August 12, 2015 / 4:07 AM / 2 years ago

Farming recovery in Sri Lanka's ex-war zone exposes water woes

VISUVAMADU, Sri Lanka (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Since Sri Lanka's three-decade civil war ended in 2009, Nagarathnam Ganeshan has faced a major new uncertainty: how much water he will have to grow his crops.

A paddy farmer from the village of Visuvamadu in Mullaitivu district, deep inside the former war zone in Northern Province, Ganeshan was able to go back to his original way of earning a living once peace returned.

Before he was cultivating only one acre (0.45 hectares) of rice, but he now grows the crop on all his four acres as markets are functioning again and he can sell surplus produce.

“My biggest problem is that I am not sure how much water I will get for cultivation,” Ganeshan said, taking a break from tending his fields. “In some years (since 2010), I have got more than I wanted – in other years, it has been way below my needs.”

The same is true for farmers in the island's Eastern Province, where the fighting ended earlier in mid-2007. In both provinces, the traditionally strong agriculture sector, which slumped during the war, has picked up again.

The amount of land under cultivation has expanded, and farmers are looking for more crop options, such as seasonal vegetables or tobacco.

In Mullaitivu district, 16,300 acres of paddy were planted during the main season in 2007, and by 2014 that had almost doubled to 31,632 acres.

In eastern Batticaloa district, the growth is even higher. In 2007, 47,000 acres of rice were planted, and that had more than tripled to 153,000 acres seven years on.

“We don't have any of the problems we used to have, like fighting breaking out or curfews when we are in the field - we can go and work in them any time we want,” said Mohamed Aneez, a Muslim farmer from Batticaloa.

“Our main problem has been that we are not sure of water availability,” he added.

TOO MUCH AND TOO LITTLE

Agriculture in the Northern and Eastern Provinces depends primarily on seasonal monsoon rains and irrigation water.

In the last five years, the monsoon has fluctuated, with the country experiencing alternating floods and droughts that have damaged harvests. Last year, a severe drought wiped out around 15 percent of the rice harvest.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) warned this year that Sri Lanka's agriculture production was being affected by both too much and too little water.

“A combination of excess and lack of rain in different regions has contributed to pushing prices up,” it noted in its Asia Pacific Food Price and Policy Monitor in early August.

“On the one hand, a surplus of rainwater has created problems transporting food to markets; and on the other, a deficit of rainwater has delayed plantings in dry zone districts,” it said.

According to experts, during the two and half decades of conflict, agriculture in the Northern and Eastern provinces was largely subsistence farming.

There was hardly any access to outside markets, especially in the north, and land use was also limited by the fighting and security fears.

“With the end of the war, agriculture has become more commercialised, and much more land has become available for cultivation. But water availability has not gone up,” said S Shanmuhanathan, deputy director of irrigation at the Northern Provincial Council.

“Farmers are finding out the hard way that water is no longer a commodity that can be used without any inhibitions,” he added.

MANAGING WATER

Even with repairs to the region's dilapidated irrigation infrastructure, Shanmuhanathan warned the water supply was unlikely to be stable.

“What the farmers need right now is to pay attention to water management,” he said.

The irrigation expert said farmers should adopt simple measures that would go a long way to help conserve water.

First, leveling plots so the land is even would enable them to regulate water use better. Second, farmers should not use water as a pesticide or a way to control weeds, he advised.

In the north, farmers tend to keep six inches (15.24 cm) of water in their rice fields when only four are needed, in an effort to keep away weeds, but weeds can be controlled instead by maintaining fields regularly and using herbicides, Shanmuhanathan said.

Farmers should also look at using a mixture of varieties and other crops depending on water availability, including types of rice that need less water, he suggested.

L Chandrapala, director of the national meteorological department, said all farmers should make an effort to stay abreast of weather forecasts.

“There are a lot of indications on the intensity, quantity and duration of rainfall before the monsoon reaches our shores in early June - farmers can make use of these,” he said. “They should not wait for formal warnings (of extreme weather) to take action.”

Aneez, the farmer from Batticaloa, said agriculture was just getting off the ground again after a 25-year hiatus, and once farmers realised losses could be reduced or avoided with better adaptation measures, they would make the necessary changes.

"My father used the same variety of seeds all his life - I don't," he said. "I keep an eye on the water levels in tanks (small reservoirs) before deciding which variety to use for a particular season."

Reporting by Amantha Perera; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org

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