Presidential polls and CKD


The specter of "chronic kidney disease of unknown etiology" (CKDU) appeared in the Rajarata in the 1990s. Since then it has silently stalked Rajarata families causing tragedy. In the old days, when tragedy happens, evil forces, "Vas" and "Kili" (curses and pollution) were blamed. In modern societies, such problems are rapidly dealt with by the medical and agricultural professionals. Sri Lanka, unlike many developing nations, has a record of effective action controlling malaria, smallpox, TB, mumps, typhoid, whooping cough, hookworm etc.

But then, that was before everything became highly politicized or left to the private sector. The Eelam wars had to end before politicians took notice of CKDU.

In December 2014, in the middle of the presidential election campaign, the Rajapaksa government gazetted a limited ban on a key herbicide, glyphosate, restricting the ban to the Rajarata. It promised clean water to its residents at an election rally. Not to be outdone, his opponent Maithreepala Sirisena, a former agriculture minister who sat impotent over the problem, has apparently declared that he will ban "all agrochemicals."

Surely, these will have more dire economic impact on the country than constitutional revisions discussed in election manifestos. Will they at least solve the CKDU problem? Why ban fertilizers and herbicides used safely (without CKDU) in other provinces and in other countries? How are they implicated in a health problem in the Rajarata?

The attempt to make political capital out of the Rajarata tragedy began at least five years ago. Marxist groups tried to use the farmers as their pawns in their struggles. Other groups interested in "colour revolutions" moved in; they did the same in "Rathupaswela" where the water became acidic for geological reasons. Independent nationalist groups even talked of suing the World Health Organization (WHO) for "allowing" the use of inorganic fertilizer "knowing that it is a poison". A free market that had removed all rational controls (even on fertilizers and drugs), together with a fertilizer subsidy scheme had drenched the soil with an unnecessary excess of agro-chemicals, asphyxiating the "living ecology" of the soil. An over-arching belief that our food and water are "unhealthy" due to excessive use of 'agrochemicals" became partly true. In over-reacting, some looked for a naïve ban on all agro-chemicals. Claims in newspapers that Sri Lankan rice and tea were "contaminated" with arsenic or cadmium were repeatedly made, and rebutted by scientists armed with analytical data.

A WHO study, as well as a Peradeniya-Japanese study of the Rajarata water surprised many in showing that there were no significant amounts of metal toxins like arsenic or cadmium, and that pesticides like glyphosate and chlorohydrocarbons etc., were also absent. If arsenic, cadmium and glyphosate are NOT found in the Rajarata water, they cannot be the cause of CKDU.

In contrast, there is now evidence that most of the drinking wells in the Rajarata have excess amounts of salts (not just common salt, but other salts as well), and this tasteless salinity is the cause of CKDU. The origin of this salinity may be from excess-fertilizer wash-off during the rainy season of the hill country, and due to the earth works of giant irrigation schemes of the last four decades that moved deep-lying layers to the surface, as well as due to natural "redox" processes whose existence has been confirmed.

Fortunately, a country with torrential monsoons and floods can also claim some benefits from this flooding that washes out pollution, especially in the wet zone.

Glyphosate is a well-known substance used as a herbicide that acts on plants but with a remarkable record of non-toxicity to animals and humans over three decades of use in the West. It is also cardinal to the technology of genetically modified (GMO) crops commercialized by Monsanto. A California doctor linked to an NGO in "battle" with Monsanto, and his indigenous partners in Colombo argued that glyphosate was the cause of kidney disease in the Rajarata. Their strong political links enabled them to get the Mahinda Rajapaksa government to agree to ban this herbicide in September 2013.

However, even the politicians soon understood that this would destroy our plantations and hopes of food self-sufficiency. The impracticality of replacing fertilizers by compost, and herbicides by hand weeding in the internationally competitive tea and rubber industries was self-evident. Switching to traditional rice giving 1/3 the harvest, and costing five times even in normal times, would shoot the price some 15-20 times, not to mention the effect on vegetables, fruits etc. The idea, if implemented, would have dire effects. The proposed ban was shelved.

However, elections are when promises are made. Rajapaksa offered to give clean water to the Rajarata. This has been a regular recommendation for fighting CKDU given by scientists and medical men, but eclipsed by fear-mongering calls for banning "poisonous agro-chemicals". Such bans will crush the already imperiled Rajarata farmers, possibly leading to the end of agriculture there. Sirisena's proposal to TOTALLY ban agrochemicals to fight CKDU is mere hypocritical pandering to public fears to gain votes.

Chandre Dharmawardana


animated gif
Processing Request
Please Wait...