By Amantha Perera
COLOMBO, May 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As noon-time temperatures began soaring in late March, Mohamed Nizam, a small-scale chicken seller, knew he was headed for trouble.
Soon the mid-day heat was touching 40 degrees Celsius, and Nizam told his workers to pour water on to the pavement in front of his shop in the Colombo suburb of Wattala in an effort to ward off the heat.
"But nothing can keep that kind of heat from getting to the chickens. It roasts them alive," Nizam said.
Across Sri Lanka, small- and medium-scale chicken producers - often with between 1,000 and 25,000 birds - are struggling to keep their birds alive in the face of temperatures 2 degrees to 5 degrees Celsius above normal over the last two months.
Many of the birds live in tightly packed pens, where the heat makes them dehydrated. Larger industrial operations use fans and spray water on them, but smaller operations cannot afford such investments.
"Usually when the heat is high, we use ice or water to keep the pens cool. This time they were no match for the heat. I lost half of my stock," said Rumi Jamaldean, who runs a farm with around 8,000 birds in the Kurunegala District, about 120 kilometres from Colombo.
The losses have translated into big hikes in chicken prices. In Colombo and its suburbs a kilo of fresh chicken was selling for 620 rupees (around $5.50) during the first week of May. Two months earlier it was Rs 450 and a year ago Rs 400.
"My sales have dropped," Nizam said, estimating they had fallen by 40 percent. "People can't afford it. The prices are way too much," he said.
With chicken by far the most popular meat in this largely Buddhist nation that shuns many other types of meat, the price hike is likely to have an impact on nutrition. On average a Sri Lankan eats seven times as much chicken per year as beef, according to the Department of Animal Production and Health.
The nation's poultry industry produces about 165,000 metric tons of meat a year, according to the Department of Animal Production and Health.
Sri Lankan chicken farmers have long experience with warm months and often use homegrown methods to keep their birds cool, including ice, water, fans or sometimes feeding the birds sodium-bicarbonate, which growers say can help prevent dehydration.
But "this time the heat was too much and nothing could have prevented such losses", said Nimal Jayaratne, head of the Department of Animal Production and Health.
According to the Meteorological Department, during the fourth week of April the Northern Vavuniya District recorded an average daily temperature of 37 degrees Celsius. During the same time period, rain fall was below average.
"It has been extremely warm, warmer than any other time in the past five years," said Lal Chandrapala, director general of the Meteorological Department.
Experts and farmers agree that Sri Lanka's small-scale chicken farmers are not ready to deal with such extreme heat.
"If you look at the pens, they are just brick sheds with corrugated tin sheets on the roof. During times when the weather is okay, they can work. But when the heat comes, there is hardly any room for ventilation and there is no money to invest to save the stock," Jayaratne said.
Chicken farmer Jamaldean said he will absorb the losses as much as he can, pass some portion of it to his customers, and just wait until the heat passes, with cooler monsoon weather due late this month or in early June.
But "chicken prices will not come down soon. It will take at least two months," warned Nizam. (Reporting by Amantha Perera; editing by Laurie Goering :; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)
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