Suranga Lakmal, 36, remembers when the rains came to his village in Kekirawa, in the Anuradhapura district of the Central Province in May 2018. “It rained for days,” he said. “Although we had been waiting for the rain, it felt like this was a punishment. Our crops were entirely destroyed — all the labour of the season, just gone.”
The previous year, his village was one of many in 16 districts that were affected by a prolonged drought, the worst in four decades. After the heavy rains of May 2018, Kekirawa was once again hit by drought, this time in September 2018. By December 2018, the rains had come again to play havoc in the Northern, Central, Sabaragamuwa and Western provinces.
Lakmal said the calamitous weather patterns—something he’s noticed as more pronounced since “about three years ago”—was making it harder and harder for farmers like him to make a living. “Life is hard for us anyway,” he said. “We have so many problems, but harsh weather patterns make it so much harder.”
It is why so many young people are abandoning traditional farmlands in search of more ‘secure’ jobs in the cities. “At least we know we have a salary at the end of the month,” Lakmal said. It is not glamorous work they find — many work as labourers on construction sites and the steady influx of workers amounts to low wages. But for many from the farming community, the trade-off is worthwhile.
“This change in perspective is most apparent in the third generation farmer,” Namal Karunaratne, National Organiser of the All Ceylon Farmers’ Federation told Roar Media. Once a farmer himself, Karunaratne said first and second generation farmers like his grandparents and parents, had no option but to farm. “With the younger generation it is different — they can go to the cities for work,” he said.
While the agriculture sector contributes to only 6.9% of the GDP, it employs 26.1% of the country’s workforce. Despite this, it is estimated that as many as four million Sri Lankans are now internal migrants. According to the Department of Census and Statistics, many are from the Central, Southern, North Western and North Central provinces, and move to urban districts such as Colombo, Gampaha and Kalutara in search of jobs.
But many of them don’t last there. “The bond with the land is too strong,” Karunaratne said. “After some time they come back and try their hand at farming again.” But the same problems persist and the dissatisfied farmers leave for the cities once more. “This cycle will continue for as long as the issues farmers face are left unresolved,” he said.
But what can Sri Lanka do to mitigate climate change, the defining global issue of our times? The number of casualties recorded due to natural disasters last year resulted in the country being ranked second in the Global Climate Index of countries most susceptible to climate change. And while conservation, sustainability and an end to pollution are now global topics, countries remain divided on how much they are willing to do to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases to reduce the effects of climate change.
Even the Paris Agreement, an initiative of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which was drafted in December 2015 to encourage member countries to keep global average temperature rise to below 2 °C, will only come into effect in 2020. This means that any eventual changes brought about by the effort of these countries, will only be apparent much later.
But according to the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), Sri Lanka needs to do more to develop the rural economy in the short term. In a piece entitled ‘Weathering the Storm: Improving Disaster Resilience of Rural Workers in Sri Lanka’, written for the report ‘Sri Lanka: State of the Economy 2018’, Research Director Dr. Nisha Arunatillake argues that the rural population must receive support to withstand the adverse effects of climate change.
“With more than 82 percent of Sri Lanka’s population, including 92 percent of the poor, living in rural areas, developing the rural economy is necessary to help them withstand the vagaries of weather and improve living standards,” she writes. In her opinion, “better education, better institutions, better infrastructure, better coverage of social protection” as well as better jobs are necessary to uplift the rural worker.
“There will be more internal migration as a result of climate change if the government does not develop the rural economy,” Dr. Arunatillake told Roar Media. She added that while the government has a strategic interest in keeping a minimum number of lands in agriculture because it did not want to rely totally on imports, “people will move when they are unable to make a living where they are.”
Although a temporary solution, migration to urban areas is not the answer to the growing problems of rural workers. Many are forced to live in cramped spaces, paying for rent, utilities and bearing the cost of higher living expenses. More migrants also place a bigger burden on urban infrastructure, adding to already congested public transport and sanitation. Furthermore, urban dwellers are not exempt from climate-related disasters. In the May 2018 floods, up to 2,270 homes were partially damaged in Colombo —the highest number in the country.
“Urban dwellers must also be made disaster-resilient,” Dr. Arunatillake said. “Some of their livelihoods are also affected by climatic changes.” She said the best way to manage the entire situation was to build awareness on mitigation. “It is important to develop technologies that can withstand climate change, and the responsibility for this should come from the highest level, as this is a cross-cutting issue,” she said.
Karunaratne was also emphatic that the government must do more to cushion the hardships that farmers face as a result of climate change. “There are many issues farmers undergo,” he said. “But if I were to categorise them into four key areas, it would be production, storage, innovation and fair price.”
“Production cost is high,” Karunaratne said. “It is only when the government reduces the price of seeds, fertilisers and agro-chemicals that we can make a profit. Because no matter what the production cost is, we can’t sell our product for too high a price because the consumer can’t afford it. So we have to keep our prices moderate and take the hit ourselves.”
“In addition, no attention is paid to storage,” he said. “Tonnes of produce goes to waste. Produce is loaded into sacks, thrown into lorries, labourers climb into those very lorries and step on the produce. Up to 40 per cent of produce is eventually thrown away. Of a 100 sacks, only 60 make it to the market. This is a national shame.”
Besides storage, preservation and packaging have not kept pace with the times. “No support is given to innovation,” said Karunaratne. “We just produce the raw material. In other countries, techniques like sun-drying have been adopted to preserve and add value to certain types of food. None of that is being done by the farming community in Sri Lanka. These manufacturing networks have to be established to support the farmer. Ultimately, this is a vulnerable community that needs the support of the government for mere existence.”