Adaptation in Sri Lanka

Submitted by Ben Smith | published 23rd Jul 2011 | last updated 17th Mar 2020

Adaptation: Responding to the threat of Climate Change

  • Adaptation must focus on the needs of the people most affected by climate change impacts and aim to secure their livelihoods and reduce the most significant hazards they face.
  • Identifying communities' own priorities and needs, and valuing their knowledge alongside science-based knowledge is key to development of sound adaptation strategies.
  • The primary role of governments is in developing policies that are enabling for local-level action. However, important adaptation activities, such as management of increasingly scarce water resources, will require coordination and investment at the national and intergovernmental levels.

Climate change is currently causing increased hardship on rural communities throughout Sri Lanka. Moreover, current global levels of greenhouse gas pollution mean that the impacts of climate change are now set to worsen over the coming decades regardless of future emissions. However, whilst the most profound impacts of climate change may still be some years away, our understanding of future climate scenarios means that actions to help prepare communities can be taken now. Importantly, strategies that build community's ability to adapt to climate change can and must be undertaken now: it will be too late to act once the last crops have failed.

Strategies for adaptation need to focus on the needs of the people most affected by climate change impacts and aim to reduce the most significant hazards they face. Identifying communities' own priorities and needs, and valuing their knowledge alongside science-based knowledge is key to development of sound adaptation strategies. Sharing experiences, obstacles and positive initiatives with other communities and development policy-makers must be an integral part of national adaptation strategies. The primary role of governments and international processes is in developing and implementing policy that is enabling for local-level action. However, some important adaptation activities, such as management of increasingly scarce or flood prone water resources, will require coordination at the regional and intergovernmental levels.

To ensure a positive impact on the most vulnerable communities, climate change adaptation should support the development of community based systems of adaptation based on sustainable livelihood options and sound management of ecosystems through strengthening capacities, skills and institutions to react and adapt to climate generated changes. More specifically, climate change adaptation strategies should:

  • Begin with vulnerability assessments based on strong gender analysis to focus on the most vulnerable and their needs within the communities and to identify and reduce the most significant vulnerabilities they face.
  • Value the knowledge and strategies that the poor are already using to cope with climate change and use this as a basis to identify priorities and define action.
  • Empower communities to participate in the development of climate change sensitive interventions and policies, ensuring effective interaction between decision-makers and planners from key climate change affected sectors in both government and donors' structures.
  • Facilitate delivery of resources, support and services to community level, including information, skills, technology, finance and basic services and activities aimed at Disaster Risk Reduction.
  • Require agriculture, energy, transport and health departments of Government to undertake an analysis of predicted climate change and how it impacts on their sector.
  • Ensure that risks related to climate change and community-based responses to adaptation are mainstreamed into the most appropriate planning frameworks and development plans (including PRSPs).

Community based adaptation - reaching Sri Lanka's rural poor

Climate change will have a significant impact on Sri Lanka's rural farmers. The impacts will force profound lifestyle changes and destroy livelihoods if communities are not made aware of climate change and supported in finding ways to adjust. However, through community based adaptation, there is much that can be done:

  • Awareness of climate change is a key pillar of community based adaptation. Active participation in workshops, meetings and events that have been organised within communities can allow them to relate their own experiences to climate change and understand how future weather patterns may differ to those they have known in the past.
  • Action on adaptation can produce benefits now and in the future. Many adaptation activities help to provide communities with diversified livelihoods, alternative sources of income, or better infrastructure. Such 'no regrets' strategies are attractive as they have immediate positive impacts whilst also supporting the ability of communities to adapt to climate changes in the future.
  • Adaptation can be made more effective by focussing on two existing areas of policy: disaster risk reduction and supporting livelihoods. When undertaken through community organisations, these overlapping activities address key climate vulnerabilities and build capacity to deal with future challenges.

