Flood of counter claims

Wednesday, 26 January 2011 00:47 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

(By Shezna Shums)

Agriculture Minister says only 400,000 acres of paddy land affected, 10% fully damaged; insists no rice shortage.

Agriculture Minister Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena yesterday made public the Government’s assessment of the impact following floods, reiterating that only 10% of the paddy land was fully hit, in addition to insisting there was no shortage of rice in the country.“I like to state that 400,000 acres of paddy were damaged due to the recent floods.

However, 80 per cent of the paddy which was recovered is resistant to water. Only about 10 per cent was totally damaged, which is why there is no (rice) shortage now,” the Minister told the inauguration of the web portal at the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute (HARTI).

“In the upcoming season in February we will have to catch up with this 10 per cent of lost paddy cultivation,” he added.

He was apparently responding to Opposition claims that recent floods caused a more serious damage whilst UN agencies too have made an initial assessment pointing to considerable loss. (see box story).

Minister Abeywardena stated that food security was important to everyone around the world, because by the year 2040 it is estimated that there will be approximately four billion people worldwide who will need food.

He said that food security surveillance was important in the current climate of global warming and other natural climatic changes.

The Minister recalled that in 2006 President Mahinda Rajapaksa provided a 90 per cent subsidy on fertiliser for paddy farmers and that these benefits were being seen today.

“Owing to this in 2010 Sri Lanka became self sufficient with regard to rice,” the Minister said.

Speaking further with regard to food security, the Minister noted that it was important that the country did not lose anymore agricultural crops and that the Ministry of Agriculture even initiated the use of plastic boxes to store produce to reduce wastage.

“A total of 200,000 plastic boxes have been given to farmers and more will be distributed to the traders as well, and by February it will be mandatory to use these boxes,” he said.

Furthermore, in a move to improve agriculture production, the Government will continue to subsidise fertiliser. Annually Rs. 4 billion is spent on fertiliser subsidies.

“We don’t want to import anything that we can produce in this country,” emphasised Minister Abeywardena.

“The food security surveillance will help the country in achieving this target,” he added.

Noting that agricultural assistance would be given to farmers to optimise output, he added that at the same time it was important to think of the natural disasters we may face in the future, stressing that “we have to think of the future and of a possible drought and be ready to meet this challenge”.

The Minister said that it was important to give incentives to farmers to start agricultural cultivation in the dry zones with the use of drip irrigation.

“Drip irrigation is costly but effective, and the other method to be promoted is poly tunnel cultivation,” added the Minister.

Minister Abeywardena requested that the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) help the Government’s efforts in these areas.

The Minister noted that support was needed to make local farmers aware of the newer agricultural techniques that would help increase their incomes in return.

The other issues that will have to be addressed are to assist the farmers in eradicating insects that destroy crops and address the other factors that affect the final output of cultivation.

The problem of crop wastage is also another matter to be looked at further, as about 30 per cent of the crop cultivation is destroyed.

Another crucial element in the agricultural industry is of market manipulation which is beyond Government control, which can now be seen by way of increasing cost of coconuts and at some point rice prices. Although the price of paddy remains the same, the cost of rice has gone up. “We have to meet this challenge,” he stressed.

“There is no point in having a lot of money if there is no food to buy,” Minister Abeywardena added.

Paddy stocks to last three months

Cooperatives and Internal Trade Minister Johnston Fernando has said that there would not be a shortage of paddy this year, as the government has a buffer stock of paddy to last for another three months.

The Minister has said there would not be a shortage due to the high yield harvested last year.

Fernando has told the media that the government has stored a massive amount of paddy due to the high yield during the last year and that would help compensate the loss of the paddy crop due to the floods.

The Paddy Marketing Board (PMB) is to convert the stored paddy into rice as and when the need arises as they did during the December festive season.

UN bodies estimate 500,000 residents are food-insecure; $ 120 m paddy stock lost

The United Nations agencies are estimating 500,000 residents in flood hit areas are food-insecure whilst putting the loss of paddy stock at $ 120 million. These estimates are contained in an article published on Monday in IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Following are excerpts:

Food security and livelihoods have been severely hit in Sri Lanka, specialists say, after heavy rains caused widespread flooding and drove hundreds of thousands from their homes, left 43 people dead, and damaged or destroyed close to 30,000 homes.

According to the UN, agricultural production is the main source of livelihood in the affected area and this season’s rice harvest has been badly damaged, leading to increased food insecurity.

The World Food Programme (WFP) estimates about 500,000 residents are food-insecure.

In the worst affected districts of Ampara, Batticaloa, and Trincomalee in Eastern Province, heavy rains between 8 and 12 January left more than 101,171 hectares of paddy fields damaged, of which more than 81,000ha suffered moderate to severe damage, initial estimates suggest.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates a loss of about 450,000 tons or US$ 120 million.

