Sri Lanka

For the First Time in Years, Some of Sri Lanka’s Ancient Irrigation Reservoirs Ran Dry

When rainfall slowed earlier this year, farmers drained the reservoirs to salvage their crops. By the time fishing season started, the water was gone.

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For the First Time in Years, Some of Sri Lanka’s Ancient Irrigation Reservoirs Ran Dry

Thayalini Indrakularasa, GPJ Sri Lanka

Fisherman Arumukam Renkasami’s boat sits idle in the Cheddikulam reservoir, which almost dried out this year for the first time in more than a decade.

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CHEDDIKULAM, SRI LANKA — At a glance earlier this year, the Cheddikulam reservoir looks scenic with a congregation of egrets flying into muddy puddles. But fisherman Arumukam Renkasami is worried. The revolting smell of rotting fish fills the air. Dead snakehead murrel and tilapia line the banks. The pond should have about 3 feet of water, chock-full of fish, but on this day, the water is almost gone. It’s the first time in 15 years that this body of water almost dried up.

“This pond fed me and my children,” he says. “My livelihood is gone. I couldn’t sleep at night watching thousands of fish die. A death-like worry came over my mind.”

The Cheddikulam reservoir, in Vavuniya district, is part of a connected series of reservoirs that kings built millennia ago to irrigate Sri Lanka’s dry north. Some operate in a cascade to store rainwater, which flows to paddy fields via irrigation channels, and then back into other reservoirs. Some are also used for fishing.

Some 43% of the reservoirs in Cheddikulam, including parts of the cascade, dried in the summer as northern Sri Lanka reels from an El Niño weather event that has brought extreme temperatures and drought-like conditions to vast swaths of the world. The skies in Cheddikulam dried in June and temperatures were blistering in August, leading to withered crops and a shortage of drinking water. Local fishermen say 57% of the reservoirs they fish from in Cheddikulam were dry. They blame farmers’ improper water management. But farmers and agriculture managers say the weather has been unpredictable.

“The drought level has increased this year compared to last year,” says Ponnaiyah Atputhachandran, provincial deputy director of agriculture for Vavuniya district. “Rainfall has decreased massively. Not only crops, but everything related to water is affected. Freshwater fishing is one of them.”

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Thayalini Indrakularasa, GPJ Sri Lanka

Arumukam Renkasami inspects the cracked bed of the Cheddikulam reservoir; usually this tank would have at least 3 feet of water.

El Niño is a weather phenomenon that occurs once every two to seven years, caused by warming in the Pacific Ocean. It affects weather globally and tends to cause severe droughts in parts of South Asia. This is especially problematic for Vavuniya, a landlocked district in Sri Lanka’s north where rivulets appear and disappear with the rains. In the dry season of April to October, residents depend on groundwater and a network of 719 man-made reservoirs. Cheddikulam, in southern Vavuniya, contains 87 reservoirs, of which 38 had dried out by September, according to the Agrarian Services Centre in Cheddikulam.

Fishermen in Cheddikulam usually use 14 of the reservoirs, but eight were dry by September. The remaining reservoirs had less water than normal, resulting in smaller fish, local fishermen tell Global Press Journal. Even the Cheddikulam reservoir, part of the ancient irrigation cascade, dried up.

“This is the first time in my experience that the Cheddikulam pond has dried up like this,” Renkasami says. “This is my only business.”

Following excess rainfall in May, the Cheddikulam reservoir and others brimmed with water. Local farmers decide how much to cultivate in the May to August planting season based on local reservoir levels, Ponnaiyah says. They don’t take the seasonal rainfall forecast into account.

This year, farmers who use water from the Cheddikulam reservoir decided to plant 30 more acres than in 2022, says Samuel Penildas, a farmer who manages irrigation for this field block. But there was less rainfall than expected from June to September.

“For the past few years, we cannot say when there will be rain. Some months, there is excess rainfall. Some months, it’s hot beyond our imagination,” Samuel says. “The rain that failed to pour after May was unexpected.”

Thayalini Indrakularasa, GPJ Sri Lanka

A water-level gauge, left, and dead fish, right, on the bed of Periyapuliyalankulam pond in Cheddikulam.

Rainfall data from Vavuniya’s irrigation department shows that summer precipitation has been unpredictable in recent years. In the past decade, there was, on average, 333 millimeters of rainfall during the season — higher than the average of 177 millimeters recorded between 1961 and 1990.

But the average hides variability. In some months, like July 2022, there is lots of rain. In others, like between June and August this year, the sky is unexpectedly dry.

The lack of rain this year is tied to the arrival of El Niño in July, Ponnaiyah says. By then, farmers had already planted. Temperatures soared, increasing evaporation from the reservoirs, and there was no rainfall to compensate. Samuel continued to water the fields to save the crops. Soon, the Cheddikulam reservoir ran out of water.

“Due to lack of rain this year, we could not close the pond,” Samuel says. “The pond water was completely diverted to save the paddy crops of many farmers.”

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Graphics by Matt Haney, GPJ

The events this year mirror 2016, when El Niño reduced rainfall during the summer. In 2017, it triggered the worst drought recorded in 40 years, affecting nearly 1 million people. Vavuniya also saw droughts in 2018 and 2019.

This year, fisherman Renkasami waited patiently for the farming season to end so he could fish. But by the time his permit began, in early August, the reservoir was dry and the fish were dying.

His colleague, Lokeswaran Rasanayagam, decided to lease the Periyapuliyalankulam reservoir for fishing this year. But that reservoir had dried up too by September.

“I won’t get an income from this pond for the next few years while the fish stocks recover,” Rasanayagam says.

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Thayalini Indrakularasa, GPJ Sri Lanka

Earlier this year, fishermen Arumukam Renkasami, left, and Sanmukanathan Veeraiya remove their fishing boat from a freshwater pond, which they expect will take three years to recover fish stocks.

Fishmonger Sanmukanathan Veeraiya, in Cheddikulam village, usually sells 40 kilograms (88 pounds) of fish daily. Due to this year’s supply shortage, he had to compete with other fish sellers and is only able to procure 15 kilograms (33 pounds) of fish each day.

Authorities issued a notice to catch more fish before reservoirs dried up, says Nishanthan Yoganathan, an aquaculture extension officer for the National Aquaculture Development Authority of Vavuniya district.

Renkasami says that five other fishermen who work the Cheddikulam reservoir have switched to other professions. He, too, has begun growing brinjal, or eggplant, for sale, as he predicts it will take three years for the reservoir to recover.

“It takes a long time for the pond to return to its original state,” he says. “I now rely entirely on cultivation.”

Thayalini Indrakularasa is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Vavuniya, Sri Lanka.


Lohith Kumar, GPJ, translated this article from Tamil.