Reimagining Development - CEPA
25 August 2014

Making the Elderly Count

The Tokyo Institute of Gerontology in Japan is currently developing a ‘Smart City’ for about 400,000 older people. It is inbuilt with all the support facilities needed for them to continue living a life within the community, despite their increasing frailty. Another project of the institute is to find work for people in their 70s –second life careers - such as running a cafe or growing vegetables.[i]

Hogeway[ii], also referred to as ‘the dementia village’, is a similar facility operating in the Netherlands where elderly residents can live a seemingly normal life. Although they don’t realize it, they are being watched all the time by caretakers and staff at restaurants, the grocery store, saloon, theater etc. The simple goal in both these cases is to provide a normal environment that is reminiscent of each individual's former years, and to guarantee they receive the highest quality of life.

The actions of these two countries are significant in the context of today’s world - in a society that has increasingly less time to extend basic compassion and sensitivity to one another; that labels the elderly as an ‘economic burden’; and discards them when they are no longer contributing towards development.

These attitudes are further inflamed in light of the rapidly ageing population across the globe.

 The Imminent Challenges of a Rising Elderly Population

For the first time in history people over 65 years of age will outnumber children below 5 years.[iii] Between the years 2000-2050, the number of people above 60 years will escalate to a mammoth 1.4 billion. In Japan alone the life expectancy has increased by 35 years within a mere 7 decades.[iv]

While high life expectancy implies that medical advancement and economic development has trumped injury and disease, the increasing rates of age-related poverty, non-communicable disease (NCD) and disability worldwide reflect another story. In fact, the ageing population poses a multitude of economic, social and health challenges for the future.

Sri Lanka is facing similar prospects. It is currently the fastest ageing country in South Asia.[v] The life expectancy at birth is 74[vi]years and based on future trends in mortality, fertility and international migration, it is projected that between the years 2010-2041 the elderly population will double from 2.5 to 5.3 million.[vii]  

Due to lifestyle changes taking place in the country – urbanization, industrialization, the rise in living costs, the increase in female labour participation- the extended family structure which traditionally supported the elderly, is beginning to crumble. According to a poverty brief published by the Centre for Poverty Analysis, ‘Sri Lanka is showing a growing trend of nucleation and urbanization of families that is leading to more elderly people living on their own.’[viii] Individualistic attitudes inherently linked to the neoliberal paradigm are creeping in as the double-earner system leaves little room for nuclear families to take care of the older generation. The majority of the aged are being marginalized and dumped into elders’ homes as a result. In Vavuniya, there are approximately 13,000 elderly citizens in need of care. Yet, there are only four elderly homes to cater to these needs.[ix]

From the elderly perspective, ‘loneliness’ is an escalating factor that is disrupting social wellbeing and peace of mind. The Manager of an Elders’ Home in Kotte expressed that despite all the facilities provided for the elderly, they were unhappy because they missed their children.[x] Moreover, a growing body of studies reveals that ‘loneliness is linked to a host of other problems and in itself can kill, typically by raising blood pressure and increasing risk for heart disease and stroke.’[xi] It suggests that a supportive social network is strongly connected to attaining positive health outcomes, whether psychological or physical. It is clear therefore, that many of these problems are intrinsically linked and often serve to trigger the other off.

NCDs have already become the largest contributor to disease burden in Sri Lanka, accounting for 85% of ill health, disability and early deaths[xii]. Furthermore, a regional study proved that South Asians suffer their first heart attack six years earlier than people in other regions, worldwide.[xiii]  It is possible then that many of these ill effects stem from an overall atmosphere of unhappiness and negativity.

Rethinking the Way Forward

Although elders’ homes and day centers appear to be an easy solution, they are a far cry from being the answer to the problem. Merely providing material wellbeing for the elderly does not ensure that they are well taken care of.

The initiatives taken by Japan and the Netherlands look beyond the mere provision of material benefits. The two systems have been designed to make the elderly independent and empowered; to allow them to actively participate and be part of a vibrant community life. Sri Lanka may not have adequate funding to develop such advanced facilities, yet this shouldn’t avert us from drawing inspiration from the notion of placing the overall wellbeing of the elderly at the center of our agenda.

