Sri Lanka

Devastating Cyclone Leaves Farmers on Unsteady Ground

Harmful environmental activities worsened the floods that overwhelmed Jaffna last December. Farmers, still rebuilding after Sri Lanka’s civil war, must again start over.

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Devastating Cyclone Leaves Farmers on Unsteady Ground

Pashna Alistan, GPJ Sri Lanka

Vijayasekaram Chanthiravathana sprinkles fertilizer on her paddy fields, which were inundated during a cyclone in Jaffna in early December.

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ALLAIPIDDY, SRI LANKA — Loganathan Vijayamohan had already lost all of his possessions – twice.

The first time was in 1990, when he fled Sri Lanka’s civil war. The second was in 2006, when the war again forced him to flee.

In early December, he again lost everything. This time, Cyclone Burevi dumped at least 245 millimeters (about 10 inches) of rainfall on his 2 hectares (5 acres) of paddies in one day, rendering his fields useless.

It was, he says, “an unprecedented catastrophe.”

The storm destroyed at least 620 hectares (1,532 acres) of paddy fields and touched about 25,500 families and 85,139 people in Jaffna, a district in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province, according to the Jaffna District Disaster Management Center. Cyclone Burevi killed two people, partially damaged 3,084 homes and razed another 96, provincial agriculture officials say.

Cyclone Burevi upended the lives of farmers who have worked years to rebuild, and it revealed how vulnerable they are in a region where the cascading effects of environmentally harmful activities deepened the damage of a once-in-a-decade storm.

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Pashna Alistan, GPJ Sri Lanka

Sankarappillai Raveenthiran stands in his flooded paddy fields. He worries that unpredictable weather will keep him from earning a living.

Vijayamohan lives in Allaipiddy, a coastal village of 2,300 on the island of Velanai in Jaffna. The village saw much tumult during the 26-year war. In 1990 and 2006, the conflict forced residents to relocate, says Ramakrishnan Santhira, the secretary of the Allaipiddy Farmers Organization.

Since the war ended in 2009, Allaipiddy has enjoyed relative peace, Santhira says. Now, farmers are more worried about nature’s upheavals.

According to the Velanai Agrarian Services Center, 931 farmers in the Kayts and Velanai Divisional Secretariat Divisions were engaged in paddy cultivation in 2020 on an area of 770 hectares (1,903 acres). The center says 126.5 hectares (313 acres) were destroyed last year.

“In some cases, abnormal weather [has been] devastating” during his 13 years as a leader of the farmers group, Santhira says. “No other year has seen such a catastrophe as 2020.”

In the first six days of December, about 630 millimeters (25 inches) of rain fell. It was the worst storm in the region in more than a decade, and it brought powerful winds and tide surges, along with flooding.

Deforestation, beach sand mining, and illegal construction in river basins made the floods worse, says Tharmaradngam Piratheepan, officer in charge of the regional weather observatory in Jaffna.

These are not new problems in Sri Lanka. Beach sand mining exacerbated the effects of a tsunami in 2004. And from 2010 to 2019, Jaffna lost more than five times as much forest as it gained, according to a study published last year.

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Pashna Alistan, GPJ Sri Lanka

Vijayasekaram Chanthiravathana must sell mats to bolster income she lost after Cyclone Burevi plowed through Jaffna in early December.

Meanwhile, more than one-third of Sri Lanka’s rivers have had sand mined illegally – mainly for construction – and more than half of all sand used in construction comes from illicit sources, according to a report by the Global Water Partnership, a network of nongovernmental organizations focused on water issues.

Illegal sand mining ravages riverbanks, depletes biodiversity, launches landslides and leaves communities more vulnerable to flooding, according to the Sri Lanka Water Partnership, a nonprofit.

Paddy farmers usually start cultivating in September each year. Because of the government’s coronavirus restrictions, Vijayamohan, 51, says he worried about food shortages, and that prompted him to cultivate 2 hectares (5 acres) in 2020, instead of his usual 3.

He says there were no rains when he started planting, but they eventually arrived and “we were happy about that.”

Then came the cyclone.

“We did not even think that everything will get destroyed like this,” says Vijayamohan, married with three children. “I only know what difficulties I’m enduring to nurture my children.”

He says he must pay for his children’s school fees and transport. He also doesn’t know how he will repay a bank loan for 350,000 Sri Lankan rupees ($1,790).

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Another farmer, Vijayasekaram Chanthiravathana, a single mother of two, cultivated 2 hectares (5 acres) of paddy fields. She is usually able to harvest 10 bags of rice per acre, which will earn her about 250,000 rupees ($1,279).

Paddy cultivation allowed her to take care of her children and even funded her older child’s schooling. December’s weather disaster robbed her of that income. Now, in the evenings, she sells mats at home to make a living.

She worries about falling behind on a loan she took out to jump-start her rice cultivation.

“This year’s rice cultivation has given me great frustration and economic hardship,” Chanthiravathana says.

Sankarappillai Raveenthiran, 63, has four children, all of them in school. He fears that, at his age, the unpredictable weather will keep him from earning enough to educate them and secure their future.

“Banks insure when people borrow money from them,” he says, “but they say they do not pay compensation for such natural disasters.”

The government is still collecting data on Allaipiddy farmers and plans to compensate affected growers 12,500 rupees ($64) per acre, says Nagendram Murugadoss, agrarian development officer in the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Economic Affairs.

It’s not clear when the government will pay those funds. But while farmers wait, they worry about 2021.

Abandoning paddy cultivation isn’t an option, Vijayamohan says.

“What would be the source of income for the family if we gave up paddy cultivation?” he says. “We are scared to think of what will happen if we have to face a disaster this year too.”

Pashna Alistan is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Jaffna, Sri Lanka.

Translation Note

Lohith Kumar, GPJ, translated this article from Tamil.