Colombo Telegraph

Adaptation – Part I

By Ranil Senanayake

Dr Ranil Senanayake

Preparing for the future by looking back. Understanding the issues and options before us.

Sri Lanka like all other nations, is faced with a difficult future in terms of climate change, we need to understand the oncoming changes very clearly so that the right options can be implemented. The myth of growth by consumption has exposed us all to a dangerously changing climate. But Sri Lanka is unique in being the only nation whose ancestors had future-proofed our present. If we understand the potential that we have, we can make the future less impactful for our children

In the article ‘Playing with the Future’ (Colombo Telegraph November 8, 2016), some threats we will have to face as a consequence of climate change was discussed. The destructive fires that plagued the mountains during the unusually hot and dry months of September-October were indicative of future changes.

Now that the rains have come, I watch the structure less soil, desiccated by periodic fires, pour down the mountainsides on its way to fill up the small reservoirs and tanks below. A result of poor planning, that saw the mountain forests disappear to be replaced with fire prone and desiccating Pinus and Eucalyptus plantations or the Tea monocultures.

Sri Lankans have lamented on the ignorance of these developers for a long time.

The founding father of this nation the Rt. Hon. D.S. Senanayake wrote the following words in his book Agriculture and Patriotism.

“It is of importance to remember the part played in the conservation of water by the forests of the country. With the evidence daily accumulating of the wisdom of our forefathers, we need scarcely doubt that it was not merely the idea of making the mountain country difficult of approach by the foreign invader that caused them to preserve unfilled and uncleared the dense vegetation of their mountain slopes. We may readily believe that they deliberately left these untouched in order to provide that abundant supply of water on which they might draw for the benefit of man.”

His statement reflects the words of the great king Parakramabahu I who stated “not even a little water that comes from the rain must flow into the ocean without being made useful to man”. He reflected a philosophy popular from the 3rd century BC to 12th century, which saw the construction of about 30,000 reservoirs in lowland Sri Lanka. This amazing engineering effort created sophisticated ‘cascades’ of reservoirs not seen anywhere else in the world. As observed by Parker in his book ‘Ancient Ceylon’: “ but as a matter of fact the notion of reservoir-making appears to have been originated in only one country, and never to have been invented independently elsewhere, at any rate in the Old World”. When compared to the lowland dry zone land area of about 40,000 sq. kilometers, it is almost equivalent to one reservoir for each sq. kilometer. But tragically rather than being managed and conserved many of these tanks are ignored, filled up or constructed over in many watersheds.

It has been calculated that a one-degree increase would eliminate fresh water from a third of the world’s land surface by 2100. This is merely through evaporation. Most countries in the world are not so lucky to have a radial drainage system of rivers from the mountain rainwater catchments that have a massive water retention system represented by the reservoirs built by our ancestors.

Today we destroy this amazing possibility, to restore and utilize this gift of ‘future-proofing’ endowed on us by our ancestors, by mindless ‘development’ projects that cut across watersheds and spew pollutants into our waterways.

Concern for the future should be a fundamental plank of development. Indeed it has produced a tension between words stated at international fora and the national policy process. The statement on biodiversity and the statement on Climate Change provide examples.

In the Sri Lankan Country Statement it was pointed out that: “We are aware that the optimum operating temperature of chlorophyll is at 37 deg C. In a warming world where temperatures will soar well above that, food production will be severely impacted. We would request the IPCC to address responses to this phenomenon.

The danger to agricultural production is further exasperated by the reliance on chemical farming with so-called ‘high yield ‘ crops. Reducing photosynthetic biomass for crop biomass has bred these crops. This reduction being made possible by the use of chemical fertilizers. But in a high temperature situation when chlorophyll is functioning sub-optimally such reductions may bring serious crop losses.”

This statement was labeled as ‘alarmist’ by the bureaucratic establishment claiming authority on the subject of climate change, because the normal temperatures are in the lower thirties and a one-degree rise would not be a problem. It considered as an unimportant subject and no discourse was held.

There are two fundamental reasons why a one-degree rise should be a matter of concern. One is that the global rise of one degree pushes up the summer temperatures of many nations above 40 deg C the second is that whatever the national temperature mean is, any shift of the mean, will provoke increased numbers of ‘record’ days of higher temperature (fig.1)

Recent research has demonstrated a correlation between Dengue transmission and temperature in Sri Lanka.

Increasing temperatures will bring an increased incidence of such problems, why are there no maps of high risk areas in Sri Lanka for episodic rises in temperature? Would not such information help the public in planning and adapting to the oncoming changes

Given the urgent need to understand the changes before us and given the apathy of those who should be responsible in informing us, a public discourse should begin. A discourse which will result in stopping the soil that is being washed out today, to be retained by the forests we create on our mountains. A discourse that will help develop an appreciation for the amazing system of water retention gifted by our ancestors which could be developed as an adaptation response to both climate change and biodiversity loss.

The information that will be presented in this series will hopefully provide an understanding of the unique country we live in, but also how fragile is nature on the land that sustains us.

Today, nature is seen as a group of simple variables – rain, wind, temperature etc. that can be modified, changed or developed through the agency of technology. The managers who make the decisions spend less and less time in natural areas, as their environment becomes more and more ‘controlled’ or urbanized. These people or the societies they try to create become unable to live in or cope with natural surroundings or processes, and have to spend vast amounts of energy and resources to maintain their artificial environments in mega cities.

This series will explore these ideas and raise questions that can clarify the future we can expect, as well as suggestions on how we might adapt to it.

To be continued…

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