As expected, with an increase in the ageing population a whole new dimension of health problems have arisen and huge costs must be borne. Yet, in Sri Lanka there is little prominence placed on a specialized geriatric care system – with every patient being treated in a common ward. Even more noteworthy is the fact that there are no specialist geriatricians and health care workers in the country, with the skills to manage elderly complaints; as a result delirium, depression and dementia often goes overlooked.[xiv]

Dementia is a condition which affects an estimated 150,000 elderly in Sri Lanka but only 15% of patients ultimately seek medical help.[xv] There are numerous policies and schemes in place – the National Health Policy, the Public Assistance Scheme, the Ministry of Social Services – that provide general facilities to cater to the needs of the people. Yet, it is perhaps more important to establish specialized organizations that target the specific problems likely to heighten with the passing of time.

For instance, Alzheimer Europe is a non-governmental organization (NGO) that has created a mechanism for co-ordination between Alzheimer organizations throughout Europe.[xvi] This type of support system that assists families to cope and handle lifelong illnesses such as Alzheimers is severely lacking in Sri Lanka.  In fact, Help Age Sri Lanka is the only (NGO) in the country that provides leadership to improve the lives of the elderly and help them “claim their rights, challenge discrimination and overcome poverty.”[xvii]

When balancing out the country’s future prospects, the mechanisms already in place seem far from sufficient. It is critical that additional schemes are developed to support the unprecedented rise in the ageing population that is looming ahead.

Although the Protection of the Rights of the Elderly Act was passed in 2000, it has been slow in implementation.  One of the clauses of the act is that children shall not neglect their parents. Another clause emphasizes the non-discrimination of people based on age.[xviii] Through the years, our cultural values of respecting and caring for elders have strongly embodied these ideologies. Yet, at the turn of the century, a majority of us have lost touch with basic sensitivity, patience and compassion – and these age old practices have slipped out of our lifestyles.

From the context of reimagining development, one of the motivations should be to safeguard the long-term physical, mental and social well-being of the elderly. Regardless of whether they are rich or poor their fundamental rights must be upheld. In order to achieve this, an overall change in attitude is required. To purge out the negative mindset prevalent in the country we need to begin viewing the elderly as a source of knowledge and experience as opposed to marginalizing them and confining them because of their age. Instead of proliferating negative attitudes that will result in the continuation of a vicious cycle of illness and unhappiness among the elderly – Sri Lanka needs to channel a rush of positive energy into the system.

It is only by looking at the issue subjectively, through fresh eyes, that we can begin to reverse our attitudes and create an environment  that allows the elderly to play a more active role in the community and ultimately aim to achieve development for ALL.

Where do we start? Perhaps, by accepting our own mortality and the idea that we will never be younger than we are today.  It is inevitable that by the year 2035, one out of five people will be a part of the ageing population[xix]. It could be any one of us.

We must then ask the question: when it is our turn, how would we want to spend the ‘winter’ of our lives?



[v] Poverty and the Challenges of the Elderly , Poverty Brief 12, Centre for Poverty Analysis, http://cepa.lk/library/Cepa_publication_details-6-4011.html

[viii] Poverty and the Challenges of the Elderly , Poverty Brief 12, Centre for Poverty Analysis, http://cepa.lk/library/Cepa_publication_details-6-4011.html

[xviii] Poverty and the Challenges of the Elderly , Poverty Brief 12, Centre for Poverty Analysis, http://cepa.lk/library/Cepa_publication_details-6-4011.html

[xix] transgenerational.org/aging/demographics.htm

25 August 2014

‘Energy: The strength and vitality required for sustained mental and physical activity.’

Oxford English Dictionary

 

The whirring computers, mobile phones and televisions that form a network of connections between human beings; the bulbs that light up houses, the fans that cool the air, the cars whizzing by on the road, the lush green paddy fields, the monsoon winds blowing in the rainy season and even the functioning of our own bodies – although we take it for granted - are powered entirely by this constantly buzzing phenomenon we have termed ‘energy’.  The reality is that if we are cut off from this source of vitality we will cease to exist.

