The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s report on “Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability” says: “Climate change without adaptation could potentially affect the farm livelihood and all aspects of food security including food access, utilization, and price stability.”
This is arguably the best way to summarize the impacts of recent climatic situation in Sri Lanka. Climate change threatens agricultural production, makes those who are dependent on agriculture more vulnerable, and exacerbates the risks of food security. It is evident that long-term and gradual changes are taking place in Sri Lanka’s climate, such as rising temperature and erratic rainfall patterns, and these negatively impact agricultural production and food security. However, in recent times, most of the attention focused on extreme climate conditions such as severe droughts and floods.
Climate risks and food production anomalies
Gradual changes in climatic conditions have already affected the production of domestic crops, including Sri Lanka’s staple food rice, and extreme climate events threaten to worsen this. At the beginning of 2016, Sri Lanka faced the worst drought in 40 years, severely affecting the agricultural production in the country.
Yala 2016 (May-September, 2016), the first cultivation season following the drought, recorded about a 20 percent drop in both production as well as the extent of cultivation of rice relative to Yala 2015. The main harvest season Maha 2017 (December 2016-February 2017) achieved only a half of the rice production of Maha2016. Yala 2017 production too showed a further drop in production. This situation was further exacerbated by severe floods in mid-2017 in South Western parts of Sri Lanka. The impact of continuing dry spells and severe floods was disastrous for farmers’ livelihoods and
While the production of rice showed some improvements with climate threats easing off towards the end of 2017, production forecast for Maha 2018 is nowhere close to the levels before the drought. Usually, over 85 percent of the total rice supply to the country is produced domestically. It has been estimated by the Department of Agriculture that, at the present annual consumption of 110kg per person, the population of Sri Lanka can only be fed for just seven months from the Maha 2018 harvest; this situation jeopardizes food security, rural livelihoods, and the economy
of Sri Lanka.
The production of other major agricultural products, including maize, potato, onions, grams, and vegetables, too have been similarly affected. Farmers have been continuously struggling to adapt to climate shocks, as they try to safeguard their livelihoods.
Soaring food prices and livelihood impacts
Climate change leads to low levels of agricultural output, resulting in diminished incomes for the farmers, and higher food prices for the consumers. Both of these consequences undeniably reduce the purchasing power of people, and thereby limit their access to food; the rural poor are especially vulnerable.
Under these circumstances, the poorest people, who already use a larger proportion of their income on food, are forced to sacrifice other assets to meet their food requirements, pushing themselves further into depths of poverty. If not, they resort to poor coping strategies such as limiting their food consumption or shifting to less nutritious and unhealthy diets, which makes them insecure in terms of food and nutrition.
Food price index (FPI) relates the changes in cost and economic access to food by consumers. The FPI increased by a staggering 22 percent from 104.3 in 2014 to 127.5 in 2017, compared to a 10 percent increase of the non-food price index during the same period. Lack of access to sufficient nutritious food due to high cost is a key factor contributing tofood insecurity and malnutrition in Sri Lanka. Also, there are regional and seasonal differences when it comes to the affordability of a nutritious diet. The minimum Cost of Diet (COD) estimate of the World Food Programme (WFP)finds that more than 50 percent of households in the Eastern Province could not afford an adequately nutritious diet in 2014, while this ranges from 39 percent and 48 percent (between the Yala/Maha cultivation and harvesting seasons) in the Uva Province.Even though the COD estimations are not readily available, access to foodin 2017 is not expected to be better.
Increasing food insecurity
The impacts of climate risks, food production variability, and rising food prices are clearly visible in recent national and global food security indicators. Malnutrition is a good indicator to determine whether households are food secure. Average of 2014-2016 data indicates that nearly 4.6 million people, equivalent to 22 percent of the total population in Sri Lanka, are estimated to be undernourished. The Global Nutrition Report 2016 ranks Sri Lanka among the countries with the highest wasting (low weight for height)prevalence(21.4 percent).
The FAO data indicate a comparatively higher level of underweight (26.3 percent)in Sri Lanka. Moreover, according to the National Strategic Review of Food Security and Nutrition, severe regional disparities exist in the prevalence of malnutrition, with highly vulnerable farming areas representing the highest levels of malnutrition. For example, Kilinochchi, Monaragala, Mullaitivu, Polonnaruwa and Trincomalee show the highest prevalence of wasting and underweight in Sri Lanka.
The Global Hunger Index (GHI) developed by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), and the Global Food Security Index (GFSI) constructed by the Economic Intelligence Unit (EIU) of The Economist rank Sri Lanka at 84th and 66th positions respectively, showing a slight worsening of food security and hunger situations in 2017.The GFSI further shows that the resilience of Sri Lanka to natural resource and climate-related risks is at an average level, posing long term threats to food securityin the country.
Climate smart agriculture as solution
While Sri Lanka is trying to move in the right direction to achieve Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, challenges posed by climate shocks have made it difficult to reach the goals pertaining to sustainable agriculture and food security. Since climate change is the current reality, agricultural systems must adapt accordingly, to avoid the harmful consequences of climate risks. Climate Smart Agriculture (CSA) is an approach that transforms agricultural systems to effectively support farming livelihoods and ensure food security in the current context. CSA can prevent the worst impacts of climate change on farm livelihoods and help make people less vulnerable to food insecurity
CSA highlights that climate threats can be reduced by increasing the adaptive capacity of farmers, as well as by increasing resilience and efficiency of resource use in agricultural production systems. While reducing the agriculture sector’s contribution to climate change is less of a priority for Sri Lanka, more importantly, farming communities need to adjust their livelihood patterns to sustainably increase their production and income. This demonstrates that the solutions for climate risks and food insecurity can be derived from making agriculture climate smart.
Sri Lanka is off to a good start when it comes to making agriculture climate smart. The government has developed a National Adaptation Plan to help adapt to climate change. The National Agriculture Policy, undertaken by the Ministry of Agriculture, includes climate change adaptation as a main priority. While different CSA strategies, including developing tolerant varieties, promoting water efficient farming methods, and adjusting cropping calendars according to climate forecasts, have been proposed, Sri Lanka is still lacking in terms of developing systems for timely issuing and communicating of climate information to farmers. Moreover, even though resilience is embedded in traditional knowledge, none of the policy responses to climate change support and enhance indigenous resilience.
Therefore, CSA practices should be tailored to the specific characteristics of the local farming systems and local socio-economic conditions and require awell-articulated information management system coupled with improved small holder access to finances, resources and markets.
(Manoj Thibbotuwawa is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka (IPS). Contact the author on