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Record rains increase urgency of climate change adaptation

More than 500,000 people were affected by the rains
Sri Lanka's meteorology department predicts heavy rains will continue until 12 January (file photo) (Contributor/IRIN)

Ongoing storms have dumped more rain in one eastern district of Sri Lanka than witnessed in a century, according to the country's Disaster Management Centre (DMC). Nationwide, storms have hit some two million people in the past seven months and hastened climate adaptation plans already under way, according to the government.

National climate scientist WL Sumathipala said recent storm activity had sped up the timetable to help residents cope with changing weather. "We have looked at weather patterns for a long period of time and it is only now that we are ready to make scientifically supported statements about climate change." 

There could be several factors responsible for the severe rains in the island country. Sri Lanka is in the midst of the winter monsoon.

Rupa Kumar Kolli, Chief of the World Climate Applications and Services Division at the Geneva-based World Meteorological Organization, noted, "There is an established La Niña, which is at its peak at the moment. The phenomenon is associated with stronger than normal monsoons over South Asia."

Continuous rains since 26 December have caused rock slides and displacement, mostly in northern and eastern parts of the country, and closed schools. As of 11 January, about 33,330 families have been displaced to 351 relocation centres.

Some 300km east of the capital, Colombo, Batticaloa District - which set the century's rainfall record - accounts for almost half of those families, according to DMC.

Here, some 200 reservoirs have completely washed away, with most other tanks spilling over, based on early government surveys.

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Former Minister of Disaster Management, Rishard Bathiudeen, told IRIN the Environment Ministry was considering adaptation strategies. "We are now being warned by scientists that climate change is not only real but Sri Lanka needs to be well prepared. We do not want to wait till the people become climate refugees as is happening in other parts of the world."

A top official in the Ministry of Agriculture, who preferred to remain anonymous, told IRIN that experimentation had been under way to find highly resilient crop species, especially rice. "We are reverting to traditional knowledge. Sri Lanka has some 2,000 traditional rice varieties and [some] have a special capacity to withstand extreme weather." But production is slow and will take several years to bear results, he added.

Since the 2004 tsunami, the Colombo-based office of the NGO Practical Action has trained farmers in how to cultivate four weather-resistant traditional rice strains.

"Priority was given to varieties which are popular and already have a market," said Hemantha Abeywardena, a facilitator with an organic agriculture project at Practical Action.

"A key factor was to avert impending food crises. With the climatic change and overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, salinity in the fields has increased," said Abeywardena.

The government's meteorology department has reported that heavy rains will continue until at least through 12 January across the north and north-central sections of the country, particularly the provinces of Eastern and Uva (south of Eastern) and the country's southernmost district, Hambantota.

The government, with the UN, conducted an assessment in all affected districts in the east, north and central provinces on 11 January, with results expected soon.


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: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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