Invigorating Sri Lankan agriculture with wells and cell phones

Walk through the front door of your house, and what do you see on the floor? Perhaps a colorful carpet, or ceramic tiles, or the gleam of polished wood? Whatever your taste in floor coverings, it’s highly unlikely that you will be confronted by a large, shiny carpet of purple onions, like the one that adorns the inside of a farmer’s house in Sri Lanka.

Mr. Amarapala, who lives in the small village of Galenbindunuwewa, close to the town of Medawachchiya in the country’s Anuradhapura District, knows that a layer of onions doesn’t make a practical floor covering, so stepping stones made out of house bricks can be seen peeking out of his unusual carpet.  These strategically placed bricks, allow him and his family to move around the house without damaging any of the onions.

Mr. Amarapala hasn’t always had such an extraordinary floor covering. A newly dug open well has given him access to the water necessary to increase his harvest of onions and other high-value vegetables on his land of less than half a hectare. Subsequently, limited space has forced him to use the floor of his house to store his surplus.

The larger harvests of more profitable vegetables experienced by farmers in Sri Lanka’s Dry Zone first began materializing in the 1980s, when cheap diesel and petrol pumps became widely available, allowing farmers to abandon small community tank irrigation systems in favor of sinking their own wells to pump groundwater.

Traditionally, the tank system sustained not only a sizeable area of paddy, but also provided water for domestic needs, livestock and fishing. Community members cooperated with each other to ensure that there was a fair share of water for all, but this equilibrium was upset as more and more farmers invested in the cheap pumps.  Later, roads to urban markets started opening up, while affordable mobile phones meant that farmers could contact market centers to source the best price for their crops.

Since the late 1990s, the number of wells in Mr. Amarpala’s village has increased by 93 per cent to about 117, and farm incomes have also risen by an average of 250 per cent.

On the surface, Mr. Amarpala’s change in fortunes reads like many of the other success stories coming out of the Dry Zone, but if you dig a little deeper, you will soon hear other reports that highlight the plight of the poor and landless members of his community – people who can only dream of wall-to-wall onions.

Most of the benefits enjoyed by farmers like Mr. Amarpala have gone to more well-off households with the capital to invest in the necessary equipment and farm inputs. Perhaps the most alarming development is the increased encroachment on state land and private enclosures of common property. The poor and landless are increasingly marginalized raising questions of social and economic equity, as well as growing concerns about the environment.

A case study of the Galenbindunuwewa experience, carried out by researchers from the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and soon to be published, shows that there is enough water in Sri Lanka to grow all the food needed to meet growing demand. However, unless an equitable overview of water, land, technology and infrastructure is taken, food security for all the country’s people cannot be guaranteed. Food security, after all, is not simply the ability to grow enough food. It is also about ensuring that all members of society have access to affordable nutritional value.

Read the full story on page three of IWMI’s latest newsletter.
The case study is soon to be published in the Economic and Political Weekly. Check back for further updates.
Photo credits: IWMI

2 Responses to Invigorating Sri Lankan agriculture with wells and cell phones

  1. Susantha Peeris says:

    I am a 75 year old retired person. I invested with a local farmer for growing onions. The experience has not produced a self sustaining model.

    Can a one time investment provide a repeatable model ?

    Thank you for your advise.

    • Kay Chapman says:

      Thank you for sharing your experience Susantha. Please provide some further details on your interest area so I can identify if there is additional information I can point you to.

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