Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Comments and Suggestions needed on a tricky issue

While I doubt if any of the readers of this issue would directly relate to it, your thoughts on a solution will be useful, as you will be viewing this far removed from the frontline, and a dispassionate evaluation may result from those of us in the thick of the skirmish.

Farmers throughout Sri Lanka have just begun preparing their fields for sowing paddy for the Yal Kanna, and some have already sown. However the rains in some areas have failed, and there is an acute shortage of water in many of the tanks or lakes that hold water for irrigation. Accordingly, farmers have been requested to proportionately cut down the extent of land that they cultivate, including myself, and the percentage of subsidized fertilizer we receive will accordingly be cut to account for the lower cultivation. Those of you who know nothing about farming should realize that common sense just does not dictate the practicality of each farmer reducing his land under cultivation in a proportionate way.

Imagine that in a large extent of paddy fields, there are 40 farmers who own them. Each one has a different extent of paddy fields, each one has to cut down his cultivation by the same proportion, in our case by 30%. Just imagine the whole area will be a patchwork of fallow fields. The practical way to proportionately reduce water allocation is to give two days water a week instead of three, so providing two thirds of the previous allocation. The reality is that as in any area, certain lands are more productive than others. It is nonsensical in the interests of fair play to allow all farmers, with good land and bad to leave the same proportion of their land fallow. We then do not optimize the use of the most productive land; the constraining factor here being the non-availability of water for all the fields to be cultivated this season.

Take my case. I know that there is not a cat in hells chance of receiving even my 70% allocation, as I am at the end of the channel, and at the best of times I have had a hard time getting water, risking life and limb in doing so. My neighbor next door to me is in the same boat as we both share the last ‘pole’. I have therefore taken the decision as noted below to completely pump the water from the river that runs alongside my property and not depend on the supply of water from the tank. My neighbor being landlocked is not so fortunate. He does not have pumps and pipes, and he is therefore hoping he will be able to get his 70% allocation, and even if I give him all the water that by some chance comes to my land, out of pity for him, he may have to see his whole effort ruined and suffer a devastating loss in his quest to cultivate. Don’t forget that he will also lose on the fertilizer, which is heavily state-subsidized, which will be effectively wasted. You the reader is paying for this fertilizer, which I can tell you now will be of no use, when his cultivation is abandoned eventually when he gives up his forlorn effort.

Who benefits from this gerry mandering of lands? No one, certainly not the consumer, who will have to pay a higher price for rice, as we will also have to import the shortfall to meet the demand. When you have a scarce commodity like water, that is given free, you will have an unequal and inequitable distribution of this not based on need, but on entitlement, resulting in a waste of water, while some don’t even get their due amount.
What is the solution to this crisis? Well if you are Sinhala you have none. If you are Muslim, from the Eastern Province, you will farm collectively and share proportionately. When you allow your land to be farmed collectively, if there is a water shortage, a collective decision will be made to farm the most productive 70% of the land in the collective, and share the profits which are lower also in proportion to the land that is owned, not farmed. There will be no waste. I have already seen some problems in our area, where everyone is trying to divert the lower volume of water into their fields for ploughing, and as there is no unity amongst the farmers, there are a lot of disputes cropping up even amongst the close relatives, who own adjoining fields.

The crop will be lower as no one will get enough water. In extensive fields water often goes from the higher elevation fields to the lower elevation fields and do not come to the fields from seperate sources. Farmers who therefore hold the water in their fields then deprive others down the line, which will result in heated arguments and late night cutting off water supplies and prevention of anyone completing their cultivation satisfactorily.

One possible solution is to allow the best fields to be completely farmed, and compensating farmers whose fields are designated as cannot be worked as no water will be supplied. Those being permitted to cultivate can also be charged a higher price for fertilizer, so that there will be a two fold benefit. One that fertilizer will not be wasted, and secondly, there will be funds to compensate those who will not be given water, as their fields are determined to be marginal. My fields would be deemed marginal, as well as my neighbors, as it would be impractical to get water into those fields, whilst I should be permitted to pump water at my expense from the river, and cultivate my property, as that will not have a bearing on another farmer’s ability to cultivate more productively.

