Drought disaster; Thousands drowning in debts - EDITORIAL

Sri Lanka is facing one of its worst-ever droughts and the Government, along with other charity groups, should give the highest priority for short-term and long-term measures to build bridges over these troubled waters.

Environmentalists and others say this calamity if not catastrophe has been brought about by a multitude of reasons. They include global warming, caused mainly by large-scale deforestation which has given this country the dubious record of being fourth in the list of the world’s worst offenders to whom the poet would say “Woodman, spare thy axe”. The crisis has hit international headlines with the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) saying in a report on Wednesday that the drought has hit an estimated 1.5 million Sri Lankans with 768,000 in urgent need of basic food and livelihood requirements.

Three consecutive years of natural disasters have undermined household resilience. People in affected areas have built up unsustainable levels of debts, have insufficient access to water for irrigation, have limited quality seed supply and are exposed to a continued decline in agricultural income, the WFP warns.
The severe drought has affected people in the North, North Central and Eastern Provinces. These drought affected areas are the main regions that produce rice, which has been the vital staple food of Sri Lanka for thousands of years.

Increases in food prices due to drought increased Sri Lanka’s July inflation rate to 3.6 percent from 2.8 percent in the previous month, latest data released by the Central Bank show. In 2012, a severe drought reduced growth from the projected 7.2 percent to 6.7 percent. Analysts warn the projected growth of 7.8 percent for this year could also be similarly affected but the Government has not changed estimates.

The WFP in its report has warned household food consumption has deteriorated sharply. Due to the drought, 18 percent of households consume inadequate diets, a threefold increase from what was once 6 percent.   It says immediate coordinated relief and agricultural inputs specifically targeting the vulnerable households are recommended to prevent a further collapse in household resilience. Many families are borrowing heavily to meet daily needs.

The Government initially pledged Rs. 1.9 billion and last week pledged another Rs 130 million. However, opposition leaders have accused the Government of not having adequate long-term plans to deal with the drought.

In recent months an unprecedented number of forest fires have also been reported with hundreds of acres of paddy, vegetable and fruit cultivation being destroyed. While the official view attributes these fires to natural causes, independent environmentalists and others say the possibility of sabotage also needs to be probed. They say large-scale timber racketeers known to be operating under high-level political patronage could get vast areas to cut down priceless trees. This means more deforestation and a worse drought in the coming years meaning that millions of people will be plunged into the mudpits of poverty.

In July last year Agrarian Services Minister S. M. Chandrasena said the Government on the direction of President Mahinda Rajapaksa would build 5,000 agro-wells in the North Central Province to cope with the drought and as a relief measure to farmers.He said in addition to this, farmers would be provided Rs.10,000 to renovate agricultural wells.

If this project or promise had been properly implemented, Sri Lanka would not be facing its worst-ever drought with thousands of families, most of them farmer families virtually begging to survive. We appeal that other events including the Uva Provincial Council election campaign be put down the list and priority given for drought relief.
Long-term the Government needs to focus on the restoration of more than ten thousand wewas, widely acclaimed as masterpieces of ancient engineering and part of our civilisation.

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