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Sri Lanka Seeks Ways to Turn El Niño Pain into Gain for Farmers

  • Reuters

FILE - Monsoon rains hit Sri Lanka, hurting families and farmers.

FILE - Monsoon rains hit Sri Lanka, hurting families and farmers.

Rice farmer Weerasinghearchchilage Darmarathana is used to periodic flooding in his low-lying village of Galella in central Sri Lanka.

The 60-year-old has lived all his life on the flood plains of the country's longest river, the Mahaweli, in Polonnaruwa District, some 250 km (155.34 miles) northeast of the capital Colombo.

"It used to be maybe twice, three times a year the road would go under, but the last year has been insane," said the paddy farmer. In his recollection, Galella has never been flooded with the same frequency as in the last two months of 2015.

The village was hit six times in less than two months, Darmarathana said, after unusually heavy rains battered the region in November and December.

Over a million people were marooned in Sri Lanka's Northern, North Central and Eastern provinces, and more than 400 homes and other buildings were destroyed.

FILE - A group of people living by the road side after floodwater submerged their village in Cheddikulam, Vavuniya, Sri Lanka.

FILE - A group of people living by the road side after floodwater submerged their village in Cheddikulam, Vavuniya, Sri Lanka.

​An advisory issued by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) in early December attributed the rains to the current el Niño weather phenomenon, likely to be the strongest since 1997-1998.

More rain ahead

Extreme rainfall also caused havoc in India late last year, including extensive flooding in the city of Chennai.

"The consensus that strong el Niño conditions has led to abnormal rainfall during the northeast monsoon season in South Asia indicates that el Niño had a part to play in the sequence of extreme weather events in India," the ESCAP advisory said.

Excessive el Niño-linked rainfall across southern India and northern Sri Lanka was expected to continue into early 2016, it added.

Sri Lankan authorities said they were prepared.

"Historically el Niño has meant more rains in this region, so we have been making our predictions on those lines," said Lalith Chandrapala, head of the island's Department of Meteorology.

Chandrapala said the country could be in a position to benefit from the el Niño-induced rains, which began in mid-November on the back of a weak monsoon he assessed to be 75 percent below average.

"We have been telling agencies like the Department of Agriculture to advise farmers to prepare for rains," he said.

Changing mindsets

The ESCAP report also noted that the waters from the current bout of rains could be used for the upcoming planting season.

FILE - A boy eats rice inside his house in India, which is partially submerged in floodwater, Sept. 2, 2015.

FILE - A boy eats rice inside his house in India, which is partially submerged in floodwater, Sept. 2, 2015.

As the heavy rains struck when there was no harvest, agricultural losses have been negligible.

Pradeep Koddiplili, deputy director at the Disaster Management Center, said no warnings had yet been issued for potential el Niño-related crop damage, mainly because the rains had coincided with the preparation of fields for planting.

But disaster-risk experts working in rural areas say awareness of changing weather patterns remains low and could prevent farmers from making the most of the unseasonal rains.

Sarath Wickramasinghe, a disaster-risk reduction specialist with the Sri Lanka Red Cross who works in North Central Province, said people in the country's dry zone lacked sufficient infrastructure and knowledge to adapt to shifting rains.

"They are traditionally geared for the monsoon, which comes twice a year — even some officials are," he said. "That mindset needs to be changed."

Farmers must adjust to long dry spells, like that experienced in parts of Sri Lanka between June and October 2015, broken by heavy rains.

"Right now the cultivation cycles follow the traditional monsoon," he added.

Farmer Darmarathana from Galella has worked according to the monsoon since he started farming in the 1970s.

"I don't know any other timetable," he said. "Someone needs to teach me the new methods, if there are any."

Wickramasinghe said the approach of traditional farmers needed to evolve "if we are to gain any kind of advantage from the changing rain patterns."

The Red Cross and the U.N. Development Program have launched a pilot project in Polonnaruwa District to help farmers adapt to uncertain weather and climate conditions.

Targeting 100 families in Nagastenne village, it provides them with assistance including seeds and technical knowledge to develop sustainable agriculture methods, such as water harvesting, and to restore degraded land.

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