By Mahieash Johnney in Colombo, Sri Lanka
Since December last year Sri Lanka has been waiting for rains that finally arrived last month. Adding to the problems caused by the drought, Cyclone Nilam hit the island last week, affecting over 50,000 people and displacing close to 5,000 across the island.
Usually rains are welcomed after a long period of drought, but this time they brought floods and landslides, worsening the situation for farmers and communities who have endured the drought. However, the rainfall is insufficient to ease the dry conditions or allow for crop planting in all drought-affected areas.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has launched a one million Swiss Franc appeal to help the Sri Lanka Red Cross support 20,000 vulnerable families (or approximately 125,000 people).
“Such adverse weather is typical of the expected effects of climate change; people are now even more vulnerable”, said Bob McKerrow, the IFRC’s head of delegation in Sri Lanka. “These rains won’t make a big difference to farmers and rural communities who have suffered from the drought. Their water sources are contaminated, they have the lost majority of their crops and seeds and their livelihoods are at risk. It will require a substantial amount of rain for ground water levels to rise and fill water reservoirs.”
For the second consecutive season, rainfall has been scant. Many reservoirs have dried up and people living in many remote areas do not have access to safe drinking water. Their condition is becoming critical.
Since July, the government of Sri Lanka and Sri Lanka Red Cross Society branches have delivered water to the worst-affected villages. The government has been assisting families with cash-for-work programmes to rehabilitate minor irrigation systems, canals and rural access roads, and will provide safe drinking water, water pumps, fertilizer and seeds to farmers for the next cultivation season.
Despite this, farmers need small water tanks, minor irrigation systems and wells to prepare for the next rain season. The IFRC appeal aims to provide safe drinking water and water storage to communities and schools, and cash grants and vocational training to restart farming, home gardening or other ways to make a living.
The operation will also support assisstance and resilience programmes in many small communities over the next 18 months.
In the Northern Province alone the government estimates that over 60 percent of the rice harvest could be lost because of the months’ of drought.
Jagath Abeysinghe, President of the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society said: “Sri Lanka has two monsoons, the northeast and the southwest. In the past two years these monsoons did not bring the expected rains. Due to the drought many failed to yield a good harvest or to cultivate in the first part of the year. This means people have less money to buy seeds for the next season”.
World Food Programme (WFP) estimates suggest that 900,000 people are in need of immediate food assistance. Families are increasingly deciding to eat once or twice a day and are spending more than 90 per cent of their income on food but are consuming insufficient quantities of nutritious food.
Sri Lanka’s Metrological Department says the rainfall on the island has been declining over last 30 – 40 years, a trend that can cause more frequent and severe droughts.
The Sri Lanka Red Cross is advocating for climate smart programming in an effort to mitigate the risk of adverse weather events.