HJM Seneviratne, 63, slices through yellowed paddy stems dried out by a drought that has destroyed over 95 percent of his crop and is threatening crisis-hit Sri Lanka’s summer rice harvest.
The island’s economy was crushed last year by its worst financial crisis in over seven decades, caused by a severe shortage of foreign exchange reserves that triggered widespread unrest and removed its former president.
Helped by a $2.9bn bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Sri Lanka has slowly stabilised its economy since March, rebuilding its decimated reserves, moderating inflation and strengthening its currency.
But even before the country’s agriculture sector could recover from skyrocketing prices of inputs from fertiliser to power, the rains failed.
“I’ve been a farmer for 40 years but I’ve never experienced a harder time than this,” Seneviratne said, standing in the middle of a dusty field near Anamaduwa, a town in northwestern Sri Lanka, clutching a fistful of straw-like paddy stems with hollow rice kernels.
“We haven’t had enough rain since May. The harvest is so bad we don’t even have seed paddy for the next season.”
The southwest monsoon that farmers rely on for the Yala or summer harvest was scanty this year because of the El Nino weather pattern and the weather department estimates there will be no rains until October.
El Nino, a warming of water surface temperatures in the eastern and central Pacific Ocean, is linked to extreme weather conditions from tropical cyclones to heavy rainfall to severe droughts.
During the last El Nino in 2016 and 2017, Sri Lanka suffered its worst drought in 40 years and rice output fell by nearly 50 percent year on year to 2.4 million metric tonnes over both its harvests.
Typically, Seneviratne’s four acres yield about 4.5-6 tonnes of paddy for the summer harvest but this time he predicts he will get only about 150kg. All but one of the eight water tanks, large ponds in which rainwater is collected for irrigation, in the area have dried out, destroying about 200 acres of paddy.
The paddy loss could be as much as 75,000 acres (30,351 hectares), according to Agriculture Minister Mahinda Amaraweera, while other experts say full losses could be even higher as estimates are yet to be completed.
Sri Lanka planted 1.3 million acres (526,091 hectares) for the summer harvest, according to the agriculture ministry.
“We have lost at least 80,000 metric tonnes of paddy as per the latest data and it could be more,” said Buddhi Marambe, professor of crop science at Sri Lanka’s Peradeniya University.
Experts say they are worried that if Sri Lanka does not receive the rains it needs next March because of the continuing El Nino, the country will be left with scant reserve stocks and will have to resort to large-scale, expensive imports.
Rice is the staple food of the country’s 22 million people and its biggest crop. According to government data, two million people in the country are rice farmers out of 8.1 million people engaged in fishing and agriculture in the largely rural economy.
The drought has also wiped out the small chilli, peanut and banana plants Seneviratne’s wife, WM Makamma, 62 grows to feed her family.
“Before the crisis, we used to cook for all three meals but now it’s only two,” she said. “We’ve stopped buying eggs, chicken or fresh fish. Lunch is a cup of black tea. I feel like we have fallen completely and it’s very hard to get back up.”