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In the throes of a ‘silent crisis’

Persistent bad weather and floods foretell an impending food shortage

By Wilson Gnanadass
Unprecedented soar in food prices in the last few months and the government’s failure to take control of the situation is likely to provoke riots in the country soon.
Serious questions are raised as to whether the UPFA government is fully geared to face the present situation with the crisis further deepening.
Persistent cold weather and flooding, all attributed to the global climate change, are apparently threatening Sri Lanka with a possible food crisis in the near future and again the question is whether the government is taking necessary steps to ensure food security.
The first comprehensive report by the Global Humanitarian Forum (GHF) into the human cost of climate change has warned that the world is in the throes of a ‘silent crisis’ that kills an estimated 300,000 people each year.
According to the GHF more than 300 million people are already seriously affected by the gradual warming of the Earth and that the number is set to double by 2030.
The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has further predicted climate induced migration of people in Asia due to disasters in the coming years.
The ADB suggests that people in Asia will have to move to other continents to escape such calamities.
Sri Lanka that was never struck by natural disasters in the past is facing the brunt of it now, beginning with the 2004 Tsunami and culminating with the worst floods that still continue to wreak havoc in most of the paddy producing districts.
The floods, while rendering more than a million people homeless has destroyed nearly 200,000 hectares of paddy lands and other vegetable cultivations in these areas.
Besides, the sudden cold climate that has pervaded almost the entire island, has also seriously affected the vegetable cultivation in the hill country, resulting in the prices of vegetables skyrocketing.
Be that as it may, the businessmen, the brokers and the so-called middlemen are taking advantage of this situation to create an artificial price hike, thereby even shattering the little hope the government has to resuscitate the situation with whatever resources available.
Paddy shortage?
The government has gone on record stating the recent floods have not led to a paddy shortage in the country, while traders and millers have conveniently contradicted this.
On Friday President Mahinda Rajapaksa met with top level officials of the Ministry of Co-operatives and Internal Trade including Ministry Secretary Sunil S Sirisena and Minister Johnston Fernando to discuss the present crisis.
The President had expressed concern about the price hike of rice, albeit claims by the Sri Lanka Paddy Marketing Board that buffer stocks are available for the next five to six months in the government stores.
The President was made to understand the price hikes were artificially created by the businessmen and that the government should counter this.
Co-operatives and Internal Trade Secretary Sunil S. Sirisena told The Nation after the meeting with the President it is the traders who were merely trying to create a shortage when there is none.
“I don’t see any reason for anyone to panic. I also don’t see any reasons for the price to go up. We have at lest 200,000 metric tonnes of rice in our buffer stock. And we can simply manage with this quantity till at least August,” he said.
When asked about the claim by traders of an impending scarcity, he cited that many were merely trying to create a mirage of a shortage in order to make money out of the situation.
“The government is not going to permit anyone to import rice at any time, it is clear that we have enough and more and there shouldn’t be a need to increase prices. If millers do continue to increase prices, the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) has sternly warned it would conduct raids and take legal action.”
While Sirisena was sincere in his statement, he did not realise that on the ground a different game was being played with rice prices exceeding the control price and the traders continuing to attribute it to the weather conditions.
One also wondered whether the CAA had the teeth to conduct raids on traders’ stores.
No shortage
Director, Rice Research and Development Institute of Department of Agriculture, based in Kurunegala Dr Nimal Dissanayake also allayed fears that there is a shortage of rice due to the floods.
According to his calculations, of an estimated 720,000 hectares of paddy produced in the country, if 200,000 hectares of paddy lands were destroyed by the floods, the country still had a balance of 500,000 hectares to benefit from. “Why are we panicking?” he asked.
According to him there was a 15 percent excess of rice production last year and though the country expected the highest ever record of paddy production this year, it could not be materialised due to the floods. But, still he said there was sufficient in the country to cushion the shocks.
However, Mathuguma Senawiruwan, engaged in carbonic organic farming said though he too was convinced there is no real shortage of rice as claimed by the traders particularly due to floods, he was sceptical about the government’s sincerity in identifying the peoples’ problems.
He said the government has still not done a proper survey of the destroyed paddy lands and the quantity of paddy that is needed for consumption and so on.
His contention was that though the country could still survive with whatever that was left behind, the corrupt bureaucrats will not allow this to happen. “This is the worry of the people,” he said.
Predictions unheeded
Perhaps, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (UNIPCC) Vice President Prof Mohan Munasinghe may have been the first to warn there would be a severe climate change in Sri Lanka, about three years ago.
Prof Munasinghe in an exclusive interview to The Nation did mention there would be fluctuation in temperatures and that while Colombo temperature would be dropped, Nuwara Eliya temperature would be increased due to La Nina condition (which is the opposite of El Nino).
Prof Munasinghe further warned that due to the global warming, the coastal belt of Sri Lanka would go under water in a decade or so.
One wonders whether the government has taken stock of warnings and predictions of local scientists and taken precautionary measures.
Prof Munasinghe, who has been working on disaster management for nearly 30 years says, the La Nina is expected to continue till April or May and there was bound to be unseasonable weather patterns during this time.
“We will have in Sri Lanka dry and hotter conditions in the wet zone but paradoxically wet weather in the hot zone.
The wet zone will have higher temperature but more rain. The dry parts will become wetter and the wet part will become dry,” he said.
He said, with such a climatic condition prevailing, the effect on paddy production, small farmers, food security, poverty issues and potential migration of people from one area to another will have to be seriously looked into by the government.
He said the climate change is going to affect the poor people more than the rich.
According to Prof Munasinghe though the situation is serious, there is a remedy.
On food security, he said restoration of tanks and rehabilitation of people and placing more focus on irrigation should be given priority.
“We must get the farmers back on their feet. In the long-term, the productivity of agriculture must be increased. It has to be very systematically done with modern methods. The Maha and Yala patterns and the weather cycles are changing. Some of the traditional methods are not effective. The crops must be drought resistant and temperature resistant,” he said.
Prof Munasinghe, in his proposal to the UN on sustainable consumption and production has said, as the rich count for 80 percent of consumption in the world, they should make a sacrifice by reducing their consumption rate thereby enabling the poor to have more.
According to him this is the only way in which the current problems faced by various governments as a result of climate changes could be solved.
In his proposal has said that climate change is now considered the ultimate threat multiplier which will exacerbate the formidable problems of development already faced like poverty, hunger, illness, water and energy scarcities and conflict.
As another remedy Prof Munasinghe has said that as the global situation is unpredictable, countries like Sri Lanka don’t have to depend on the traditional donors, but look at the emerging countries like China and so on and not to be dependent on anyone in particular.

