Extreme weather creating urgent need for better forecasts

by Amantha Perera | @AmanthaP | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 22 October 2012 13:00 GMT

In Sri Lanka, farmers say they need more detailed predictions to cope with growing uncertainty

VAVUNIYA, Sri Lanka (AlertNet) – Since returning to farming after decades of displacement during Sri Lanka’s long civil war, Kusmalatha Tammitta has faced a new enemy: extreme weather, particularly long droughts followed by bursts of heavy rain.

“There are 22 wells in this village. All are dry,” Tammitta told AlertNet. After an eight-month drought, she said, she had lost two acres of paddy land and a banana plot of around 300 trees. “There are around 100 coconut trees we planted in the village since we returned. All are withered,” said the worried 35-year-old, who looked a decade older as she cradled her 4-year-old daughter.

 Tammitta, who lives in the remote village of Mamaduwa, in northern Vavuniya District, spent more than two decades as an internally displaced person, after fleeing her village in the early 1990s due to civil unrest. In 2010 she and her family returned, only to find themselves trapped in an uncompromising cycle of drought and heavy rain.

She now worries how she will make ends meet without her crops, the only income source for most families in Mamaduwa, which lies 30 kilometers from the nearest city. She had one simple question for district officials who visited the village this month to assess drought damage: When are the next rains likely?

No one had an answer that would reassure her, or one that would help her make a good decision about when to next try planting her fields.

“What we know are daily forecasts, nothing beyond,” lamented Robert Peiris, the additional secretary for the North East Reawakening Programme under the Ministry of Economic Development.

Sri Lanka urgently needs good long-term forecasting to help farmers adapt to increasingly extreme weather, experts say. So far, little is available, officials and farmers say.

Peiris told AlertNet that it was a precarious task advising farmers on how to plan their crops based on daily forecasts. The forecasts that are made public by the Sri Lanka Department of Meteorology only include possible rainfall or lack of it, temperature and humidity. They do not include rainfall quantity or exact times and usually do not cover periods of more than 24hours.

R.M.P. Karunanaratne, the chief irrigation engineer in north central Polonnaruwa District, who oversees the massive 20 square kilometer (7.7 square mile) Parakrama Samudraya reservoir, said that the lack of detailed forecasts also made his work difficult.

Before he goes out to meet farmers, the irrigation engineer said, he calls personal contacts at the Department of Meteorology to try to get a clearer idea on current and future weather patterns.


“The daily forecasts are useless, more so because of late we have seen weather patterns fluctuate wildly,” he said.

In late 2010 and early 2011, areas of northern Sri Lanka currently hit by droughts suffered severe damage from floods, followed by a smaller drought toward the end of the year.

That drought was broken by the North East monsoon in November 2011. Since then the North and North Central regions had to wait until the second week of October for more rain.

Facing similar extreme weather, neighbouring India has already begun issuing more detailed forecasts. Senaka Basnayake, who worked at Sri Lanka’s Department of Meteorology for two decades before taking up a position as head of climate change and climate risk management for the Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre in Bangkok, said that this year Indian meteorological authorities issued  an estimated rainfall forecast in June before the monsoon set in, indicating possible rainfall levels and patterns.

As the monsoon progressed, that forecast was then updated, he said.

Even in Sri Lanka at least one private organisation, the Foundation for Environment, Climate and Technology, a research agency, issues regular detailed forecasts. Lareef Zubair, the foundation’s principal scientist, told AlertNet that since 2008 it has advised  the government’s Mahaweli Authority, which oversees many large reservoirs (but not Parakrama Samudraya), on rainfall patterns.

“We provide multiple week forecasts to the Mahaweli Authority and they are happy to get this. We pull together information from multiple sources to be able to put our bulletin out,” Zubair said.

S.H. Kariyawasam, director general of the Department of Meteorology acknowledged that long-term detailed forecasting was vital. But he said that the department lacked technical know-how and personnel to put out such forecasts.

“It involves a lot of scientific analysis and working on computer-generated models. We need time to get those in place,” he said.

The department is currently setting up a new doppler radar system that will help it to predict rainfall quantities, locations and times more accurately, Kariyawasam said.

However, he said the new radar was unlikely to assist in issuing long-term forecasts.

Amantha Perera is a freelance writer based in Sri Lanka.


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