Improving Paddy Production through Adaptation Technology

20 Mar 2012

image “This land was only rubble before. Now we have a good harvest”

1.Context
Paddy is the staple food crop in Sri Lanka. It is also a major employment avenue in rural areas. Sri Lanka, aims to increase the present annual paddy production of 3.1 million tons to about 4.5 million tons by 2020. Increased cost of imported wheat flour has prompted Sri Lanka to look at the possibilities of using rice-based products as a substitute.

However, the productivity of most of the paddy growing lands in Sri Lanka declines every year due to increased soil salinity – this is primarily a result of changing climate conditions affecting the livelihoods and resilience of farming communities. Currently about 100,000 hectares of paddy lands in Sri Lanka are affected by high salt conditions or salinity. 

At the global scale approximately 40% of the world's irrigated areas are affected by salinity. Soil salinity of the coastal paddy lands increases due to salt accumulation through tidal waves and sea water intrusion both linked to climate change-induced sea level rise, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In the inland areas, soil salinity increases due to extensive evaporation during drought and insufficient drainage to wash out the salt brought in with irrigation water. Scientists predict about 10-20% less rainfall in dry land areas of the country by 2050 based on IPCC global data.

2.Project intervention
Given the urgent need to find a solution to improve the productivity of salt-affected paddy lands, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Disaster Management Centre (DMC) of the Ministry of Disaster Management joined hands with the Rice Research & Development Institute (RRDI) and the National Federation for Conservation of Traditional Seeds and Agricultural Resources (NFCTSAR - a local NGO) to implement a Climate Change adaptation pilot project. 

The area selected, “Angithgakulam Yaya”, in Puttalam District, a dry zone, is home to hundreds of agricultural families, resettled as a result of an expansion of an irrigation development project named “Deduruoya Project.” Due to the inability to cultivate the paddy lands given to the resettled community and the resulting economic hardships, the settlers were determined to move back to their previous lands.

This pilot project, carried out between 2008-2010, was successful and the findings were used to establish best practices of paddy cultivation in salt-affected lands in Sri Lanka. During the pilot project a selection of proven traditional and improved rice varieties recommended by RRDI and Department of Agriculture was used to test the performance of different varieties under salinity-affected paddy fields. “We have had to change the way we farm as the soil here is salinated when compared to where we lived earlier,” said Mr. W. D. Premachandra, a farmer, adding “We do not have any experience in farming this type of soil and we had to learn to do things differently.”

3.Innovativeness and partnership-building
The new practices introduced include delaying of the time for transplanting seeds, draining water from paddy fields on a more frequent basis to reduce salinity levels, application of more organic materials to the soil in land preparation, and establishing a nursery for transplant paddy instead of seeding, as seed germination is sensitive to salts. According to Premachandra each successive season helped them to better understand improvements and adjustments needed. Most farmers were uncertain at the start, however, having witnessed the success of a few champions during the first season the participation increased in subsequent seasons. 

4.Results
The results of this pilot project were encouraging and revealing. Both traditional and research developed varieties of rice performed better than the national average, partly due to the increased attention and training of farmers. The average yield of improved rice varieties cultivated using ‘business-as-usual’ practices in this area was about 520 kg per acre. However, as a result of the pilot project, the yield increased to about 2,800 kg per acre with enhanced soil, residue and water management in the same area. National average for the same varieties is around 1,700 kg per acre. This phenomenal success led the RRDI and Department of Agriculture to report the pilot project as the “Best Research of 2009.”

The Department of Agriculture also incorporated the lessons learnt to strengthen the department’s annual extension programme, since 2011. The “Angiththan Kulam Yaya” farmers continue to use the best practices introduced through the initiative to date although the project ended in 2010. A video produced by the Department of Agriculture on this pilot project (www.youtube.com/watch?v=A1qpIOkU0Lg) gained much popularity, not only among farmers but also among climate change adaptation stakeholders and is widely showcased on UNDP supported web page on climate change related materials of Sri Lanka (www.climateadaptation.lk).

Internationally, the results of this work have been presented and well received at the UNEP organized Adaptation Platform meeting held in Bangkok, Thailand in December 2010 as well as a by a number of news media including Sunday Observer (http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2008/10/19/spe02.asp) and IRIN (http://www.irinnews.org/Report.aspx?ReportId=80848).

5. Hurdles overcome
Increased soil salinity due to climate change was hindering the progress of the farmers. Addressing this issue was crucial to improving the lives and livelihoods of the farmer communities, while also enhancing the productivity of salt affected paddy lands. With the results obtained during this UNDP supported pilot work, Sri Lanka can successfully meet the challenges of poor yield in salt related paddy lands. Two university researchers Thiruchelvam and Pathmarajah (1998) found that in high and severe salinity areas the rice yield was reduced by one third with a net income loss between 22% and 43%. According to Mr. D.N. Sirisena, of RRDI, this UNDP intervention is “timely and has a high impact” since the model developed can be expanded and adopted in salt affected rice fields across the country and region.

(The above story received third place under the 'Climate Change' category at the 2012 RBAP Awards for Excellence)