Drought brings poverty

Wednesday, 28 September 2016 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Drought and poverty are two sides of the same coin. Depending on the severity of the drought, affected farmers could see their harvests reduced or destroyed, borrow money to subsist and see their socio-economic stability dwindle significantly. Droughts are becoming frighteningly frequent in Sri Lanka, making it essential for holistic and long term policies for mitigation.      

The Climate Change Secretariat was established in 2007 to provide policy options for adaptation and response strategies for climate change on key socio-economic sectors, but nothing concrete had taken place to date. Relief handouts are the main government drought management approach. Although important in reducing hunger and hardship among the populations affected, provision of relief alone is clearly inadequate and may even be an inefficient response for achieving longer-term drought mitigation.

Given the strong linkage between drought and poverty, it is critically important to include drought mitigation as an integral part of overall rural development strategy. Policies that, in general, increase income growth and encourage income diversification also serve to protect farmers from the adverse consequences of risk, including that of drought.

Research to develop improved technologies can help provide protection from drought. Scientific progress in understanding the physiology of drought and in developing biotechnology tools offers the promise of significant impact in drought mitigation. However, agricultural research in general remains grossly underinvested in Sri Lanka. This is cause for concern, not only for drought mitigation, but for promoting overall agricultural development.

Improvement in rice production technology is but one of the components of an overall strategy for effective drought mitigation. Increased moisture availability to crops through water conservation and harvesting and watershed development is an important component. The potential is limited for large-scale development of conventional sources of irrigation based on large dams and shallow groundwater in drought-prone areas, at least in the near future. Better management of local rainfall can accomplish much – through water harvesting and moisture conservation measures.

In addition to technological interventions, a range of viable policy interventions can improve farmers’ capacity to manage drought through more effective income- and consumption-smoothing mechanisms. Improvements in rural infrastructure and marketing that allow farmers to diversify their income sources can play an important role in reducing overall income risk. Investment in rural education can similarly help diversify income. Such investments contribute directly to income growth, which will further increase farmers’ capacity to cope with agricultural risk. 

The widening and deepening of rural financial markets will also be a critical factor in reducing fluctuations in both income and consumption over time. Innovative approaches such as rainfall derivatives and international reinsurance of agricultural risk are promising. Improvements in drought forecasting and efficient provision of such information to farmers can improve their decisions regarding crop choice and input use. These institutional and policy interventions can be designed to complement technologies for maximum impact. 

Even though agriculture contributes about 7% of Sri Lanka’s GDP as much as 70% of its total 16 million workforce estimated to work in the sector, largely in the informal category. Of this more than half are women and droughts usually make their lives harder. The country also has a large percentage of “near poor,” which essentially means millions are likely to fall under the poverty line in a natural disaster. Ultimately fighting drought is fighting poverty.