Photo by Ama Koralage

Since August this year, ten districts in Sri Lanka have witnessed severe drought conditions due to the lack of seasonal rainfall. The cultivation of around 50,000 farmers has been affected due to a lack of irrigation water in reservoirs. According to the National Disaster Relief Service Centre (NDRSC), nearly 150,000 people across 10 districts lack safe drinking water.

Despite a revival of the South West monsoon, several districts are recording normal to below average rainfall. With the significant reduction in rainfall in all districts last month, fears of drought have been raised in many parts of the island.

Agriculture Minister Mahinda Amaraweera said that at least 66,000 acres of paddy cultivation has been destroyed due to the drought that prevailed over the past few months and warned of a severe drought situation for the 2024 yala season.

In interviews with community leaders representing the agrarian communities in Mayurapura and Walawa in the Hambantota District, the stark reality of multidimensional climate vulnerabilities and the resulting grim implications were revealed, especially the violation of basic human rights such as freedom of expression, right to equality and right to a clean and healthy environment. What looks like a drought proves to be a more complex social issue, pinpointing at the shortfalls of the government’s environmental, socio-economic policies and apathy of the authorities towards the lives and fundamental freedoms of the marginalised social groups. Sri Lanka is facing the gravest economic catastrophe of its time and the plunder is felt and lived by the most vulnerable groups in the country.

Mayurapura is an example of a village in Hambantota District that feels the severe implications of the droughts and the dire water shortage as well as the government’s inaction towards meeting the demands of the farming communities. The farmers shared two key crosscutting themes: the government’s pervasive neglect of the needs of small scale farmers in Mayurapura due to the lack of a coherent policy framework geared to enhance climate readiness of the farming community and the incidence of violence impacting the basic human rights of the farmers, which questions the accountability of authorities in ensuring the safety of farming leaders.

Multi-dimensional climate vulnerability

The plight of the Mayurapura farming community is a reflection of the multidimensional climate vulnerabilities faced by small scale farmers, particularly in the global South. These vulnerabilities are not an automatic result of climate change but are caused by entities in power as externalities of unsustainable economic growth and misguided policies targeting economic development. In September  the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Sri Lanka launched its multidimensional vulnerability index (MVI) report, according to which 35.6% of the population remains vulnerable on the basis of being deprived of access to water. Mayurapura is a nuanced case study to understand the multi-dimensional vulnerability caused by the lack of access to water.

Ranjanie Dayasili, a female small scale farmer from Mayurapura and a community leader in the region, said that the supply of irrigation water to cultivate farmlands of small scale farmers continues to be disrupted by authorities due to various reasons. She noted that many small scale farmers have denounced the use of chemical fertiliser and have shifted to organic and ancestral farming techniques. As a result, even the crops they cultivate are now determined by the ability to cultivate those specific crops on their lands. The eco centric approach to farming has been well received in the community and many small scale farmers are inclined towards organic and ancestral farming techniques due to the health benefits and the overall human-environment harmony. However, such farming practices are increasingly disregarded by policy makers, particularly as they clash with the pro-market/commercial agriculture, promoted and endorsed by many in power, the underlying reason being the motive to promote the use of chemical fertiliser, which profits several elites in power in the short term.

Incidence of violence and suppression of dissent

The interview with Ajith Kumara, the Divisional Vice President of the Mayurapura farming community, unveiled the uglier realities of the water crisis that has plagued the region, particularly the implications of it on the human rights of farming leaders and their communities. Ajith’s efforts to voice concerns regarding the discriminatory irrigation policies were met with physical violence when he was assaulted by an unknown group. The perpetrators remain unidentified, leaving him at a standstill in his efforts to seek justice. The President of the Galwewa Farming Unit, G. Karunathilaka, also suffered a similar assault. Despite filing complaints with the Hambantota Harbour Police, he noted that there had been little progress in the investigations. There is a growing concern that authorities may be complicit in these acts of violence, adding further distress to an already dire situation. These incidents underscore the multidimensional vulnerabilities faced by the farming communities, especially small scale farmers, who are met with multiple barriers and threats to their fundamental rights in continuing their livelihoods.

Unsustainable development

Saman Sudarshana bears witness to the environmental challenges faced by the farming communities. He highlights the devastating consequences of unsustainable and irregular development activities, which have led to the degradation of watershed areas. Reliance on water from Udawalawa, once a dependable source, was uncertain. The crisis risks the collective future of 50,000 farming families in the Mayurapura and Walawa regions, signalling that the situation is bound to deteriorate further. The damage inflicted upon vital ecosystems has imperilled the immediate water supply and poses a formidable threat to the environment.

Sudarshana’s account shines a light on the dire consequences of industrial expansion, exemplified by the Lanwa cement factory. The exploitation of the ecosystems surrounding the limestone deposits in the Sankapala area has triggered a domino effect, leading to the destruction of entire forests and ecosystems. This destruction reverberates into the future, affecting not only the water supply but also the habitats for wildlife. The displacement of elephants and other animals due to rampant deforestation underscores the intricate interconnectedness of the ecosystem. Sudarshana reiterated that this, in turn, had implications for local farmers and animals with whom farming lands were shared. In the face of inconsistent and unsustainable agriculture and climate policies local communities, together with supportive non-governmental entities, have embarked on grassroots initiatives to foster sustainability and coexistence with nature. Sudarshana said that the farmers were championing the revival of ancestral agricultural techniques and the use of native seeds, which demonstrated the commitment to revitalising agriculture while ensuring harmony between nature and human beings.

It was evident that deforestation, fuelled by elites in power, remains one of the foremost challenges faced by local communities. Sudesh Gamage, the President of the Farming Community of the Mayurapura Division, emphasised the crucial role played by farmers as suppliers of food. He stressed the urgent need for the government to ensure that the sector was well managed, especially in ways where ancestral agricultural practices and knowledge systems were preserved and protected. Addressing this issue required not only critical support for small scale farmers but also a reimagined development agenda that was in harmony with the unique needs of the rural agrarian societies. Neglecting the delicate balance of nature, especially the welfare of animals, threatens to disrupt the equilibrium essential for harmonious existence.