Hollowed Lands

In Sri Lanka’s rural hinterlands, the slow-onset impacts of our warming world are forcing families apart.

“THERE IS NO WATER,” Udayanthi says. “My husband used to work in our paddy field, but he cannot cultivate anymore.” Udayanthi is from Bakmeegama, a small village in northeastern Sri Lanka’s Trincomalee district where small brick homes nestle into surrounding vegetation. “Without paddy, there is no money. That is why he had to go to [Sri Lanka’s capital city] Colombo to find work,” explains Udayanthi, who, like other villagers here, would give only her first name. Her husband sends money from Colombo, but it is barely enough for her to run the household and buy food.

A wooden fence separates Udayanthi’s home from the village road, and clothes are strung up to dry on wires that run alongside it. Her only son, about three years old, clutches a tiny cricket bat and a ball, pounds the bat on the road, and laughs with excitement. Palm trees line the horizon and provide shelter from the harsh sun that burns down on the bare earth, the fields, and trees nearby. Farther ahead, in the brown and yellow-green fields, women and children go about barefoot, and a few men in sarongs tend to the crops.

Yes, some of the plants look discolored. White layers of sodium cover the soil, and water levels in village tanks seem low. But if you are not from here, you might not be able to tell that this region is in a drought.

The drought is real, however, and it persists. Like many other villages in Sri Lanka’s dry zone — which covers more than 75 percent of this pear-shaped tropical island nation’s land area — Bakmeegama was still recovering from a severe drought that hit the region in 2016 and 2017 when it was subjected to another season of below-average rains in 2019. In August, major reservoirs in the country were at 19 percent capacity, compared to 33 percent during the same period in 2018. The low rainfall followed by another long spell of dry weather has impacted drinking water access as well as the agricultural livelihoods of more than 600,000 people in the country.

Nandasiri, another farmer from Bakmeegama, stands in front of his small brick house with a red terra cotta roof, just down the road from Udayanthi. He is back from Colombo for a short time to visit his family, and tells a similar story: “My wife, my daughter, and I lived together in this house. I am a farmer. I own one acre of paddy land, but because it did not rain, I have not cultivated for the last two years.”

Sri Lanka’s Dry Zone farmers depend on water collected during these monsoons to grow rice, the nation’s staple food, as well as commercial crops like tea, rubber, and coconuts. Photo by Lakshman Nadaraja.

In recent years, the country’s two agricultural seasons have produced diminished or no harvests due to unreliable rainfall. Photo by Dennis Mombauer.

For an outsider, it might be hard to tell that this region is in drought. But the drought is real and persistent. Photo by Dennis Mombauer.

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.

Monsoon flooding in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province. Images like this are what normally come to mind when we think of climate displacement. But there is another, largely hidden climate migration happening across the world as well. Photo by trokilinochchi/Flickr.

In the past decade, Sri Lanka has also been transforming into an upper middle-income country. The nation’s economy has grown on average 6.2 percent a year since the end of the civil war. Photo by Anuradha Dullewe Wijeyeratne.

At the same time as Sri Lanka faces the impacts of climate change, it has also been transforming into an upper middle-income country. Cities like Kandy, Galle, and Jaffna are rapidly growing in population. The nation’s economy has grown on average 6.2 percent a year since the end of the civil war, and is transitioning from being predominantly rural and agricultural to focusing on urbanized manufacturing and services, and is growing in popularity as a tourist destination.

Still, agriculture continues to be the country’s most important source of employment with millions of families engaged in smallholder farming. In some places, the local economy is entirely dependent on it. This means that the declining predictability of rainfall puts immense pressure on the fabric of village life. “There is not much difference in the total annual rainfall, but high rainfall intensity causes floods, while non-rain periods grow longer in certain parts of the country,” explains R.P. Samarakkody, additional director general of the country’s Disaster Management Centre.

Under drought conditions, whole families survive off a monthly income of less than 10,000 rupees ($55 US), relying on their kitchen gardens and the roof over their heads to survive. Some try to cope by reducing their food intake, pawning their jewelry or other assets, or borrowing from banks. Others receive benefits such as Samurdhi, a government relief program that provides food stamps, loans, and other services to poor households, or help from family and neighbors. But it is difficult to make ends meet.

Migration is always the last resort, a choice many unwillingly make once these options are depleted. In a 2019 survey of Trincomalee farmers carried out by SLYCAN Trust, a Sri Lankan think tank working on climate change, less than 6 percent named “abandoning agriculture” as a possible climate adaptation strategy. Their roots in the villages run deep. Leaving means abandoning the only way of life they know. They will no longer be able to visit their neighbors, their Buddhist temple, their kovil (Hindu temple), mosque, or other local gathering places and institutions. They will not be able to keep their cows or their chickens. Besides, it is unlikely they will find jobs in urban areas that fit their skillset.

“Our family bonds are very strong. People do not want to move from their villages. If a proper resilience mechanism can be established, they will stay,” Samarakkody says.

AS WITH MOST OTHER countries, Sri Lanka’s internal migration patterns lead from rural to urban areas like Colombo, Gampaha, and Kandy, though there is cross-border migration to countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates as well.

The impact climate migration is having on those being left behind, especially women, is barely receiving any attention.

One in four people in the urbanized Western Province has migrated there. However, because many maintain strong connections to their homes the number of new migrants is difficult to record. Many migrants tend to return home for short periods every month or two, or during harvest season to help out in the fields.

