COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - An 11-month drought, considered by experts to be the worst in recent history, has forced sharp increases in food prices in Sri Lanka – and the worst may be yet to come, according to recent updates.
Rice, the island’s staple food, has seen double digit price hikes in all varieties compared to a year ago. Some of the more popular varieties such as Samba have recorded price increases of 30 percent compared to a year back, according to government statistics.
Rice prices rose 36 percent by the end of September, compared to a year ago, as a result of falling production, the Geneva based Assessment Capacities Project, which provides updates of humanitarian crisis situations, said in its latest Global Food Security Updates, citing government reports.
Some vegetable varieties have shown similar price increases, with beans and beetroot rising in cost by 19 percent and 13 percent respectively compared to a year ago.
“This is one of the worst droughts in the past decade. The impact is going to be severe and will increase if adequate rains are not received during the October (and) November season,” said Ranjith Punyawardena, chief climatologist at the Department of Agriculture.
According to government estimates, the rice harvest this year is likely to be at least 20 percent below the four million metric tons recorded last year and will also be the lowest in six years. Overall, crop production has fallen by 42 percent this year compared to 2013, the update by the Assessment Capacities Project said.
FACING TWIN EVILS
Dayarathna Gamage is a farmer from the North Eastern Polonnaruwa district who is now faced with the twin evils of losing his harvest and facing rising food prices.
Gamage, who has a one acre plot of paddy rice and a half acre plot of vegetables, has lost two harvests back to back. “I am in debt. I have borrowed over Rs 250,000 ($1,800) this year and mortgaged my paddy land,” he said.
In a normal year, the father of two school-going children makes around Rs 500,000 ($3,600) to Rs 600,000 ($4,200) from his crops. But he said that all his savings had been exhausted and he was now left to wait till the next rains.
“If they don’t come, I will lose my paddy plot,” he said.
Over 1.6 million people are affected by the drought and at least half of that population is in the Northern and Eastern Provinces of the country, two of the poorest regions nationally, according to government figures.
A study by the World Food Programme in April said that over 700,000 Sri Lankans, mostly from the North and East, were food insecure. The agency has set aside $2.5 million to assist the drought victims, while the government has also allocated around $10 million to provide cash-for-work programmes.
Farmers like Gamage blame their losses on lack of advice about upcoming rain delays, but Punyawardena and other experts say the losses are also due to poor water and crop management.
“It is now more about how we manage our water than the amount of rain we get,” said D.C.S. Elakanda, project director for the Climate Resilience Improvement Project at the Ministry of Irrigation and Water Management.
Though rains have failed in the last 11 months, Elakanda said that during the season preceding that rains had been above average. To balance increasingly extreme rainfall and worsening drought, “we need to manage our water resources much more efficiently”, he said.
Punyawardena said that when the drought set in, the advice sent to farmers by the Department of Agriculture was to shift to quicker maturing rice varieties or to crops like onions and bananas that require less water.
But “very few heeded our advice”, he said.
However, farmers are slowly coming around to breaking out of their traditional harvesting patterns and becoming more flexible, the climatologist said.
“They have suffered such high losses due to changing weather patterns that they have no option but to be flexible,” he said.
Amantha Perera is a freelance writer based in
(Editing by Laurie Goering; firstname.lastname@example.org)
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