By Rajan Philips –
No one expected a misfiring start for a supposedly no-nonsense government that was expected to hit the road firing on all cylinders after the parliamentary election. There is a difference between majority in parliament and competence in government. Two-thirds majority does not make whole of one-third competence. The 20th Amendment fiasco illustrates well the gap between power and competence. No one knows who drafted the now ‘paused’, not ‘withdrawn’, 20A draft bill. No one will admit to drafting it, nor can anyone else find out. That should not be surprising given the now established law and order culture in the country that permits those who commit crimes to safely remain at large and unexposed, without fear of arrest and arraignment. On the other hand, if you commit a crime and if you are convicted, you can get away with it so long as you have the right political connections to get on the nomination list of the governing political party, win the election with full government backing, and enter parliament as a matter of privilege over criminal conviction.
The parliamentary welcome extended by the government with appellate blessings to Premalal Jayasekara from the Rathnapura District, who is convicted of murder, and S. Chandrakanthan from the Batticaloa District, who is in remand custody for murder, sets the most edifying backdrop and ennobling tone for the impending new constitution. The government could even present this as a rare instance of national parity insofar as a Sinhalese and a Tamil are equally receiving privileged rewards for their political crimes. And take the business of reconciliation to an altogether different level. Especially with CV Wigneswaran dropping obiters in parliament about the old age of the Tamil language. From misfiring starts let us turn to misplaced priorities.
Sri Lanka is easily the only country in the world today where the government is pre-occupying itself with making a new constitution. The pre-occupations everywhere else are about containing Covid-19, refiring the economy, and coping with extreme vagaries of weather. India is all but set to take the lead in the global Covid-19 cases in a matter of weeks. The recovery rates are good and death rates are low, but there is nothing to be complacent about because the worst is yet to come in India. The US is still the global Covid-19 leader, a strange status for a sole superpower. It is also getting inundated with stormwater in the southeast, being set on forest fire along the west coast, and is stuck in the middle with a President who malaprops “herd mentality” (for herd immunity) as his national health plan for Covid19, and ignorantly opines, “I don’t think science knows, actually” about climate change and the burst of forest fires.
UN Report on Biodiversity
Next to climate change, the fear of biodiversity collapse is the second major global environmental concern. On Tuesday last, the UN issued its ten-year Global Biodiversity Outlook report with a sweeping warning that the continuing local and global threats to the planet’s biodiversity will not only wipe out species and ecosystems, but also endanger the food supply, health and security of the world’s nations and peoples. The new report is a sequel to the 2010 gathering of leaders of 196 countries in Aichi, Japan, under the auspices of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, that set out a 10-year plan centered on 20 goals, known as the Aichi Biodiversity targets. The 10-year report card is not at all encouraging. Of the 20 goals, only six have been “partially achieved,” and reporting countries have generally indicated that they can meet one third of their national targets. According to the UN press release, “the rate of biodiversity loss is unprecedented in human history.”
Sri Lanka is one of the participating countries in the UN Biodiversity Convention and operates through the Biodiversity Secretariat that is set up in the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment. The Secretariat submitted its (sixth) National Report to the UN Convention in 2019 as one of the reporting country contributions that fed into the main UN report. The Sri Lankan report, viewed online, is impressive both for its content and its ecological and scientific contributors. That has never been a problem for Sri Lanka. The problem is in delivering the ecological knowledge and advice to political decision chambers internally, where there is no intelligible interest in understanding the environment, let alone protecting it.
The Sri Lankan report identifies six main threats to preserving the island’s biodiversity: River Diversion; Habitat Fragmentation and Ecosystem Losses; Pollution from both Organic and Inorganic Wastes; Over Exploitation; Spread of Invasive Species; and Climate Change. River diversion tops the threat list, and, hopefully, the report authors did not miss the irony of writing from within a Ministry that is all about river diversion. My criticism is not about the authors, but about the Cabinet makers for housing in the same Ministry the regulatory responsibility for protecting the environment (that includes rivers) and the engineering function of ‘harnessing’ rivers for human purposes.
