Sri Lanka’s ongoing drought is biting deep, with more than 1,300,025 individuals from 377,123 families affected. According to the Disaster Management Centre 20 districts including 143 divisional secretariat divisions were affected following the drought and the highest number of victims has been reported from the Kurunegala District at 231,121.
The disaster is so serious that providing relief could well mean Sri Lanka will see lacklustre growth and even possibly miss its deficit target of 4.6% for 2017. Growth, which was initially an optimistic 5%, has been reduced to about 4.5% with the Central Bank Governor admitting even that would be a stretch.
Global rating agencies have also warned that drought-related costs will add to Sri Lanka’s fiscal challenge and put further pressure on the B1 negative rating. The situation has turned into a crisis as pressure mounts on the Government to find sustainable policies to deal with the economic fallout.
The effects of droughts are certainly not new to Sri Lanka, having been through several in recent years. However, this has not changed the Government’s traditionally reactive efforts to offset the negative effects of water scarcity. Despite the frequency of these droughts, no concerted effort has yet been made to formulate and adopt national drought policies that are timely, well-coordinated and sustainable.
It is imperative that an effective monitoring and early warning system delivers timely information to decision-makers. Effective impact assessment procedures, proactive risk management measures, preparedness plans aimed at increasing the coping capacity and effective emergency response programs directed at reducing the impact of drought are all needed in order to ensure that Sri Lanka doesn’t keep making the same mistakes each time a crisis situation arises.
Change has been extremely slow, largely because knowledge of climate change and its impact has been limited amongst the villages that are worst affected. This has meant that despite the Government’s attempts to change the start of the major paddy seasons and bring them forward by several weeks, the reception at the grassroots level has been sporadic. Even with drought-related taskforces being among the best-funded public bodies, it is difficult to feel a noticeable change in how we have handled these situations. Given the nature of global warming, it is evident that drought and flood-related measures will have to be made a permanent part of policymaking with a strong link to environmental conservation, research and technology.
The Government will also have to create functional relationships with the private sector, communities and research institutions. The private sector can be utilised to help provide farmers with crop insurance, for instance. Furthermore, emphasis must be put on research and improving agricultural technology to counter the ill-effects of droughts; technology such as drought-resistant crops.
The Government must adopt policies that engender cooperation and coordination at all levels of Government in order to increase its capacity to cope with extended periods of water scarcity in the event of a drought. Creating drought-resilient societies should be the main objective.
Given the already precarious position Sri Lanka finds itself in, it can ill afford to be reactive in these situations any longer. The Government must focus its efforts on empowerment, prevention and awareness with a strong system governed by well thought out policy in place for crisis situations, in order to minimise the damage. Similarly, those affected need to stop accepting mere handouts from the Government once tragedy strikes and demand for a more permanent solution.