Today, even if you wish to dig a canal to provide water to rural people who are suffering from kidney disease owing to having consumed brackish well water contaminated with fluoride, an environmental impact statement is needed. Any major undertaking needs an environmental impact statements. One of the reasons given for the cancellation of the port-city project by the Ranil-Maithree-Sampanthan Yahapalanaya government was that the construction of the port will destroy the marine ecosystem of the Western coast of Sri Lanka. Coal power plants approved by a previous regime were canceled and new LNG projects were commissioned, ostensibly for environmental reasons, but a dark under belly of commissions and kick backs was to be revealed later.
The essential Yahapalanite environmental policy turned out to be nothing but shaming and gutting anything done by the previous administration, be they good or bad, and restarting the same, or even more grandiose projects that were more likely to provide the new rulers and their henchmen with new commercial opportunities and short-term financial kickbacks enjoyed by the mercenary agents of the previous regime.
The economic impact and the long-term political implications of such decisions are enormous, and hence it is imperative that each presidential candidate spells out his/her environmental policies. What are the major environmental issues faced by the country?
The major environmental issues faced by the country
These environmental “issues” are in fact dire threats that can extinguish millions of people within a few decades. Irrespective of weather a President under the 19th amendment has the same powers as before, he/she is the flag bearer of the administration, and he needs to state his environmental policies. Let us review the main environmental issues.
(I) Climate change due to global warming.
This is caused by the activities of large population in the developing countries, as well as high consumerism of the developed world even with a lower population. A single urban American or Londoner has a pollution footprint which is ten times that of a dry zone farmer.
Such environmental concerns need the over-arching reach of central governments, and indeed concerted action at a global level. The Paris accord and such accords must be a cornerstone of the policies of Presidential candidates. An authority over-arching any provincial power devolution must exist to deal with environmental problems, as detailed in my article entitled “A Tenth province or Coastal authority to deal with climate change – A must for a 21 st century constitution of Sri Lanka” (available at Researchgate: DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.27092.30085).
The 13th amendment can become 13A, where the “A” authorizes the central government to intervene on environmental and other concerns at a national level. Unfortunately, the TNA who should be most concerned about the North and the East fails to comprehend that “Eelam” will soon be below sea level.
While we must give credit to Mr. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa for mentioning the environment in his candidature address, he had not elaborated on a concrete climate policy or how he plans to deal with the rise in sea level, a reality that you can see in the meting polar caps or sinking islands in maldives or Fiji.
(II) Loss of habitat for flora and fauna
Human encroachment into every nook and corner is causing a catastrophic loss of biodiversity. Thus, while honey bee populations are soaring, wild bee populations are dropping fast. These facts shows the main cause of the loss of bee and other populations is not agrochemicals, because excessive use of agrochemicals should harm honey bees as well, while their populations have actually increased even in areas where agrochemicals are extensively used (see review by Goulson et al in Science 2015, and my article in the Island 31st July 2018).
Mr. Sajith Premadasa, a potential presidential candidate of the UNP, is well known to favor the environmentally catastrophic housing polices of his father. The old concept of “Gama, Weva, and Temple” (village, tank and temple), with a small house for everyone is a favored paradigm of a certain sector of the leisured upper classes of Sri Lanka who want to “go back” to the rural society depicted by, say, Robert Knox. However, you cannot put Humpty Dumpty back on the wall. Such a model, inherent in the “Gam Udawa” concept of Premadasa Sr. is possible even today ONLY IF Sri Lanka’s population were still the same as in the early 19th century. Even then such models usually degenerate to the reality of Baddegama – Village in the Jungle- depicted by Leonard Wolfe.
In today’s context, simple mathematical modeling shows that creating the needed number of villages, tanks, houses etc., for 22 million would require the harnessing of every bit of arable land, converting the country into a veritable maze of concrete, asphalt, clusters of matchbox houses, and intensely eroded little bits of farmland covered by garbage mounds, short of water and power.
The only viable alternative is HIGH-DENSITY HOUSING (high-rise apartments) with as much land returned to nature as possible. Such land, returned to nature must be linked by green corridors that connect with each other and allow wild life to migrate freely from one nature area to another. Animal underpasses to cross highways must be built, as already the practice in many Canadian Highways going through forest reserves. Highway expansion should be stopped and only public transport by electric trains should be encouraged.
Feeding the people has to also conserve habitat as much as possible. This means we maximize harvests out of a minimum of land. We go WELL BEYOND what was possible with the “green revolution”, and embrace the most modern farming approaches where fertilizers, pesticides and water and not released to the environment, but re-used in grow-towers which are essentially factory farms sealed from the environment. I have described these in my article entitled “ How a menaced humanity facing a threatened environment turns to ludicrous remedies -I ”and its follow-up articles, e.g., in the Colombo Telegraph, 26th February).
The late President Premadasa, and those of earlier generations treated the environment as an infinite resource that we need not worry about. Indeed, the Bible says that God created nature for man to exploit! But how should one exploit nature?