Another survey by SLYCAN Trust found that 80 percent of respondents across several Trincomalee villages had a migrating family member, almost always the working-age male. Though a growing number of women are migrating as well, it is still overwhelmingly men who leave in search of work.

“The cultural concept is that the breadwinner of a family is the man,” says Priyantha Kulathunga, Sri Lanka program officer for the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration. “Basically, who leaves first tends to be the males in the family, either the main breadwinner or other male family members.” Kulathunga’s colleague Rangitha Balasuriya adds that “individuals between the age of 19 and 50, usually 30 to 35, are most likely to migrate. Men are looking for unskilled jobs in the construction sector or skilled opportunities such as carpentry or masonry. Women leave home to work in the garment industry or the domestic sector,” usually as housecleaners.

“What the workers earn in the city is very marginal, but they make sure they send some money back,” Kulathunga says. “What they send would not be sufficient for investment, just to sustain the family at home. They save to send the children to school, to buy some food.”

If migration due to the slow-onset impacts of climate change hasn’t been receiving much attention in South Asia, the impact it’s having on those being left behind, especially women, is receiving even less. What research does exist suggests the impact is significant.

In the 50 households SLYCAN Trust surveyed across Bakmeegama and three other villages, 40 families had at least one member who had left. Of the 42 total migrants, 36 were men. The departure of working-age men from villages places an additional burden on women who are left with little regular income. Most of them have to run their household and care for children (and often elders as well). They may also take on farm work or find other avenues of additional income like selling sesame balls or other snacks at local markets, or sewing, given the money the men send back can be unreliable and sporadic.

M.H. Dinusha Madurangi from Pulikandikulama village, a few kilometers from Bakmeegama, says she has to do almost everything, from housework to farming, herself. “I grow pumpkin and okra for home consumption,” she says. “My husband migrated about a year ago to [the district capital] Trincomalee. He works there as a day laborer and comes home once a month. Our two children are without a father, and I have to do all the work alone.”

Even though the absence of men increases women’s decision-making power on everyday matters, cultural norms, policies, and laws limit their empowerment and access to investment opportunities. In Sri Lanka, as in most of South Asia, even when men are away for most of the year, they are often the de facto household head. A 2018 United Nations report found women headed only 25.8 percent of households in Sri Lanka. “Gender disparity is rampant,” Kulathunga says. “Even if the men are living in other countries, they are controlling the entire network of the family. Of course, some women get a certain amount of power when the husband is not around. They get to decide how to spend the money or what to buy, but the big decisions are either negotiated or coming from the man.”

The women left behind are struggling to cope, but policies in Sri Lanka and the rest of South Asia are failing to account for the scale and impact of this trend, notes the ActionAid report on South Asia’s climate migrants. The report’s authors say promotion of women’s empowerment, as well as women-led planning and disaster response, must be part of the solution to this emerging issue.

THE SRI LANKAN GOVERNMENT recognizes that, in addition to putting in place disaster management measures, the country needs to urgently implement climate mitigation and adaptation initiatives, especially in the agricultural and water-management sector. It is pulling a leaf out of the country’s ancient history, in this regard.

A hand drawn map of one of the tank cascade systems in the Malwathu Oya River Basin. Ancient Sri Lanka used to have a sophisticated network of tanks and canals that collected and redistributed water and served the needs ofdry zone areas even in water-scarce months. An effort is underway to revive many of them. Photo by Samurdhi Ranasinghe/IWMI.

Two farmers who utilize water from the Thirappane tank which is part of the Malwathu Oya River Basin. Photo by Samurdhi Ranasinghe/IWMI.

Bathing tanks in the ancient city of Anuradhapura. Photo by Asanka Dewage.

Over 2,000 years ago, Sri Lanka used to have one of the finest hydraulic civilizations in the world. Its ancient kings built a sophisticated network of small tanks (surface water reservoirs of varying sizes) connected by canals to large reservoirs that collected and redistributed water, replenished soils, and balanced the needs of entire ecosystems in its dry-zone areas, even during water-scarce months. These unique tank cascade systems, which took advantage of the natural drainage matrix of the landscape, were maintained by communities that benefitted from them. Over 10,000 such small tank systems still exist in the dry zone, though many of them are in disrepair.

Dissanayake, the former Secretary to the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment, says that the government is building canals to supply these ancient tank systems with water from the hill areas. By the end of 2020, thousands of tanks are expected to be restored. Part of the funding for this work comes from the Green Climate Fund (GCF), the centerpiece of UN climate finance under the Paris Agreement. The GCF and the Sri Lankan government are co-financing a $52 million project with smallholder farmers in the dry zone. This project aims to strengthen the resilience of up to two million people to extreme weather events like floods and droughts by improving irrigation infrastructure, expanding access to clean drinking water, and investing in early weather-warning systems, flood response, and water management.

While essential, infrastructure investments will only get Sri Lanka part of the way. As the old ways are failing, farmers have to open up to new ideas as well, including making space for women to take up leadership roles in their households and villages.

Speaking to Udayanthi, Dinusha, and all the other women left behind in the villages, their ideas and aspirations seem neither abstract nor unreasonable. They could cultivate if they had a well, they could sew if they had a machine, they could start a business if they had start-up capital. If women like them receive support in their efforts towards self-sufficiency, they can adapt and help to bring positive change in their communities. Enabling them to take on bigger roles in the village ecosystem could be a key step toward a climate-resilient and sustainable future.

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