Angry paddy farmers blocked major roads in the Minneriya and Girithale areas in Sri Lanka’s North Eastern Polonnaruwa region last month, complaining the government had not released enough water for their rice to grow; they claimed they had lost 50,000 hectares of crops, or 1.75 million kg.
Ananda Edirisuriya, who took part in the protests, accused the Irrigation Department of failing to notify farmers of impending water shortages.
“We need to know in advance if there is going to be a drought and how wide the impact is. Right now what we get is that when the drought is at its worst, the officials come and tell us that there is no water,” he told IRIN. “By then it is too late, we have already planted our crops.”
R M P Karunaratane, deputy director of the Polonnaruwa Irrigation Department, admitted weak rainfall was partially to blame, but passed the buck to reservoir releases, claiming the water shortage was caused when no water was released from the main reservoirs that feed the local reservoirs over which his office has control.
“We also don’t know much about impending droughts because we also don’t get detailed forecasts,” Karunaratane added, explaining that the daily bulletins he receives by fax from the central Department of Irrigation and the Meteorological Department often contain insufficient information to accurately inform farmers about water availability.
Edirisuriya said the bureaucratic hurdles are compounded by hotels in the area using large amounts of water. The exasperated farmer added: “If there is a drought, then there needs to be priorities, and agriculture should be the top priority.”
In March the Ministry of Agriculture advised farmers to cut the amount of rice planted during the current paddy season – which runs from May to September – by more than a third, and to switch to alternative crops such as onions, potatoes, chilies and maize, which require less water.
Farmers, officials, and civil society representatives say current administrative regimes fail to effectively manage the country’s water supply, leading to shortages and potential conflicts in the island nation that depends on water for agriculture and electricity. The current drought is focusing attention on those deficiencies.
“We see lots of tense situations erupting in communities that are faced with water-related issues like pollution and drought,” Kusum Atukorale, chair of the NGO Sri Lanka Water Partnership told IRIN. She pointed to a June 2013 incident in which, according to local media reports, soldiers opened fire and killed three people protesting against polluted water in a village in the Gampaha District - around 40 km northeast of Colombo.
She warned that if the country continues to operate with uncoordinated water administration, chronic shortages and community conflicts could become more common.
“What is needed is an integrated water monitoring mechanism that will bring all sectors and stakeholders together,” Atukorale argued.
It is not that the government does not pay attention to water – parliament has ratified more than 51 water acts, and over 40 public agencies are actively working on water. But the lack of central administration to monitor and coordinate efforts can create chaos, rendering good policies moot.
“[Water-related] decisions are taken by government departments and agencies on areas that fall under their purview, and there is no national coordination,” said Badra Kamaladasa, director general of the Department of Irrigation.
The drought has magnified the challenges in Sri Lanka’s dry zone, an important agricultural area home to around 40 percent of the country’s 20 million people.
“The situation is very grave [in the dry zone], harvest losses are likely to be very large,” said Rajith Punyawardena, the chief climatologist at the government’s Department of Agriculture.
The Irrigation Department’s Kamaladasa said that as of the last week of May, the bulk of the country’s major irrigation reservoirs were at between 30 to 40 percent capacity. For the current paddy season to achieve its average yield of around 402,000 hectares, the water levels need to be at least 60 percent.
“We need a fairly good monsoon as well, so that the next cultivation season is not impacted,” said Kamaladasa, noting fears that the 2014 monsoon might fail.