 

Due to the unprecedented rise in the human population, the increasing demand for goods and services combined with the prevailing environmental crisis, the world is heading towards a catastrophe. Sources used by the International Energy Authority have revealed that there are 1038 billion tonnes of coal reserves left in the world: an equivalent of 130 years of global coal output. Meanwhile, the world Energy Council estimates an equivalent of 109 years of coal output.[i] The case in point: whether it is 50 years down the road or a 100, the world will eventually run out of the major fossil fuels that have powered it thus far – oil, gas and coal.

 

The concept of ‘going green’ - a movement that encourages people to make environmentally friendly choices in their everyday life - has slowly crept in as a result. Due to the severity of the energy crisis, this idea has pushed governments to look for relatively cleaner energy sources as opposed to relying on fossil-based energy.  For this reason the harnessing of energy through renewable sources such as the sun, winds, water and wave power are being explored extensively.

 

 

It was Martin Luther King Jr. who said “If you can't fly then run, if you can't run then walk, if you can't walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.” Unfortunately, Sri Lanka seems to be backtracking. By the year 2020, the aim is to reduce our dependency on oil from 32% to 6%. Although this appears to be a positive move, it is rendered futile because the strategy simultaneously aims to shift our dependency on to coal. By the year 2032, 80% of Sri Lanka’s energy mix will be made up of this ‘cheaper’ alternative.[ii] Yet, not only is coal a finite resource, burning coal is the leading cause of smog, acid rain and toxic air pollution. Coal power plants emit high levels of carbon dioxide and this is one of the primary causes for global warming. It is safe to say then that this strategy completely defeats the purpose of ‘going green.’

 

Despite this, the idea of using clean energy sources does prevail to an extent. The Mahinda Chintana promises to develop Dendro energy projects in the dry zone as an industry, and the aim is to use solar power and wind power to provide electricity to rural areas where grid networks are not feasible.[iii] More significantly, it has set a target to increase the country’s Non- Conventional Renewable Energy (NCRE) to 20% by 2020. Yet due to ill-advised strategic planning; investments being misdirected, corruption; poor leadership and organization alongside various internal and external forces coming in to play, many of these policies have not been implemented. Although Sri Lanka may hit the smaller targets along the way, the lingering problem is that we do not have a long term, overall stance for renewables beyond 2020.

 

Asoka Abeygunawardena, executive director of the Sri Lanka Energy Forum, points out that if we act now it is possible to avert a potential disaster. According to him we should be burning fossil fuels (investing in coal) now to build a foundation for the future: that is to set up more NCRE power plants. At this moment however, we seem to be headed down the wrong track and we are in fact intent on shifting our dependency over to coal entirely without any clear goal of how to develop our renewable energy sources beyond 2020. He stresses that we should think globally in the context of global warming and finite resources, and act locally to build up our stand for the future[iv]. He emphasizes the notion that although this may be an expensive endeavor in the short run, in the long run it will prove to be more sustainable and cost efficient.

 

While we continue to depend on the convenience of our faulty oil and coal power plants, countries across the globe are making massive inroads towards developing renewable sustainable energy sources.They are doing this with sometimes larger populations and far less natural resources than what Sri Lanka has. In recent times for instance, Denmark and Germany have experienced a peak in electricity generation through wind and solar power. They have managed to cover much of their countries' need through this and have set the trend for renewable energy systems that do not cost the Earth.[v]

Denmark has ambitious energy goals: by 2050, the country plans to meet 100 percent of its energy requirements with renewables, creating more jobs, increasing exports and reducing its energy dependence. Denmark’s Minister for Energy expressed that he was "100% sure not only that other countries could do it, but that they will do it, simply because of the development of the markets. Each will have to find their solutions, but will it happen? Yes." [vi]

If the willpower to achieve these goals is in place along with an exemplary governance structure –driven by the best interests of the country and its people- any obstacle can be overcome. Instead of investing in the more expensive infrastructure that may be required to generate NCRE, Sri Lanka has taken the easy way out by opting for coal. Yet, we must ask ourselves for how much longer can we rely on such a strategy?

