Govt addressing farmers’ water woes - Mahinda Amaraweera | Sunday Observer

Govt addressing farmers’ water woes - Mahinda Amaraweera

13 August, 2023

No tussle among Ministries over water issue:

CEB should have been more flexible:

Some political groups attempting to exploit situation:

In a candid and revealing interview with the Sunday Observer, Agriculture Minister Mahinda Amaraweera brings forth alarming insights into the critical water scarcity issue currently gripping the nation and its unexpected entanglement with political agendas.

As the agricultural sector grapples with an unprecedented drought, Minister Amaraweera’s revelations shed light on the measures taken to alleviate the dire situation, the behind-the-scenes battles between Ministries, and the unsettling attempts to exploit the plight of farmers for political gains.

Excerpts from the interview:

Q: What measures are currently being implemented to alleviate the water-related challenges faced by farmers in the Southern region?

A: At present, we are actively addressing the water-related challenges encountered by farmers in the Southern region. To mitigate these issues, a strategic approach has been adopted. Specifically, water is being released from the Samanala Wewa to replenish the Udawalawe Reservoir. Our immediate response, which includes releasing water from the Samanala Wewa, has yielded positive results. We estimate that by taking this step, we have been able to safeguard and salvage approximately 75 percent of the farmlands that were at risk. This intervention, while not completely eradicating the challenges posed by the drought, has undoubtedly provided a much-needed lifeline to our farming community. While it is true that the farmers have experienced substantial losses due to the prolonged dry spell, I must acknowledge that our efforts have managed to alleviate the situation to a certain extent.

Q: There seems to be a tussle between your Ministry, Irrigation Ministry and the Power and Energy Ministry over this issue. What has been done to resolve this issue?

A: I would like to clarify that there is no actual conflict between the Ministries or the respective Ministers. The focal point of concern lies in the prevailing water scarcity, exacerbated by the drought conditions affecting our water reservoirs. Notably, the Samanala Wewa is currently holding only 52 percent of its total water capacity, while the Udawalawe reservoir’s water level stands at 50 percent of its capacity. The drought itself serves as the underlying cause for the challenges we face.

While coordination among key stakeholders, including the Irrigation Department, Mahaweli Authority, and the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB), could have greatly improved the situation, the issue is not one of inter-ministerial conflict. It is essential to acknowledge that flexibility from all parties, particularly the CEB, would have significantly mitigated the situation.

The situation escalated to the extent that even the intervention of President Ranil Wickremesinghe became necessary. The decision to release water from the Samanala Wewa to the Udawalawe Reservoir was a pivotal move, and I must commend President Wickremesinghe for his decisive action. It is vital to recognise that while water is undoubtedly crucial for power generation, its significance for agricultural and drinking purposes cannot be understated.

Q: The Gotabaya Rajapaksa Government had to go home because agitations by farmers led to a wider Aragalaya. Could this issue be exploited by certain factions to whip up such sentiments?

A: Certainly, there have been attempts by certain political parties to take advantage of the challenging circumstances. Regrettably, some political leaders have chosen to exploit the plight of farmers by immersing themselves in the drought-affected areas and attempting to incite unrest among the farming community. While this might seem like a prime opportunity for opportunistic politicians seeking personal gains, it is crucial to recognise that this issue transcends mere politics. Its ramifications are deeply intertwined with the well-being of our citizens and the overall economic stability.

However, it is becoming increasingly evident that farmers are awakening to the realities at hand and are growing more discerning of the motives of certain politicians who seek to capitalise on their predicament.

Q: Can you provide an update on the resolution of the fertiliser issues faced by farmers across the country?

A: Presently, we have successfully distributed three types of chemical fertilisers, namely TSP Fertiliser (Mud Fertiliser), Urea, and MOP (Bundy Fertiliser), at a considerably reduced cost compared to previous years. Recognising the financial strain on farmers, we have extended financial assistance to support their fertiliser purchases.

Despite facing unexpected adversities, such as the forces of nature working against us, we have forged ahead with determination. This season stands as a testament to our resolute efforts, and I am proud to label it as one of our most successful endeavors to date.

Q: Is there a compensation mechanism for farmers affected by water scarcity or other issues?

A: Certainly, there exists a compensation mechanism that operates under the umbrella of the Agricultural and Agrarian Insurance Board (AAIB). While it is acknowledged that the current compensation amounts might not fully meet the needs of our farmers, it is heartening to recognise that some level of assistance is being extended to them.

