Sri Lankan success

Large agro-wells have made a significant contribution to rural poverty reduction in the dry areas of Matale district in central Sri Lanka by enabling farmers to produce crops throughout the year. Contractual arrangements with commercial businesses and seed companies have helped raise incomes above the poverty line. In a country generally known for political strife, remarkable progress was achieved.

[ By Sana Foday Kebba Jatta and Guy Manners ]

Water availability is a major constraint to farming in Matale district, especially in areas with relatively little rainfall. Using traditional methods, a successful harvest can be guaranteed from many crops only during the maha (north-east monsoon) season, as rainfall during the yala (south-west monsoon) season is unpredictable. This makes rain-fed farming, especially for high-value crops, a risky business.

Agro-wells are large: typically 4.5 metres in diameter and seven to ten metres deep. If carefully built from cement blocks and concrete, they are durable without requiring much maintenance. This type of well was integral to the Agricultural Development Authority’s strategy for dry zones in the 1980s and became very popular among farmers.
Consequently, the Matale Regional Economic Advancement Project (MREAP) promoted the construction and use of 817 agro-wells in the dry areas of Matale district between 2001 and 2007. MREAP’s total budget was $ 14.5 million, primarily made up of a loan of $ 11.7 million from the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) to the government of Sri Lanka.

Farmers submitted their requests for agro-well construction (or rehabilitation) to MREAP. Recipient-beneficiary farmers were selected on the basis of their socio-economic situation, under the condition that they bore 60 % of the capital costs, and that they accepted other aspects of the project’s rules. Many farmers also received aid for the installation of micro-irrigation, either drip or sprinkler systems, to help maximise the benefits of the newly available water.

Progress made

Access to an agro-well proved a significant step in rural development by enabling farmers to grow a second reliable crop each year. Some farmers with access to wells are even able to grow crops under irrigation in the dry season. Of 123 agro-well owners sampled for an impact assessment in 2006, over 85 % had expanded their cultivated area. According to IFAD data, farmers typically increased the cropping intensity of their land by 140 %.

Because the area that can be irrigated from an agro-well is limited, many farmers opted for intensive cultivation. On the basis of the commercial contracts facilitated by MREAP, farmers were able to adopt high-value cash crops in the yala season such as beetroot, big onion, chilli (capsicum), eggplant, long bean, mung bean, pulses, pumpkin and sweet potato to maximise their income. Yields of these crops benefited from advice extended by MREAP and the Sri Lankan Ministry of Agriculture.

Despite the significant capital outlay (roughly equivalent to $ 550 to $ 1450 per farmer), agro-wells were considered worthwhile investments. At the time of the impact assessment (2006), the proportion of farm families in the lowest income bracket (equivalent to $ 9 to $ 45 per month) had dropped from 45 % prior to agro-wells to
15 % with agro-wells. Meanwhile, the proportion of farmers in the highest income bracket (above $ 136 per month) rose from seven per cent to 22 %. Farmers appreciate the livelihood and income stability afforded by two or three reliable harvests per year.

Agro-well farmers are able to better clothe and educate their children, to maintain consistent food supplies, and to improve their houses. They also retain authority over farming decisions and can afford to invest in farm improvements without leasing land or property. Full-time employment and year-round income reduce the need to engage in off-season casual labour or accrue debt.
Water drawn from agro-wells is also used for domestic water needs (such as cooking, bathing, laundry and sanitation), as drinking water, and in non-crop income generation (like brick-making or dairy farming). With water available on the farm, half of the women interviewed in 2006 saved at least two hours a day that would otherwise have been spent fetching water from distant sources. Participation in farming activity by women and youths increased with access to an agro-well, with over 50 % of the women affected now occupied in home garden production. The number of women members of farmers’ organisations has also increased.

Overcoming obstacles

Several major obstacles were encountered in the implementation of the agro-wells programme. First of all, most of the rural poor do not have access to arable land. Some land-owners could make plots available for development and sharecropping, but most of them did not qualify as poor farmers. Therefore, there was a risk of elite capture of IFAD resources meant for alleviating rural poverty. Moreover, negotiations concerning production sharing and the use of infrastructures proved difficult. When these problems emerged during the start-up of the scheme, IFAD ensured close supervision and vigilance of the selection of the beneficiaries. MREAP had to report regularly to ensure that only those who qualified benefited. These reports were reviewed and approved by supervision missions that visited the project every six months. Correct targeting also helped avoid the thorny issue of problematic sharecropping arrangements.

Second, where farmers do have access to sufficient arable land, they may not have suitable groundwater resources to exploit. The identification of appropriate sites for agro-wells required close cooperation with the local government authorities, the Water Development Board and others. Furthermore, the location and spacing of agro-wells had to be calibrated to ensure that their impact on groundwater resources will not be detrimental to the environment.

Third, it was difficult for poor farmers to bear 60 % of the capital costs in compliance with programme conditions. To mitigate costs, MREAP tried to simplify construction and maintenance processes, relying on the farmer-beneficiaries themselves to do as much as possible on their own and to share knowledge with their neighbours. To increase chances of success, the project aimed to reduce risks and generate economies of scale by linking producers with private companies through contract farming arrangements, thus securing markets with remunerative prices for the crops produced. Without these arrangements it is not certain that the programme would have been sustainable.

From the outset, the Project imposed a minimum distance of 200 metres between agro-wells to prevent overexploiting the water table. In reality, however, most agro-wells supported by the Project are more than 500 meters from each other. In 2004, the Sri Lankan Department of Agriculture carried out groundwater quality testing of agro-wells with associated drip-irrigation infrastructure. Five of the 90 agro-wells tested showed signs of increased alkalinity, but the alkalinity remained far below levels that would cause concern for vegetable or fruit growing.

Fourth, like every other IFAD operation in Sri Lanka, the MREAP’s implementation progress was indirectly impacted by the political strife between the LTTE and the Government in the north and the east of the country. Even though Matale is relatively far from the epicentre of the conflict, the project was affected by the general insecurity in the country that negatively impacts economic activity and the movement of goods and commodities. Moreover, internally displaced people put additional pressure on local resources.

The end of MREAP in December 2007 did not signal the end of the demand for new agro-wells in the Matale district. With almost 9,000 poor farmers in the district and only 817 agro-wells installed by MREAP, there is plenty of demand for continued support. A 2007 impact assessment report proposed a number of options to enable the local authorities to realise their stated goal of continuing to help farmers establish agro-wells.

Policy lessons

A number of lessons have been learnt from MREAP’s work on agro-wells. In particular, any future intervention of this kind needs to have a mechanism for targeting the poorest rural farmers.

There are ongoing risks of depletion of the water table and of deterioration of the quality of groundwater supplies. Groundwater monitoring and strict enforcement of minimum distance requirements should address these issues.

The impact of the programme was greatly enhanced through successfully connecting farmers with private-sector marketers. Farmers were able to target their choice of crops to niche markets and the needs of private enterprise, while maximising their incomes by concentrating on high-yield, high-value crops. Those employed as seed outgrowers for agri-business firms have been particularly successful.

Finally, agricultural support services are needed to ensure that farmers benefit optimally from possession of an agro-well.

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