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Opinion: Environment

How Irrigation is Becoming an Engine for Growth in Sri Lanka

Mohamed Aheeyar Mohamed Aheeyar

Ahead of World Water Day, Mohamed Aheeyar, a researcher with the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), reports on a new case study documenting a remarkable agricultural transformation made possible in Sri Lanka by the rapid spread of motor pumps for irrigation.

The whole region around Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka’s ancient capital, is dotted with village reservoirs managed by small-scale farmers. Referred to locally as “tanks,” the reservoirs form part of complex irrigation systems in use since time immemorial. Farm families like that of Priyantha Kumara, a disabled army veteran, rely on them to irrigate rice in the main monsoon season. But Priyantha and his neighbors aspire to more than the basic food security that this system provides. They want a bigger share of the prosperity that people elsewhere in the country are enjoying.

To boost the family’s cash income, Priyantha, his wife, mother and father have invested their savings to dig a 5-meter-wide “agro-well” just outside the village and buy a motor pump. Previously, they sowed millet and sesame on this fertile upland but harvested little because of unreliable rainfall. Now, they earn a steady income in the dry season by producing melon, maize, long bean, chilli, onion and cabbage irrigated with groundwater.

Priyantha Kumara and his parents in irrigated crop fields

Priyantha’s family has followed in the footsteps of millions of farmers across South Asia, who have adopted the use of motor pumps for groundwater irrigation to make the transition between hand-to-mouth subsistence agriculture and profitable production of high-value crops. Frustrated with the limitations of conventional irrigation systems, growing numbers of Sri Lankan farmers have seized this opportunity, mostly in the country’s northern and eastern Dry Zone. A new IWMI study traces the rapid spread of motor pumps – from 100,000 to 275,000 during the period 2000-2016 – documenting the benefits, while also calling attention to the shortcomings and perils.

The government has promoted the transformation of smallholder agriculture, especially since the end of the nation’s civil war in 2009, through various measures – constructing thousands of agro-wells, offering subsidies and credit to facilitate the purchase of drip and sprinkler systems, and providing tax and tariff concessions. Non-governmental organizations and donor-funded projects have also contributed.

Support from government and civil society has helped leverage local investment. Encouraged by the high profit margins of cash crop production, farmers have invested heavily from their own resources. The declining costs of agro-well construction and irrigation equipment have helped bring these options within the financial reach of more smallholders. In the IWMI study areas, where landholdings average only about 1 hectare, 83 percent of the agro-wells were constructed without subsidies. 

The spread of motor pumps has enabled farmers to expand the area under cultivation, diversify beyond exclusive dependence on low-return rice, and greatly intensify production. Rather than just one crop per year, now they can grow two, three or even four, taking advantage of the dry season as well as the periods between the two monsoons. In the area around Anuradhapura, some farmers using motor pumps make up to USD 4,000 from dry-season cultivation on just a few hectares.

These changes, in turn, have raised household incomes, created employment for landless farm workers and offered new opportunities for women to participate in agriculture – through extended household gardens, for example. This has enabled women to generate more income, translating into better family nutrition and wellbeing as well as more influence over household decisions, but at a cost in terms of extra demands on their time and labor. At the same of time, however, lack of capital to construct wells and buy water pumps has excluded many small-scale farmers from the bonanza. Moreover, government and civil society schemes have not reached the poor and women in particular to the extent they could have.

Agricultural transformation poses other challenges as well. Given the rapid spread of motor pumps for irrigation, there is a danger of overusing groundwater, the management of which in Sri Lanka’s has not yet been well-researched. Another problem is the encroachment of agriculture on forests and nature reserves.

How then to spread the benefits of groundwater irrigation, while reducing its perils? One key step is to make wells and irrigation equipment more readily accessible through targeted subsidies and easier access to credit. Investment in lining agro-wells with cement or brick is particularly urgent to protect against siltation and wall collapse. Also important are regulatory systems, with standards for well construction and groundwater extraction.

Institutional arrangements for local groundwater governance are largely absent. One step forward would be to introduce a “citizen science” approach for monitoring groundwater, especially where intensive cultivation depends on shallow aquifers. A further step would be to support the creation of farmer organizations, which can monitor groundwater and make collective decisions about its long-term management. Only when this happens will Priyantha’s family and many others like them truly be in charge of their destiny.

Featured photo credit: Hamish John Appleby/IWMI

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