Sri Lanka is a tropical island blessed with an abundance of natural resources – wind and wave power, rainfall, rivers, sunlight. We have the resources and the potential to reap the benefitsof renewable energy and as the Danish Minister of Energy stated, we can develop our own strategy and create our own energy mix instead of following the path taken by ‘historical polluters’ before us.

Effective generation of public awareness about available energy sources could go a long way to developing creative solutions for the problem. For instance, this could foster steps to conserve energy and increase efficiency at the grassroots (in our homes); it could encourage the production of energy using solar panels at domestic level on a wider scale; it may serve towards initiating energy saving and storage schemes; and pave the way for larger numbers of individuals and organizations to incorporate eco friendly methods into their lifestyles. If such collective effort is taken by the general public – for both domestic and industrial energy use - the bigger vision of shifting from coal to renewable energy will become more of a reality.

Germany’s energy collectives mirror the perfect example of this. Their shift to clean energy has been propelled by the action of home owners, small and medium-sized businesses, and farmers. Nearly three quarters of their renewable energy production has been invested in by small private investors. The state owns none of it. An even more intriguing trend is the growing body of citizen led cooperatives that bundle their resources to invest in either a local Photovoltaic farm or a wind power facility[vii]. Their efforts have made it possible for Germany to achieve the dream of powering their country through renewable energy.

Today, science and technology has allowed us to travel off the beaten path. The possibilities are numerous and the innovative solutions we could come up with so diverse, if only we were to seek them out. Engaging in research to develop such novel methods suited to our own environment will undoubtedly help Sri Lanka forge ahead.

Perhaps, we ought to change the way we look at the problem and embrace the myriad of options that are out there. Instead of looking at the energy debate negatively we could seize this opportunity to turn the tables around. By developing our own solar and wind power plants rapidly we may be able to sell energy to other countries in the future: thus we could go from being importers of energy to exporters.

If we fail to take the initiative now when these options are within our grasp -when the world runs out of coal we will be left reeling.

At present we believe that the initial expenditure of investing in renewable resources is daunting and the logical solution should be to turn to the cheaper alternative. We think that our time has arrived to pollute the environment because the ‘developed’ countries had their opportunity before us. We are hesitant to take risks and invest in long term solutions because of the uncertainty that comes with it.

Yet, it is critical that we invest now for the future. That we have a long term cost effective plan in place along with the appropriate infrastructure to ensure that we are prepared when the world eventually runs out of fossil fuels.

For more information visit:

http://reimagining.cepa.lk/index.php/en/post-2015/item/248-developing-sustainable-energy-goals-in-sri-lanka



[i] World Coal Association: Coal Statistics, 2014. Online. Accessed June 2014.

http://www.worldcoal.org/resources/coal-statistics/

[ii]Scribd, 2014. Online. Towards Sustainable Energy in the Power Sector. Accessed June 2014. http://www.scribd.com/doc/211559046/Towards-Sustainable-Energy-in-the-Power-Sector-Edit

[iii] Mahinda Chintana: Towards a New Sri Lanka. Online. Accessed June 2014 http://www.president.gov.lk/pdfs/MahindaChinthanaEnglish.pdf

[iv] Abeygunawardena, Asoka. Towards sustainable development in the power sector. Online. Accessed June 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZsznagiGaVg

[v]Permaculture Magazine: Renewable Energy Generation Hits All Time Highs in Denmark and Germany, 2013. Online. Accessed May 2014.

http://www.permaculture.co.uk/news/1511134008/renewable-energy-generation-hits-all-time-highs-denmark-and-germany

[vi]Denmark Leads the Charge in Renewable Energy. Online. Accessed May 2014 http://www.dw.de/denmark-leads-the-charge-in-renewable-energy/a-17603695

[vii]Hockenos, Paul, 2012. Germany's Unlikely Renewable Energy Revolutionaries. Online. Accessed May 2014.

http://www.renewableenergyworld.com/rea/blog/post/2012/10/germanys-unlikely-revolutionaries