The environmental destruction caused by the Gal Oya and Mahaweli programs were hundreds of times bigger than what the British did to the hill country forests in planting coffee and Tea. But Gal Oya and Mahaweli reflected the best engineering thinking of the time, which was already decades behind the best scientific thinking. Although the Club of Rome had brought out its warnings in the 1970s, they were only a worry for the future, taken seriously mostly by academics. Furthermore, the dire warnings of the Club of Rome regarding our capacity to feed the world were resolved for those decades by ushering in the “green revolution”, and thus saving millions of lives.
Today, we need technologies going well beyond the green revolution. Instead, the Yahapalanaites deployed a Buddhist monk and his hangers-on to launch a program proposing to get Humpty Dumpty back on the job using ancient seeds, home-made compost and pesticides like Neem (kohomba). Little did they know that plants bio-accumulate even low levels of toxins occuring naturally in the soil and return them to the compost at a higher toxin level . When the “army caterpillar” attacked crops in a recent pestilence, it was reported that the monk, forgetting even the 1st precept claimed that he can destroy thousands of caterpillar and demonstrate the efficacy of old fashioned “bio-pesticides”! Fortunately, the offer was rejected and modern technologies were used. Most weeds and insects have developed resistance to such bio-pesticdes that were used by our ancestors. Even modern pesticides need continual reformulation as the buildup of resistance is an inevitable evolutionary process.
(III) Imminent threat to the food supply.
Loss of biodiversity causes an imminent threat to the food supply of the planet due to the rapid decline of wild bees, wasps and other pollinating insects who find less and less habitat available to them. The situation is already so critical in the UK that wild bees and other pollinating insects are imported from eastern Europe annually to provide pollinators for British agriculture!
In Sri Lanka, every time a farmland becomes “unproductive”, the push to convert to housing or tourist resorts is great. The unproductive outcome is a result of outdated agricultural policies and the lack of a marketing system for the produce. Unfrotunatel, once land is directed to housing or tourism, road infrastructure with its diesel and other polluting fossil fuel emissions, plastic pollution, urban garbage, sub-micron particulate dust etc., follow inexorably destroying the fragile ecosystems needed by bees, moths, wasps and dragon flies. Their decline has direct and dire consequences to higher life forms and humans as well, as every living being is a part of the web of life, as explained even by the Buddha.
Although there are many so-called “environmentalist” NGOs in Sri Lanka, usually manned usually by lawyers rather than scientists, they do little to collect the crucial field data needed for sensible ecological decisisons. They uncritically believe that “agrochemicals” are the maincause of may illnesses, the loss of biodiversity, and clutch at the straw of traditional agriculture as the environmentally proper “solution”.
Prof. Siriweera of the Rajarata University has written about the precarious nature of food availability in Sri Lanka and its tank system in historic times, when traditional agriculture was practiced. Even if traditional agriculture could sustain a small pastoral population, it cannot even marginally meet today’s needs. The world’s output of organic” agriculture remains below 2% and increasing it even by 10-fold is a challenge. Expanding organic agriculture will need more land, water, and manual labour than available on the planet. Composting adds to green house gases and leads to phyto-accumulation of metal toxins unless great care is taken. Abandoning no-till agriculture and going back to manual methods will lead to extensive erosion of soils.
If Sajith Premadasa or Gotabhaya Rajapaksa were to promise to demolish the matchbox houses of “Gam Udaawa” and return those lands to nature, increase forest cover, build high-rise residences that use solar power, twinned with adjacent grow towers built for providing food, then we can applaud their environmental programs. If the candidates agree to follow the best technological know how rather than fall prey to ideologically motivated public-fear mongering Luddite NGOs , then we can again applaud them.
(IV) Rejection of fossil fuels.
A very serious threat to the ecosystem is posed by continued acceptance of fossil fuels. Oil explorations in Sri Lanka;s oceans is an affront to common sense. Why invest in fossil fuels when the world is trying to phase them out owing to their negative effect on health, and on global warming? Such explorations are inherently far more damaging to the marine ecosystem than the construction of a port city.
If oil and gas were found in, say, the Mannar basin, it will pose a long term environmental catastrophe and a serious threat to the nation’s sovereignty. Oil and gas extractions are inherently polluting and lead to periodic accidents and spills, even in the hands of highly experienced oil-producing countries. It is the TNA which should protest lound and clear if it has the interests of the North and the East at heart. But then, the TNA is interested only in ethnic purity and not environmental purity! Sri Lanka DOES NOT NEED oil and gas because she has more than enough solar and biomass energy potential. They are a source of firm power and not intermittent power. I have discussed such alternative power sources for Sri Lanka in a series of articles, e.g., “Clean, practical solutions to Sri Lanka’s energy crisis – I, Colombo Telegraph 6-May-2019 and subsequent articles (23rd May, and 18th June).
In addition to the totally negative ecological effect of oil and gas exploitation, the country itself will be subjugated by powerful international oil companies backed by powerful countries. We see how oil rich countries like Nigeria have become poorer and less independent with every gallon of oil extracted from its soil.
So, we applaud any presidential candidate who will give a firm NO to fossil fuel usage and fuel exploration, with diesel, gasoline etc., phased out within the next decade.
*The author is a scientists affiliated with the National Research Council of Canada, and researches on environmental problems, as well as on topics in quantum physics