Are ‘clients’ of irrigation projects (farmers) dying of diseases caused by agrochemicals?
Posted on November 30th, 2022

By Chandre Dharmawardana Courtesy The Island

Engineer Madinda Panapitiya (MP), writing about Using existing resources for agri-food sector in Mahaweli areas” in The Island (30-11-2022) makes a number of claims and suggestions.

1.    One such claim is that the main clients of irrigation projects (farmers)” are dying of diseases caused by indiscriminate use of agro-chemicals”?

This is an unsubstantiated claim propagated from at least 2011, as seen from a discussion in the Kalaya website of Dr. Nalin de Silva where he claims precedence to Ven. Ratana in fear-mongering, stating that Sri Lanka’s food is poisoned by arsenic and other toxins introduced by agrochemicals”. This theme was pushed forward by Dr. Jayasumana, the Natha-Deviyo Clairvoyant Ms. Senanayake, Dr. Sanath Gunatilleke, Dr. Anurddha Padeniya, Dr. Ranil Senanayake and others, various NGOs, as well as Champika Ranawaka, Chamal Rajapaksa and other politicians who launched a program to create a so-called Toxin-Free nation”, i.e., free of agrochemicals, while ignoring the more important toxin. Many news agencies joined the fear-mongering. The toxins emitted by traffic that burns fossil fuel,  submicron dust, or the vast mounds of urban garbage that emit toxic leachate, toxic fumes,  generate pathogens and spontaneously explode spewing poison into the ecosystem were ignored.

The final banning of all agrochemicals was done by President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. Agricultural outputs quickly dropped by 40%. When he fled the country due to Aragalaya riots in July 2022, 7 out of 10 families had cut down on food, and 1.7 million Lankan children risked dying from malnutrition – 17% of them from deadly chronic wasting.

That farmers in the Mahaweli area (or anywhere else in the country) are dying of diseases caused by agrochemicals has been discussed and debunked many times in The Island newspaper, as well as in an excellent U-tube emission by the renowned naturalist Rohan Pethiyagoda. I invite Eng. MP to go through Rohan Pethiyagoda’s U-Tube at so that further misleading statements are not made.

However, if Eng. MP has field data or information that are not well known to substantiate that farmers are dying of diseases connected with agrochemicals, then he should publicise that information.

In fact, the rampant chronic kidney disease of unknown etiology (CKDu) that affect various settlements in the dry zone (e.g., in the Mahaweli C program) are a result of NOT providing clean drinking water to settlers. Those who settled in higher ground away from irrigation water sources dug their own household wells and consumed the well water without knowing that it was rich in fluoride and other electrolytes that cause kidney diseases (see ). So, the blame must transfer to the planners, engineers and politicians who settled farmers in these newly opened areas (in the 1970s) that had not been previously used, even in ancient times.

So, in using existing resources for agri-food sector in Mahaweli areas”, a priority concern should be to provide clean drinking water to the farmers, before trying to set up farm factories to get work from people facing CKDu epidemic.

 2.   Eng. MP says that in this approach, the main purpose of managing irrigation systems is to deliver water to the farm gate at the right time in the right quantity.

That can only be done if there is enough water for the needs of agriculture and power generation. That currently Sri Lanka is not producing enough electricity to even meet its daily needs cannot be a secret to anyone. So any such plan must be integrated with the total management of the hydro-power supply in the context of the CEB national energy plan. Saving enough water and optimising irrigation needs and power needs constitute a major hurdle that will become worse with global warming. One possible inexpensive scheme, which involves saving of water in reservoirs now wasted by evaporation was discussed by me in an article in The Island (12- August-2021 Until such schemes are set up to meet the demand, managers of the irrigation system will not be able to provide water at the right time in the right quantity.

3.   Eng. MP further clarifies that farmers should be treated as clients and not the servants at the mercy of receiving water, according to rigid schedules decided by irrigation management staff”.

Clients of a utility are people who PAY for the product or service supplied to them. Does Eng. MP propose that eventually the farmers should pay for their water? While this may make sense in a strict market economy, the Mahaweli project, or other infra-structure projects (e.g., roads are not toll roads) in Sri Lanka have NOT been planned that way. Tax payer’s money as well as foreign aid from Colonial Powers who perhaps recognised their role in impoverishing these lands financed the Mahaweli Project. Hence any attempt to charge money from farmers must be purely on a nominal basis, if at all. Farmers should NOT be treated as clients, but as partners in the management process.

4.  Eng. MP also mentions food production factories”, without explaining what they are. He says that there is a need to minimise the damages caused to the ecosystems where these food production factories are located. Therefore, he says that the management objectives should also be focused on producing multiple types of organically grown crops, profitably without polluting the soil and groundwater aquifers.

Many studies of the soil and water in the dry zone have shown that the levels of agrochemical residues are utterly negligible and far below the danger thresholds specified by the WHO.

Eng. MP supports organic farming”, without examining the damage to the ecosystem that is inherent in organic farming. Organic methods yield much lower harvests, and hence farmers open up more land to survive, encroaching on the ecosystem.  Control of weeds using water (as in traditional paddy farming) increases the demand for water while manual weeding and tilling (instead of modern no-till farming), all lead to greater erosion.  Furthermore, factory processed organic foods is unsupported by organic markets.

Organic farmers resort to composting which produces large amounts of green house gases. Composting work inefficiently because every compost pit has significant anaerobic regions that produce unacceptable GHGs. As a typical example, research on pig-manure/straw composting shows that methane emissions can be as large as 64%. The obvious solution of ventilating the composter cools the compost bed, reducing the amount of good thermophile bacteria, while enhancing pathogens. More importantly, improving ventilation increases the output of nitrous oxide which is 300 times worse than CO2.

Prevention of formation of such parasite GHGs in composting is difficult even for experienced microbiologists because of variations in the composition of input organic waste, humidity and other factors. Hence more organic farming (now producing less than two % of the world’s food needs), more composting etc., have the potential to catastrophically increase GHG emissions.

5.   The food factories” that Eng. MP envisages will surely need electricity for their operation as well as for refrigeration, etc. How much power is envisaged? Given the current economic crisis, many people who propose blue prints for progress talk of rapid industrialisation”, introducing value-added transformations to Lanka’s agricultural and mineral exports and so forth.

 But these are all pipe dreams, as such schemes have two pre-requisites that many planners forget (i) industries need power, (ii) industries need trained technical people, managers, as well as efficient means of disposing their waste products and garbage. All three are currently absent in Sri Lanka, and no effective plans for correcting these short comings are discussed in these blue prints.

In the 1970s, during my time as President of the Vidyodaya University and Professor of Chemistry, I was part of the team that initiated food science, polymer science, and environmental science course units and diplomas. But most of our food science graduates have left the country and work in the USA, Europe, and Australia.  The present day universities, underfunded and firmly in the grip of the JVP and other political parties, are no longer the leaders of scientific education.

So, while there is much to ponder in Eng. MP’s write up, his misleading statements in regard to organic farming, or the etiology of diseases in the dry zone, as well as his neglect of Sri Lanka’s short fall in power production that cripples any development plans, are serious lacunae that he needs to address.

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