Variable rains and flooding impact on rice harvest

Changing rainfall patterns in Sri Lanka have prompted later paddy planting by farmers and affected the country’s overall rice yield, government officials said.

Traditionally, rice farmers would begin planting in early October for the Maha harvest – the main growing season in the country.

However, variable rainfall in that month over the past two decades has pushed farmers to wait until the rains arrive, sometimes as late as the end of the month.

“For about 15 years we have noticed this. The farmers would wait till the rains arrive,” Dr B Poonyawardena, head of the Agro-climatology Division at the country’s Department of Agriculture told IRIN.

But now the Maha crop, generally harvested in February and traditionally a dry month, is falling in mid March.

“This year stronger than usual torrential rains in mid-March left the harvest even more vulnerable,” Poonyawardena said.

Heavy rains affect 400,000 people

According to the National Disaster Service Centre, heavy rains beginning on 12 March lashed the island nation, affecting close to 400,000 people in 10 districts.

“In some of these areas the rainfall was sometimes 70 percent higher than the usual,” S H Kariyawasam, the deputy director at the Department of Meteorology told IRIN, resulting in heavy flooding in Ampara, Mannar, and Batticaloa districts, as well as parts of the Polonnarauwa District - all major rice producing areas.

Sri Lanka produces around 3.3 million metric tons of rice annually, says the country’s Department of Census and Statistics.

But this year’s rains and the subsequent flooding destroyed about 2.5 percent of the total yield, Shantha Emithiyagoda, deputy director at the Agriculture Department noted.

“The problem is that this will add to the 10 percent shortfall between the harvest and local demand, making it 12.5 percent,” he said, referring to this year’s yield.


Photo: Amantha Perera/IRIN
A Sri Lankan farmer stands near his paddy field in the country's eastern Trincomalee District

Rice price rising

This in turn has increased pressure on local market prices, and led to a drop in quality, Emithayagoda said.

“We would have to locate seed paddy for the next harvest and also there will be qualitative and quantitative effects on prices,” he explained, adding his department has already moved to locally procure six million kilogrammes of paddy seed for the next harvest.

Rice prices have already risen significantly over the past year due to a combination of factors, including high local demand and rising global prices.

Some varieties have recorded price gains of between 60 to 90 percent in the retail market, according to the Census and Statistics Department.

Limited understanding of climate change

Meanwhile, researchers and experts worry that limited scientific studies on climate change and local harvests have prevented them from gaining a proper handle on the situation.

“Obviously, there have been changes to the harvesting due the changing rains over the years,” Nalin Munasinghe, programme associate at the Food and Agriculture Organization in Colombo said.

But planting delays in October may be an indication that the farmers have already begun adjusting. “They may not have the scientific knowledge, but they feel the practical changes and that may be one reason why the planting is delayed,” he said.

One solution being suggested is to use sturdier rice varieties, rather than trying to tinker with planting patterns.

“Most paddy cultivations are on low level fields and excess water flows over those fields. One way [to get over this] is by selecting suitably tolerable paddy varieties for floods,” Gunawargana Banda Giragama, research fellow at the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute, said.

“If there are warnings of bad weather the crop can be harvested even two weeks before maturity. But it should be consumed as early as possible. It is difficult to store for longer durations,” he added.

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