – but as yet unspecified – damage during repeat floods in February.
Given the ferocity of the floods, the decision to save the reservoirs was the right one, Sumandasa said.
“The (irrigation) channels can be repaired. The cost may look high, but if a (reservoir embankment) was to rupture, the costs would be a hundred times more,” he said.
Repairing the channels and getting the irrigation network back in workable order should now be a priority, experts say.
Nimal Dissanayake, director of the Rice Research and Development Institute of Sri Lanka, says that the over 1 million metric tonnes of rice harvest likely lost to the floods could be made up in part if the irrigation network is quickly put back in working order and the extra water now available used to boost production of the next crop.
“The secondary harvesting season is cultivated using irrigated water between April and September. If we can provide the water then we can get a better harvest because there is enough water in the reservoirs,” he said in a phone interview.
So far the government has not announced any time frame for the repair work. But Dissanayake feels lost time would prove costly.
“We probably can stall the knock-on effects of the floods like price hikes and rice shortages by doing (the repairs quickly),” he said.
Amantha Perera is a freelance writer based in Sri Lanka. This story is part of a series supported by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network.