October 26, 2012

2012: Highlight # 21

How should irrigation and agriculture policies in Sri Lanka's dry zone respond to the new realities of rapid urbanization, economic growth and globalization? Shah and others discuss...

Winds of Change in Ancient Irrigation Civilization of Sri Lanka's North Central Dry Zone

Tushaar Shah, Madar Samad, Ranjith Ariyaratne and K. Jinapala

Based on fieldwork and interviews with scores of farmers and village leaders, we show that winds of change are blowing in the dry zones of North-Central Sri Lanka, the original hydraulic civilization of the world. The social organization of tank irrigation - which for centuries had combined a stylized land use pattern, a system of highly differentiated property rights, and elaborate rules of community management of tank irrigation - remained largely intact until the Colonial Era but has now been morphing in response to demographic pressures, market signals, technical change and modernization. Thanks to a policy that created local monopoly of Farmer Organizations (FOs) in distribution of subsidized fertilizers, the role of FOs in local management of tank irrigation in Sri Lanka is stronger today than before and anywhere else in the region. The newly announced policy of extending fertilizer subsidy to all crops may weaken the power of FOs in irrigation management. Tank and canal irrigation are facing tough competition from far more lucrative agro-well irrigation of diversified market crops in upland farming areas created by clearing forests. The groundwater irrigation boom - which has taken all of South Asian plains by storm since the 1970’s - has, albeit belatedly, begun engulfing Sri Lanka’s dry zones as well. But Sri Lanka’s agro-well boom may be far more sustainable and pro-poor than in the rest of the sub-continent, with some interesting lessons for South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

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