Sri Lankan Drought Worsening, a More Grassroots Strategy Urgently Needed

1 March 2017 Benjamin Walsh, Research Analyst, Global Food and Water Research Programme


The Director General of the Sri Lankan Meteorological Department has stated plainly that the country is in the throes of the worst drought since the 1970s. According to Reuters, the country has been described as in a rainfall deficit that is likely to last until June-July 2017. As a result, more than one million people are severely short of water with reservoirs running dry. The Meteorological Department released a report on the probable rainfall of the February, March, April (FMA) 2017 season. With the country divided into three meteorological zones, Sri Lanka’s rain forecast looks bleak. The report stated that during the FMA season, rainfall for both the wet and intermediate zones is set to be below normal levels and near normal rainfall (minimal to begin with) for the dry zone (see image below). The total lack of rain has had many negative effects, such as the degradation of arable land and the depletion of water for drinking and irrigation. Although preparations have been made to deal with parts of drought-affected Sri Lanka, farmers still feel unable to adapt to changing rainfall and food production patterns. Helping farmers adjust and better co-ordinating food, water and disaster management bodies should be the main focus of any government response to the drought.

Sri Lanka Probabilistic Forecast

Source: Sri Lankan Department of Meteorology


Some drought coping methods have been developed. The Sri Lankan Government has put resources into fostering working relationships with non-government organisations and United Nations programmes like the World Food Programme (WFP). Prime Minster Ranil Wickremesinghe earlier this year asked the WFP for help, on the condition that the government worked alongside the WFP to address this collective action problem. “You have to get your resources in place if you are to face challenges which are ahead of you in the wake of the drought”, says WFP Executive Director Ertharin Cousin.

Large-scale infrastructure has not been totally ignored either. On 14 February 2017, the Department of Government Information released a statement outlining President Maithripala Sirisena’s plan to “make the country prosperous in agriculture by enhancing the farmers’ economy”. The plan comes in the form of the Wayamba Ela Project, a scheme designed to supply water to Wayamba, a province in the north-west of the country. More than 300 streams are expected to be flowing with water once the project is finished, and overall approximately 12,000 hectares of land will be cultivated. The project, a step in the right direction, may be seen as a political move that aims to ensure Sirisena appears the responsible statesman among his competitors. The president, however, must ensure his administration does not let infrastructure projects overshadow the need for education and continued public awareness programmes designed to help farmers adapt to changing conditions.

The education of farmers and government officials in the field of water and agricultural management is an area that must see greater improvement. According to a UN Development Programme report, farmers lack the knowledge and support required to ensure practices are reformed to deal with changing rainfall patterns, to diversify the way in which they make a living, what kind of crop to plant and water management. Kusum Athukorala, head of the Sri Lanka Water Partnership, argues that though the country erected infrastructure and disaster coping models after the 2004 tsunami, a gap exists in public awareness of this infrastructure.

Farmers still feel alone and abandoned and thus have to stick to what they know – traditional farming patterns – even when they do not work. Poddibanda, a villager in Lankapura, does not break with tradition and plant when water is already available in his rice fields (as opposed to preparing fields before rain arrives) because he does not ‘know how to do that’, he admits to Reuters. To properly address drought related problems, the government must first take a more intensive grassroots approach to build public awareness and knowledge of sustainable water management and adaptable farming practices.

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