25 August 2014

For too long we have swept the problems of mental illness under the carpet... and hoped that they would go away.[i]

Richard J. Codey

 

Mental illnesses are a reality that has to be dealt with. One in four people suffer from mental disorders. Four of the six leading causes of ‘years lived with disability’ are mental illnesses. Depression is the second highest global disease burden.[ii]

What causes mental disorders? Society has progressed from the days when we believed that mental illnesses are the result of our own wrong doing, witchcraft or evil spirits. Medicine is now able to pinpoint various factors that result in mental illnesses; genetics can cause people to be susceptible to diseases such as schizophrenia and alzheimer’s while environmental and psychological factors can decide if these irregular genes evolve into an illness or not. Infections and toxins can cause diseases like dementia and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), while prenatal damage and chemical imbalances can result in disorders like autism and depression respectively. As in the case of physical illnesses, a greater understanding of mental illnesses can only be achieved if medical professionals and states commit their time and resources to research.

It is in the state’s mandate to uphold a citizen’s right to life by means of quality healthcare. The state also benefits from doing so as healthy citizens can actively contribute to society whereas sick and dying citizens are a burden to the state. Therefore, healthcare is already considered a vital component of development and every year countries pour resources into combating any illness that is a threat to public welfare.

Mental illnesses are as big a threat to the public’s welfare as any physical sickness. Suicide is one of the leading causes of death in most countries. In the last 40 years, suicide rates have increased by 40% worldwide, with one person killing himself or herself every 40 seconds. 90% of suicides are the results of a mental illness such as depression, schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder and anorexia.[iii] The mentally sick are not only a threat to themselves but - as seen in incidents such as the Navy Yard tragedy in the United States[iv]- they can also be a threat to others. Considering that mental disordershave the same consequences as physical illnesses, should they not be given the same weightage?

Eventhe world’s most developed and well-resourced countries have yet to combat mental illnesses adequately. In Canada, 1.2 million children are affected by mental illnesses, yet only 25% of them get the appropriate treatment.[v] In Europe 50% of the mentally ill do not get treated for their sickness and inmany developing countries this statisticcan be as high as 90%.[vi]

Culture exacerbates the problemin countries like China where there have been reports of psychiatric wards being used as political prisons andpatientsabused in the form of beatings and electric shocks.[vii]Resources area serious problem in many countries; at the end of 2013, Laos had only two psychiatrists for a population of approximately six million people and there were no psychiatric nurses, clinical psychologists, social workers or occupational therapists working in the country at all[viii]. However, even in the poorest of countries,steps such as equipping communities to deal with common mental illnessescan be taken to abate their impact. This particular method has proved successful in countries such as Uganda, Pakistan and India.[ix]

Sri Lanka has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. The 2004 tsunami and the civil war are two major contributors to the mental illnesses prevalent in Sri Lanka. Over thirty years of brutality and violence has cost our country countless lives and left many people wounded and disabled.  However the war has left more than just physical scars. According to the Daily News, September 10th 2013, 106,000 Sri Lankans committed suicide between 1985 and 2000; this is double the amount that was killed by the war in the same period.[x] In the after-math of the war, our focus on physical casualties and on rapid ‘development’ has evidently overshadowed the great need for psychological care. Despite the widespread mental trauma, Basic Needs, a humanitarian organisation that works in developing countries, stated that Sri Lanka has only one psychiatrist for every 500 000 people, most of whom are in urban areas. Furthermore, while psychiatric help is vital in extreme cases, counselling is a solution for those who suffer from mild mental illnesses. In fact, counselling may help to deter the deterioration of mental illnesses to a state where it is disabling. Unfortunately this solution is not given enough credit by our healthcare system and there is a lack of counsellors available to the public. 

It is important to keep in mind that development is more than simply increasing the economic capacity of a country. Increasingly-in addition to a country’s GDP - other indicators, such as the Human Development Index and Gross Happiness Index are also given prominence when measuring a countries development. Why? Because the world has recognised that social development, mortality rates and general satisfaction of citizens are as important indicators of development as the economic status of a country.

