Water and Sustainable Agriculture in Sri Lanka

November 03, 2022

Ruwanthi Jayasekara
Published on NIICE Commentary 6041 on 27 September 2020

The Sustainable Developmental Goals were set by the United Nations to be achieved by 2030 and now, we are less than a decade away from the target date to a better future. Water and sustainable agriculture are linked to all 17 goals either directly or indirectly.  In the long term, inadequate water, both in the form of droughts and inundation of water in the form of floods, pose a detrimental impact, not only on environmental security, but on community security,  health  security,  economic  security,  political  security  and  overall national security of a country. Currently, there’s only about 3 percent of the Earth that can be considered sustainable enough to grow food on, but every inch of land is crawling with those who need food to survive.

Sri Lanka, with two annual monsoon seasons, is privileged to possess sufficient water for daily chores. Even during the pandemic, Sri Lanka did not face drastic issues with regards to Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) resources, unlike other South Asian countries. It is a fact that the demand for both water and agriculture will increase every day. It is necessary to analyse how sustainable agriculture can be flourished while preserving the available water resources.

Sri  Lanka  is  self-sufficient  in  production  of  rice,  tea  and  coconut,  and  the land   is   highly   arable.   400,000   hectares   of   land   has   been   cultivated additionally  during  the  pandemi.  Rice  occupies  34  percent  of  the  total cultivated  land  in  Sri  Lanka.  Every  year,  more  than  20000-23000  kg  of arsenic, 40,000-50,000 kg of chromium and 20,000-30,000 kg of lead are added to the soil. Sri Lanka ranks 26th  place in fertiliser usage in the world. It is unfortunate that only less than 20 percent of the fertilisers are absorbed by plants. More fertiliser is not an indication of greater harvest, but increased presence nitrogen, arsenic, phosphate in soil, water and ultimately in human bodies. This suggests that nearly 80 percent of fertilisers end up in the soil and  the  highest  portion  ends  up  in  lakes,  rivers  and  ultimately,  in  the  sea. Adding to this, the ocean acts as the largest carbon sink in the world. Once large amounts of energy is absorbed by the ocean and evaporated back to the atmosphere, this could create sea spring, tornadoes and cyclones, which could affect the nearby agricultural lands. This is a vicious cycle, and can have drastic impacts on agricultural land.

Water plays a very crucial role in the amelioration of agricultural products. Water scarcity, with extreme weather conditions, increases water constrains. Droughts have become an annual phenomenon in Sri Lanka and this limits agricultural   practices   during   the   dry   season.   In   the   same   manner, overabundance  of  water  in  the  form  of  natural  disasters  damage  the  crops and  from  6-11  August  2020,  107  families  and  434  people  in  the  Central provinces of Sri Lanka were affected. Fluctuation of water supply is not only an essential need of life but also for the livelihoods of many. “Women across the  Eastern  Province  of  Sri  Lanka  venture  on  a  90-minute  walk  through brush and unlit roads to collect drinking water for their families”. In the long term, water creates an impact not only on the economy, but also on politics, as  depressed  and  deprived  farmers  could  even  turn  over  governments  and ultimately  these  depressive  systems  could  trigger  water  wars  like  in  the Middle  East.  Therefore,  a  drop  of  water  is  never  to  be  underestimated  and water  governance  should  forever  remain  a  priority.  It  is  necessary  that countries improve resilience to water risk management with the utilisation of climate adaptive and water smart technology.

Initiation  of  sustainable  agricultural  practices  consumes  time,  effort  and social responsibility. It is the social responsibility of both the manufacturer and  the  consumer  that  sustainability  is  maintained  until  the  product  is consumed and well-disposed off. More than 40 percent of production in Sri Lanka  goes  to  waste,  due  to  issues  of  transportation,  packaging,  storing capacity  and  backward  means  of  preservation.  When  the  food  wastage  is high, wastage of virtual water is high, especially when 15 percent of children between 6-59 months are under chronic malnutrition. When determining the policies like debt for nature swap, forest-bathing and organic farming. In Seychelles,   the   US   conservation   group   The   Nature   Conservancy   (TNC) bought  debt  “in  exchange  for  a  promise  to  create  13  new  marine  protected areas  (MPAs)”.  In  Japan,  forest  bathing  is  practiced,  where  people  spend time  in  naturally  healing  environments,  which  leads  to  lower  levels  of  the stress  hormone  ‘cortisol’,  blood  pressure  and  improved  concentration  and memory. These plans of action compel people to engross in sustainable living with less effort.

One major solution is organic farming. Bodies like National Organic Control Unit should be responsible to implement rules for organic farming with certain standards, provide incentives for farmers and create opportunities for both local and external export market. In the long run, it is necessary to  make these organic products affordable to local consumers, especially considering they use limited water for farming, and are the healthier option. This should not be limited to the private sector, but the public sector involvement needs to be high. Organic farming could lend a helping hand in lessening chemical fertilisers in water bodies and therefore, minimising the number of kidney patients and issues related to discolouration of one’s teeth. Monitoring and guiding debate in the agricultural sector could ensure health security of many.

The population is expected to grow and another 2 billion people are to be fed by  2050.  The  Food  and  Agriculture  Organisation  (FAO)  of  the  United Nations  has  been  working  with  the  government  on  a  national  agricultural strategy  for  10  years  and  there  seems  to  be  a  long  delay.  Existing  water policies should be coherent with the upcoming national agricultural strategy and  completion  and  implementation  such  a  strategy  could  lead  us  towards achieving   sustainable   agricultural   targets.   But   the   question   is,   If   our agriculture isn’t sustainable, how are we to face the further complications on health, face water scarcity and even water wars?


Mrs. Ruwanthi Jayasekara was a Research Assistant and is an Honorary Associate Research Fellow at the Institute of National Security Studies (INSS), the premier think tank on National Security established under the Ministry of Defence. The opinion expressed in this article are her own and not necessarily reflective of the INSS.

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