Extreme Weather Threatens Conflict-Hit Communities in Burma, Sri Lanka

By Amantha Perena 23 May 2014

COLOMBO/RANGOON — When Sri Lanka’s long-running civil war ended in May 2009, Murigesu Tharmalingam thought his life would finally change for the better. A paddy rice farmer from the Jaffna Peninsula in the country’s Northern Province, he felt confident that peace would bring better crops and profits.

But in the three decades that the civil conflict raged in Sri Lanka, the country’s weather patterns changed. The rainy seasons, which had once been predictable, are now erratic and extreme, swinging wildly between heavy but short outbursts and long dry spells.

These changes have had a telling impact on farmers in the Northern Province like Tharmalingam. He has lost three rice harvests in the last year alone – to drought, floods and an infestation of insects.

Tharmalingam is not alone. Experts warn that tens of thousands of conflict-affected persons are being made even more vulnerable by frequent extreme weather events and lack of effective efforts to deal with climate change in countries like Sri Lanka and Burma.

“The impact has been terrible,” said Sivapatham Sivakumar, director of agriculture at Sri Lanka’s Northern Provincial Council. At least 30 percent of the province’s population derive their income from agriculture, and it is home to more than 400,000 former internally displaced people.

The province is also one of the poorest in the country with some districts like Mannar and Kilinochchi recording unemployment rates twice as high as the national rate of 4 percent.

Worsening Drought

In the latter half of 2013, when a severe drought engulfed the province’s population of 1.2 million, the paddy rice harvest fell by nearly two-thirds from initial estimates, dropping from 300,000 metric tons to a mere 112,000 tons.

“There was no water to support the crops,” Sivakumar said. “The farmers are already heavily in debt and we are concerned about their food security.”

Drought has been a major problem in the province, with at least two major dry spells in mid-2010 and late 2012 before the current spell. The province also fell victim to major floods in early 2011 and again a year later.

And there are more warnings coming. The impending south-western monsoon due later this month in Sri Lanka is expected to bring lower than average rain, impacting harvest yields and putting pressure on the availability of safe drinking water.

Burma’s Restive Arakan State

A similar situation has arisen in the restive Arakan State in western Burma. Humanitarian officials say that the plight of communities affected by ethnic violence has been exacerbated by the region’s vulnerability to extreme weather events.

Rising tensions since June 2012 and ethnic violence between Muslims and Buddhists have forced over 140,000 to flee their homes in the state. Pierre Péron, a spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Burma, said humanitarian agencies estimate that 800,000 people are facing a dire humanitarian situation due to lack of basic services and income opportunities.

The grave humanitarian situation has been worsened by Arakan’s vulnerability to extreme weather events.

“Over the years, natural hazards such as cyclones, floods and landslides have caused monumental damage and loss of lives in Rakhine [Arakan] state,” said Péron.

Over 300,000 people in Arakan State were affected by two cyclones and floods in 2010 alone. Péron said that more than 40 percent of the state’s population of around 3.8 million live below the poverty line, and at least a quarter of the population suffer from food insecurity.

“Rakhine [Arakan] state is one of the least developed parts of Burma and is characterised by high population density, malnutrition, low income, poverty and weak infrastructure compounded by storms and floods that are recurrent in the area,” Péron said, adding that for seven months of the year the state faces dry weather while the rest of the year it experiences heavy rains.

In both Sri Lanka and Burma, officials said that lack of infrastructure and resources in areas affected by conflict made the impact of extreme weather events more pronounced.

In Arakan, despite improvements in early-warning mechanisms and emergency services following cyclone Nargis in May 2008, community-level knowledge of disasters remains relatively low, according to humanitarian workers.

“At the community level, a number of UN organizations and NGOs are working to strengthen community-level responses through the development of village disaster management plans, as well as offering training on search and rescue and first aid, and mock drills to practise disaster response,” said Maciej Pieczkowski, program manager with the International Organisation for Migration in Burma.

Delays in Public Warnings

In Sri Lanka too, even though the country has improved its early warning and disaster preparedness since the devastating December 2004 tsunami, officials in Northern Province said there were still delays in issuing effective public warnings.

Despite a continuing drought since November 2013 and repeated warnings that the monsoon was likely to be weak, the government is yet to issue any kind of official drought warning, complained U.L.M. Haldeen, secretary to the Northern Provincial Ministry of Agriculture, Agrarian Services, Animal Husbandry, Irrigation and Environment.

“We are yet to get a warning on a drought or a weak monsoon. If things are going to get as bad as some predict, we need time to prepare the population,” he said.