Dry zone farmers in Sri Lanka should adopt modern methods to conserve precious water resource

unnamedIn Sri Lanka, the situation related to precious water resource is very different in Jaffna peninsula and many nearby small islands with no rivers rely heavily on groundwater to meet their water requirements. As demand for water increases the quantity of groundwater decreases and recharge takes only with rainfall; groundwater exploitation should therefore be only in proportion to its recharging capacity. In the peninsula, groundwater is utilized to the maximum for agriculture; instead of growing crops requiring water according to agricultural climatic conditions, crops of commercial importance requiring more water are grown, resulting in overexploitation of groundwater. Northern Breeze has stressed on the need to introduce planned large scale farming (1) and a proper plan to develop the agriculture industry to overcome this problem. This post is to introduce modern methods that exist elsewhere and practiced by farmers in many other countries; that would increase the quality and quantity of production and utilize considerable amount of barren land for use in the agricultural sector. As time is ripe for these activities and the development related post-harvest activities be given urgent attention by the authorities to uplift this most important sector in the country.   

In the past, Northerners did their utmost to keep the total fresh water available pollution free and it was sufficient to meet the drinking water needs of the population. With time and the civil war that dragged on for many decades, this ecological balance was disturbed; unfortunately today a large portion of fresh water (2) (5) (6) is not fit for use due to increasing economic activities, urbanization etc., as pollution has spread in large proportions. In the rest of the country, the surface water is mainly found in rivers and lakes and underground water is found under land at different depths, but have become polluted with cities located on banks of rivers disposing off different wastes directly without treatment in rivers and with tourism spreading pollution to famous lakes and sea coasts. While, people in remote areas are dependent on groundwater for their water related activities; in many parts of the country agriculture activities and industrial units have polluted the water stored in the security cover of the ground. The water crisis initially started with pollution and qualitative deterioration, which became acute due to increasing demand for it. For preventing water pollution, important water sources should not be made places for disposal of wastes; industrial units should dispose waste water only after its treatment; bathing and other such activities should be prohibited near drinking water sources. Thus, the most important aspect of water conservation is control on water pollution.

Next problem is that water found on the surface is not equally distributed and existing form of distribution also becomes a reason for the water crisis. In the central hill country, though there is maximum hydroelectric production because of excess availability of water in the wet regions, but the dry zones situated in the plains around the country suffers from water crisis for the whole year. Sadly, there is very low rainfall in the dry zone and the droughts faced by these regions are famous; while there is maximum rainfall in the central parts and more than half the rainfall flows uselessly into the seas around the island; including the rivers in the north which goes dry for most of the year. Hence the water crisis can be minimized by development of water reservoirs and canal network and the excess rainfall water which flows away from rivers without being used, can be stored in these reservoirs, from where it can be supplied for agriculture, industries, urban areas etc., with facilities for fisheries and transport. These reservoirs would also would protect from floods; such water can also be diverted to areas needing water for drinking and other uses. Redistribution of water is also possible through canal system that transfers water from excess rain water areas to scarce rain water areas and conserves water for different uses (3) every year.

In 2017, country is in the midst of its worst drought in decades caused by shortage of rainfall that has affected most districts in all nine provinces; has created a humanitarian and economic crisis that is now affecting all aspects of life. More than million people are experiencing acute water shortages and many of whom are in urgent need of food assistance, while most of them are in need of urgent life-saving support. The government is doing what it can as part of its disaster management efforts; year after year it cover the effects and never the cause of this natural disaster. The biggest issue at the moment is the shortage of rice produced from rice, a water-intensive staple crop that has been a massive failure for most farmers living in areas crippled by the drought. With rain not expected for another two to three months, the government has warned of worsening shortages; reservoirs in the country are running low and some are now down to a fifth of their capacity. The drought has damaged land so badly, that the farmers will be able to resume cultivation only in 35 percent of the paddy land. Thus the nation’s food supply has taken a huge set back and as always, many of the poorest families will struggle to feed their children, often choosing to eat fewer and smaller meals, and cut down on nutritious foods like meat and vegetables. Sadly, as always with lack of preventive planning on the part of the government; when disasters of this nature occurs, immediately they take such measures and seek help from friendly nations to mitigate the effect and the nation will continue to live on as a poor developing nation till the next disaster.

Sri Lanka must come out of this miserable way of life and there should be proper planning to face such natural disasters (4) (7). The impact of drought could be minimised if water resources are conserved properly, for every year while many districts face drought situation, there are times in the year there is flooding and precious water flows to the sea and causing damages on the way. Yet, the lack of rain last year did lower water levels in rivers and with less water available supplies have been contaminated, many people are affected, as they lack access to clean drinking water. Proper water management needs to be done on a national scale, to ensure rain water is conserved to the maximum; to this end most of the surface reservoirs in the country that are in a state of neglect needs to be properly renovated and new schemes to divert rivers are developed to ensure these reservoirs are kept filled by rain water. Further, there is an urgent need to change the age old agriculture practices, basically there are cash crop cultivation undertaken by many farmers who are able cope with such disasters, but bulk of the farmers do subsistence farming depending heavily on state grants given to fertilizers and with regular rain fall they make ends meet. Bulk of the rural farmers are unable to attract their own younger generation to the sector.

