Renal disease in the Dry Zone

By Cecil Dharmasena
Formerly of the Department of Agriculture

Kidney failure and related afflictions amongst the rural farming population in the Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Ampara districts etc., has reached crisis proportions. Various groups of scientists and politicians are making accusations and counter accusations against each other and providing conflicting theories on the causes. The authorities do not seem to want to take any responsibility or take quick action to solve the issue.

Having worked for many years in agriculture research and production in these areas since the late 1960s, I believe that a multiplicity of factors are jointly responsible for causing this health hazard. Farmers are using excessive amounts of fertilizers and agrochemicals with no proper guidance by the relevant government agencies.

Before proceeding any further, I should briefly clarify the types of chemicals being used in agriculture, as there appears to be some confusion regarding these. Plant nutrients (plant food) are supplied as chemical "fertilizers" or as natural "manures" which are also termed "organic fertilizers", Both chemical fertilizers and organic manures basically supply the three main nutrient elements, viz., nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium as well as small amounts of minor or trace elements. Chemical fertilizers contain these nutrient elements in concentrated form while the "organics" contain these elements in very small quantities.

It therefore follows that many times the quantity of "organics" have to be applied unlike the small quantities of chemical fertilizers needed to supply the same amounts of nutrient elements to the plant. The advantage of organics is that they supply many trace elements and also "conditions" the soil, thus improving root penetration and the water retention ability of a soil amongst other things.

However, for large scale crop production, organics alone maybe insufficient and some amount of chemical fertilizers may have to be added according to the type of crop and the soil conditions. In addition to these fertilizers, there are "soil Conditioners" which are special chemicals, applied to the soil to adjust the acidity or alkalinity (eg. lime, dolomite etc.). These are generally applied in specific areas such as upcountry tea-estates, vegetable gardens etc.

Apart from the above mentioned plant nutrients, there are agrochemicals to control various pests (insecticides, nematocides), diseases (fungicides, bactericides) and weeds (weedicides). All these are highly toxic chemicals applied as sprays or used on the wet soil in granular form. The latter dissolves and is absorbed by the plant and acts from within (systemically). Some of these highly toxic chemicals are popularly used to commit suicide. So they have a dual purpose.

Absence of advisory system

The lack of an organized and co-ordinated extension or advisory system today as we had in the past (prior to the provincial administrative system), where the Department of Agriculture (DOA) through its comprehensive islandwide Extension Division provided an efficient service, appears to be the biggest drawback in agriculture at present.

All types of agencies of the Provincial Councils and the private sector offer confusing advise to the farmer who in turn, uses an excess of all inputs including seed, fertilizer and agro-chemicals. They really have no one to turn to for advise. All this leads to pollution of the soil and the environment and poisoning of the farmer and his family and in addition, it leads to excessive costs of production.

Remember that insecticides, fungicides and weedicides in particular are very, very expensive and are responsible for a large percentage of the production cost of paddy, potato, onion, maize, vegetables, etc. This is why our cost of rice, potato, onion etc., are much higher than in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Thailand and such other countries.

Formerly, well trained Agriculture Instructors (AI) with a well recognized two year Diploma in Agriculture from a DOA Farm School (Kundasale, Palwehera etc.) or a Krushi Viyaptha Sevaka (KVS) with a comprehensive one year certificate from a DOA Practical Farm School (Bibile, Walpita etc.) were responsible for organizing and advising farmers in each and every village in all districts.

The DOA drew up an annual/seasonal production programme in collaboration with the farmers and the research and seeds divisions along with information by the Irrigation Department. Each district was assigned a seasonal production programme in advance depending on the country’s requirements, farmers’ preferences, availability of water and seed material etc. The All and KVSS of the Extension Division provided the supervision and know-how, distributed the seed material and was at hand to solve field problems at village level. The Agriculture Service Centers in each division (within every district) provided the agrarian services such as fertilizer, Bank credit, loans, crop insurance, Veterinary services and so on.

The ARC was the nerve center and was the meeting point between farmers and all the required services. The whole system was a well oiled machine that ran well until the advent of the 13th amendment to the constitution and the resultant devolution of these services into the provincial system.

Sadly, the whole operation collapsed after 198?. The AI was made a Grama Sevaka under the Premadasa regime. The DOA was dismembered with the research division broken up into independent institutes, the extension service going under Provincial Councils and the seed farms sold to the private sector. Politicians encouraged the private sector to import seed and fertilizer.

Most of our indigenous crop varieties gradually disappeared and imported and expensive hybrids took over where much money could be made by the private sector. Provincial politicians got their cut. The large seed farms (Pelwehera, Hingurakgoda) are no more, having been sold to the private sector and seed costs to farmers are astronomical today. The prestigious Farm Schools barely function today. The Paddy Marketing Board and its storage centers all over the island along with its Research & Development Center at Anuradhaura were also closed down (thankfully re-started a few years ago, thus creating a huge problem for farmers in the recent past.

There are around ten or more Ministries involved in Agriculture, production, marketing, storage, distribution, agrarian services, fertilizer, imports, Veterinary services, animal production, the dairy industry etc. The Irrigation system comes under several Ministries as well, All this confusion leads to waste, inefficiency, and corruption which has a direct bearing on the unplanned use of chemicals and the resultant pollution, toxicity, proliferation of kidney disease and increased cost of production.