I fear that billions of rupees of expensive fertilizer will be wasted, and the average productivity of the fields lowered due to the prevailing weather conditions, and no logical method used to maximize the output given the constraints on the limited input of water.

I am willing to bet that no analysis using the methodology I have shown above has been carried out, let alone even contemplated, due to politically unacceptable repercussions, and accordingly the country will pay a price for the ensuing inaction, as there is no one in authority, and I mean with leadership to take up this challenge boldly and offer a solution, that whilst upsetting many people, is nevertheless a necessary step in the interests of the overall collective benefit.

You can’t waste water to pacify the voters. I have recently seen a waste of water, as there is not enough in the fields to plough and by implication, result in those needing water not getting enough and those getting it not needing it. The latter will not get enough anyway to work the land for the season. No one has the courage to take up this challenge, and tell the latter that water will not be given. It is the irrigation engineer who determines how much water he can release into the fields, an agricultural expert who determines which fields are cultivated, but elected representatives who should decide how it is allocated on a basis of optimal use of land, as long as they provide the inputs of water and fertilizer.


kalusudda said...

Hi Ranjith, these seems a very difficult times for you. I have read your earlier accounts of trying to get water to your fields. If you get together with this 40 or so farmers along the canal providing water to you may be you can hire some one to open and close sluices for given period of time for everyday. So that everyone gets their share of water.
The Other thing if it is possible, Get two 30% from land up in the canal and share your field with the two people gave you the land. Perhaps you can grow a crop that does not require as much water as rice.
Japan also facing the similar problem as far as the water and my girlfriends family is turning to barley. But these barley plants will be harvested when they are young to make fibre drinks (aojiru). These are in high demand for young barley plants as the land is in volcanic bed, rich in minerals. So the crop will come two times in the period of one harvest of rice, and much more money.
But as you mentioned, you will be growing a special kind of rice and you may not have a choice but to pump water.
In that case you may have seen the windmill water pumps that people in USA use to pump water perpetually. You might be able to construct one using local creativity. In a recent project to provide drinking water in Africa, my university students created a water pump out of Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipes that are available abundantly and the reinforcement bars from building trade with a wind mill out of wood and metal sheets. The project was a success and I am sure you might be able to replicate it. This might save you from having to spend money on electricity or gasoline to pump water. Perhaps you might end up having more water than necessary. But you need to find the availability winds as water is not a problem for you.
Either way I might be preaching to the choir :) . But I truly hope you find a long term solution to your water problem. Let us know how you managed.
I am pretty happy to learn about the other group of people that shared the land to bring out the best. Perhaps those people are more close knit than your neighbors?
Best of luck to you.

kalusudda said...

Man that was a long comment! excuse my behavior.

Anonymous said...

If we follow your recommendation, the country should become a technocracy and ruled by technocrats. In such a system, there are no need for public policy debates, as everything would be done using economic models and principles. You need a revolution to bring in a new technically-oriented government rather than a peoples' government you get through democracy. You will have to move to China or Vietnam to find such a place.

George said...

Pumping the water from the oya that runs along your land would save you a lot of stress and aggravation. If the cost isn't prohibitive, this is probably what you should do. In fact, the higher yield may offset the increased cost.

Farmers along the Dambulu Oya use the Oya water. Thilanka Spa, which is on the Kandy Road, pumps water from the Oya for vegetable cultivation. They obtained permission for this.

Rajaratarala said...

actually the state currently decides what we cann and cannot do as it provides inputs like water and fertilizer. If you take the state out of it and charge an economic cost, then the most efficient producers will prosper, that is called free enterprise. I would prefer that but few in SL want that, they dont like people getting rich it seems.So far from advocating control which we already have, I was merely suggesting that the control should be productivity based rather than waste based, as is normal under regulated systems, trying to treat people equally, when in fact we are not equal in anyway.