Sri Lankan agriculture revolves around two seasons, Maha (major), which runs from September through March, and Yala (minor), from May to August. These seasons coincide with the two monsoons that travel across the country from different directions, bringing rain to the east and north during Maha, and to the west and southwest during Yala. Dry zone farmers depend on water collected during these monsoons to grow rice, the nation’s staple food that is cultivated across some 700,000 hectares of farmland, as well as commercial crops like tea, rubber, and coconuts.
In recent years, however, both agricultural seasons have produced diminished or no harvests due to unreliable rainfall. For farmers who are still working the land, the water shortage means that where they used to harvest 70 bags of rice from one acre of paddy fields, they are now getting just 30.
The failing rains affect more than just the harvests. For many households, drinking water comes from deep wells and rivers. In Trincomalee district, fewer than half the households have access to tap water. Nandasiri’s family, for example, has no pump in their house. People without a well have to walk long distances, sometimes even to the next village, to get clean water.
With rising temperatures and extended periods without rain, the wells dry up and the water turns muddy. The health impacts of drinking unclean water are visible in the red and yellow eyes of the people, a sign of kidney disease, which is more and more common. Poverty exacerbates these and other health issues. In Nandasiri’s family, medical expenses pose a huge challenge: “My daughter is not well at all; she has had five surgeries [for a brain-related illness]. I migrated to Colombo to find work at a construction site, and I use that money for my daughter’s medicine and clinic visits, but we do not have enough to live day by day.”
He’s not alone. Farmers struggling with poverty and the after-effects of the nation’s 26-year civil war that ended in 2009 have been leaving their homes in search of higher incomes for years. Now, confronted by alternating droughts and floods that will only get worse with progressive climate change, even more are leaving their homes in search of secure livelihoods. They are moving across districts, across provinces, and even across international borders.
“What climate change means for the people of Sri Lanka is that their life has been disturbed,” says Anura Dissanayake, who was secretary to the Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment at the time of the interview, prior to the country’s presidential election in late 2019. “We do not see it because the roads and schools are all there, but people are moving away.”
ACROSS THE WORLD, deteriorating environmental conditions caused by global warming are forcing a rising number of people to abandon their homes. By most estimates, the number of climate refugees will reach 100-200 million people by 2050. Some estimates are as high as one billion.
When we think of climate displacement, however, the images that come to mind are often dramatic: a hurricane hammering an island, a landslide washing away a village, raging tropical storms. We envision long treks of refugees along flooded roads, families crammed into trucks, or people living in tent encampments. These images deserve our attention. But as the plight of the Sri Lankan farming families indicates, there is a quieter type of climate migration happening as well, one that has been poorly documented so far. It is the departure of adult, able-bodied family members from rural areas to cities in search of work as the slow-onset impacts of our warming world — soil degradation, saltwater intrusion, water scarcity, crop failure, ocean acidification — make subsistence fishing and farming livelihoods no longer viable. It is a movement that tears families apart and hollows out rural communities.
In South Asia, as in other parts of the world, this type of climate-driven migration has remained largely invisible because migration itself is not new to the region. As a 2016 Action Aid report points out, migration due to various “push factors” such as poverty, land access, and conflict, as well as “pull factors” such as seasonal labor opportunities, kinship, and access to healthcare or other services has been occurring since “long before climate change became an issue.”
But as the region grows more prone to extreme droughts, heatwaves, heavy rainfall, cyclones, landslides, floods, and the impacts of rising sea levels, climate is increasingly becoming a key factor driving people from their homes.
The region’s large population — South Asia comprises the nations of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka — and relative poverty make it exceptionally vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Most of the countries in this group are middle or low-income nations, where the greater part of the population struggles to meet basic needs. As a result, they are more vulnerable to weather-related changes that can make daily staples unaffordable. The World Bank estimates that changing weather patterns will directly impact more than 800 million people in the region by 2050.
IN SRI LANKA, which is surrounded by ocean, increasing average temperatures and changes in seasonal rainfall patterns are already taking a toll on the country’s 21 million citizens. The small island nation experienced major floods in 2010, 2011, 2014, 2016, and 2018, and went through the worst drought in 40 years in 2016-17.
Sri Lanka’s average temperature could rise by 1 to 2 degrees Celsius by 2050.
A 2018 World Bank study estimates the country contains “hidden hotspots” — areas that are economically at risk from climate change and where living standards are expected to decline as a result. It notes that by 2050, the country’s annual average temperature could rise by anything from 1 to 2 degrees Celsius, putting the 19 million people (more than 90 percent of all Sri Lankans) living in these locations at risk.