The way forward

What then can and should be done to solve these issues ? The strategies are short term (urgent) as well as long term. These are briefly described below:

a) Immediate treatment of the affected population: This is an extremely urgent task for the Health Ministry. There is no point haggling over who or what caused the disease (arsenic, cadmium, fluoride, calcium etc.). People are dying and must be immediately treated. The Ayurvedic medical sector too should help. It has to be a high priority joint effort by all concerned government Ministries and Departments. The culprits responsible can be identified and punished later.

b) Provision of clean drinking water - This is also high priority unpolluted water sources (springs, streams) should be identified on a Divisional scale and tapped immediately. Water bowsers should be sent to other areas. The security forces can assist in this exercise.

c) Rain-water collection.& storage - Immediate steps should be taken to launch a rain water collection programme for each household in the affected areas. In northern Thailand, I have observed that every village homestead has a large concrete tank to collect rainwater off the roof. We too can do this using large PVC tanks and with zinc sheet roofs with gutters.

The inlet pipe off the gutter is flexible so that the initial run-off containing dust and dirt on the roof can be diverted out and thereafter, the clear water can be directed into the tank. This clean rain water should only be used for drinking and cooking. The private sector, various NGOO and foreign funded projects can help in this rather extensive exercise. The Divineguma and other government organizations can make this a priority.

d) Increasing intake of water - It has been recently revealed that dry-zone farmers drink very little water. This has a direct impact on the kidneys. There must be extensive propaganda at village level (similar to the dengue control program) to get people to consume more water. The government, private sector and especially the media (TV, radio, newspapers) can mount a massive campaign in this regard. School children too should be asked to carry the message home.

e) Rational use of Fertilizer and Agrochemicals - Reducing use of chemical fertilizer, insecticides and weedicides to the lowest possible levels can minimize health hazards and greatly reduce environmental pollution as well as the cost of production. The role of the private sector in promoting chemicals must be severely curtailed. They must not be allowed to advertise or even advise farmers directly. All necessary advisory/extension services must be carried out only by the DOA field staff. Organic manures and integrated pest/disease management practices (agronomic and biological control methods) must be popularised and extended. Blanket use of weedicides and insecticides as being done now, must be totally discouraged. Highly toxic chemicals must be banned forthwith.

In a recent visit to the Ulhitiya and Ratkinda reservoirs in Mahaweli system C where I had worked earlier, a team of us along with the Water Resources Board scientists, found extensive algal blooms, rendering the water unsuitable for domestic use. It was a crisis situation for the settlers in the area. The probable cause we felt, was the excessive use of phosphates and other fertilizers upcountry (Welimada, Passara areas etc.) especially for potato and vegetable cultivation. The excess probably gets washed down the Uma oya, Badulu oya etc, into these reservoirs downstream where they accumulate and cause problems. No wonder our potatoes and vegetables cost so much. The primary responsibility has to be laid at the feet of those promoters of these fertlizers and chemicals, i. e. the private sector whose main aim is to sell more chemicals and increase their profits. The government should be equally blamed for not providing the required Extension service to these farmers and for allowing the private sector to do as they please.

f) Safety measures - Although farmers are urged to take precautions when applying agrochemicals (primarily insecticides and weedicides. which are the most toxic) most of them are seen spraying against the wind or walking into the spray (spraying in front) while wearing tucked-up sarongs or shorts. The spray comes directly onto their face and is breathed in and the exposed face, arms and legs tend to absorb the poison through the skin. The sprayers are then washed in the field drains and channels while people are bathing downstream. Poisoning of the whole village results. As done in the past, safety measures have to be strictly enforced which means the extension officers have to do their job. The private sector rarely bothers to do this and large numbers of farmers and their families end up in hospital. I have frequently got the strong smell of these chemicals inside farmers’ homes since they store these chemicals inside. They breath in these fumes every day, especially at night when they sleep with all the doors and windows shut. Chemicals have to be stored separately in an outside store-room.

Early signs of poisoning are dizziess, loss of eyesight and hearing disorders which symptoms are generally ignored until acute kidney problems and permanent eye damage results. Most of these toxins are absorbed through the skin and through respiration but many farmers believe that poisoning occurs only if these chemicals are swallowed, which is really not the case. Thus, strict imposition of safety factors as given above is absolutely essential. But this means that the DOA Extension Service has to be established once again. This is going to be a long process.

g) Quality control of fertilizers and chemicals - It is reported that some fertilizers are substandard and contain toxins such as Arsenic and Cadmium. Some insecticides and weedicides are dangerously toxic. Such items have to be tested and banned. All such fertilizers and agrochemicals must go through a proper quality control system for which quality testing labs have to be established by the DOA at all ports of entry in line with the existing Plant Quarantine Service. Samples of all imports must be tested before release.

I have given the above seven strategies where item (a) is of immediate concern. Hospitals in the affected areas must have the required equipment and drugs for urgent treatment. The government has to start immediately on the rest of the items mentioned since implementation of some of these will take some time. Provision of safe drinking water, drinking more water and rain water collection are priorities. The DOA must once again get back to its former efficient and centralized system of planning and implementing agricultural programs throughout the island.

Co-ordinated planning and implementation is impossible under the present devolved system (13th Amendment) which has led to confusion, corruption and wastage under a plethora of politicians and corrupt provincial officials. For a small island such as Sri Lanka, central planning in agriculture and livestock production and irrigation as in the past is the only way forward.

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