29 May, 2023


Don’t Regret Failing To Adopt ‘No-Regret Policies’

By W.A Wijewardena –

Dr. W.A. Wijewardena

Don’t regret failing to adopt ‘No-regret policies’ to tackle impending ‘climate change catastrophe’

‘Win-win policies’ by King Parakramabahu the Great

According to Sri Lanka’s Chronicle Chulavansa, King Parakramabahu, the Great, who ruled the country during 1153 to 1186 CE had built a dam across Deduru Oya to create a reservoir to store water on his becoming the lord of a sub-kingdom called Dakhshina Desha prior to the ascendency to the throne.

The King had been advised against this by his engineers on the ground that the particular location chosen was not stable enough to hold a dam. Yet, according to the Chronicle, the King had embarked on his project finally succeeding in building the dam and the reservoir. The reason for constructing a reservoir? That was to store water in that fairly dry land for use at a time when there would be a shortage of water for cultivating paddy and ensuring Lanka’s food security. But when he did so, he took a gamble since a shortage of water in the years to come had not been a certainty but only an expectation based on past experiences.

Thus, if the expected water shortage proved to be a false alarm, men, money and materials he had used for constructing the dam and the reservoir would have gone waste. But the King had been firm in his decision because, even if the water shortage had not been a reality, the water storage in that relatively dry area would have anyway helped the country to increase its paddy production, the staple food of Lankans.
It would also have brought prosperity to people by keeping them employed and increasing their wellbeing. Thus, the King was a winner and so were his subjects. It was therefore a ‘win-win’ choice for all made when there was a great deal of uncertainty about its final outcome.

‘No-regret policies’ for uncertain outcomes

Today, these types of win-win choices made under uncertain circumstances are called ‘No-regret Policies’ by economists. They are called no-regret policies, because they are adopted with the objective of gaining capability to cope with an impending disaster and even if the disaster story proved to be a fake, there is no reason to regret since that policy would have delivered some other benefits which are of value to a country. But if the country is actually hit by the anticipated disaster, then, it would be a bonus since the country is now better prepared to manage it successfully and return to normalcy quickly.

Hence, though no-regret policies cannot be justified purely in financial terms because they have only known costs and unknown profits, they improve a country’s resilience whose value cannot be accurately measured in the light of the information available at the time of making the choice. One has to really live through a disaster to make that valuation and some disasters are so grave that even the experienced economists find it difficult to put a fair value to advance measures taken to cope with such disasters.

CGIAR and IWMI: Don’t wait till the disaster hits you

A recent report released on how Sri Lanka should prepare itself to manage the climate change disasters on the country’s agriculture has called for the adoption of such a ‘no-regret policy’ package in the country. The report authored by a number of scientists including a Sri Lankan water resource engineer attached to the Colombo based International Water Management Institute or IWMI has been published in the 21 May Issue of the reputed US Journal Proceedings of National Academic of Sciences or PNAS (available here ).

It has been completed at the behest of the research program Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security or CCAFS, a project funded by the leading global think-tank on agricultural research known as Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research or CGIAR (available here).

Predicted costs of climate change

Climate change issues have been subject to dispute and while there are many scientists who support them, there are some who dispute the underlying claims. Both parties appear to be correct. Those who support the climate change issues have based their claim on elaborate climate change models they have run on advanced computers to come up with supporting evidence that the climate change is a reality, it is affecting all nations irrespective of the level of their development, it has far reaching repercussions on agriculture due to increase in temperature and volatility in rainfall, the world is moving toward a shortage of water and as a policy conclusion, measures should be taken urgently to arrest them.

It is a whole doomsday story for mankind, but human beings as they are made of are inclined not to believe in a doomsday that occurs not immediately but on some future date. Hence, inaction is everywhere when it comes to taking early measures to avoid the costs of such a doomsday.

Sceptics: Don’t worry about climate change

However, according to the sceptics of the climate change proposition, climate change models are defective, the computer projections giving various datelines are not perfect and there is no alarming issue right now relating to the picture painted by the climate change proponents. Some have even argued that it is not global warming as the climate change proponents have proposed, but global cooling which is the main catastrophe facing the mankind.

Political scientist Bjorn Lomborg who founded the think-tank Copenhagen Consensus and MIT scientist Richard Lindzen are in the forefront of these sceptics. Some of them have questioned the climate change numbers published by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, while some others have argued that though there is evidence of climate change, it is mainly due to the natural causes and not due to human actions. Yet, some others have argued that the consequences of climate change are not that important.
Whatever the cause or the outcome of climate change, the division of world opinion on the issue has caused the world nations to be slow on any action for avoiding the catastrophe that has been painted by its proponents.

Climate change or no climate change: Sri Lanka has a problem

In this scenario, the current report on Sri Lanka has argued that a country need not wait for the proof of climate change but it can take early action as a ‘no-regret adaptation’ policy strategy. The adaptation will require those who use water for agricultural purposes to change their water using habits and get into a new culture putting them to the maximum use. Thus, if climate change occurs, then it is well and fine. But if it does not occur, then, there is no reason to regret because the action proposed by the report is beneficial for Sri Lanka to cultivate a culture among its citizens to conserve water and use it economically.

Whether there is a climate change or not, Sri Lanka is facing a water problem in its march toward an upper middle income country with a higher national product and an increased income per person along with such wealth creation. The country’s plan is to achieve this target within the next decade and it requires the use of a lot of water for agriculture, industry, power generation, recreation and personal use. The problem is that the country does not have an abundant supply of water to meet those rising demands.

