The thirsting earth

Drought relief

"We are distributing water by bowser and have also repaired and cleaned 300 of the 700-odd tube wells in the district.

Drought relief in the form of food is also being provided to about 2,000 families," District Secretary Ananda Amaratunga explains, setting out the immediate steps taken by the the government to alleviate the suffering of the drought stricken.

The Social Services Department has earmarked funds to provide water and also drought relief amounting to Rs. 3.5 million.

Another department scheme is providing nutritional food to about 6,000 expectant mothers. Several non-governmental organisations are also helping out.

Farmers and officials battle the drought to save paddy crops in Hambantota. Kumudini Hettiarachchi reports

Hambantota: Women carrying dripping 'buli' - 20 litre cans - tractors stopped by small waterways pumping water into tanks with motors and small groups of women and children clustered round bowsers filling pots and pans with water are some of the sights that can be seen, not as frequently as last year, but in the remote corners of this arid region.

What cannot be seen is the desperate battle being waged by irrigation officials in a last ditch effort to save crops in this district which is in the grip of a drought.

"This is the dry period anyway. But the rains which came after the drought last year, were insufficient and drought conditions are persisting," says District Secretary Ananda Amaratunga.

The small showers in April did not fill up the tanks. In certain areas drinking water has become a problem and agriculture is also affected, says Mr. Amaratunga who administers this second most impoverished district next to Moneragala.

The Lunugamvehera tank. Pix by M.A. Pushpa Kumara

More than 100,000 of a population of 525,000 are affected by drought and the worst off divisions are Hambantota, Sooriyawewa, Lunugamvehera, Tangalle and Tissamaharama. The lagoons in the Bundala bird sanctuary have dried up, according to him.

"It is not that there is no water. Water is available, but in some areas people have to go looking for it.

There is no severe shortage of drinking water. It's there, but accessibility is the problem and some people have to walk, cycle or go by tractor to get their daily water needs," says the District Secretary.

The more desperate battle is to save crops. "The time is up for paddy harvesting but here and there some crops are getting damaged by lack of water," says Tissamaharama Irrigation Engineer Sarath Wickramapala. "The water to the fields should have been stopped on September 10, but we are trying our best to give more water wherever it is available as farmers are pleading for one more 'mure' as the paddy has not ripened."

We get a glimpse of the paddy cultivation patterns in the district. Taking the division of Tissamaharama, Mr. Wickramapala explains that the rain-fed Kirindi Oya feeds the Lunugamvehera reservoir which in turn acts as the feeder for the Tissa, Yoda, Weerawila, Pannegamuwa and Debera wewas. It also provides water to many smaller tanks.

The drought has dried up Lunugamvehera. The mouth of the feeder canal and the whole area around the sluice gates stretch like a desert, the only difference being that instead of sand there is cracked and parched earth like a massive cobweb.

"Before yala cultivations were begun, we had meetings with farmers and told them that there was a shortfall of 10,000 acre feet of water because the rains were inadequate.

When we discussed the matter with the farmers they were ready to face the risk and cultivate, explained Mr. Wickramapala.

Farmer Ranjith Kumarasinghe who is at the Lunugamvehera reservoir to check out the situation adds, "Yes, we were ready to take a risk and cultivate, but this situation is not only due to a shortfall in the rains.

For about three weeks, we didn't have an Irrigation Engineer, after the earlier officer was moved out. This resulted in the water not being controlled properly," he alleged. "Now we need at least two more jala mura." Over 9,800 acres of paddy have been cultivated this season. "About 10-12% of this acreage has faced destruction because of lack of water but we are putting up a major struggle and even pumping out the 'dead storage' water from Lunugamvehera and other tanks to save the balance crops," he says.

Dead storage water is the quantity left behind below the level of the sluice gate and is normally not touched.

"Goyam walata kiriwadina welawate wathura avashiyayayi" (The water is needed when the paddy is maturing). Otherwise it's like being affected by malnutrition when one is a child," laments Gunapala who has lost the paddy from three of the 7.5 acres cultivated. "Our crops are in danger. The irrigation officers are making a desperate attempt to save them by pumping water."

However, Nandasena is smiling as he watches the pumps spewing water from a nearby channel to 75 acres of paddy.

He is the leader of the group of farmers in the area and takes his job seriously. He allows the other farmers to get the water before tending his own five-acre plot.

"The drought has left the reservoir dry. The rains have also not come. I keep up at night not only to make sure that the water is not stolen by errant farmers, but also to chase away the elephants, who are a menace," says bleary-eyed Nandasena.

"With the pumping of water, we should be able to save our crops," he says confidently. "We have won about 90% of the battle," says Chief Irrigation Engineer Nihal Siriwardene.

No mean achievement.

Defying the weather gods
Usgala as the name denotes is a high point and for the men, women and children living in the last grama niladhari division of Andarawewa, the drought brings much more hardship than for others in the Hambantota district.

This is where successful NGO activity has made a mark and also changed the lives of these humble folk. Here the people have been made aware of a valuable source of water which can be tapped and stored not only for drinking but also for cultivations, when the dry months come round.

And the source is the little rainfall they experience. Working through the partner organisation of Giruwapattu Community Development Square (GIDES) in the area, ITDG South Asia has helped 26 of the 87 families in Usgala to cope with the drought.

The families which have been attempting to eke out a living from the harsh, dry land through chena (slash-and-burn) crops such as mung, peanuts, cowpea, gingelly and kurakkan had not succeeded earlier.

But since many farmers have opted for run-off cultivation tanks - built at ground level, to store water from the land when the rains come - their plight has improved in the face of the drought. The storage capacity of a tank is about 5,000 litres.

"The tank has helped us to keep our plants and trees from dying," says S.A. Karunawathie, 44, showing us the tank which has been covered with cadjans and fenced off with barbed wire to prevent someone falling in.

A mother of three, she explains that the area has little rainfall. But they have managed to collect water from the few showers that fell in April and May to water the plants now.

"The water is not poured over the plants directly. The cultivators have been shown a method where a small porous pot is buried near the plants and that is filled with water so that the roots of the plant have moisture, even when the heat is immense," says A.P. Jayaratne of GIDES.

"We couldn't keep a single plant from withering during the drought in the past, but now they are green and fine," adds Karunawathie's husband Chandradasa.

They keep the ground level tank closed with cadjans to prevent evaporation during the day when the sun's rays scorch the earth.

"Already we have sold about 12 kilos of our murunga," smiles Gunaseeli, 38, who with her farmer husband has to bring up two children. "Those days we used to plant crops during one maha as it rains then, only to see them die the next. We were drowning in debt, there was no hope. But things have changed now," she says drawing water from the tank.

She has to walk a few miles to get their drinking water needs or await the bowser.

It's a different story for 20-year-old Champa Vinitha who has four children to feed, bathe and wash. Those days she walked many miles to fill a buli with drinking water and carry the heavy burden on her head. Otherwise her husband had to cycle into the closest town or pay the van Rs. 10 for each 20-litre can. Not anymore.

She and her family have invested in a rainwater collecting tank, one of five built by the ITDG in the village, which drains the water off the roof through a set of gutters. The few showers which came long ago keep this family going even now, making life easier and cleaner.

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