COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Long-term interventions are essential to stem deteriorating food security among victims of frequent extreme weather events in Sri Lanka, experts warn.
In the last 20 months, parts of Sri Lanka have been hit by a severe drought and two bouts of floods that experts at the World Food Programme (WFP) and the government say have worsened the food security of victims.
In the last five years, according to UN estimates, between 3.5 million and 4 million people out of a population of little over 20 million have been affected by natural disasters in Sri Lanka.
Ismail Omer, the WFP country head for Sri Lanka, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that his organisation fears that in some parts of the country, food security has fallen to the levels seen in 2011, when the country had just begun to recover from a decades-long civil conflict that ended only in May 2009.
Overall the WFP estimates that at least 1.2 million people in the country are in need of food aid.
In 2011, WFP and other agencies estimated that at least 60 percent of the population in the country’s north and east were food insecure and in need of food assistance. This was the region where the conflict was most intense.
By the middle of last year, according to WFP estimates, just 40 percent of people in that region still needed help. But subsequent drought and the floods have destroyed harvests in Sri Lanka’s northern, eastern, north western, north central and southern regions.
“Just within the last twelve months, approximately half a million people were first affected by drought resulting in reduced harvest yields in September-October 2012, then a cyclone before Christmas 2012 followed by severe flooding in the beginning of 2013 affecting harvest yields,” Omer said.
In some parts of the island’s eastern and northwestern regions – both vital areas for production of rice, the national staple - harvest losses were estimated to be around 30 percent.
This year, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organsiation, the paddy rice harvest is expected to recover and yield more than 4.1 million metric tonnes for the first time in about five years.
SMALL-SCALE FARMERS STRUGGLING
However according to Liyanapathirana Rupasena, a director at the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agararian Research Institute (HARTI), many small-scale farmers are yet to recover.
“These are farmers who hold one hectare or less. More often than not they fund each crop with loans. When harvests fail, one after the other, they find it hard to recover,” he said.
According to a study by the Sabaragamuwa University of Sri Lanka, 70 percent of the estimated two million rice farmers in Sri Lanka own one hectare or less.
One is Wijerathane Thenakoon, a 47-year-old rice farmer from North Central Anuradhapura District, who has been planting a one-acre (0.4 hectare) plot of rice for the last 30 years. His farming income, which has been dwindling year by year, is the sold source of support for his family of five, including three school going children.
“Honestly, I don’t think I can recover from the losses of the last two years. If this harvest does not give me a good income, I will sell off the plot,” said Thenakoon, who owes debts of around Rs 200,000 ($1,400). His annual income from his paddy harvest is around Rs 175,000 ($1,200), he said.
He received emergency relief after the floods in December but nothing thereafter.
Experts like Rupasena warn that when incomes dwindle, farmers like Thenakoon will cut down on expenditure that they feel is non-essential. “Education and health expenses are right on top of this list. Many feel they can defer these,” said W.L. Sumathipala, the former head of the government’s Climate Change Unit.
A survey conducted by the WFP and HARTI in 10 of the worst-affected districts hit by floods in January this year found that 41 percent of those surveyed were eating less preferred foods, skipping meals and incurring debt.
Just as worrying, “a review of the reported natural disaster impacts during the past eight years indicates a trend of increasing frequency of events,” said a U.N. Humanitarian Bulletin on the first half of this year.
Sumathipala said one of the biggest obstacles to bringing change was lack of funding. Funding constraints have already hampered relief work targeting those affected by the latest disasters. Due to lack of funding, the WFP did not proceed with a $2.6 million programme to provide assistance to 60,000 of the half million people affected by floods in January this year, officials said.
Rupasena said that due to the growing frequency of weather disasters - currently there are fears that a moderate drought has again begun in Sri Lanka’s northwestern regions - plans should be put in place to maintain buffer stocks and emergency supplies or funding to assist in such emergencies.
More effort also should be put into trying to better predict future disasters, he said.
Constant monitoring of food security levels in disaster-affected communities and long-term investment in flood mitigation prgrammes, such as renovating irrigation canals and rehabilitating damaged water networks, also could help, WFP official said.
Floods are most common natural disaster in Sri Lanka, accounting for 41 percent of all people affected by disasters.
Amantha Perera is a freelance writer based in Sri Lanka.