Over half of the Country hit by Drought

BY Dr Prasanna Cooray (The Island March 19, 2017)

Fourteen out of the 26 districts of the country have been affected by the prevailing drought. According to the Situation Report released by the Disaster Management Centre (DMC) on 16 March 2017, it has caused untold suffering to more than 1.1 million people from about 300,000 families.

Drought is a manifestation of extended dry weather, thus resulting in prolonged shortage of water supply. This adversely affects the socio-economic life, health and agriculture of people and the lives of flora and fauna.

According to KHMS Premalal, Director Department of Meteorology, both rainfall changes and human activities have amalgamated in the manifestation of the present drought.

Premalal, explaining the rain fall changes experienced in the country over the recent past, said: “There are two factors that affect our weather conditions. One is ENSO (El Niño Southern Oscillation), and the other is IOD (Indian Ocean Dipole). These are global scale changes that affect our weather conditions. And these operate independent of the climate change”.

Commenting on the impact of ENSO and IOD on the country, he said: “We were affected by ENSO in 2015 and as a result we experienced less rainfall during the south-west monsoon that year. But, in the second inter-monsoon period we experienced a higher rainfall than usual.

“The IOD has two phases, which are called the positive and the negative phases. In the positive phase we would have more rains and in the negative phase less rains. In 2016, we experienced a very high value in the negative phase of the IOD, highest in the recent past. That could have been one reason for us to have less rain last year.

“However, drought is a much complex situation. It has many aspects such as meteorological drought, agricultural droughts, hydrological drought and socio-economic drought. When all these conditions combine we call a drought. Mere reduction of rainfall is not a drought situation as long as there is enough water for people for their daily needs and for agricultural activities and it doesn’t affect the socio-economic life of the people adversely”.

“But in terms of climate change,” Premalal explained, “what we experience is mainly a variability in the rainfall pattern. When it rains, it rains more heavily. The rainfall we used to experience over a period of time now occurs within the span of a few days, sometimes causing calamities such as flooding etc. in the process. And when it doesn’t rain, the dry weather continues longer, and at a higher intensity. The overall rainfall we experience in a year would not be very different. But, there could be a marked variability in the rainfall pattern that we experience with climate change.”

Man made activities – the biggest culprit

Both natural global scale changes and climate change cause the prevailing drought condition says Premalal. However, he emphasises that the main reason for the augmentation of the impact of drought is the man-made activities.

“Activities such as indiscriminate felling of trees, filling of lands and haphazard constructions are definitely to be blamed for the present drought. These were the triggering factors.

“The earth’s interior is the best store of rain water. When the earth’s interior doesn’t store rain water as desired and when there is increased runoff, we face water shortages during the dry seasons”.

Gampaha and Kalutara – two worst hit districts

According to the data released by the DMC, two of the three districts of the Western Province, namely Gampaha and Kalutara, face serious consequences of the prevailing drought. In the Gampaha district 229,149 persons from 53,545 households and in Kalutara 199,219 persons from 43,614 have been affected by the drought.

In Gampaha, the worst hit district the number of persons affected by the drought is as follows: Divisional Secretary (DS) areas of Divulapitiya (100,406 persons affected) and Minuwangoda (47,606) are the worst hit. In the Kalutara District, the DS divisions of Beruwala and Kalutara are the worst affected with persons affected numbering 116,465 and 75,017 respectively.

Northern Province – the worst hit region

The DMC data indicate that the Northern Province is the single largest administrative region worst affected by the present drought. All five districts of the Northern Province, namely Jaffna, Mulaitivu, Killinochchi, Vavuniya and Mannar, have been affected. Among these Mulaitivu, which has the least populated and the population density, looks the worst hit with 115,020 persons from 35,670 families being directly affected.

Niyanthini Kadirgamar, a researcher cum activist from Jaffna commenting on the drought situation in the Northern Province, said: “The farmers in the North have been badly affected by the drought. As they don’t have sources of ground water like tanks there, they are dependent on rains. Apart from the landowning farmers, even the agricultural labourers have been affected by the drought. The poor harvest has put their livelihood at stake”.

