Rice Shortage Likely If Harvest Fails
- Drought Hits Yala Harvest
By Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema
The severe drought faced by the paddy cultivators during this Yala season has raised concerns of a possible shortage of rice next January. The delay in rains for over six weeks has affected the major and minor irrigation systems in the dry zone and in the Kurunegala District.
Agriculture Ministry statistics show that while the targeted acreage for cultivation during this Yala season was 494,100 hectares only 348,761 hectares have actually been cultivated. The crop is estimated at 1.25 million metric tons. However, these figures are expected to see a drastic change due to the drought weather conditions experienced in most parts of the country, especially the agricultural areas.
Of the cultivated land, most paddy lands in the Anuradhapura and Plonnaruwa districts have been severely affected by the shortage of water. According to the Agriculture Ministry, 5,000 hectares of paddy land in the Kurunegala District have been completely destroyed by the drought. Despite the large loss of paddy land the Cooperatives and Internal Trade Ministry has said the country has stocks of rice from the previous three harvests.
Ministry Secretary Sunil S. Sirisena said the government was in possession of 300,000 metric tons of rice that could last for several months. The Secretary however could not give an exact period as to how long the current rice stocks would last.
He said that there would be a rice shortage only if the entire harvest is destroyed. “I don’t think there would be a crisis situation over the Yala harvest,” he said. Sirisena observed that paddy cultivations were still continuing in some areas of the country while the worst affected areas are the Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa Districts.
Farmers in the Kurunegala District cultivating under the Bathalagoda irrigation project lament that all the paddy lands in the area have been destroyed due to the lack of water. 6,000 acres of paddy land under this project have been completely destroyed. “These farmers have lost the monies spent on cultivating the lands and have also lost the rice stocks that are usually used for personal use,” Namal Karunaratne from the All Ceylon Farmers’ Association said. Karunaratne said that apart from the drought, the lack of a proper water management system in the country has resulted in the current water shortage.
T. B. Sarath from the Thamankaduwa Farmer’s Foundation questioned the purpose of the entire Mahaweli project if it could not irrigate the lands in the dry zone during a drought period. “The Mahaweli project was initiated in order to provide water to the dry zone during a drought period. The authorities now say that there’s no water in the tanks” he charged. He said the main irrigation schemes in Polonnaruwa, Parakaramasamudra, Girithale and Minneriya have been severely affected by the drought.
The Girithale tank, according to Sarath, has only about 4,000 acre feet of water and could release water for cultivation for only about a week. “There are about 105 families in Unagalvehera who are the worst affected in Polonnaruwa since they have lost their entire paddy cultivation,” he said.
Sarath explained that while water is usually distributed five days a week during the cultivation period, this time it has been reduced to two days a week. He said that the water shortage has also resulted in clashes among the farming community.
Relating an incident that took place last week, Sarath said that the Mahaweli Authority has agreed to provide some water to the farmers in Girithale given their plight, but the farmers cultivating under the Elahera irrigation project have refused to allow the water to pass their lands claiming they are also in need of water.
“Everyone is desperate for water,” he noted. Sarath said that at least 12 rounds of water distribution is needed during a cultivation period for a successful harvest. Authorities therefore are in constant contact with the framers to discuss the cultivation and water distribution.
A meeting between the Irrigation Department officials and farmers are held on the water distribution before every season. At this meeting, it is decided on how the water would be distributed and the land acreage that would be used for paddy cultivation. The authorities and farmers have reached an agreement at the Yala meeting held in April this year to cultivate 40 percent of their agricultural land with paddy, another 40 percent with alternative crops and to not cultivate in 20 percent of the land.
Be that as it may, farmers who cultivated their lands are now left helpless without water for their paddy lands. Deputy Irrigation Minister W. B. Ekanayake said that paddy lands would be completely destroyed if the country does not receive rains in the next few weeks.
The Deputy Minister lamented that several acres of his paddy land have also been affected by the water shortage. “Two acres of my paddy land have also been damaged due to the lack of water”. He explained that the water shortage in the dry zone has been compounded due to the lack of rains in the catchments. “There’s no water in the tanks in the agricultural areas and reservoirs in the catchments also don’t have water”, he said. The lack of water in the catchments has affected the water supply to the North Central Province in the dry zone. “Mahaweli cannot provide water to Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa and over 300,000 acres of paddy land in these areas are faced with a shortage of water for cultivation,” Ekanayake said. The water level in the Kalawewa tank in Anuradhapura has dropped to just 10,000 acre feet.
The Deputy Minister noted that the water level in Kalawewa is currently below that of the sluice gates and water cannot be released for farming purposes. Kalawewa is one of the main irrigation systems in the Anuradhapura District that receives water under the Mahaweli project.
Farmers in the Mahaweli H zone are now badly affected with most of their paddy lands being destroyed. The total farm area under the Mahaweli H zone is about 39,900 hectares and is irrigated by the Kalawewa, Dambulu Oya reservoir and Kandalama reservoir.
However, some tanks in the North Central Province like the Tissa Wewa, Nuvara Wewa, Rajangana and Mahavilachchiya are still in a position to release water for cultivation for a few more weeks.
Ekanayake said that paddy land under these irrigation systems would be able to cultivate. When inquired the reason for some tanks to have water while some others have dried, Ekanayake observed that one of the main reasons was the failure to renovate the tanks. “Most of the ancient tanks have not been dredged and cleaned for many years resulting in sludge depositing in the tank bed,” he said.
He observed that the sludge in some tank beds was about 7-8 feet high. “The capacity of the water retained in most tanks has therefore declined through theyears,” he said.
Most tanks reach spill level during the rainy season and the density of water retained in the tank is insufficient during a drought period. According to Ekanayake, the government needs to pay serious attention to the issue and treat it as a priority matter. “Tanks need to be dredged and renovated in order to increase their capacity to hold water,” he said. “There’s no need to lie, the Yala cultivation would fail if the rains don’t come,” Ekanayake added. Additional Secretary (Agriculture Technology) at the Agriculture Ministry Dr. D. B. T. Wijeratne noted that there would be a shortage of rice by January next year in the event the Yala harvest fails. “So far this is the worst Yala season experienced by the country and there have not been any rains since April, but we are hopeful that it would rain and farmers would be able to salvage the paddy cultivation,” he said adding that a possible solution to the existing weather issue is to introduce varieties of paddy that could be harvested within a shorter period and are drought resistant.