Therefore, development must take place in many spheres; the acceptance of those with mental disorders is social development. Aesthetic development can take place if society creates room for the mentally sick to thrive in the fields that they are adept in. After all, Beethoven suffered from bi-polar disorder,Michelangelo had OCD and Pablo Picasso suffered from clinical depression.[xi]Literature benefitted greatly from men like Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway and John Keats, who all suffered from depression. Even in politics, men like Abraham Lincoln[xii]suffered from depression. However, stigma restricts many people from engaging in these fields and from embracing their different abilities.

A country’s economy will also benefit from better mental healthcare; mental illness costs the Canadian economy more than $50-billion a year and research shows that such illnesses hit people hardest in their prime years of work. As Michael Kirby, a former Canadian senator and advocate for better mental-healthcare pointed out, combatting mental illnesses will help governments avoid a “lifetime of problems and costs.”[xiii]

Evidently, the attitudes of states and people towards mental illnesses severely hinder the overall development of countries. 

Thomas Insel, who has led the National Institute of Mental Health, USA, since 2002, stated that one in every twenty people becomes disabled by their mental disability. He feels thatconsidering the fact that 75%of mental illnesses onset by age 24 - the answer to this problem is early detection and intervention. This will prevent mental illnesses from disabling people to the point where they have no quality of life and cannot continue to work. This has worked with heart diseases, which have reduced by 63%, reducing the mortality rate by 1.1 million deaths a year and with AIDs where an average of 30,000 deaths are averted a year.[xiv] He says that the knowledge to cure many mental illnesses exists, and thatthe main problem is stigma.Therefore, to see similar results with mental illnesses, they need to be approached in the same manner as physical illnesses.  The common perception is that people who are mentally ill cannot contribute to development and this stigma makes it difficult for those with mental illness to get jobs and be an active part of society.

For decades, countries and organizations have been focused on creating awareness and an environment of acceptance for those with mental disorders. Unfortunately, people’s perception seemsto be unaffected by campaigns and speeches. The arts on the other hand have a strong influence on culture and views. Instead of simply giving people the information they need, books like ‘the perks of being a wallflower’spark empathy in them.

We may think that we do not conform to these archaic notions and biases against the mentally ill. Unfortunately, this culture is ingrained in all of us. You would have no reservations in telling people that your mother suffered from a heart attack, or that you have diabetes. However, if your mother suffered from schizophrenia or you suffered from depression, would you make that knowledge public?

Governments have a role to play in re-thinking their approach to healthcare; prioritizing combating mental illnesses in their development policies; advocating acceptance through the arts and other effective means; and empowering communities on how to deal with mental disabilities.

However it is our tendency to treat mental illnesses as forbidden secrets that is one of the biggest barriers to progress. Therefore, changing our own perceptions should be the first step. If we can openly and shamelessly admit it if we, or those close to us, have psychological problems, we will begin to oust the stigma in our own social circles. The domino effect is stronger than most people give it credit for; you start treating mental illnesses like you would any physical illness, and others around you will begin to do the same.



[ii]http://www.namigc.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/MentalIllnessFactSheet-July-2013.pdf

[iv]http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/navy-yard-shooting-underscores-how-mental-illness-can-be-misdiagnosed-among-black-men/2013/09/24/e1ded664-2554-11e3-b3e9-d97fb087acd6_story.html

[v]http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2013/10/28/michael-kirby-canadas-two-tiered-mental-health-care/

[vi]https://www.ted.com/talks/vikram_patel_mental_health_for_all_by_involving_all

[vii]http://www.hrw.org/news/2013/05/03/china-end-arbitrary-detention-mental-health-institutions

[viii]http://www.huffingtonpost.com/basicneeds/the-need-to-train-psychia_b_4176704.html

[ix]https://www.ted.com/talks/vikram_patel_mental_health_for_all_by_involving_all

[x]http://www.dailynews.lk/?q=local/today-world-suicide-prevention-day

[xi]psychundergrad.wordpress.com/2012/04/18/famous-artists-who-suffered-from-mental-illness-psychology-meets-art-1/

[xii]http://listverse.com/2012/11/03/top-10-crazy-men/

[xiii]http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/health-and-fitness/health/exposing-canadas-ugly-mental-health-secret/article14828590/

[xiv]https://www.ted.com/talks/thomas_insel_toward_a_new_understanding_of_mental_illness

11 August 2014

Sri Lanka has had six months of drought and could face severe crop losses and electricity shortages if the coming monsoon is as weak as forecasts predict, experts say.

