Severe weather: Double whammy for farmers

  • Extreme weather compounds concern of crop loss
  • Rains are easing, says Met Dept.
  • Relief efforts underway: Agri Ministry
  • Less crops due to rains and fertiliser can lead to price hikes

By Maneesha Dullewe

The Ministry of Agriculture has initiated relief efforts for farmers affected by the prevailing weather, as heavy rain threatens to compound food security concerns in the coming months, The Sunday Morning learns.

Meanwhile, the Meteorology Department indicated that the spell of severe weather had begun to ease up, with the inter-monsoon period coming to an end.

The news of assistance and change in weather will be welcomed by the farming community, which has been under strain due to a sudden policy change by the Government on the use of fertiliser. Farmers have raised concerns that the impact of heavy rains will lead to less crop yields than was predicted.

These natural disasters and other extreme weather conditions resulting from the ongoing global climate crisis are a cause for concern in Sri Lanka especially, which is particularly vulnerable to the impact of climate change.

As a nation whose agricultural sector still plays a significant economic role, drastic changes in weather have had serious implications for food production, food security, and rural livelihoods, in addition to leading to an overall decline in agricultural productivity.

Ministry of Agriculture Secretary Prof. Uditha Jayasinghe, responding to a query by The Sunday Morning, said that relief efforts for the farmers suffering from crop damages were underway as usual through the Agricultural and Agrarian Insurance Board.

According to Prof. Jayasinghe, the Department of Agriculture advised farmers on certain agronomic interventions to ensure high productivity under the prevailing weather conditions. Such agro-meteorological advisory measures attempt to shape adaptive strategies to extreme weather conditions including intense rains, which always lead to infectious diseases such as bacterial and fungal diseases and also post-harvest losses.

The State’s attempts to counter climate-induced losses notwithstanding, the stronger than usual torrential rains during this monsoon season have continued to threaten the food security of the country by leaving the Maha season (the main growing season in the country) harvest, vulnerable.

According to the Department of Meteorology Director General A.K. Karunanayake, the ongoing severe weather has begun to ease up with the inter-monsoon period coming to an end.

While relief operations continue to be underway despite easing weather conditions, heavy rain, mudslides, high winds, and floods have affected 65,704 families and 230,640 people so far.

The Meteorology Department has reported that certain areas of the country including major paddy-growing districts such as Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, and Hambantota had experienced above normal rainfall during the month of October.

Although the months of October and November usually bring the northeast monsoon to the island, this year’s monsoon season has caused higher than usual rainfall in most parts of the country.

Following the days of severe weather in Sri Lanka since late October, the Disaster Management Centre (DMC) situation report notes that conditions in the country are finally stabilising as of 13 November.

According to the DMC, the most affected areas include the Puttalam, Kurunegala, Jaffna, and Kegalle Districts in northern and north-western Sri Lanka.

Food price volatility

As a sector, the field of agriculture depends on reliable weather patterns, which inevitably suffers disruptions with erratic weather born of climate change. Farmers face a whole new set of challenges, and the failure to adapt to these conditions will impact Sri Lanka’s food and nutritional security, since the heavy rains and subsequent flooding have destroyed potential food yields, which will add to increased pressure on the local market prices.

While farmers are no longer able to rely on their harvests with any degree of certainty due to the erratic weather and change in the use of fertiliser, this season’s excess rainfall and extreme weather has ruined crops and will greatly diminish the yields of the Maha season.

All Ceylon Farmers’ Federation (ACFF) National Organiser Namal Karunaratne noted that the prevailing weather conditions were only compounding an existing problem.

He acknowledged that constant rain posed a considerably strong threat to the seasonal harvest, since the prolonged submersion of plants in water caused numerous issues. Primarily, he noted that the dampened root systems of the plants will lead to fungal diseases that spread throughout the entire crop, or cause plants to rot at the root. Moreover, he highlighted that short-term vegetable crops are especially susceptible to damages caused by excess rain.

Karunaratne said that the weather impacted the farming community at every level of the cycle, beginning with complicating the distribution of vegetables due to the inability to collect the existing harvest.

As there is less produce, the public broadcasting of produce scarcity will serve to drive up the prices of vegetables in the market. However, he also noted that notwithstanding the weather conditions, the farming community was facing a lower harvest primarily due to the fertiliser issue.

This sentiment was similarly echoed by a farmer from Welimada whose crops consist of vegetables such as beans and cabbage. According to him, the lack of fertiliser compounds the impact of the severe weather; since the harvest is already low due to a fertiliser shortage, there is no way to revive the damaged crops even after the constant rains had passed, without fertiliser.

According to previous patterns, steep rises in vegetable prices following floods in food growing areas are accompanied by falling numbers of vegetables entering the market each day. The Covid-19 pandemic has worsened the price of food products around the world, and in Sri Lanka, the pandemic-induced supply crisis and limitations will be joining Sri Lanka’s production shortages due to floods destroying the current harvest. As such, Sri Lanka’s food security outcomes are currently facing the twin challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic, followed by the floods, the latter occurring in a context of an economy weakened due to pandemic-induced risks to food availability and accessibility, especially for the poor and vulnerable communities.

The United Nations (UN) Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) notes that the major climate hazards affecting the Nuwara Eliya and Badulla Districts are wind, landslides, flood, and heavy rains, which implies that the upstream vegetable supply chains in the Nuwara Eliya and Badulla Districts are highly vulnerable due to wind events seriously affecting vegetable production.

The FAO study points to the conclusion that the impact of climate hazards on production and excessive post-harvest losses along the supply chain are the main reasons for the unaffordability of vegetables, especially to the poorer segments of the population. One major reason for this is that climate hazards in production regions naturally translate into food price increases.

Impact of adverse weather 

Families affected: 65,704

People affected: 230,640

Death toll: 26

Full and partial housing damage: 1,623

Source: DMC