Research Article: Examining adaptations to water stress among farming households in Sri Lanka’s dry zone

Date Published: February 16, 2017

Publisher: Springer Netherlands

Author(s): Nicholas E. Williams, Amanda Carrico.


Climate change is increasing water scarcity in Sri Lanka. Whether these changes will undermine national-level food security depends upon the ability of the small-scale farmers that dominate rice production and the institutions that support them to overcome the challenges presented by changing water availability. Analyzing household survey data, this research identifies household, institutional, and agroecological factors that influence how water-stressed farmers are working to adapt to changing conditions and how the strategies they employ impact rice yields. Paralleling studies conducted elsewhere, we identified institutional factors as particularly relevant in farmer adaptation decisions. Notably, our research identified farmers’ use of hybrid seed varietals as the only local climate adaptation strategy to positively correlate with farmers’ rice yields. These findings provide insight into additional factors pertinent to successful agricultural adaptation and offer encouraging evidence for policies that promote plant breeding and distribution in Sri Lanka as a means to buffer the food system to climate change-exacerbated drought.

Partial Text

Global food production systems are threatened by rapidly changing and increasingly unpredictable climatic conditions. The impacts of these changes are disproportionately shared and pose complex implications for the 500 million small-scale farmers that are responsible for feeding many of the world’s most vulnerable people (IPCC 2014). These farmers are often resource-poor, potentially complicating their ability to adapt to and rebound from challenging economic or weather events (Adger et al. 2003). Additionally, the crop losses or yield reductions farmers may suffer as a result of climatic instability have implications that go beyond the household, impacting regional food security and economic sovereignty (Adger et al. 2003). Therefore, there is growing concern with how best to support small-scale farmers’ adaptations to climate change and other global change processes in ways that increase household economic and food security without compromising the food supply (Adger et al. 2005; Stringer et al. 2009).

Climate change poses threats to the resource-poor farmers that are the foundation of local and regional food systems that feed many of the world’s most vulnerable populations (IPCC 2014). Therefore, identifying how best to support farmer adaptation to changing climatic conditions in ways that do not negatively impact food security is a pressing concern globally (Adger et al. 2005; Stringer et al. 2009). Our analyses provide insight into household, institutional, and agroecological factors that shape the ways in which water-stressed farmers are attempting to cope with climate change-related drought in Sri Lanka’s dry zone and how these adaptive strategies impact yields of the region’s most important crop, rice. Similar to climate adaptation studies conducted elsewhere (Agrawal 2008), we recognized farmers’ connections to formal institutions—in particular state-managed irrigation systems and agricultural extension programs—as critical to farmer adaptation to sustained water scarcity. Notably, we identified the planting of hybrid seeds varietals as particularly effective at maintaining rice yields for water-stressed farmers. These findings have implications for structuring policy in Sri Lanka and other regions where small-scale farmers are working to mitigate climate change impacts.

The state-level institutions that both provide irrigation water and help to develop and promote drought-adaptive farming strategies play a critical role in farmers’ adaptation to climate change in Sri Lanka’s dry zone. Echoing prior research conducted elsewhere, our study shows that farmers without formal institutional (particularly infrastructural) support are the most vulnerable to climate change, and we encourage that climate adaptation efforts target these populations, possibly working to create wage labor opportunities particularly for those farmers in areas where irrigation system expansion is challenging. Further, while each of the adaptive strategies employed by water-stressed farmers may be helping to maintain rice yields that would be otherwise reduced by drought, planting hybrid seed varietals appears to be the most effective strategy for maintaining yields in the face of water stress. While these hybrid seeds may reduce farmers’ yields in optimal conditions (Dhanapala 2006; Wassmann et al. 2009), they are more effective than traditional varietals under drought conditions. Additionally, planting short duration seed varietals requires less coordination and institutional intervention than the other climate change adaptation strategies being promoted in the dry zone, underscoring the importance and challenges of state-level institutions’ involvement in climate change adaptation. Ultimately, the positive effect of short duration seeds on water-stressed farmers yields suggest that the continued and increased promotion of these seeds may be the most effective method for maintaining Sri Lanka’s rice supply as climate change-driven drought risk intensifies.




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