“The situation is really, really bad,” said Ranjith Punyawardena, Chief Climatologist at the Department of Agriculture. “Already there are harvest losses and more are anticipated.”

According to Punyawardena, 5% (280,000 tons) of the 2014 rice harvest has already been lost due to the ongoing drought, which stretches back to November 2013. With 200,000 hectares of rice fields (20% of the annual cultivated total) planted during the secondary harvesting season already lost, experts say the losses from the drought could be exacerbated by the forecasted weak southwest monsoon, due in May.
Sarath Lal Kumara, Deputy Director at the Disaster Management Centre (DMC), said the impact of the drought had intensified in the last two months.

“We are getting more and more reports of lack of water and harvest losses,” he said, emphasising that the worst affected regions were the Northern, North Central and Southern Provinces.

By the end of March 2014 over 240,000 families had been affected by diminished water supply and harvest losses, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). The Ministry of Disaster Management has so far spent $ 2.3 million in assistance. According to the Department of Census and Statistics, at least 32% of the country’s labour force of 8.6 million derives its income from agriculture.
Sri Lanka has two monsoons a year – the ‘northeast monsoon’ from December to February and the ‘southwest monsoon’ from mid-May to September – and relies heavily on the rainwater for agriculture and hydropower.

Irregular rainfall in recent years has made predicting and preparing for reduced agricultural yields and electricity generation increasingly complicated, experts and officials say.

“There are indications that the El Niño phenomenon will take effect towards the middle of this year, in which case there will be less amount of rainfall,” said Punyawardena.

A rain shortfall this year would be in sharp contrast to the southwest monsoon in 2013, which moved faster than expected and brought high-intensity rain. In its first two weeks more than 60 people were killed by gale force winds or floods, and over 20,000 were left stranded when their houses were destroyed.

“The southwest monsoon has become increasingly erratic,” explained Punyawardena, pointing to evidence presented at the annual Monsoon Forum, such as the 3,369mm of rainfall recorded in Colombo, the capital, in 2010, which was nearly cut in half the following year.
This year’s drought has also hit the back-up water supply as inter-monsoonal rains in late 2013 failed; nearly all of the country’s 71 agriculture reservoirs report low water levels.

Power prices could rise:
Another consequence of the drought is likely to be electricity price rises caused by water shortages. The poor will be hit hardest, experts say.

“If the monsoon fails, the poorer section of the population in the drought hit regions will become extremely vulnerable,” DMC’s Kumara said.
As of the first week of April 2014, the Ceylon Electricity Board, which attempts to generate at least 50% of the country’s electricity by hydropower, reported that only around 13% of power needs were being met by hydro-generation. The Government fills the gap with thermal generation, which relies on imported oil.

“Sri Lanka’s power needs are very reliant on hydro-generation, which makes them susceptible to changing weather patterns,” said Asoka Abeygunawardana, Executive Director of the Sri Lanka Energy Forum and an adviser to the Ministry of Technology.
Failing rains have in the past slowed down economic growth, he said, by forcing the Government to import oil for power generation, making it an expensive alternative to hydropower.

According to the Central Bank, around 20% of the country’s import expenditure in 2012 went on fuel, and 55% of the oil imported was used for electricity generation – bringing the price tag to more than $ 2 billion.

“It is a very dire situation that we are faced with this year,” Abeygunawardana said.

“If the rice harvest fails, we will see food prices going up after August. And if we have a power crisis as well – meaning electricity becomes more expensive -the poor will again feel the impact,” feared Punyawardena.

He warned: “If the monsoon fails there will be not enough water for agriculture and power generation for the rest of the year.”

Republished from Daily FT.