Monday, September 28, 2015

Deeper than I ever expected

Janet and I have been greeted by Sri Lankan colleagues and students with a kind of generous trust and welcoming openness that goes further than I had ever hoped for. Concomitantly we have gotten more deeply involved in the work of international cultural exchange than I ever expected. 

This morning we took a second foray into the field. Up here in the Dry Zone near Anuradhapura the wet season has begun, with rain aplenty every afternoon. Mornings are generally clear and hot and after a little back and forth my colleague, Dr. Nimal Abeysingha and I decided to take the risk. Thanks to his super organized hard work on the backside of a four-day weekend, Dr. Abeysingha arranged a van, five undergraduates , and a lecturer in soil science to join us. 

Janet led three of the students, from the social sciences faculty at the main campus in Mihintale, in interviewing local villagers on their use of the tank, their concerns, and their outlook for the future. I tagged along with Nimal, two students, and the lecturer traversing the tank, where we took over 50 soil samples for analysis. 

Our goal was to map the water retention ability of soils throughout the tank, as well as to measure their nitrogen and phosphorus content. Ultimately the question is whether the degraded perahana at Ulankulam is protecting the tank below it from eutrophication. 

Eutrophication would seem to be only one part of the problem in this beautiful but severely degraded tank environment. Villagers told Janet and her crew that silting is a major problem, reducing the water-holding capacity of the tank and directly affecting the amount of rice that can be grown. 

The villagers reported that many fewer acres are being cultivated by ever fewer people. It would appear to be dire straits but another look suggests "it ain't over til it's over." For example in the severely degraded kattakaduwa (the traditionally moist, wild region just outside the tank below the bund) the villagers are growing pet fish for international export. The kattakaduwa may be degraded, the tank may have low holding capacity, fewer people may be engaged in rice cultivation   yet life goes on and life is good.

My work for this Fulbright is a study of Sri Lankan landscapes in transition. Nothing says transition more than the tank-based villages around Ulankulama. The tank itself is shallow, only about nine feet deep during the wet season, but for a deep and deepening experience in international cultural exchange this Fulbright is turning out to be much more than I expected. 

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