Talking about the wider issue of water scarcity in the Jaffna peninsula Kadirgamar identified aspects such as salinity and contamination of ground water from oil spill in Chunnakam as two issues of immediate concern. In addition, water scarcity in the islands in the Jaffna District, too, has hampered resettlement process there, she said.

(See the table for the districts affected by the present drought.)

Finding pieces of the jigsaw

Young activist and director Centre for Environmental & Nature Studies (CENS) Ravindra Kariyawasam, attributes the behavioural change of people preceding the climate change to the present situation. The lost tradition of rainwater harvesting and management coupled with indiscriminate “developmental” undertakings are the reasons, he maintains.

“We had many traditional practices of rainwater harvesting. For example, our grandparents used to tie a coconut palm onto the coconut tree to direct rainwater on to its root without letting it run off.”

Kariyawasam attributes the destruction of Muthurajawela wetland to the widespread drought situation in the Gampaha district. “Another important reason is the reduction of wetlands throughout the country. For example, in the Gampaha district Muthurajawela wetland has been threatened during the recent past as never before. A highway was built fragmenting it. Many parts of it were used for human settlements and commercial establishments”.

The extraction of ground water is another important factor in the manifestation of the present drought, especially in the Gampaha district, notes Kariyawasam. “These extractions take place for commercial purposes such as bottled water and aerated water industries. They extract water from the water table using deep tube wells drawing millions of litres. Some of these factories, situated in residential areas, have resulted in huge water shortages.”

Kariyawasam notes the ongoing crisis in Kotadeniyawa as an example. He further identifies Divulapitiya, Pannala and Giriulla as other affected areas.

“Most of our wetlands are the wew (tanks). They form an intricately knit cascade system, where the larger wew feed the smaller ones. This was one bundle of an ecosystem and responsible for the maintenance of the water table in those areas. For example, while part of the water diverted from Elahera in ancient times led to the Parakrama Samudraya, rest travelled via Giritale, Minneriya, Kaudulla up to Kanthale etc. In the process, it fed 600 to 700 small tanks. Most of the wew in the North Central province and rest of the low country were bulldozed owing to irrigation projects. This directly impacted on the water table in those areas. And it’s no wonder we are experiencing drought today in those areas.”

“The central hills are the heartland of our country’s water resources. All 103 of our rivers have their origins in the central hills. Even our ancient kings always protected the central hills. First, these were destroyed by the colonial rulers for coffee and tea plantations. Then the construction of large dams and introduction of pinus as windbreaks further destroyed the ecosystem in the central hills.

“On one hand, the forest cover in the central hills was responsible for the bringing about the rains when the north-east and south-west monsoon winds hit it. On the other hand, it helped retain the excess water in the earth bed. But, due to the forest cover depletion in the central hills we see a reduction in the volumes of water flowing in the 103 rivers that originate from the central hills. Thus, the impact of destruction of forest cover in the central hills is twofold.

Kariyawasam cites the Maguru Oya in the North Western province as an example. “The Maguru Oya was a stream that used to flow uninterrupted throughout the year before. But now, habitually, it runs completely dry from around May through September.”

Ownership issues of water

Kariyawasam looks askance at the government’s Praja Mula Jala Sanvidana (Community Led Water Organizations) programme. He says that through these organisations the government has. on the sly, centralised the regional water sources with the intention of privatising them later on.

“Now water is obtained from a single source, stored and is distributed to the people. This has discouraged people from using their wells. There is a plan to take over the wells owned by the people in the North Western province”.

“This drought situation could be well managed at the community level with the help of our traditional knowledge and practices. But, the ownership and management rights of water should remain with the people. Water shouldn’t make a commodity. Water is a public good.

“There are many countries that have used their traditional knowledge for water management successfully. India is one. There are many examples from places like Rajastan, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal”.

As for Sri Lanka he is enamoured of the analogue forestry concept (popularised by the likes of Dr. Ranil Senanayake) as a viable option. “In the places this system was implemented, for example in the Badulla district and Kalpitiya, there have been tremendous augmentation of the ground water levels,” says Kariyawasam.

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