Hit by Extreme Weather, South Asia Balances Growth and Food Security
This article is part of IPS special coverage of World Food Day on October 16.
POLONNARUWA, Sri Lanka, Oct 13 2016 (IPS) – Sri Lanka is literally baking these days.
During the first week of October, the Metrological Department reported that maximum daytime temperatures in some parts of the country were between 5 to 2C above average. They hit 38.3C in some parts of the North Central Province, a region vital for the staple rice harvest.
The prolonged dry spell has already impacted over 500,000 people, with government agencies and the military providing them with safe drinking water brought in from other areas. When those supplies are not sufficient or delayed, the affected communities can buy water from private dealers who sell safe drinking water in one-litre bottles at a price between Rs four to 10 (three to seven cents).
“It has been like this for over three months now,” said Ranjith Jayarathne, a farmer from the region.
Ironically, a little over three months back, the area was fearing floods. In early May, heavy rains brought in by Cyclone Roanu left large parts of the country inundated, caused massive landslides, and left over half million destitute and over 150 dead or missing.
It is not only Sri Lanka that is facing the acute impacts of changing weather. A study by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) found the entire South Asia region stands to lose around 1.3 percent of its collective annual GDP by 2050 even if global temperature increases are kept to 2 degrees Celsius.
After 2050, the losses are predicted to rise sharply to around 2.5 percent of GDP. If temperature increases go above 2 degrees Celsius, losses will mount to 1.8 percent of GDP by 2050 and a staggering 8.8 percent by 2100, according to the analysis.
Coping is not going to be cheap. South Asia needs around 73 billion dollars annually from now until 2100 to adapt to the negative impacts of climate change if current temperature trends continue.
In its regional update, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said that this year, above-average monsoon rains, coupled with a succession of typhoons and tropical storms from June to early August, have caused severe localized floods in several countries in the subregion, resulting in the loss of hundreds of lives, displacement of millions of people and much damage to agriculture and infrastructure.
Losses of livestock, stored food and other belongings have also been reported. Affected countries include Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
If current climate patterns continue, like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh will face severe fallout. The ADB study said Bangladesh is likely to suffer an annual economic loss from climate risks of about 2 percent of GDP by 2050. That is expected to balloon to 8.8 percent by 2100.
Annual rice production could fall by 23 percent by 2080 in a country where agriculture employs half of the labour force of around 60 million. Dhaka could see 14 percent of its territory underwater in case of a one-metre sea level rise, while the South Eastern Khulna region and the delicate eco-system of the coastal Sundarbans could fare far worse, the report said.
Bangladesh’s other South Asian neighbours also face mounting risks, according to ADB assessments.
Nepal could lose as much as 10 percent of GDP by 2100 due to melting glaciers and other climate extremes, while in neighbouring India, crop yields could decline 14.5 percent by 2050, the bank said.
India’s 8,000 kilometre-long coastline also faces serious economic risk due to rising sea level, it said. Currently 85 percent of total water demand for agriculture is met through irrigation, and that need is likely to rise with temperature increases, even as India’s groundwater threatens to run short.
Sri Lanka has already seen its rice and other harvests fluctuate in recent years due to changing monsoon patterns. ADB data warns that yields in the vital tea sector could halve by 2080.
Death and mayhem could be the most visible impact of changing climates, but according to experts, extreme weather events have also caused major disruptions in the island’s agriculture and food sectors.
According to the World Food Programme (WFP) Sri Lanka’s rapid development has been scuttled by fickle weather events. Though the country has been classified as a lower middle income country since 2010, “improvements in human development, and the nutritional status of children, women and adolescents have remained stagnant. The increased frequency of natural disasters such as drought and flash floods further compounds food and nutrition insecurity.”
Nearly 4.7 million (23 percent of the population) people are undernourished, according to the State of Food Insecurity in the World 2015, and underweight and anaemia affect nearly a quarter of children and women. According to WFP’s most recent Cost of Diet Analysis, 6.8 million people (33 percent) cannot afford the minimum cost of a nutritious diet.
Experts say that despite cyclic harvest losses due to erratic weather patterns in the past decade, Sri Lanka is yet to learn from them. “People are yet to fathom the extent of extreme weather events,” Kusum Athukorala, Co-chair of the UNESCO Gender Panel on the World Water Development Report, told IPS.
Athukorala, who is an expert in community water management, said that Sri Lanka needs a national water management plan that links all relevant national stake-holders and a robust community awareness building programme.
In a classic example of lack of such national coordination, the Irrigation Department is currently reluctant to release waters kept in storage for the upcoming paddy season for domestic use in the drought-hit areas. Department officials say that they can not risk forcing a water shortage for cultivation.
Experts like Athukorala contend that if there was active coordination between national agencies dealing with water, such situations would not arise. She also stresses the need for community level water management. “The solutions have to come across the board.”
Officials in South Asia do understand the gravity of the impact but say that their governments are faced with a delicate balancing act between development and climate resilience.
“Right now, the priority is to provide food for 160 million (in Bangladesh),” said Kamal Uddin Ahmed, secretary of the Bangladesh Ministry of Forest and Environment. “We have to make sure we get our climate policies right while not slowing down growth.”
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Pictures for this story
This story includes downloadable print-quality images — Copyright IPS, to be used exclusively with this story.
- A man rides his bicycle through a dusty village in the Mahavellithanne area, about 350 km northeast of Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo, where daytime temperatures were hitting 38C this week. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS
- Women wait for water in the village of Chenchuri, in Eastern Bangladesh, about 300 km from Dhaka. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS