Rescaling drought mitigation in rural Sri Lanka


Smallholder farmers with limited governmental and institutional support often devise innovative strategies to mitigate the impacts of water stress on agricultural production. These drought mitigation strategies can be more culturally and ecologically suitable than top-down, “technocratic,” strategies. Top-down drought mitigation approaches, however, often link farmers with significant infrastructures, financial resources, and specialized knowledge. Successful rescaling of localized mitigation practices can integrate the benefits of localized mitigation with resources available at larger scales. This paper describes the rescaling of a Sri Lankan drought mitigation practice known as bethma. We focus on the process of rescaling, specifically what is lost and gained when this local practice is implemented at a much larger scale. We identify factors driving participation in bethma and the impacts of this participation on farmer livelihoods. Results suggest that participation in bethma during water-scarce seasons has significant positive impacts on agricultural yields, but that this participation is strongly influenced by the nature of a farmer’s land ownership. Much of the success of bethmas implementation is due to the decentralized, flexible implementation at a regional scale. The loss of localized information, however, influences farmer participation in the practices and the distribution of the benefits associated with bethma.

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Fig. 1
Fig. 2


  1. 1.

    The Sri Lankan government lists over 11,250 locally managed systems (Imbulana, Wijesekera, and Neupane 2006).

  2. 2.

    Large-scale irrigation systems with command areas greater than 400 ha.

  3. 3.

    Bethma often takes place across multiple communities that are home to diverse ethnic groups. Our survey data only captures intra-community dynamics.

  4. 4.

    It should be noted that many agrowells are recharged by seasonal surface water flows, so in extremely water scarce seasons, many of these wells go dry (Kikuchi, Barker, Weligamage, and Samad 2002; Villholth and Rajasooriyar 2009).

  5. 5.

    We report beta coefficients divided by four to make results more easily interpretable. This new value is indicative of the difference in probability of participation in bethma associated with a one unit change of the corresponding covariate (Gelman and Hill 2007).


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We thank the anonymous reviewers for helpful suggestions that improved the paper. We would also like to thank our research assistants, Dilini Abeysekara, Ramesh Ranaweera, and Brindharshini Thiyagaraja, as well as Malaka Dhamruwan for his help in coordinating the research. Thank you to Josh Bazuin for constructive feedback.


The US National Science Foundation Water, Sustainability, and Climate grant EAR-1204685 funded this research. Dr. Burchfield thanks the American Institute for Sri Lankan studies for a Dissertation Travel Grant which funded travel to collect qualitative data.

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Correspondence to Emily Burchfield.

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Editor:Erica Smithwick.

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Burchfield, E., Williams, N.E. & Carrico, A.R. Rescaling drought mitigation in rural Sri Lanka. Reg Environ Change 18, 2495–2503 (2018).

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  • Drought
  • Mitigation
  • Scale
  • Agriculture
  • Bethma
  • Sri Lanka