Sri Lankan rice and curry is a thing of legend. With steamed rice, often of the red variety, served at the centre of their plate, locals serve yellow dal and curries made of vegetables, greens, fish and meat around it, virtually covering the entire colour palette within that small radius. Rice is cultivated locally, mostly from the island’s North Western, North Central and Northern Provinces. This year, though, Sri Lanka is in a spot. From meeting the domestic requirement for rice almost entirely, Sri Lanka is now considering a substantial import of rice to ensure food security, following a drought, the worst the island has seen in 40 years. Clear warning signs emerged in 2016, after monsoons failed. Farmers’ worst fears came true when the drought extended well into 2017, affecting their two main harvest seasons, Maha and Yala. Speaking on what he called a “really bad situation”, Sri Lanka’s Agriculture Minister Duminda Dissanayake told The Hindu: “We hoped to cultivate 8,00,000 hectares of paddy this year, but about 50% of that has been damaged due to the drought.”
To cope with this, Sri Lanka is importing over 3,00,000 tonnes of rice, mostly from India. However, given the country’s monthly requirement of 2,00,000 tonnes of rice, imports are only set to increase. The Central Bank has said that if the drought persists through the year, Sri Lanka may have to import food and fuel worth an additional $800 million.
According to Sri Lanka’s Disaster Management Centre, almost 1.3 million people have been hit by the drought. Several thousand farmers in 20 of the country’s 25 districts are suffering, their land and soil parched for over a year now. Data point to a severe impact in Kurunegala district, less than three hours’ drive from Colombo, and Puttalam — both in the North Western Province. While Anuradhapura in the North Central Province has also been badly hit, the Tamil-majority Northern Province is the most-affected region, where farmers in all its five districts of Jaffna, Mullaitivu, Kilinochchi, Vavuniya and Mannar are in a crisis. People here are also facing a serious drinking water problem.
Speaking of possible underlying causes, experts point to some broader patterns in climate in the island. Buddhi Marambe, professor of Crop Science at the Agriculture Faculty in University of Peradeniya, said over the last 50 years, Sri Lanka’s average temperature had risen by 0.01-0.03 degree Celsius annually. “The impact of such climate change has been that the wet seasons have got wetter, and dry seasons have become drier over the years,” he told The Hindu.
The last time the island faced such a severe drought was in 1973-74, and preparing for such a disaster in 2016 was simply off the cards at the policy level. “When two inter-monsoons and two monsoons [southwest and northeast] fail, that severely affects the yield. The government is in a precarious situation, with no other option but to import,” said Prof. Marambe, who chairs the country’s National Experts’ Committee on Climate Change Adaptation. Following the drought, many younger farmers are switching to other jobs, Reuters reported. An estimated 1.8 million farm families are engaged in paddy cultivation in Sri Lanka, where agriculture remains a key driver of the rural economy.
There is more to the drought story than climate change, argued Chinthaka Rajapakse, moderator of the Movement for Land and Agricultural Reform. “To start with, the government lacks a long-term strategy to tackle climate change. Moreover, its policies systematically exclude the poor. Where do ordinary people like farmers figure in its grand development agenda?” he asked.
Meera Srinivasan works for The Hindu and is based in Colombo