COLOMBO (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Sri Lanka's government will roll out a relief programme to help vulnerable farmers cope with the effects of a worsening drought, as part of a wider effort to protect people from the frequent extreme weather events that are threatening the country’s steady economic gains.
“The impact of climate change impact has become severe now,” said Punchi Banda Jayasundera, Secretary to the Treasury and the man primarily responsible for setting national economic policy, as a 10-month-old drought dents agricultural production.
Some parts of the country have gone without significant rains since November, especially the arid north and east. The southwestern monsoon - which brings the largest annual rainfall - has been below average so far, although it is expected to be active for at least two more months.
Jayasundera told journalists the agriculture sector, which makes up about 10 percent of Sri Lanka’s annual gross domestic product (GDP) of $60 billion, has been severely impacted by the drought. “(It) will have an off season this year,” he said.
The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and Sri Lanka’s Department of Agriculture have released reports indicating that 15 percent of the rice harvest will be lost this year. The overall paddy harvest is likely to be the lowest for six years, and vegetable prices have increased sharply in the last three months.
Jayasundera, the South Asian island’s top finance official, said the government had learned lessons from past droughts, and has set in motion measures to minimise the impact of the dry weather.
On Thursday, the president’s office announced that the cabinet had approved a 1,300 million rupee ($10 million) development programme to provide temporary income to those worst hit by the drought.
In a statement, it said nearly 111,500 families are estimated to lack enough water for their daily needs, as well as crop cultivation, reducing their income. The amount of land being farmed in eight drought-hit districts is 42 percent lower than in 2013, it added.
Under the government plan, silt will be removed from water reservoirs and tanks, and 600 agricultural wells rehabilitated so that more water can be stored. Meanwhile, water will be distributed to meet drinking water needs.
One member of each drought-affected family will be offered eight to 12 days paid work per month to reconstruct irrigation canals and rural access roads. The silt and mud removed from reservoirs will be distributed to local brick and tile manufacturers free of charge, the statement said.
Back in April, a joint assessment by the government and the World Food Programme found that over 760,000 people in Sri Lanka’s Northern and Eastern Provinces and adjoining areas were struggling to get enough food due to the drought.
In the same month, the government lifted import restrictions and taxes on rice in a move to keep prices stable. It said it planned to import at least 100,000 tonnes of milled rice, or around 2.5 percent of the 2013 harvest, by the end of this month.
“Rice imports will continue until harvesting becomes normal,” Jayasundera said. Sri Lanka bars rice imports when national production levels are high, in order to safeguard local producers.
Jayasundera said Sri Lanka is also gradually moving away from reliance on furnace oil for thermal power generation during periods of water shortages, and shifting to coal, which is cheaper.
Policy makers usually plan for hydropower to produce 40-50 percent of electricity in years of average rainfall. But in years when the rains are poor, as in 2012, fossil fuels become the largest source.
By mid-July this year, 48 percent of the country’s power demand was being met by oil, around 18 percent by coal, 30 percent by hydro and 5 percent through wind.
In 2012, during a similar drought, the Sri Lankan currency weakened as oil imports soared due to a reliance on furnace oil. “We are not seeing that kind of energy-related impact right now,” Jayasundera said.
Despite the government’s interventions, Jayasundera and other officials said the drought’s impact could widen if the current monsoon remains weak.
“We are getting reports that the drought is spreading, especially in agro-rich (farming) districts like Anuradhapura, Kurunegala and Ampara,” said J D M K Chandarasiri, head of research at the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research Institute in Colombo.
“If the rains do not come in the next two months, the losses will mount,” he added.
Sri Lanka’s mid-year planting season depends heavily on irrigation water, and government officials warn that water levels at the main reservoirs remain low.
“Most reservoirs are between 30 and 50 percent capacity. If there are no rains in the next two months, we will not have sufficient water for crops,” Badra Kamaladasa, the country’s director of irrigation, told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Extreme weather events are nothing new for Sri Lankan policy makers. Since 2009, the country has faced at least seven major floods and two major droughts.
Jayasundera said overall economic performance - with a predicted GDP growth rate of 7.8 percent - was high this year, enabling the economy to absorb much of the drought-related shock so far.
“We are watching the situation closely,” he said, “The drought can worsen, we know that.”
Amantha Perera is a freelance writer based in Sri Lanka. He can be followed on Twitter at @AmanthaP