Why a Fishing Village now Lives in Fear of the Sea

Sri Lanka climate changeMUDUKATAVA VILLAGE, Sri Lanka — It takes a lot for a lifelong coastal dweller to be surprised by the sea. But a few months ago, when seawater suddenly fell from the ceiling of her beachside hut, Nilane Rupaka Silva couldn’t stop wondering.

“I went out for a look, seeing a huge wave coming from the sea,” Silva recalled. “It was like a tsunami. I was so scared, and people were shouting, ‘Run, run away!'”

Silva ran away with her family. The wave was chasing, hitting her hut and engulfing her neighborhood. One huge wave crashed but was followed by another. When the sea finally calmed several hours later, Silva returned to her home and found its wall cracked. On the floor, the water came up to her knees.

Sitting in front of her broken hut on a recent day, Silva said this kind of disaster had never happened in her fisherman village until recently. But now the sea has become rougher and has gradually eaten up a protective beach that lies in front of the village. As a result, the 33-year-old and her neighbors are now victims to storm surges.

The storm-surge-prone village is just one of many problems Sri Lanka faces due to climate change. The changing climate and associated problems have threatened the economy and livelihoods of this island nation.

British risk advisory firm Maplecroft said in a study published this year that Sri Lanka faces “high risk” in terms of climate change vulnerability. The inflated risk level is linked to a long list of foreseeable climate-related problems, as well as the lack of capability to handle them.

While the climate-related problems have yet to be fully studied here, they can be felt by many Sri Lankans. Tour guides in the south’s Yala National Park blamed this year’s missed monsoon rain for displacing wildlife. Up in hills, tea planters of central Sri Lanka complained that a few months ago, unexpected rainfall during the dry season messed up the production of an expensive seasonal tea.

Food security in question

In subjects that have been studied more often, climate change has proved to be a problem. According to a 2010 government report, droughts, floods and landslides — already frequent headaches in Sri Lanka — will occur still more frequently. The report notes that the capital, Colombo, ranked No. 1 in exposure to flooding.

Colombo and other coastal cities also face a slow, steadily mounting threat that comes from sea-level rise. Higher tides are washing away the precious sand on which Sri Lanka’s coastline is built. Available data indicate an average sea erosion rate of half a meter (1.6 feet) per year, and this trend is accelerating.

At the same time, global warming is drying up Sri Lanka’s rice production. The report notes an increasing number of consecutive dry days recorded in the north, which cultivates more than two-thirds of the country’s rice paddies. Since the northern regions are traditionally thirsty for water, such an increase is expected to bring more droughts and possibly threaten food security.

Sometimes, the rain did come, but not in the way farmers want. In January 2012, the monsoon pumped more rain into eastern Sri Lanka’s Batticaloa in a month than what the region used to receive in a year. The result: A large percentage of about-to-harvest rice paddies were submerged into the accumulating water.

The unusually heavy rain also damaged hundreds of small reservoirs and other irrigation infrastructures. As farmers there rely on irrigation, the agricultural losses continued into the next growing season.

“Although agriculture is not a major contributor to Sri Lanka’s economy, it is a major income for the rural poor,” said Bhathiya Kekulandala, a coordinator of the climate change program at Practical Action, an international development charity headquartered in Rugby, England.

“It is becoming very difficult for Sri Lankan farmers to cultivate and obtain good harvests due to the changing climate,” Kekulandala said. He added that decreasing agricultural outputs could lead to food shortages, sending another blow to the rural communities.

A weakened economy

While the island recently removed the tag of being “the least developed country,” its economy staggers on. Relief funds for floods, droughts and other natural disasters drain the government budget for development. In addition, climate change now casts a long shadow on areas that are the most important.

One acute case is Sri Lanka’s coastal zone. Meteorologists warn of more floods there, as giant storm surges can ride in on higher tides to invade the region. Besides that, water supplies along the coastline are expected to become more tainted because seawater intrudes more deeply into the tributaries of rivers.

Saltwater intrusion is a natural phenomenon in the coastline, but it has become much worse in Sri Lanka in recent years, said Ranjana Piyadasa, a hydrogeology scientist with the University of Colombo. Sand mining has played a role, Piyadasa said, adding that sea-level rise combined with decreasing fresh water due to more droughts has also helped seawater flow farther inland.

If the flow were to happen on a sufficient scale, it would cause soil salination, making farmlands too salty to grow anything. It is already happening in some regions. The contamination of drinking water would also force residents and businesses to move away. That, in turn, could slow down the development of the coastal zone.

The coastal zone contributes to 43 percent of Sri Lanka’s annual economic outputs, according to the 2010 government report.

Scientists are not sure how bad the economic impacts there will be, and they are not eager to find out the hard way. This year, Piyadasa and others launched a project financed by the government to monitor sea-level rise and freshwater quality changes in Kalpitiya, one of the nation’s more vulnerable sites. Their goal: collecting scientific data needed for adaptation.

Missing links in defenses

Some adaptation efforts are already bearing fruit. Practical Action, for one, has identified rice varieties that are resistant to droughts, floods and high salinity, reducing crop losses due to increasingly tougher farming conditions. The organization’s Sri Lanka team is also partnering with Australian researchers to develop a simple model that farmers can use to forecast local weather risks. That would help the rural communities brace for some of the potential damage caused by climate change.

The weather forecast model showed its strength in previous pilot programs, and it will be introduced to more places after further testing, said Kekulandala, who manages the project.

Still, adapting to climate change remains a challenge. Due to years of civil wars, Sri Lanka lacks comprehensive historical data that are crucial for future climate projection. The country’s weather stations and other infrastructure are largely missing, and the government here failed to pump in sufficient funds to make a change.

“Climate change became the government’s interest only recently,” said Darshani De Silva, environmental specialist at the World Bank’s office in Colombo. As she explained, compared with projects like building roads, it has been hard for Sri Lankan officials to choose climate change adaptation as their finance priority because there is no clear timeline of the investment return.

But since natural disasters likely rooted in climate change have become more obvious in recent years, the economic losses have persuaded policymakers here to give the issue more attention. What remains a question is whether such support can come fast enough to prevent the problem.

In the fisherman village of Mudukatava, the government built a sea dike in 2009. But at that time, Nilane Rupaka Silva and her neighbors had already lost their 200-meter-wide beach to sea erosion. The new dike is behind the back wall of villagers’ home, failing to protect them from the recent storm surge.

The affected families now live in tents without showers and electricity. Dozens of people share one toilet, and they don’t know whether or when they can move to a new place. But still, no one wants to fix their damaged huts and assume they can resume their normal life by the sea.

“We are scared,” Silva explained. “We do not want to see the disaster happening again.”

Photo by Coco Liu

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