Where do we begin? This post looks at what a follower of Northern Breeze (8) has suggested an option for the dry zone farmers to adopt, where many countries with inhospitable, dry and hot weather in a place that was previously considered too barren are producing top quality fruits and vegetables in large quantities. In South Australia delicious tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and more are produced in greenhouse built on relatively flat ground that are in the desert conditions land situated at the top of the Spencer Gulf, near the city of Port Augusta. Given the lack of fresh water and the harsh climates, traditional horticulture was not feasible in this area; with copyrighted technologies, these producers have been growing delicious, natural and high-quality produce using seawater and sunlight. Earlier, the 20 hectare greenhouse was constructed with a thermal desalination plant, using state-of-the-art solar tower and has 23,000 mirrors pointed to reflect light to a 115m high receiver tower to generate solar power to produce energy to power the plant growing systems and to heat and cool the greenhouses as required and the seawater is desalinated using renewable energy to meet the water requirements at the farm. When the sun is shining, the system can provide 39 megawatts of clean energy – that’s enough to keep the desalination plant working and power the greenhouse, which is heated during the winter. This incredible farm makes tomato plants bloom in the desert using nothing more than sunlight and seawater. Needing no soil, fossil fuels, groundwater, or pesticides; grows crops in a hydroponic greenhouse lined with water-drenched cardboard. All this technology goes into growing delicious tomatoes that are available in supermarkets and in Australian grocery stores. Another example is a farm facility built in a 10 hectares land in the Tunisian desert, where 18,000 tomato plants grow in the greenhouse generating 17,000 metric tons of produce each year, and the producer aims to grow other crops like fruit and peppers. These plants are grown in coconut husks, and the farm employs “predatory insects” to control pests that could harm plants. These farms are breaking farming’s dependence on finite resources and recently finished first such farm was built in Portugal. These farming system cost many million rupees to build, but the hefty price tag will pay off over time save millions in import and export costs; as the farm won’t need to purchase any fossil fuels. The farm can hook up to the grid if there are solar power shortages in the rainy days, however its ultimate goal is to progress to the point where it’s completely self-sufficient. The challenge is that they are finite resources that are becoming ever scarcer. The solution is not to use them and that is exactly what happens with these new method, where the new greenhouse turns seawater and sunlight into energy and water, then use sustainably sourced carbon dioxide and nutrients to maximise the growth of crops. Because no soil is needed, able to grow the produce on degraded land in arid areas previously considered too barren for agriculture; but has an everlasting supply of sunshine and sea water to grow food in arid lands. No need to extract groundwater at unsustainable rates and don’t rely on fossil fuels; don’t use soil or valuable farmlands. Instead have developed technologies that integrate solar power, electricity generation, fresh water production and hydroponics. It produces an equivalent quantity of food to that grown using traditional methods, but the quality is significantly better and can’t beat this system it uses the sun’s energy to produce freshwater for irrigation and turn it into electricity to power the greenhouse to heat and cool the crops. The ventilation also uses seawater to help cool the greenhouses, and re-use water again and again.

Sri Lankan farmers should move out of the age old subsistence farming methods that bank heavily on manual labour, seasonal rain fall, availability of fertile land and fertilizer subsidies; that would open the way to modernise the agriculture sector in the country. This would bring back the younger generation into this much neglected sector and country will start saving import costs and gradually increase foreign earnings from agriculture sector. With planned large scale farming adopting modern methods will increase production to meet local consumption and open export markets to generate more income for the country and at the same time help to conserve resources such as water, land and labour. This option, is a modern way to increase the agriculture production in the country is to grow quality fruits and vegetables in greenhouses, already practiced in many countries; possible in all the districts by the sea that have dry zone. Unlike the conventional greenhouse that use groundwater for irrigation, gas for heating, electricity for cooling and need lots of it. These projects would turn seawater and sunlight into energy and water, then use sustainably sourced carbon dioxide and nutrients to maximise the growth of crops in the greenhouses. Cost of such ventures is set off by the savings on imports and export earnings. We can get these projects under the Public Private Partnership (PPP) arrangement that is already in operation that enables groups or individuals from overseas to invest with state participation.

References: Visit posting on Northern Breeze for more information on the subject: (1) Need planned large scale farming – Apr 2, 2016 https://rtr734.wordpress.com/2016/04/02/need-planned-large-scale-farming; (2)“FOG” halts water at Chunnakam – Feb 23, 2016 https://rtr734.wordpress.com/2016/02/23/fog-halts-water-at-chunnakam; (3) Taking Mahaweli water to the Dry Zones north of the country – Jul 28, 2016  https://rtr734.wordpress.com/2016/07/28/taking-mahaweli-water-to-the-dry-zones-north-of-the-country; (4) Northern Sri Lanka needs a production based economy – Aug 26, 2016 https://rtr734.wordpress.com/2016/08/26/northern-sri-lanka-needs-a-production-based-economy; (5) Lack of Drinking Water will prevent development of Jaffna – Oct 21, 2016 https://rtr734.wordpress.com/2016/10/21/lack-of-drinking-water-will-prevent-development-of-jaffna; (6) First resolve pollution at Chunnakam to sustain peninsula water resources – May 13, 2017 https://rtr734.wordpress.com/2017/05/13/first-resolve-pollution-at-chunnakam-to-sustain-peninsula-water-resources; (7) Biodiversity Educational and Research Center for North – May 26, 2017 https://rtr734.wordpress.com/2017/05/26/biodiversity-educational-and-research-center-for-north (8)  Subject: Australian desert farm grows 17,000 metric tons of vegetables with just seawater and sun. Hi Thamba, You are “EVER the optimist”. WELL DONE!! One can ONLY HOPE & Pray to our GOD that you guys in S/L will SOME DAY have “POLITICIANS” who will look at the FUTURE & NOT ONLY “fill their pockets”!! I for one PRAY every day that “sanity” will prevail & there will be prosperity to all NOT only for the “select” few! Take Care muchung, Tony P.S:  You should send this article to your newspapers to print. SAY it’s from me!!!