No rain no grain | Daily News

No rain no grain

Blue skies and drying reservoirs are to be a regular feature in the foreseeable future as we are to brace ourselves for one of the worst droughts in our recent history.

As water bodies dry up district after district, the Ministry of Disaster Management as of yesterday has estimated that thus far 111,329 families in the districts of Trincomalee, Kandy, Kalutara, Hambantota, Monaragala, Badulla, Anuradhapura, Jaffna, Mannar, Batticaloa and Ratnapura have been affected by the drought. The numbers are staggering and yet this is just the beginning of our problems.

What do we know so far?

It has now become apparent that due to the less than average rainfall experienced during the monsoons last year, currently there is a water shortage in all our reservoirs. Furthermore, the Meteorology Department has predicted below average rainfall in the next three months.

The rains are next expected in Mid March and the country needs to find a way to survive until then.

The water shortage will also spill into other areas such as power generation and food production and this will add to the current precarious situation.

Minister of Disaster Management, Anura Priyadharshana Yapa at a media briefing last week revealed that most main irrigation tanks were up to 27 percent capacity while 220 medium size tanks were at 30 percent capacity. In addition, this year, only one-third of all agricultural lands were cultivated which meant that there would be less food produced during the Yala season with effects spilling over to the Maha season as well.

“We have also had less than 35 percent of the rice fields sowed in the main rice belt of the country,” said Yapa adding that the government had decided to import 250MT of rice to meet the demand.

With the drought thus posing a serious challenge to the country’s food security, Prof Mohan Munasinghe, founding Chairman of the Munasinghe Institute for Development and Chair of the Expert Commission on the Sustainable Initiative said,

“The issues we are going to face in the next three months is a good warning about what will happen in terms of climate change in the next 20-30 years. Our study at the Institute shows that in the next 20-30 years, small farmers in the Dry zone will suffer very much. Climate models also show that rice output in the Dry zone can drop by 15 percent or more.”

This begs the question, do we save water for drinking or let our agricultural fields which grow our food have it? The government in the meantime has warned that they would be shutting off water for agricultural purposes in certain areas given the shortage. Running short of drinking water thus has been a major worry all around but the National Water Supply and Drainage Board General Manager, G.A. Kumararathna speaking to the Daily News said they had not made assessments of reservoirs and rivers as of yet as the problem had not become grave thus far but they would look into having some controls in another six weeks. “We will look into controls during the latter parts of February,” said Kumararathna.

According to Amarnath Giriraj, Sub Theme Leader, Water-related Disaster Risk Management at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), however, the best solution to deciding where the water should go could be planned using knowledge on the current water resource availability and its demand, which is efficiently monitored through water resource modelling and satellite data.

More Importantly, he asked that the “Irrigation, Agriculture and Water Resources Department have better coordination on the demand and supply chain on the implications of drought on livelihoods and agricultural practices.”

Meanwhile, adding to the problem, the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL) has warned the government that they would have to find an additional 60MW electricity to avoid a power crisis in the next six months. They warned that the risk would be most severe during January and April with the country’s reservoirs experiencing the lowest water levels in the last 10 years. Accordingly, the government has taken steps to purchase power from private power generators. Other recommendations from the PUCSL include encouraging of self-generation mechanisms, installation of new generation plants and to have rooftop solar generation.

What should be done?

This is not the first nor will it be the last time, the country would face a drought. According to Giriraj, “Overall, South Asia is experiencing an increase in the intensity and frequency of the drought events.”

When it comes to Sri Lanka, he said, “The two major recent droughts in 2012 and 2014 were a result of monsoon failures in either of the Maha or Yala seasons.”

Similarly this year too, the failures of the monsoons in the Yala and Maha seasons of 2016 have led to the current drought.

With droughts becoming a familiar feature of the Sri Lankan landscape, it has become vital that we safeguard our most precious resource- water.

“We will have to look into saving water,” said Kusum Athukorala, Chair of Net Water and Regional Coordinator for the Global Water Partnership.

“We are heading into a situation where droughts will become the norm and we can reduce the problem by stopping the illicit logging and destruction at the catchments, stop polluting our waterways and save the good quality water we have and adopt household water savings,” she explained.

