Sri Lanka is likely to face a massive food shortage between June and August this year as production has already dropped to more than 50% during the Maha Season alone.
Officials also pointed out that the drought situation is expected to have a massive hit on vegetable and fruit production.
The irregular weather patterns and the delays in rains experienced in recent times have aggravated the situation with the existing stock of rice enough for the people only till the end of February.
Director General of the Agriculture Department, Dr. Rohan Wijekoon speaking to Weekend Nation pointed out that local rice production had dropped by over 50%.
Accordingly, 800,000 hectares of paddy is cultivated during the season whereas this time farmers could only cultivate a mere 300,000 hectares.
“We usually cultivate 400,000 hectares for the Yala season. But the tanks are only filled up to 30% capacity this time,” he said. He pointed out that usually the tanks were filled up to 60% of the capacity.
“We cannot expect much. In addition, we generally do not get much rains in March and April,” Dr. Wijekoon added.
Recently, Minister of Social Empowerment and Welfare, S.B. Dissanayake stated that the country should prepare for a probable food shortage in 2017 while adding that alternate sources of food in place of paddy had to be grown in order to mitigate such a situation.
There is also the issue of unused or unutilized lands. According to Dr. Wijekoon, the department has located at least 150,000 acres of abandoned land that could be used for cultivation in the wet zone alone. “The wet zone is the cushion of the country. These lands could be utilised for cultivation,” he added.
He said that the government would get funding from the USA in order to utilise the abandoned lands and that the department had already commenced initiatives to address the situation that could arise due to the inadequacy of rains.
In light of the current situation and as a long-term measure the Agriculture Department has urged the public to indulge in home gardening.
Wijekoon said that those who indulge in home gardening would also be provided with drought resistant seeds and micro irrigation facilities.
In addition, the department has also launched a special programme to provide free vegetable seeds that would need very little water which is funded by the likes of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the UNDP.
CEB relaxes tariff
The department has also made several other attempts to promote home gardening and small scale agriculture cultivation in the country by obtaining support from other government institutions.
Wijekoon said that the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) has agreed to provide electricity at a concessionary rate to farmers and home gardeners. Accordingly, the CEB has agreed to reduce rates between 10 pm to 6 am. “The rates have been reduced to Rs. 6 from Rs. 11 per unit during this period,” Wijekoon added.
He said the home gardeners have to inform the representatives of the department and also the CEB. “They will be provided with a separate meter to obtain electricity at the special rate,” he said.
Food crisis in 2017 Lack of purchase mechanism
The National Movement for Consumer Rights Protection pointed out that the primary reasons for the impending scenario were the drought which hindered farming activity, the lack of a mechanism to purchase the farmers’ produce for the market at a controlled and acceptable price and the absence of an agricultural policy.
Chairman of the Movement, Ranjith Withanage said that the fact that farmers were given money to buy fertilizer as had been done previously is also playing a role in this regard.
He noted that value additions such as creating tomato sauce from the tomato harvest and producing canned tomatoes should also be promoted alongside agricultural development programmes.
“The amount of acreage per vegetable including tomato, green bean, green chilli, lime, leek, carrot and cabbage should be decided on an agricultural policy”, Withanage said.
“Farmers get into debt in order to engage in farming. They are being driven away from farming. When farmers get money to their hand they tend to spend on things in which they see an immediate result as opposed to purchasing fertilizer the use of which would only yield results at a later date. This is why they should be given fertilizer instead of money to buy it. The officials of the Department of Agriculture too are lethargic in their attitude. We will have to import all essentials,” he warned.