Recent extreme weather in Sri Lanka is likely to intensify the vulnerability of the poorest living in the country’s hardest hit northern and eastern regions, experts warn.
The Northern, North Central, Eastern and Uva (in the southeast) provinces experienced weeks of heavy rains starting on 16 December.
Flooding, at its height, stranded more than 447,000 people and displaced close to 50,000, according to the government’s Disaster Management Centre (DMC). By the time the deluge eased during the second week of January, 45 people had been killed and eight were listed as missing.
The same regions were hit by Cyclone Nisha flooding in early November that left around 200,000 people stranded and killed seven, destroyed 300 houses and damaged 4,700 more units.
Before the twin floods, the northern and eastern regions bore the brunt of a 10-month drought that devastated livelihoods and crops.
“These are desperate people. Even without droughts and floods, still life would be difficult for them. These disasters just made matters far worse,” said Bob McKerrow head of delegation of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in Sri Lanka.
Northern Province is home to some one million people, of whom 471,000 have returned to their homes since the end of a three-decade long civil conflict in May 2009. Jobs and income generation are still scarce in the region.
Poor nutrition levels in north
A nutrition assessment released in June 2012 by UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), World Food Programme (WFP) and the Ministry of Health showed that nutrition levels in Northern Province, though improved since the end of the conflict, still fell far below national levels.
“When compared with National Nutrition and Food Security Assessment done in 2010, this study shows a higher prevalence of stunting (22.8 percent versus 19.2 percent), wasting (18.3 percent versus 11.7 percent) and underweight children (29.5 percent versus 21.6 percent) in Northern Province,” the report said.
Stunting, or when children are too short for their age group, is a sign of long-term chronic malnutrition, a leading cause of preventable brain damage. Wasting - when children weigh too little for their height and whose tissues are literally “wasting” away - can turn fatal if not treated. If more than 15 percent of children under the age of five in an area are diagnosed as wasting, humanitarians consider it a nutrition emergency.
IFRC’s McKerrow said the two most recent floods displaced hundreds of war-returnee families, while other residents were severely affected by drought.
North Western, Uva and North Central provinces all show above-average poverty levels, according to the government’s latest Household Income Expenditure Survey.
While 7 percent of households nationwide fell below the poverty line, in Eastern and Uva provinces, this rate rose to 12 percent.
One of the biggest setbacks will be the losses likely to be suffered in rice, the most cultivated crop nationwide.
Local agriculture officials in Polonnaruwa District in North Central Province, which contributes 15-20 percent of the national rice harvest, told IRIN that since November, their paddy fields have been inundated three times. Close to 10 percent of the district’s 34,000 hectares of paddy are still underwater as of 9 January.
In Mannar District, popularly known as the “Rice Bowl of the North”, local officials with the Department of Agriculture said cultivated paddy land had dropped by 30 percent compared to 2011 due to floods. These losses come on top of a loss of around 30 percent due to the drought, according to preliminary estimates.
Officials at the Ministry Agriculture told IRIN accurate assessments of harvest losses due to the drought have been hampered by flooding. “We might have to revise the figures,” said a ministry spokesperson.
Fotini Rantsiou, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Sri Lanka, said the government’s efforts to lessen death and destruction from disasters (“mitigation” in aid parlance), spearheaded by the DMC, have worked well in alerting residents and helping aid groups plan relief efforts.
But more must be done to strengthen the country’s mitigation efforts and warning systems, as well as prepare residents to face increasingly volatile weather, concluded Rantsiou and IFRC’s McKerrow.
Rains are likely to continue as of 10 January, according to the Meteorological Department.