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[COLOMBO]  Experts are calling on Sri Lanka’s rice farmers to adopt flexibility in planting techniques in order to mitigate the impact of fluctuating weather patterns.

“Farmers need to think on their feet now — as rainfall patterns change and shift, planting patterns also have to adapt,” Ranjith Punyawardena, chief climatologist at the Department of Agriculture told SciDev.Net

The warning comes after 25 per cent of last season’s rice harvest of four million metric tons was wiped out in a 10-month drought followed by flooding. A country assessment brief released by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in February placed the 2014 rice output at 3.5 million metric tons, the lowest recorded since 2010.

Rice imports, which are usually negligible, rose over 20 times last year. “The 2014 rice imports, which are normally imported in minor quantities, have been revised upwards and are now estimated at 520,000 tonnes from 22,900 tonnes in 2013,” FAO said.

Rice prices were also high with some varieties recording 40 per cent price hikes compared to 2013, according to government estimates.

Punyawardena said that when there were indications in early 2014 that a drought was setting in, the agriculture department had advised farmers to shift from planting rice to crops like bananas, chillies and maize that were more drought resistant. “Not many took our advice,” he added.

That negligence led to heavy losses. Of a planted extent of around 650,000 hectares for the main season, only around 520,000 hectares were finally harvested.

Agriculture and disaster experts say that Sri Lanka’s paddy farming relies on traditional methods and farmers are not willing to change.

“This resistance is partly due to people not having a proper understanding of changing weather patterns,” Sarath Lal Kumara, the assistant director at the government’s Disaster Management Centre said.

The change in the weather patterns has been quite visible in the last five years. This year, the harvest forecast is for an above average yield as heavy rains in late 2014 have left irrigation reservoirs full.

According to a World Food Programme (WFP) rapid assessment report released in January, Sri Lanka has been alternating between floods and drought since 2012.

“Three consecutive years of natural disaster (2012 drought, 2013 floods and 2014 drought and flooding) had undermined household resilience,” the assessment said adding, “populations in the affected areas had built up unsustainable levels of debts.”

“If the farmers in particular and the general public don’t adjust according to these wildly fluctuating weather patterns, the losses will mount,” Kumara said.

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South Asia desk.