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Salt and jumbos - rice farming in a changing climate

R. M. Vimalawathi, a farmer in northwestern Sri Lanka, managed to salvage just enough rice to feed her family after a succession of failed harvests. UNDP is assisting her and other farmers in the area experiment with hardy rice varieties that will withsta
(Christine Jayasinghe/IRIN)

Hundreds of families uprooted from villages in Sri Lanka's northwestern Kurunegala District are having to learn new ways of growing rice in the salty soils of their new homes in Puttalam District. Moved to make way for an irrigation project near the Deduru Oya river, they were relocated to Nelumwewa, where observers say higher rates of evaporation are increasing the land's salinity.

“This is an area where the effects of climate change can be clearly seen,” said Ramitha Wijethunga, the UN Development Programme's national programme officer for disaster management. “With reduced rainfall and recurrent droughts, the soil has become more saline and much of this land is now abandoned. We can expect to see more of this occurring as time goes on.”

Wijethunga said the salinity was caused by rising temperatures causing water to evaporate faster, leaving salt deposits behind, a problem increasingly affecting both inland and coastal farmland in Sri Lanka. The Nelumwewa area is one example, observers say, of the need for climate-related disaster mitigation and drought risk reduction. On the national level, the government recently launched a programme to rehabilitate some 40,000 hectares of abandoned rice paddy land as part of a national drive to increase food production.

In Nelumwewa, the resettled families are getting support in dealing with the salty soil through a disaster management project funded by France. The UN Development Programme (UNDP) project provides technical advice and training in cultivating rice - including the use of traditional strains - with the country’s Rice Research and Development Institute.

In their former location, the farmers of Nelumwewa had cultivated hybrid varieties of rice that gave them high yields. Here, they have had to switch to traditional rice varieties that give them smaller harvests but are more resistant to pests and disease. The hardier old strains also require less inorganic fertilizer, making production costs cheaper for the cultivators.

Photo: Christine Jayasinghe/IRIN
Rice paddy cultivators in Nelumwewa in northwestern Sri Lanka experiment with new varieties of vegetables in the inhospitable saline soil. UNDP plans to help them cultivate vegetables on a larger scale, after efforts to grow rice were unsuccessful

Trial and error

However, learning these lessons took some time. Since they were moved to Nelumwewa, cultivation has been a trial and error process, with the farmers still trying out different traditional rice varieties provided by the National Federation for the Conservation of Traditional Seeds and Agricultural Resources, an organisation that promotes traditional rice varieties suitable for vulnerable areas.

“We have had to change all our ways of farming because the soil here is saline,” W. D. Premachandra, a farmer, told IRIN. “We don’t have any experience in farming this type of soil and we had to learn to do things differently.”

Learning on the job has included delaying the time for transplanting; draining water from the rice paddies more frequently than is usually done - to reduce salinity levels; and reaping a few days later than they used to. Premachandra said each successive harvest showed them where they were going wrong and where adjustments had to be introduced.

Successfully-modified agricultural practices could be replicated in similarly affected regions. Once the paddy fields have been rehabilitated, UNDP plans to promote salt-resistant vegetables that can be inter-cropped with rice.

The community faces a further complication and one problem can't be solved by just changing farming practices: the area is home to wild elephants which can trample or eat the crops.

Having lost three previous harvests through unsuccessfully experimenting with different planting methods, farmer R. M. Vimalawathi was looking forward to her most successful harvest yet. “This time we did everything right,” she said.

“But the elephants came the night before we were going to harvest the rice and destroyed everything.”


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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