Asia faces migration calamity

(AFP) – Asia must prepare for millions of people to flee their homes to safer havens within countries and across borders as weather patterns become more extreme, the Asian Development Bank warns.
A draft of an ADB report obtained by AFP over the weekend and confirmed by bank officials cautioned that failure to make preparations now for vast movements of people could lead to “humanitarian crises” in the coming decades.
Governments are currently focused on mitigating climate change blamed for the weather changes, but the report said they should start laying down policies and mechanisms to deal with the projected population shifts.
“What is clear is that Asia and the Pacific will be amongst the global regions most affected by the impacts of climate change,” said the report entitled “Climate Change and Migration in Asia and the Pacific”.
“Such impacts include significant temperature increases, changing rainfall patterns, greater monsoon variability, sea-level rise, floods and more intense tropical cyclones,” it said.
The report, expected to be released in the next few weeks, comes as flooding overwhelms parts of Asia-Pacific, most recently in Australia, where a powerful cyclone worsened the impact of weeks of record inundations.
“Asia and the Pacific are particularly vulnerable because of its high degree of exposure to environmental risks and high population density. As a result, it could experience population displacements of unprecedented scale in the next decades,” said the report, primarily targeted at regional policymakers.
Research carried out for the United Nations showed that 2010 was one of the worst years on record worldwide for natural disasters.
Asians accounted for 89 per cent of the 207 million people affected by disasters globally last year, according to the Belgium-based Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED).
Summer floods and landslides in China caused an estimated US$18 billion (S$22.91 billion) in damage, while floods in Pakistan cost US$9.5 billion, CRED’s annual study showed. Not to mention the catastrophic human cost.
“Governments are not prepared and that is why ADB is conducting this project,” said Bart Edes, director of the Manila-based lending institution’s poverty reduction, gender and social development division. “There is no international cooperation mechanism established to manage climate-induced migration.”
“Protection and assistance schemes to help manage that flow is opaque, poorly coordinated and scattered,” he told AFP.
“Policymakers need to take action now,” he stressed, noting that negotiating treaties and efforts to raise funds takes time.
Last year’s natural disasters in the Asia-Pacific, including millions of people displaced in Sri Lanka and the Philippines, “give us a flavour of what to expect in the future,” said Edes. “Migration in general is not being properly addressed and the situation is going be made worse,” added Edes, referring to the additional impact of climate change on migration patterns, fuelled by economic needs and armed conflicts. “Now we have another driver of migration.”
The draft ADB report said the people forced to leave due to the extreme weather changes “have come to incarnate the human face of climate change” and while many of them will return home, many will be displaced permanently.
Those expected to suffer the most will be the poor as they lack the means to easily pack up and leave for safer havens, the report said.
“The issue of climate-induced migration will grow in magnitude and will take different forms,” the report added, urging national governments and the global community to “urgently address this issue in a proactive manner.”
“Failure to do so could result in humanitarian crises with great social and economic costs,” it warned.