Extreme weather boosts poverty in Sri Lanka - report

by Amantha Perera | @AmanthaP | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 8 April 2013 00:01 GMT
Severe drought followed by flooding have pushed a widening share of the country's families below the poverty line

COLOMBO, (AlertNet) – Without fail, Somadasa Gamage has prayed for one thing every year before he plants his crops.

“Rain,” says the 47-year-old vegetable farmer, who has farmed for three and a half decades in Sri Lanka’s remote south eastern Tanamalvilla area, a dry area where rain can be frustratingly scarce.

Last year, for almost six months, Gamage did not plant any crops because a severe drought had dried out the river from which he draws water. When the drought ended, Gamage was relieved – but not for long. Rains began in early November and kept falling into January.

“Maybe for the first time in my life, I hoped for the rains to stop and the dry weather to return,” he told AlertNet.

He had planted a large extent of vegetables as soon as the rains began, hoping to make up for the losses suffered during the drought. But that turned out to be a bad move, as he lost his harvest to the extreme rains.

He calculates that in the last 12 months he has incurred losses close to $2,500, a sizeable sum for a farmer who has no savings and depends on each harvest to bankroll his crops and his family. “I am in debt now,” he said.

A study conducted in January by the World Food Programme  (WFP) and the Ministries of Economic Development and Disaster Management found that the combined effects of last year’s long drought and subsequent floods have left many in dire circumstances.

After severe flooding between December and January affected over 500,000 people in the Northern, Eastern, Southern, South-Eastern and South-western regions, the government sought the assistance of WFP to carry out a survey to map food security in the worst-hit areas.

RISING FOOD INSECURITY

The assessment found that 31 percent of surveyed households were severely food insecure and an additional 44 percent were suffering from borderline food insecurity. Fully 67 percent of households said they had been affected by both flooding and drought.

Over 64 percent of those surveyed had fallen below the poverty line and many were limiting meals, cutting down on expensive food items like meats, eggs and dairy items and pawning assets or borrowing at high rates.

The situation was indicative “that households have had little time to recover after the drought, and that their food and livelihood security is becoming increasingly precarious,” the report said.

Together the drought and the floods affected over 1.5 million people and destroyed or damaged over 10,000 houses.

There is likely to be at least a continuing impact on the country’s staple rice harvest. The assessment warned that the combined effect of the floods and the drought was likely to reduce the estimated seasonal harvest of 2.6 metric tons by at least 600,000 metric tons.

POWER WOES

The drought also created headaches to power generation in Sri Lanka. The country became almost entirely reliant on thermal power as hydroelectric power generation fell to around 17 percent at the worst of the drought. Annually around 45 percent of Sri Lanka’s electricity generation is from hydropower plants, so the reduction meant a hefty bill for oil imports last year.

“We expected a much lower impact (on the economy)  from (imports of) oil for power generation. But a severe drought prevailed and demanded much higher oil imports, which made the balance of payment even more difficult,” Finance secretary P B Jayasundera,  said. 

Fuel accounted for around a fifth of the island’s imports last year, according to the Central Bank, and the impact of the bad weather meant that 55 percent of total oil imports went to power generation – over $2 billion from an oil import bill of around $4.2 billion last year.

Climate experts warn that such impacts on the economy and its poorest sections will become more frequent unless governments plan ahead.

“Floods and droughts will happen much more frequently now. That is the trend. They will impact on everything from power generation to agriculture to water resources. It is up to the policy makers to plan for them,” said W.L. Sumathipala, senior technical advisor to the Ministry of Environment and the former head of the national Climate Change Unit.

“Dealing with changing climate patterns and their impacts is not cheap. The longer you wait to act, the higher the bill will be,” he said.

Amantha Perera is a freelance writer based in Sri Lanka.

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