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Water conservation “desperately” needed

A Sri Lankan farmer stands near his paddy field in the eastern Trincomalee District
(Amantha Perera/IRIN)

Rising temperatures, a late monsoon and dwindling rivers in parts of Sri Lanka are straining the energy sector and threatening crop yields. Local experts say water conservation has become an urgent necessity.

In Moneragala District, in the east of the island, a man who gave his name as Somadasa said he has farmed for most of his 50 years and cannot remember when the nearby river was this low during a monsoon season. He usually starts planting when the government releases river water to irrigate his fields, but this year he is still waiting.

“I don’t know when to plant this time, there is no indication when the water will be released,” he told IRIN. With a “southwest” monsoon that arrived almost four weeks later than usual, government officials have been unable to give any estimate of when they will open sluice gates.

He can skip one planting season until the next rains are expected, but what if those rains are also late, he asks. “I have no clue about how to manage water resources. I am used to it being made available to me,” he said.

Farmers have long viewed abundant water as an entitlement rather than a scarce resource, said Kusum Athukorala, who heads the Network of Women Water Professionals Sri Lanka (NetWwater), and Women for Water Partnership, two local NGOs that promote rural water management skills. As a result, people do not feel a need to ration usage, but “The situation here has been critical for some time.”

What to do

The NGOs are encouraging people to take steps immediately to save water. These include not drawing from the well until it is dry, using water pumps discriminately, spacing out the times when crops are watered, and maintaining water tanks and other traditional catchment equipment. “The ultimate goal is to give people the idea that is our water, not the government’s, to conserve,” said Athukorala.

The government needs to develop a policy on dredging canals and reservoirs regularly to maximize water retention, protect water catchment areas from degradation and deforestation, and enforce sand mining restrictions in riverbeds, which lowers water levels, said Athukorala. Sand is a scarce and valued commodity in the construction industry.

Water engineers managing the reservoirs need accurate weather forecasts to help them determine when they have enough in reserve to release water for agricultural purposes, she added. “Otherwise, the engineers will just keep releasing water without knowing whether the rains will fail.”

Drought impacts

With rainfall patterns changing and temperatures rising, the availability of water could change “drastically”, and water conservation is now “desperately” needed, said W L Sumathipala, the former head of the Climate Change Unit of the Ministry of Environment (MOE).

In the last two decades temperatures have risen by around 0.45 degrees Celsius, according to government data housed at the Central Bank. The MOE estimates that by 2100, temperatures will have increased by around two degrees Celsius.

Sumathipala said the northern, central and eastern dry zones - where most the island’s rice and vegetables are grown -have been receiving less than adequate rainfall. The government has set aside US$27 million to help drought-stricken farmers. 

“The significance of managing water resources is that [this] can have a wide impact, from food security to industrial production to investment,” said Sumathipala, noting the impact of extreme weather on rice production and hydropower.

As a result of floods in 2011, the paddy harvest in Eastern Province fell by 39 percent, and by 3 percent in North Central Province. Though it is too soon to calculate the cost of the current dry spell, rice prices were nearly 11 percent higher in July than in the previous quarter. 

While the country grapples with rising food prices, there are daily power cuts lasting three hours and 20mins in 78 regions with high electricity consumption as the hydropower sector buckles under more intense heat and quicker water evaporation.

With less water in reservoirs, hydroelectric production, which typically provides 40 percent of the country’s energy, has dropped to half the normal output, according to the state electricity board.

“This drought is an eye-opener, or at least should be taken as one,” Sumathipala warned. “If we don’t change the way we treat our water resources, the next time a dry spell comes, the effects will double or triple what we are seeing now.”

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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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