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Many Sri Lankans attribute the vagaries of the climate to the caprices of the weather gods.  It seems that the time has come again to appease those incensed deities. The nation is experiencing its worst drought in five years which has pushed 900,000 of its citizens into “acute food insecurity”.

Worst-affected by the drought have been farmers and those relying on agriculture for income. The World Food Programme (WFP) says that a survey conducted last month found out that both food insecurity and debt were rising sharply among families affected by the drought. The report said that the country’s rice harvest could be the worst in 40 years, as predicted by the charity “Save the Children” and that the just-completed harvest was 63 percent below the normal yield.

Our tropical island nation is profoundly dependant on monsoon rains for its agriculture, domestic water consumption, irrigation and power supply for its national grid. Unless the hydro catchment areas receive heavy rainfall soon to fill the reservoirs, another power and agricultural crisis seems inevitable! In fact, the effect of dry weather is already making its presence felt in several sectors. The nation has had no substantial rainfall since mid-November last year and its longest river, the Mahaweli, has been reduced to a trickle in several stretches.

The government says more than 1.2 million people have been affected by the country’s current drought, which began last November and continues despite  intermittent rainfall over the last two months.

The situation has become serious, so serious in fact, that the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) last week appealed for US$1 million in funding to support Sri Lanka during its ongoing drought.

An estimated 365,232 children are currently affected by Sri Lanka’s drought, the country’s second water-related emergency in under12 months, UNICEF Sri Lanka said in a statement released to mark the World Water Day on Wednesday. In the face of the increased regularity of extreme dry seasons, the country still lacks measures to ease the impact on vital sectors such as agriculture, energy and water reserves. Warnings have been sounded that this year’s main rice harvest was likely to shrink substantially due to the shortage of rainfall.

Reports have indicated that for the first time in more than a decade, the increased intensity of the scorching heat wave has also served to destroy extensive groves of coconut palms. The country’s vital tea sector which provides livelihood for nearly 10 percent of our nation’s population is also facing a heat-related threat. Last year’s tea exports are estimated to have reaped US$1.5 billion in export revenues, but escalating temperatures are likely to have a negative impact on the quality of the crop. The woes of the tea industry continue with January crop volumes hitting the lowest point in five years with projections remaining bleak for February, tea brokers said, noting that high grown tea production was the lowest in a decade.

In the space of less than six months, Sri Lanka has had to deal with unexpected floods, and now a harsh drought ‒ and authorities blame global warming. So at times such as the present when the country is experiencing a blistering drought with no rain clouds on the horizon there is nothing one can do except pray. State power agencies are as usual looking up at the clouds.

They obviously don’t have any other solutions except to hope against hope that the expectant intermittent monsoon expected to blow in by mid-March will break sooner than later. If the present weather pattern does not change, the power generation over the course of this year will get much worse before it gets better. The Ministry of Power and Renewable Energy says the country’s hydro-power generation has decreased to 8 percent as a result of the prevalent weather.

And this includes soaring utility costs as well.  A poor oil-dependent nation such as ours cannot afford to lose any time in developing cheap, alternate sources of power. Imagine, the daily losses incurred by the CEB due to purchasing thermal power to meet the demand, has risen to more than Rs. 200 million a day.

The power crisis has become a crucial issue in Sri Lanka as a result of its high sensitivity towards internal and external factors.  Delays in implementing low cost power plants to match the increase in electricity demand provided the basis for this issue. Rising oil prices have directly contributed in worsening this situation threatening the long-term sustainability of the country.

But the authorities are also aware that a cheap source of power and backup systems, other than hydro have to be found urgently. The officials concerned pointed out, that coal was the answer to our prayer, but that the initial investment could be rather heavy. However, as soon as the plan was announced, agitation by environmentalists  and  residents stymied plans for the establishment of such venture.

Analysts say that the public should be made aware of the importance of coal powered plants while allaying needless fears that they cause an adverse impact on the environment. Experts claim the Government should construct as many such power plants as possible. The modern technology employed in running coal powered plants ensures that they do not have as harmful impact on the environment as mooted by the anti-coal plant lobbyists.

No one can deny that water and electricity are the two most vital components for the lifeblood and development of a nation.  Many successive administrations in the recent past paid scarce attention to the development of this sector.  and major projects envisaged for the boosting of the national grid and enhancing the electricity supply were kept in abeyance for political reasons.  Specialists have outlined the challenges facing power generation and energy policies in Sri Lanka today as a result of many years of ill-advised strategic planning, investment and delays in infrastructure construction.

This had resulted in Sri Lanka experiencing a huge power crisis which had developed to a critical extent in 2000-2002 forcing the Electricity Board to curtail power supplies for several hours each day, compelling many industries to curb their production activities and incur heavy losses. Continued power cuts were also one of the factors that contributed to the fall of People’s Alliance government in the year 2001.

The present power crisis is not a recent one. But the question asked is why the authorities have left it too late for too long to address the problem? What steps since then have been taken to analyse and identify the causes for the crisis and  to overcome its recurrence?  What contingency plans have been put in place to reduce the dependence on hydropower failure and breakdowns in backup plants?  It has been a perennial problem and will continue to remain so until the authorities go ahead with setting up more sustainable energy plants.

If a start is not made now, the country is in jeopardy of missing out on economic growth altogether. The upshot of all this could translate into severe unemployment, rising prices, worsening poverty and the danger of sparking social tensions. The crucial national objectives of accelerating economic growth and alleviating poverty in this country can never be achieved unless new strategies are adopted towards supplying cheap power for economic activities.

Water is one of the world’s most precious and essential life-sustaining resources. It helps support a crucial plethora of our enterprises, amenities and utilities. As such, we cannot afford to leave it at the mercy of the vagaries of the weather gods. To do so would be suicidal!

gdgasross@gmail.com