“The potential loss has been calculated to be in the region of 15.5 percent,” Calvin Piggott, FAO’s senior northern recovery coordinator in Sri Lanka, told IRIN.

The flooding, some of the worst in 100 years, came just two months before fields were to be harvested for the Maha – the principal growing season in the island nation. More than 607,000ha are cultivated during this time, with over one-fifth of that in the four districts hit by the floods.

In some towns such as Manampitiya, along the border between Polonnaruwa and Batticaloa districts, hundreds of hectares were affected.

Here, water hyacinth – regarded as the world’s worst water weed – was washed into the fields with the flood waters, covering 81ha of paddy land in one stretch, Manhina Banda, the Government agriculture officer for the area, said.

“You can’t do anything but wait for the weed to die. Taking it out will be a colossal expenditure,” he said.

Elsewhere, when the paddy was under water for two to three days, the harvest was either destroyed or will be woefully low.

“The paddy can look fine, but if it was under water for over a day there will be no harvest,” farmer Sarath Weerasinghe from Kirimitiya, an interior village in the Polonnaruwa District, explained.

Weerasinghe is typical of many small-time paddy cultivators in Sri Lanka who depend on rice as their primary source of income. He cultivated 1.2ha, spending around $ 600 per 0.4ha, and hoped to make about $1,000 per 0.4ha from the harvest.

Weerasinghe financed the cultivation from a small loan obtained from a local businessman. He has no insurance and no way of recouping his losses unless he receives direct assistance.

But rice farmers are not the only ones reeling; other small crops have suffered losses, though estimates have yet to be finalised.

“There will be multiple effects felt right across the country,” Seenithamby Manoharan, a Senior Rural Development Specialist with the World Bank Sri Lanka office, told IRIN, warning that in addition to the losses suffered by farmers, there were likely to be price rises when the harvest fell short of expectations.

Since the rains began at the end of 2010, the Economic Centre in central Dambulla, the country’s main bulk vegetable distribution centre, has recorded price increases of more than 80 per cent, the UN said.

Another area of heavy losses is likely to be livestock. In Verugal, a village in the Trincomalee District with 12,000 people, the loss of livestock was over 10,000, Ponnambalam Thanesveran, the divisional secretary for the village, said. So far no figures have been established for the total loss of livestock due to the flooding.

The FAO is conducting a detailed study of the flood damage, Piggott said, with initial assistance likely to begin in the next three weeks targeting the most vulnerable.

The Government has held talks with the World Bank on how to assist the famers, but so far there has been no concrete assistance targeting the destroyed crops or livestock. In most areas, local officials were gathering information last week to be sent to Government authorities in the capital Colombo.

“Something has to be done fast, some of these people have lost their only means of income,” Thanesveran said.

On 20 January, the UN and its partners launched a $ 51 million appeal to assist more than one million people over the next six months. Of this, $ 22 million is designated for food security, agriculture and livelihoods.

The appeal is expected to be revised within the next month to reflect needs as the situation changes and assessments are made available.

TISL highlights need for transparency in flood relief work

The Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL) whilst expressing grief over recent floods yesterday urged the need for accountability and transparency in relief work.

In a statement TSIL said the biggest floods in decades have wreaked havoc globally where hundreds of people were killed and millions of people were displaced. Countries like Australia, Brazil, and Colombia were devastated by this natural disaster.

Sri Lanka too suffered severely due to heavy monsoon rains causing floods across the island nation. At least 40 people have died due to this. Around 1.1 million Sri Lankans were affected and 51,400 people are languishing in temporary shelters. This unprecedented flood crippled Sri Lanka’s rice production. Transparency International Sri Lanka is deeply grieved with the disaster caused by the recent floods causing immense hardship to thousands of families.

While appreciating the timely intervention of a number of countries by providing prompt assistance for the benefit of flood victims, TISL stresses on the need to be extremely cautious and be transparent in the distribution of aid to the affected people minimising the lapses that may occur.

TISL is confident that the lessons learnt from the tsunami debacle will be carefully studied and adhered to, at this juncture to implement a meaningful and transparent relief programme to the victims.

The generosity of humanity is best illustrated in times of disaster and TISL is most appreciative of the timely action taken by the Government spending more than Rs. 150 million to provide relief to the affected families and deploying the armed forces in rescue operations and welfare activities.

As for the assistance rendered by friendly countries, TISL is extremely thankful to the European Union, India, USA, China, Japan, and Canada as well as international agencies such as the United Nations and Oxfam for coming forward and donating more than Rs. 1,100 million.

TISL urges the Government, volunteer agencies and the general public to be mindful of possible lapses in the distribution of aid and to ensure a transparent mechanism which would deliver maximum benefits to the affected people while maintaining highest standards of integrity.