President Maithripala Sirisena’s directive last week to provide an emergency allowance of Rs. 10,000 per drought-affected farmer family is timely, but much more needs to be done. Fortunately, the President has already formed a task force under his personal supervision to respond to all aspects of the months- long drought, the worst in decades. Of Dry Zone farmer origins himself, Mr. Sirisena is keenly sensitive to the significance of water to agricultural communities.
The current, months-long, drought is the worst in decades and has affected well over a million people in over ten districts across the country. In addition to the loss of water in irrigation-dependent Dry Zone farmlands, the drought has had other severe effects including the decline of water levels in hydro- electric power headworks thereby threatening the country’s power supply.
Even in normally unaffected areas, such as, the populous Kalutara district, reduced water levels in the Kalu Ganga has resulted in seawater intrusion, thereby salinating the water resources of nearly a quarter of a million people living along the river basin.
The presidential task force is already assessing the whole range of impacts across the country and arising emergency needs. If this crisis of Nature worsens, the United Nations, which is already helping monitor the impact, is prepared to step in with additional support.
The expected decline in harvests will affect food supplies, as well as various agri-exports. The one impacts on the health of people, especially, the poor, while the other affects export incomes and the national economy. Reduced agricultural capacities will then affect future crops as well, resulting in a vicious cycle that only governmental and other aid interventions can redress. Thus, both, the immediate and long term impacts must be addressed.
The reduced hydro-electric generating capacity may be met in the short term with enhanced thermal power supplies but that will only add greatly to the nation’s already high fuel bill. Thus, the national power supply agencies need to plan ahead for restrictive power distribution through scheduled power supply cuts as a means of reducing consumption. This requires advance warning to major power consumers in manufacturing and services since negative impacts on these sectors will affect the economy as a whole.
It is up to Sri Lankan agencies and experts, by now well experienced in managing, both, natural and human disasters, to undertake thorough and scientific assessments of impacts and needs. It is also up to these same agencies and experts to rapidly respond to these needs in the most efficient manner without delay.
Too often, the remote rural population’s predicaments go little noticed with little done and often done too late. Inadequate advance notice to industrial sectors will also cause unnecessary loss to the economy that will go beyond the immediate drought itself.
And, Sri Lankan society as a whole has to be sensitised to the growing crisis. Unlike floods or landslides or other sudden disasters that have dramatic instant effects, droughts are a form of ‘creeping’ disaster in which the impacts do not draw immediate public attention in dramatic ways. When floods or other sudden disasters occur, the general Sri Lankan public is known to respond spontaneously and generously. In fact, sometimes the spontaneous popular response has been unmanageable with relief items going astray or excessive.
The news media has an important role to play in bringing the drought crisis close to the hearts and minds of the immediately unaffected population, such as, the urban communities most of whom have greater economic and social capacities that they will willingly share with people in distress if adequately guided. It is up to the media industry to go beyond their immediate market interests to bring such news and information, even if undramatic, to their biggest urban audiences.
There are many possibilities for news media collaboration with the business community in corporate social responsibility activity that could harness social energies. Such social and corporate mobilization could address both, immediate drought relief needs and, also, through creative programs help long-term impact avoidance or amelioration in different agricultural or rural industrial sector affected by drought. The urban energy consumers, for example, need constant education and awareness-building for greater economizing on energy consumption.
The authorities need to collaborate with both, the news media and the corporate sector in enabling such social mobilization. Political leadership is needed by both Government and Opposition for such mobilization for such human succour and safeguarding of long term social prosperity. Sri Lanka must stand up to its reputation as a ‘middle-income country’.