 

Examples of Practical Action's experience with community based adaptation in Sri Lanka are provided in the following section, and demonstrate how low cost interventions can make a huge difference to those most affected by climate change. However, whilst local community based interventions are an essential aspect of adaptation, there is also an urgent need for adaptation planning and investment across all sectors of government. Large scale food shortages, increasing water stress, land loss and salt water inundation due to sea level rise, and increased incidence of vector borne diseases such as malaria and dengue fever are all examples of anticipated climate change impacts that need planning for now. Government at all levels needs to support both community based adaptation and, together with communities, develop and implement strategies that respond to the wider and larger scale implications of climate change.

Practical Action's experiences of community based adaptation

Participatory research using traditional rice varieties: For rice farmers in the Hambantota district of southern Sri Lanka, increased salinity in their water-logged fields was a significant problem, with yields dropping steeply. Some were getting less than half the expected yield. The farmers could not find a viable solution for the creeping salinity - aggravated by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and a lack of fresh irrigation water. They feared that eventually their fields would be left barren. However, forgotten types of indigenous rice can offer a home grown solution to the increasing soil salinity. There are around 2,000 traditional rice varieties in Sri Lanka. Many are very high in nutritional value and have medicinal properties, and most are resistant to extreme drought conditions, diseases and pests. These varieties were traditionally grown using natural inputs such as organic manure, and no chemical fertilisers or pesticides were used. Farmers have worked with Practical Action on a number of trials on various rice varieties to see if they could withstand salinity.

Seventeen local farmers in Hambantota district trialled ten different varieties of traditional rice through a programme of the National Federation of Traditional Seeds and Agri Resources and supported by Practical Action. For the first time, the farmers were given the choice of 'variety selection' and asked to score the different rice types according to duration of crop, plant height, grain quality and yield. Out of the ten, four varieties scored highest and were then promoted through farmer organisations as hardy, saline tolerant and high quality rice that were suited for coastal rice paddies. This participatory approach to research has enabled marginalised farmers to adapt to the changing conditions. Although traditional rice does not produce the yields of hybrid varieties, farmer profits remain high. Traditional rice requires only organic manure and is purchased at a higher price by the Federation - there is high consumer demand for these rare rice types. Moreover, the application of organic fertilizer has begun to ease the soil salinity problem as well. One local farmer's comments reflect the success of the scheme:

'We were on the verge of abandoning our fields. The introduction of traditional rice has given a new lease of life to us and these fields.'

Reducing costal zone hazards: Sea level rise has led to coastal erosion, inundation of lands and salt water intrusion, whilst coral reefs and costal wetlands are also threatened by the increased severity of tropical storms. Practical Action has worked with district and national governmental and non-governmental organisations in Sri Lanka to share information and raise awareness of changing costal hazards in communities, households and schools. These meetings have generated community based environmental conservation and management programmes to help protect the threatened regions. This work has focussed on creating a 'coastal green belt', with 800 families involved in planting at 5 locations. However, whilst the work has demonstrated the potential for community based ecosystem projects and raised awareness of climate change and its impacts, challenges remain. In particular, low plant survival rates in the harsh conditions are not unusual, whilst planning and coordination on a large scale will be required to plant and maintain vegetation on the scale required for green belts to provide effective protection.

These examples of community based adaptation demonstrate that support for communities facing climate change can be provided now, and at little cost. New farming techniques or alternative seed varieties are low-cost changes that can directly address the threat to the livelihoods of the rural poor. Whilst these strategies provide for improved livelihoods for the communities involved, they are 'win-win' approaches to adaptation as they also target the twin goals of community based adaptation: building adaptive capacity and reducing vulnerability.

Community based adaptation also emphasises the need for communities to understand that climate change means that traditional responses to climate variation may no longer be sufficient when long term shifts in temperature and rainfall are predicted. Women, who frequently play a key role in natural resource management, are central to ensuring that the impacts of climate change are properly understood. By building on their understanding of the climate and their environment, and by sharing their experiences with others, communities are able to develop their own strategies for climate change adaptation. Local and national government policy is therefore needed to support the communities in this process of defining and achieving their own goals.