Topographical map of Sri Lanka

Like many countries in the Global South, Sri Lanka is burdened with a variety of hazards, including cyclones, floods and not long ago a tsunami.  But one of the most severe hazards in Sri Lanka is drought and is considered the most significant hazard in many districts of the country, such as Hambantota and Puttalam.

Dr Gunatilake Marasinghe from University of Kelaniya, Sri Lanka, recently gave a seminar at IHRR: ‘International Relief Aid and Surviving Droughts in Sri Lanka.’  He explained how 2,548,310 people are exposed to drought in Sri Lanka compared to other hazards such as cyclones, where far fewer people are exposed at 24,132.  Indeed, drought has affected Sri Lanka since ancient times and leads to scarcity of water, food and other resources.  In 2001, drought overtook seven districts in Sri Lanka affecting 231,076 families.

Aid was provided to people in Sri Lanka during this time, but one of the major obstacles to overcome, as is the case with international relief aid efforts in other countries, is delays in receiving aid.   International relief aid tends to flow into areas with high density droughts, but a major problem that has yet to be resolved in Sri Lanka is providing aid to people who endure mild recurrent droughts that are also a threat to their lives.  Listen to Dr Gunatilake Marasinghe’s seminar at IHRR here.

Usually, international aid donors give the most attention to large-scale hazards, but smaller hazards such as mild recurrent droughts are often overlooked.  People in Sri Lanka who depend upon growing their own food are most affected by droughts of this kind because they wipe out their crops and they are left with nothing to eat.  Instead of depending on aid, which is not provided, people must either migrate to other parts of the country or sustain themselves by eating ‘inferior food’ such as lotus yams or leaves of wild plants.  Family ties are strong in Sri Lanka and this is one of the forms of humanitarian assistance people affected by mild droughts depend on to survive.

Drought in Hambantota, Sri Lanka (Government of Sri Lanka)

In order to develop resilience in communities affected by recurring mild droughts in Sri Lanka, both a transparent way to distribute relief aid and implementation of infrastructure to deal with droughts are needed.  One way is to store water in large tanks during monsoon seasons or periods of heavy rain that could be used later during times of drought.  Another is to use resources provided by international aid donors to prepare for future droughts.  This could include gathering information in advance to create communication networks where early warning systems are used to warn people of drought instead of waiting for it to occur.  Early warning systems are being used in countries throughout the world, but not yet in Sri Lanka.  In the future, these forms of infrastructure need to be in place in Sri Lanka and other countries in the Global South as problems of drought, whether they are severe or ‘mild’, will likely accelerate due to climate change.