Sri Lanka sources integrated solutions to land and water-based challenges

Holistic initiative protects mountain watersheds whilst scaling agroecology
The Sera Ella waterfall in the Knuckles Mountain Range, Sri Lanka. Photo by Dananjaya Chathuranga/Flickr

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Named for its geography’s resemblance to a closed fist, Sri Lanka’s Knuckles Mountain Range is robed in mist and trees, its folds and peaks delineating a vast range of landscapes and ecosystems. These encompass five main forest types, which are home to a large number of endangered and/or endemic species – among them the purple-faced leaf monkey [Semnopithecus vetulus], grizzled giant squirrel [Ratufa macroura], and red slender loris [Loris tardigradus].

Like these distinctive creatures, Sri Lanka’s people also depend on these landscapes – albeit a little less directly. The mountain range holds watersheds that fill the streams and rivers which irrigate the country’s rice paddies, underpinning its food security. They also provide a cheap and relatively sustainable source of electricity from a series of hydropower plants located downstream.

These critical water courses, however, are not flowing as steadily as they used to. More intense rainfall caused by climate change, alongside unsustainable agricultural practices that deplete soil fertility and degrade its structure, have caused erosion which has led to rapid siltation in upland reservoirs, diminishing their storage capacity. Meanwhile, higher temperatures and more frequent and severe drought in the drier flatlands are upping rice farmers’ irrigation needs.

An ecosystem-based adaptation (EbA) initiative by Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Irrigation and the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF), supported by the Green Climate Fund (GCF), is working to address these impacts by taking a holistic approach to land and water management, protecting upland watersheds while promoting climate-resilient practices. Its work was explored during a session at the annual UN climate change conference (COP28).

A key feature of the project is the development of payment for ecosystem services (PES) mechanisms to provide sustainable financing of agroecological intensification – for instance, by encouraging the electricity board to fund upstream farmers’ soil and water conservation practices that will lead to more reliable water flow.

“Having more soil and water conservation in the upper watersheds means that the sedimentation will be reduced, so that means you don’t have to dredge the reservoirs very frequently, and that avoided dredging means you have more electricity available for your use,” explained Prasanthi Gunawardene, a professor in environmental economics at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura’s department of forestry and environmental science.

“Therefore, we have a strong economic case between the farmers and the electricity board, because the board can make payments to the landowners to implement soil and water conservation, which will result in higher water yield,” Gunawardene said.

Beria Leimona, a senior expert in landscape governance and investment at CIFOR-ICRAF, added that the project could also be eligible for broader biodiversity and carbon financing. She noted the importance of taking a participatory action research approach and “ensuring equitable access, to prevent exclusions of marginalized stakeholders – including smallholders, who are intended to be the main beneficiaries of the initiative.” 

Leel Randeni, director of climate change at Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Environment, gave an overview of the country’s priorities for adaptation to climate change, and shared how the project aligns with these. Fergus Sinclair, chief scientist at CIFOR-ICRAF and co-convenor of the Transformative Partnership Platform on Agroecology (Agroecology TPP), then gave a detailed presentation on the project, whilst exploring how agroecological practices positively contribute to and influence food security and nutrition.

The work highlights the relevance of a recent International Water Management Institute (IWMI)-led initiative, supported by the Transformative Partnership Platform on Agroecology (Agroecology TPP), which sought to rectify the dearth of agroecological research focusing on water management and aquatic foods, by integrating them more prominently in the 13 Principles of Agroecology, developed in 2019 by an FAO-led consortium.

“We argued that overlooking water and aquatic foods in agroecology research corresponds to their omission in strategizing, planning, and decision making – and we’re therefore missing key aspects of agri-food systems that are very important,” said Matthew McCartney, research group leader in sustainable water infrastructure and ecosystems at IWMI, during the session.

The more holistic and integrated approach advocated in the study requires “thinking about factors beyond the farm – looking across landscapes and considering the impacts of our farming systems on downstream aquatic and marine environments,” McCartney said.

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