If I am not mistaken, Mahaweli and the Environment were grouped in one Ministry for the executive convenience of Maithripala Sirisena. The same portfolio continues today along with a handful of other Ministries and State Ministries divvying up the environment between them. The fragmentation of responsibilities is identified in the Sri Lankan Biodiversity report, along with the widened gap between committed and informed environmental activists and government policy making.
Biodiversity is the variety of life on Earth – in all its vastly different ecosystems. Sri Lanka, small as islands go, is quite rich in biodiversity. Protecting biodiversity is important for protecting freshwater resources and soils formation, nutrient storage and recycling, for medicinal resources, sustaining the varieties of food crops and enhancing food resources, breaking down pollutants, contributing to climate stability, and for facilitating speedy recovery from natural disasters. It is for these reasons that the UN report is warning that breakdowns in biodiversity will have adverse consequences for human food, health, and security everywhere.
Victoria Dam warning
Three of the six threats to local biodiversity identified in the Sri Lankan national report, fall under government development and infrastructure projects. They are river diversion, habitat fragmentation and ecosystem losses, and over exploitation. Dealing with a fourth one is direct government responsibility, namely, managing organic and inorganic wastes. In less than a month, the current government has had three encounters with the environment – in the Sinharaja reserve, the Anawilundawa wetlands, and most recently in Kuratiyamohotta, Aruwakkalu where more than 200 acres of residual forest are reported to have been destroyed.
The government should consider these encounters as useful lessons for finding new directions for environmentally sustainable economic development. The government should realize that environmentalists are not lying when they say that only 3% of the island’s total land area is covered with rainforests, and only 65% of it has been designated as protected areas. Why cannot the government bring the remaining 35% that is currently under the Land Reform Commission, within the protected areas? Maintaining and extending the forest cover is crucial for consistent rainfalls, water replenishment, and the protection of the island’s precious wet zone.
Sri Lanka’s immediate concerns should be about natural disasters that are becoming more frequent in every country with the onset of global warming. The 2004 tsunami was an epochal event and perhaps the country’s worst disaster ever. Alternating droughts and floods are now almost a fact of life. Landslides are a constant threat during major rainy seasons. But recent reports of earth tremors in areas around the Victoria Dam create a new concern.
According to the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau (GSMB) Preliminary Report, there were two events within the last four weeks. The first tremor was on August 29 (8:00 PM) and was “felt by people living in Haragama, Milapitiya, Anuragama and Kiual-Linda areas of the right bank of the Mahaweli River, as well as by dwellers at Ambakote, Aluthwatte and Kengalla areas of the left bank of the river.” The second tremor was on September 2 (7:00 AM) and was “felt by few people mainly in the left bank of the river, Ambakotte and Aluthwatte villages.” The two events took place between four and five kilometres from the Pallekele seismic station, and the first main event registered 2.0 units in the Richter scale, which is considered a small earthquake.
Victoria Dam, a concrete arch dam, is Sri Lanka’s largest dam – 122 metres (400 feet) high and 520 metres (1700 feet) long, and is the subject of a recent academic case study under “possible earthquake loading” conditions. Dulip Jayawardena, a former Director of Geological Survey, wrote a comprehensive article in The Island (September 7) providing a scientific explanation of the observed earth tremors and their implications, and urging “the government to appoint a multidisciplinary team of experts comprising of geologists , geophysicists, hydrologists, civil engineers and those from the NBRO as well as the universities to study the state of the Victoria dam as well as other gravity dams and recommend an effective method of monitoring such tremors.”
There have not been any follow up reports after Mr. Jayawardena’s article, to indicate that the government is seriously looking into this. Victoria Dam and reservoir should come under the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment. I have not seen any statement in parliament by the subject Minister (Mahinda Amaraweera), or any question put to him by anyone from the opposition. But there is plenty written on the 20th Amendment and plenty more has been written about the attention given by the government to Archaeological investigation in the Eastern Province. Perhaps it is the geology of the area around Victoria Dam that deserves greater government attention than archaeological digs in the Eastern Province. Any problem at the Victoria Dam can create downstream flooding endangering lives and properties, all the way to Trincomalee.