Better Weather Warnings Needed In Sri Lanka

Little warning before flooding hit Polonnaruwa District in February 2011. Photo: Amantha Perera/IRIN.
Before he leaves to meet with farmers, R M P Karunarathne, the irrigation engineer in Sri Lanka’s north central Pollonarauwa District, calls the national Meteorological Department in the capital, Colombo, to get the weather forecast. 

He told IRIN the information he gets from these informal calls based on personal relations has become ever more vital in the absence of an official forecasting system as weather patterns are changing.

“The details we get from official channels are a bare minimum - there is nothing much you can tell farmers from them,” said Karunarathne, who oversees the area’s irrigation dams, including the 20sqkm Parakarama Samudraya reservoir.

In January/February 2011, fields in the Pollonarauwa region were inundated after receiving a year’s worth of rain in one month, before a dry spell set in at the end of the year. By April 2012 it had worsened to the point where his team could not release any more water from the nearly dry reservoirs.

Even after the start of the monsoons in May, the Parakarama Samudraya was still only a quarter full by the end of July, said Karunarathne. Officials usually start releasing water when reservoirs are about 40 percent full.

“If we get better information we can at least advise farmers what to expect. Now, what we have is a system where the advice comes after the event - it is of no use then,” he said.

Countries facing increasingly erratic weather, such as floods and droughts, need better coordination between government departments to help farmers and other residents cope with the effects.

“Dealing with extreme weather events and changing weather patterns should be looked at as a concerted effort and not in isolation,” said Senaka Basnayake, who worked at the island’s Meteorological Department for two decades before becoming head of the climate change and climate risk management unit of the Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre (ADPC) in Bangkok, Thailand, in 2010.

Floods wiped out about 17 percent of Sri Lanka’s rice crop in 2011, and later in the year windstorms in the south killed 25 people, mostly fishermen, and damaged over 10,000 buildings.

The current combination of low rainfall and high temperatures is threatening to destroy more than 60,000 hectares of paddy rice and other crops in the north of the island. 

There were no government-issued warnings before these events, nor has any useable information been sent to regional officials like Karunarathne on the long-term effects on farmers.

Near the Parakarama Samudraya reservoir, farmers trying to grow crops with rationed water have held protests to demand more to safeguard at least 16,000 hectares of paddy.

According to the latest annual report of Sri Lanka’s Central Bank, in the last two decades the average temperature has increased by around 0.45 degrees Celsius. The report concluded that a rise of around 0.5 degrees Celsius could reduce rice yields by about 5 percent. The report warns that the country’s biggest problem is the availability of water.

The Environment Ministry’s most recent communication on climate change notes that flash floods have become more frequent in the western plains, heightening the risk of vector-borne diseases, while changing monsoon patterns have increased the threat of coastal erosion and groundwater salinity.

“If there is at least some communication between state bodies, the damage could be minimized and plans set in place. If the irrigation engineers and farmers know that the rains will fail, or temperatures are rising, they can take adequate precautions,” ADPC’s Basnayake said.

Forecasting woes

The Meteorological Department’s director, S H Kariyawasam, said his officials meet with their counterparts at the Irrigation Department and the Mahaweli Authority, which oversees large reservoirs, before the annual monsoons start in May, and again in December.

“The problem is not the meetings but the lack of capacity [in the department] to come up with useable predictions,” he said. The official said there were still a lot of ambiguities in the seasonal forecasts, which complicate weather preparations. A recent UN assessment noted the department’s inability to make accurate predictions of extreme and fast-moving weather patterns.

In mid-2005, after the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, the government set up the Disaster Management Centre to issue early warnings and monitor preparedness. The system has mostly worked well, though on at least one occasion it failed, with deadly results.

ADPC’s Basnayake told IRIN that seasonal forecasts do not need to be 100 percent accurate, but should be used as warnings, citing India as a good example. “In India, before the monsoon comes in [June] there are seasonal forecasts that give an indication of what to expect, but as the monsoon gets closer, more detailed bulletins are issued. What is important is the frequency of the seasonal forecasts, and how they are used by other government agencies.”