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  • Sri Lankan crops and water hit by tsunami salt


[COLOMBO] Last month's tsunami inundated Sri Lanka's water supplies and agricultural land with salt water. Despite concerns raised by UNICEF officials, Sri Lankan authorities say the island's food security is not threatened.

The tsunami waves contaminated water and damaged crops most heavily on Sri Lanka's east coast, whose rice fields produce more than one-third of the country's total harvest.

Initial surveys by government agencies show that rice fields in the eastern districts of Trincomalee and Batticoloa have been heavily damaged and coconut plantations are also expected to suffer a slight decline.

According to sources at UNICEF in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo, the extent of crop damage has been underestimated. Staff at the UN agency told SciDev.Net that salt has affected several thousand rice and fruit farms, and is beginning to form a crust on the soil.

"These fields cannot be used for at least another year," says one UNICEF official.


Government agencies, however, are downplaying the tsunami's impact on agriculture.


"Crop production may face some difficulties in the next few months, but it will not affect the nation's food security," says S. L. Weerasena, director-general of the Department of Agriculture.


Weerasena told Scidev.Net that though parts of the east were affected, most agricultural areas have been spared, and he predicts a "bumper harvest" of rice this March despite the devastation caused by the tsunami.


He adds that a bigger concern was that the tsunami death toll means there is a labour shortage, which could impede the harvest.


A senior official from the Department of National Planning who asked not be named told SciDev.Net that contamination of wells in the south and east of the island is a greater, longer-term problem than immediate crop damage.

"Sea water has seeped into wells and other water resources in Trincomalee, Amparai, Batticaloa and Hambantota districts," he says.

"The water distribution network is partially damaged in some places and completely destroyed elsewhere. Not only do people have a scarcity of drinking water, but also a shortage of water for agricultural purposes."

Several areas in southern Sri Lanka are experiencing serious shortages of drinking water, and most water purifying plants there have been damaged beyond repair.

Most people in rural Sri Lanka still rely on wells for their drinking water. The International Water Management Institute, based in Colombo, warns that saltwater could seep into the wells and should be pumped out.

"We are worried about the quality of water people drink, as we cannot restore the water distribution network that soon," says the minister of health, Nimal Siripala de Silva.

This process of decontaminating wells has begun in the south of the country, where machines are being used to suck out seawater. But according to the health official, "only rainwater could flush out the aquifers — but that means having to wait for the monsoons [in April]".

Currently, the island is using portable desalting machines to decontaminate wells. In some areas, water purification tablets are being used.

Despite disagreements about the threat to crop yields following the tsunami, what has disappeared from the Sri Lankan menu are its famous seafood platters.


According to fisheries minister, Chandrasena Wijesinghe, the stretch of sea between the islands of Kachchathivu and Delft Island off the Jaffna peninsula of north-western Sri Lanka — a belt known for jumbo prawns — was hit hardest. 

The tsunami destroyed more than 2,000 boats and Wijesinghe says it will be one year before they can return to the sea. Sixty per cent of dietary protein in Sri Lanka comes from consumption of fish. 

Link to SciDev.Net's news focus 'Tsunami update'

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