The principle of “something is better than nothing” holds weight in these circumstances, offering a degree of relief to our hardworking farmers. We have directed the AAIB to promptly initiate an assessment of the extent of crop damage incurred during the Yala cultivation season this year. To facilitate equitable compensation, the AAIB has categorised damage into three levels: complete damage, medium-scale damage, and minor damage.

Q: Is the Government completely moving away from organic fertiliser after the fiasco that led to the downfall of the Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration, or are there ongoing trials involving its limited use?

A: The current scenario presents a complex dynamic, where both farmers and relevant officials appear to have shifted away from organic farming practices. To address this, I firmly believe that we need to strike a harmonious middle ground. Our past experience of attempting a complete shift to a hundred percent organic fertiliser approach resulted in significant challenges for our nation. On the other hand, placing complete reliance on chemical fertilisers also carries inherent risks that we must be cautious of.

Our focus should be on achieving a delicate equilibrium that ensures optimal yields, preserves soil health, and delivers nutritious produce to consumers. Our strategy involves a proactive effort to blend the benefits of organic and chemical fertilisers, aiming for a well-rounded and improved outcome.

Q: Your residence recently faced an attempted attack amid the ongoing issues. How do you interpret this incident?

A: Undoubtedly, this attempt was masterminded by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). Typically, my residence sees a considerable number of visitors, ranging from 800 to 1,000 on any given day.

However, on this specific day, the crowd consisted of around 400 to 500 individuals, many of whom were JVP activists and political candidates. Their leading role in the attack was evident, placing them at the forefront.

The attempt was fortunately thwarted, occurring roughly a kilometre away from my residence. I engaged with the Police and even extended an invitation to the attackers to join me, as my home is open to both praise and criticism.

It’s essential to note that Ajith Rajapaksa and I have steadfastly championed the rights of farmers, fearlessly advocating their interests. The JVP has consistently targeted figures who stand alongside farmers and uphold their rights.

It is worth clarifying that authentic farmers were not among the attackers; rather, this incident seems to be motivated by a political agenda. The JVP continues to exhibit a pattern of targeting politicians’ residences and inciting unrest within the country.

Their discontent is rooted in our efforts to provide fertilisers and support agricultural pursuits, leading to a personal grudge against me.

I am acutely aware that further threats loom on the horison, with certain factions actively plotting against us. The JVP’s animosity towards me is undeniable, likely stemming from their dissatisfaction with our commitment to facilitating farmers.

Q: Turning to politics, are you endorsing President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s potential candidacy in the upcoming Presidential Election, or do you believe it is premature to make such predictions?

A: At this juncture, it is indeed premature to make concrete predictions, considering that the Presidential Election is slated for the end of the following year. President Wickremesinghe, being the courageous individual who stepped up to confront the challenges, has garnered the people’s trust and is actively fostering a sense of confidence among the populace.

Notably, various issues that plagued us a few months ago have been effectively addressed, albeit to a certain extent, which deserves significant appreciation.

Essential commodities like fertiliser, cooking gas (LP Gas), and fuel are now readily available, marking a substantial advancement from our previous circumstances.

President Wickremesinghe’s leadership has played a pivotal role in stabilising these aspects, instilling a renewed sense of optimism in the nation.

Q: Given the current circumstances, do you believe that President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s leadership is the sole solution to the challenges facing the country at the moment?

A: Without a doubt, yes. In the face of these challenges, it’s evident that both Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa and JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake hesitated to step up. While they remained reticent, it was President Wickremesinghe who fearlessly bore the responsibility on his shoulders. His resolute stance in shouldering this burden sets him apart and positions him as a dependable leader for the nation’s current predicaments.

Q: You seem to be patching things up with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). How is the progress in that respect?

A: I want to clarify that my roots have always remained firmly planted within the SLFP, and I have never strayed from that path. Despite speculation suggesting otherwise, I have maintained my unwavering commitment to the SLFP.

While certain quarters may have anticipated an alignment with either the United National Party (UNP) or the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), I want to say that I am a dedicated SLFPer through and through.

I have been entrusted with various significant positions within the SLFP, a testament to my unyielding loyalty. Currently, I am collaborating closely with former President Maithripala Sirisena to propel the party forward and elevate its stature.