Drought: A result of wide ranging environmental, Socio-economic and political factors

"When the well is dry we know the real worth of water"

Benjamin Franklin, 1840


By Ranjit Mulleriyawa

Drought is not an unusual event for inhabitants of Sri Lanka’s ‘dry zone’. It is a reality which they have had to contend with since time immemorial. It is the necessity of tiding over the rain-less (dry) period extending from April to September, which resulted in the construction of an ingenious system of village ‘tanks’ ( reservoirs) by our ancestors, to collect and preserve the precious rainfall of four months (October-January) during the North-East monsoon season. What is unique this year is the degree of severity of the drought occurring as early as July.

Climate and Rainfall

It is often assumed that climate change (due to global warming) is the root cause of drought. However, as Dr. Dan Seevaratnam, a highly reputed Tea Planter has correctly said. "Climate change occurs slowly over a period of about 100 years. That is not the issue. Our problem is climate variability. We get 2,000 mms rain during the year (in the Hatton area). Last year one of our estates got 2,000 mms in one month. We must be prepared to cope with such events".

This is true of many areas in the North Central Province (Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa districts) affected by the current drought. These areas received limited rainfall during November and December last year (months experiencing heaviest rainfall normally), and unusually heavy rainfall in February this year resulting in spilling of several reservoirs. As such, how do we account for the current drought of unprecedented severity? The answer seems to lie elsewhere- in a number of ‘man made’ factors.

Deforestation of ‘catchment’ areas

Maintaining a forest cover in the catchment areas of village ‘tanks’ was an absolute necessity to prevent soil erosion and siltation of these reservoirs. Our ancestors recognized this fact and strictly enforced it through well functioning rural institutions. Centralization of power at the National level has resulted in the collapse of many of these vital institutions that acted as custodians of village tanks and their irrigation systems.

An even more insidious feature in recent years has been the inroads made by politically powerful elites building hotels and guest houses within the catchment areas of several tanks. These activities have compounded the issue of soil erosion and siltation of reservoirs resulting in lowering their water storage capacity.

Water collected in dry zone tanks also played a valuable role in ground water recharge. Less water collected in tanks, resulted in depleted ground water reserves.

Over exploitation of ground water resources

"Groundwater is one of the most valuable natural resources possessed by a nation. It is however, still insufficiently understood, widely undervalued, irrationally exploited and inadequately protected. It is feared that scientific ignorance may lead to it’s over exploitation."

The above warning was issued seven years ago by Dr. C.R. Panabokke, one of this country’s most respected scientists, and a renowned expert on ground water behaviour in the dry zone. His prediction seems to have now become a reality. Another scientist attached to the Dry Zone Agricultural Research Station in Mahailluppallama (Dr.P.B. Dharmasena), cautioned the haphazard construction of agro-wells in the Anuradhapura area. He pointed out that the ecologically permissible limit in this area was around 15,000 agro-wells. This was fifteen years ago, and despite his warning, agro-well construction in Anuradhapura area (one of the worst areas to be affected by the current drought) has mushroomed and far exceeded the ecologically permissible limit. Little wonder that most of the wells providing drinking water should dry out completely this year even in the month of July- with two more dry months to follow!

When policy makers choose to ignore its scientific community, the people suffer, and it is the poor who suffer most.

At present there is no state agency/ department entrusted with the specific responsibility of ensuring sustainable management of ground water in the country. This void needs to be rectified soon.

New Crops

Traditionally, dry zone farmers would grow drought resistant crops like Sess-amum (Tala), Black gram and Green gram under rainfed conditions during the ‘yala’ season. Recently, they have been encouraged to grow high value cash crops like Hybrid Corn and Vegetables under lift irrigation. This practice has further increased the demand on ground water through Agro-wells.

Misplaced Priorities

Government’s preoccupation with the construction of highways, Air Ports, Ports, Urban beautification and new mega irrigation projects like Uma Oya and Moragahakanda, has resulted in the neglect and ineffective maintenance of existing irrigation works thereby resulting in loss of much precious water.


Failure to rigidly enforce laws pertaining to environmental conservation has resulted in many politically powerful individuals brazenly flaunting the law resulting in illicit logging, illicit sand mining, encroaching into national parks , nature reserves and catchment areas of dry zone tanks. A vibrant media has bravely spotlighted these issues, but their valiant efforts seem to have fallen on deaf ears.

When human greed and callousness violates nature’s laws, nature strikes back with a vengeance - earth slips and land slides in the ‘wet zone’ and drought in the dry zone.

• The writer is a farmer and rural development activist. He may be contacted at rangoviya2013@gmail.com

animated gif
Processing Request
Please Wait...