By Ranil Senanayake –
Preparing for the future by looking back.
Understanding the issues and options before us.
In the Climate Change conference in Paris in 2015, the Sri Lankan Presidential Delegation issued a position paper. It stated:
“We are aware that the critical Ecosystem services such as; production of Oxygen, sequestering of Carbon, water cycling and ambient cooling is carried out by the photosynthetic component of biomass. This is being lost at an exponential rate, due to the fact that these Ecosystem Services have not been valued, nor economically recognized.”
The real need of restoring and maintaining forests in sensitive parts of our mountains as an adaptation strategy is clear. There are disturbing trends in terms of water availability, temperature stress and violent episodic climate events. Today we are becoming painfully aware of such stresses as we face crop losses through drought. This country was once poised ideally to face such changes, the safety net against drought years was the rain producing forested mountains with a ring of 30,000 reservoirs around it. That insurance changed radically with the advent of colonialism and the stumbling ‘consumerist led development’ that was its natural child, which followed. Today, caught in the full force of ‘economic development’ it is a race to the bottom, where the very last of our land, stripped of forests and topsoil, will be offered to ‘industrialists’ and ‘investors’ looking for places where environmental safeguards are disregarded. They will be looking to ‘invest’ in countries where the spewing of toxins and poisons as a result of their activities, are not matters of concern. Is this the level of concern that the politicians have for their children?
To escape from this downwards spiral, Ii has now become obvious that there is a need to change the way we treat our land. An example is the mountain landscapes planted with tea on worn out soils, requiring loads of chemical inputs to keep it productive. This should give way for a more meaningful type of land use. In fact the current statistics of tea production seem to indicate the liability of maintaining these areas with high external inputs. Applying chemicals that are known to be toxic to soil microorganisms, is a sure way to keep us trapped in fertilizer dependency, Building back the forested mountains and living soils, is a pre requisite to restoring the water functions of the mountains. The water his collected, flows into the reservoir system to become the filtered and stored within the watershed. However, the current activity of planting timber monocultures as the ‘replacement’ for our lost forests, will never contribute to maintaining the water cycle the way that our mountain forests used to.
The need to ensure a clean aquifer can be addressed if this massive reservoir system is revamped to provide storage and water filtration functions. The current practice of dumping wastewater and garbage into the water bodies needs urgent address if the maintenance of water quality is to become a national goal. Deep well groundwater extraction is a non-sustainable. Deep water aquifers are often fossil or are only very slowly charged with deep infiltration of rainwater, which can never be replaced at the rates that deep well extraction demands. This has led to land collapse over certain wells and intrusion of salt into others. Thus the focus of public water access into the future, must be on the surface waters and shallow aquifers. The handing out of ‘water licenses’ needs strong safeguards and public scrutiny.
But to accomplish these tasks, it requires political will, but above all it requires capital for implementation.
The economic potential to accomplish these tasks can be gained if we recognize the value of the water storage and filtration system. By retrofitting our landscapes to adapt to the coming climate changes, we will be ‘adapting’ to the coming changes, a stressed aim of the Climate Change Convention. This will render finances for projects to ‘store’ and ‘filter’ water by restoring the traditional reservoir system. The restoration of the mountain forests will be easy if we capitalize Ecosystem Services. One easy way will be to look at the existing, capitalized Global Carbon Programs, such as REDD etc. etc. and to recognize the additional value in ecosystem services through the same investment that they are putting into Carbon.
Another will be to move from tree planting to tree maintenance, where one pays not for getting a tree planted, but for maintaining the living leaves on that tree. Such a move will ensure that the planter cares for the tree, as he or she will receive a financial benefit at the end of every year depending on how healthy the tree is. It will change the current statistic of 60%-80% losses in the first three years for current public tree planting programs.
If the current carbon market is considered and value added for the maintenance of Ecosystem Services, reforesting our mountains will become easy. Restoring areas with a high biomass to high biodiversity (B: B) model such as Analog Forestry (www.analogforestry.org), will provide optimal value. Using this model, there is a potential of about 4-5 tons of active leaf-mass per acre to be gained, representing a value of about $2000 in ecosystem services.
As we have seen all this is commonsense, but achieving the required national goals depends on the skill and capacity of the negotiators whom we send to the international convention system. Fielding bureaucrats without the capacity to further national interests must be questioned. Having politicians without the capacity to understand what we know as commonsense must be questioned. We are moving into a time of weather uncertainty with climate change, our ancestors have bestowed us with an infrastructure that can help mitigate the severe stresses predicted with climate change; do we have the will to move this model as the future priority of development?
Sri Lanka has made the statement : “We are aware that the critical Ecosystem Services such as; production of Oxygen, sequestering of Carbon, water cycling and ambient cooling is carried out by the photosynthetic component of biomass” and that, “these Ecosystem Services have not been valued, nor economically recognized.”
Now is the opportunity, with the Green Climate Fund (GCF), Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Reduced Emissions through Deforestation (REDD), Global Environmental Facility (GEF) etc. Huge resources are available to develop an effective increase of Ecosystem Services (ES). A sensitive and intelligent bureaucracy can position our needs well on the global agenda ask for value in producing Ecosystem Services (ES) and obtain the resources to future-proof this nation. They accepted the responsibility to negotiate for our benefit, now, can they please step up and take us ‘back to the future’ ?