Household water savings are not a new concept; dual flushes, water efficient fixtures and fixing leaking taps have been advocated for a long time but it is the implementation of it all that is lacking.

“In Parliament, I saw taps that were leaking. They should set an example first,” she observed.

More importantly, she pointed out that the country had very little preparedness to deal with environmental disasters such as drought.

“We are still hoping that business, as usual, will prevail. We are only looking at bringing in more bowsers rather than looking at protecting our catchments,” she said.

“Further, we have always chosen curative rather than preventive measures. It is suggested that we look at desalination plants but that is very expensive. If we looked at preventive measures, we would be keeping our catchments pristine, even if we are to have less rainfall, we have a better chance of recharging our groundwater if the catchment was in good condition,” she said.

More policies, less action

Sri Lanka, however, is not a dry country per se, it is home to 103 rivers with 90 percent of the total land area of Sri Lanka belonging to a river basin. We also have 3,540 identified water sources in the island in addition to the 12,000 tanks located in the Dry zone alone. The problem thus is the proper utilisation and distribution of water.

The Ministry of Land and Land Development in 2014 in a bid to become more proactive came up with the “Draft National Policy on Protection and Conservation of Water Sources, their Catchments, and Reservations in Sri Lanka”.

“Considering the utilisation pattern of the country’s water resource, it appears that the protection of the above-mentioned sources is a fundamental requirement for the sustainability of both the surface water bodies and groundwater aquifers. For instance, the capacity of the shallow aquifers in the Kalpitiya peninsula could have fulfilled the drinking water requirement of a large population. But such waters have been contaminated to a level which could not be purified due to the excess adding of chemical fertilizer, agrochemicals, and insecticides to the soil,” stated the draft.

“Today Sri Lanka is badly experiencing the threat of silting in reservoirs which generate hydropower and supply irrigated water due to the clearance of catchment areas in high altitudes and poor water and soil conservation practices. For instance, 38 percent of the capacity of Rantambe reservoirs has been silted within 09 years of its construction while Polgolla and Rantambe reservoirs are being silted annually by 2.52 percent and 6.95 percent respectively,” it further noted.

The draft policy also identified that one of the major obstacles in the path to taking any action lay in the fact that around 40 legislations passed since 1930, pertaining to water sources conservation was included under various sectors from land development, water, and forest conservation to soil conservation. Hence no one was directly responsible for conserving our water sources.

In addition, though there are a number of institutions involved in various activities related to the conservation of water sources, they are not properly conserved and protected due to the dearth of human and physical resources, various institutional as well as technological factors and improper exchange of spatial data related to this. Though some foreign funded projects were launched for the conservation of catchment areas, their objectives could not be achieved as they are not carried out after the prescribed project period.

The suggestions the draft policy proposed were, “Identify, demarcate boundaries, protection and conservation of water sources, empower the institutions related to the conservation and protection of water sources, monitor activities and follow up action, awareness and participation in water conservation programmes at community level and the granting of financial provisions and facilities for programmes”.

The policy, however, did not see the light of day and the officials of the present Lands Ministry are not aware of the existence of this very policy.

All is not lost

Environmental disasters, in the end, while cannot be avoided, can always be mitigated or be prepared for. Giriraj explained that prediction of weather forecasts over the recent years has improved substantially with 90 percent of monsoon forecast skills being highly reliable.

“Our drought forecast system for South Asia can predict lead-time of 15-20 days in advance on the probability of drought conditions using climate and weather information,” he said.

Given the advantage of the technology at hand, he proposed that we use active early warning systems such as the nowcasting drought monitor to identify slow motion of drought progress.

In the long term, Giriraj proposed, “Investment in soil and water management, such as the improved development and management of fragile catchment areas and river basins, including small-scale irrigation; reviewing the appropriateness of current crop production patterns and possibilities in support of more intensified crop diversification policies; redirecting research towards more appropriate farming systems and improved rangeland and livestock management”.

In the end however, there are only so many water bowsers that the government can muster and Giriraj said that ultimately the government would need to review institutional arrangements and physical infrastructure of many of its agencies in order to deal with situations such as drought in addition to looking into developing new crops, cropping strategies and insurance schemes when settling into a very dry future.

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