At the Mercy
of the Wind

By November 6, 2017Stories

Sri Lanka’s southwest monsoon season is a blessing … and a curse


I n the hill villages of southwest Sri Lanka, people have learned to both love and fear monsoon season.

It can bring moisture vital to the crops and native plants that give the region its lush look. But it can also give birth to so much rain that that mudslides bury entire villages. That is what happened May 26, when water came rushing down from high peaks in the interior. More than 200 people died when already saturated soil separated from hillsides and a flood of mud 30 feet deep destroyed everything in its path.

A monsoon is not a torrential rainstorm, as conventional wisdom would have it. It is actually a wind that affects large areas and reverses direction seasonally. It can, of course, trigger conditions that lead to rainstorms. In fact, monsoon winds produce wet and dry seasons in Sri Lanka, India and the rest of southern Asia.

“It is what we have to live with,” shrugged Saresh Singh, a farmer on the lower slopes near Barudaliya where killer mudslides are a fact of life. “It is part of our culture. It is part of who we are. Really, we can’t live with it and we can’t live without it.”

Thamara Weerasinghe, a microbiologist at the Open University of Sri Lanka in Colombo, said monsoons bring levels of moisture that are vital to the soil and environment.

There are two very different monsoon seasons on this teardrop-shaped island. From May to September, the southwest monsoon can trigger heavy rains in the southwestern area of the country, known to locals as “the wet zone.” So wet, in fact, that it can produce rainfall in excess of excess of 110 inches. The northeast monsoon (December to March) can produce dry weather.

In between are two periods known as intermonsoons, according to Sri Lanka’s Department of Meteorology.

We have been making lot of adaptable varieties and organizing other mechanisms to live with less water and all that. … But it will be a great trouble for us

Thamara Weerasinghe

The first intermonsoon season runs from March to April. The second takes place in October and November and it produces peak rainfall, normally heavy thunderstorms. This is the season that is hit by tropical depressions and cyclones in the Bay of Bengal, when the whole country can be walloped by strong winds and widespread, long-lasting rain, sometimes leading to floods and landslides.

It all depends on where you are. And when.

In the capital city of Colombo, about 75 miles north of where the most recent mudslides occurred, there has been little concern lately about monsoon rains. They get rain during the southwest monsoon season, but it comes and goes and is often of short duration.

Ian Lockwood, an environmentalist who teaches at a school for international students in Colombo, has taken note of the rainfall patterns in and around the capital.

“Here, the monsoon season is very different from other parts of South Asia. Here in Colombo, the weather doesn’t change that much during the year,” Lockwood said.

“The monsoon is more a broad seasonal shift in rainfall patterns and it peaks in May and June and that’s it. People ask, ‘Is this monsoon season?’ and I say, ‘Yes it is.’ ‘But it’s not raining!’”   

In the nation’s farm belts, the lack of rain has led to desperation, not exactly what an ordinary observer might expect from a place with monsoon seasons.

In fact, Sri Lanka’s farms have been crippled by the island’s worst drought in 40 years. It ravaged the country last year and even the May downpours that triggered mudslides weren’t nearly enough to replenish reservoirs.

The rice crop – a vital food source for Sri Lankans – has been devastated. Production is expected to drop by 40 percent and many small farmers are barely feeding their families.

Weerasinghe noted that rice is the “main staple food in Sri Lanka” and it depends on seasonal rainfall, as do other plants. And with reservoirs so low there is little water for irrigation. It is so bad, she said, that farmers are abandoning their rice paddies.

“We will be facing lot of issues. …The country is getting ready for that, actually. We have been making lot of adaptable varieties and organizing other mechanisms to live with less water and all that. … But it will be a great trouble for us,” she said.

And the dry season is not far off.

Author William H. Kelly III

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