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[COLOMBO] Sri Lanka is in the throes of a possible drought, which could adversely affect its farm output this year, indicate latest updates from the government and international agencies.
A 15 per cent reduction in paddy production is expected during the main harvesting season that ended in April due to dry weather conditions, says a report released by the World Food Programme and Sri Lanka’s ministries of economic development and disaster management on 19 May.
According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the food grain output could be 3.8 million metric tons, nearly 20 per cent lower than that of 2013. This, in fact, is about eight per cent lower than the average harvest recorded in the last five years, says FAO’s latest global information and early warning system on food and agriculture.
“The losses are mounting because we have not had any significant rains since last November,” Rajith Punyawardena, chief climatologist, department of agriculture says.
“The urgent need is to come up with an integrated national policy that brings together agriculture, water resources, nutrition and health sectors,” he says.
One of the worst-hit regions is the northern province. The province registered a shortfall of whopping 60 per cent as the harvest was mere 112,000 metric tons as against an estimated 300,000 metric tons.
“The losses were primarily due to planted area drying out for the lack of water,” Sivapatham Sivakumar, provincial director for agriculture tells SciDev.Net.  
Sivakumar says harvest losses in the northern province have raised fears of deteriorating food security among its poorer sections. The FAO said that April saw rice prices soaring to record levels, 23 per cent higher than a year ago.
Officials at Sri Lanka's department of irrigation warn that the drought is likely to extend due to a weaker monsoon due to set in by end-May.
“All the major irrigation reservoirs are running well below capacity level, at around 30 or 40 per cent. If the monsoon fails, our advice will be to reduce the harvesting extent,” Badra Kamaladasa, director general, irrigation, says.  
The Ministry of Agriculture proposes to use 35 per cent of the 779,000 hectares of paddy-growing area to plant alternative crops such as onions, potatoes and chilies during the dry season between May and August. The government will provide high yield seeds and fertiliser at concessional rates for farmers who are ready to make the switch.
Sri Lanka last suffered a similar dry spell between December 2011 and October 2012, which affected an estimated 1.8 million people living in arid parts of the country's northern, eastern and southern provinces; and cut the 2012 rice harvest by seven per cent compared to 2011.
This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South Asia desk.

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