Public policies are ‘wicked problems’

The authors of the report have equated the problem of ensuring food security in a climate changing scenario to the famous ‘wicked problem’ which one encounters in the area of public policy planning. In the wicked problem, coined by the German design theorist Horst Rittel and American Urban Planner Melvin Webber in a 1973 article published in Political Sciences under the title ‘Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,’ social problems involving a large number of people and many years of policy implementation are characterised by a certain ‘wickedness’ because as time goes on unforeseen problems arise making the original bases and assumptions of the policy totally irrelevant.

Unlike natural scientists who are normally engaged in solving ‘tame problems’, social scientists have to grapple with all sorts of uncertainties: Inability to precisely say what is best, what is fair, what is correct or what is false because they change all the time. Hence, no optimal solutions cannot be designed or found for social problems. In the absence of definitive and objective answers to social issues, public policy planners have to tackle the wickedness in the problem by imposing several qualifications and restrictions to the policy package they propose. What this means is that until the policy package is successfully implemented, the public policy planner is just groping in the dark in an ever changing world of uncertainty.

‘No-regret strategy’ to tackle the ‘wicked problem’

Thus, to tackle the problem of wickedness involved in policy formulations for ensuring food security in an uncertain climate change environment, the authors have suggested a “No-regret Adaptive Policy Strategy’. This is because the overall hazards of climate change are so overwhelming that non-action or delay in action will be disastrous for the people of a country.

Sri Lanka’s National Climate Change Adaptation Strategy

In a fact sheet titled ‘Influencing Climate Change Policy in Sri Lanka’ issued by Nishadi Eriyagama, Water Resource Engineer attached to IWMI collaborating in the research project, the details of how Sri Lanka has attempted at solving the issue have been described. Accordingly, Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Environment has prepared a policy document titled ‘The National Climate Change Adaptation Strategy 2011-2016’ by using the methodology adopted by IWMI for similar analyses.

The agricultural vulnerability maps prepared by IWMI for this purpose have identified several districts of the country as ‘hotspots’ because they depend on primarily basic farming and there is a shortage of infrastructural facilities or social networks to give the farmers the necessary strength to cope with the problem. These districts are Nuwara Eliya, Badulla, Monaragala, Ratanpura and Anuradhapura – the agricultural base of the country.

Instead of waiting for definitive climate projections which are impossible to acquire at this point of time, the Ministry has used the available information and data to prepare its climate change adaptation strategy. This strategy which has adopted the ‘No-regret Adaptation Options’ has included the policies for the restoration of the ancient tank system of the country and the promotion of rainwater harvesting as top priorities.

Sri Lanka: Conserve water or perish

Accordingly, the climate change adaptation strategy of Sri Lanka basically relies on a policy to conserve water for agricultural purposes. Climate change or not, as mentioned above, Sri Lanka is presently faced with a severe water shortage problem in the years to come to meet its water requirements for agricultural, industrial and household purposes.

Sri Lanka’s water demand is rising

Sri Lanka’s population is to increase to 24 million by 2030 and further to 28 million by 2050 if it continues with the current year on year growth of 1% per annum. On top of this, if the country attracts more and more tourists as it has planned today – starting from 2.5 million tourists in 2016 – the water requirements for personal use and hotels will increase significantly.

The present import substitution policy of all agricultural products – rice, vegetables, grains, sugar, milk products – adopted by Sri Lanka’s Government will raise the demand for water over the current level. The high growth path which the Government has planned for Sri Lanka will further increase water requirements of the country. Thus, even without climate change, Sri Lanka is facing a serious problem of water shortage in the years to come. In this background, the no-regret adaptation policy of conserving and economically using water suggested by IWMI and researchers at CCAFS and incorporated into the National Climate Change Adaptation Strategy deserves serious consideration by all.

Economists: Add a price tag to water to ensure conservation

Scientists and engineers may propose techniques for water conservation. In Sri Lanka’s case, the main focus has been on the preservation and development of the surface based water storing tank system and promoting rainwater harvesting. But will it necessarily lead to water conservation and its efficient use? Scientists and engineers may say ‘yes’. But economists may add several qualifications to it going by the way to solve the wicked problem discussed above.

Availability of water does not necessarily mean that it will be conserved and efficiently used as long as it is available without a price. This is understandable because free goods tend to be overused and priced goods tend to be economically used. One good example is the environment which does not have a price tag. Hence, everyone – individuals, businessmen, industrialists, hoteliers, and consumers and so on – will use environment as a dumping ground for the waste matter that is produced in numerous economic activities up to the level it becomes a nuisance to them.

Similarly, as long as water is available free of charge, it is also destined for the same fate. You may throw away water freely available from a stream; but you will think twice before you think of throwing away the bottled mineral water that you have bought from the shop.

Ancient Sinhala kings knew of hard economic realities

Ancient Sri Lankan kings knew of this hard economic reality well. According to historical evidence, they have priced water by imposing a water tax on farmers – the main economic activity of the country at that time. The British Civil Servant and Historian H.W. Codrington has speculated in his Land Tenure System in Ancient Ceylon that the Sinhalese kings would have followed the 4th century BCE Indian economist and statesman Kautilya in prescribing these taxes.

Kautilya has recommended water taxes ranging from one third to one fifth of the agricultural output depending on the method of harvesting water by farmers. For instance, if water is drawn from a stream by using a machine, they have to pay a one third and if water is carried on shoulder from a stream, they have to pay a one fifth thereby charging the farmer who uses more water at a higher price. The claim by the author of Chulavansa that King Parakarabahu the Great was a protégé of Kautilya supports Codrington’s speculation that the Sinhala kings have indeed followed the Kautilyan economic wisdom.

Thus, any national climate change adaptation strategy seeking to conserve and economically use water may not work without a suitable pricing policy for water.

*W.A. Wijewardena can be reached at waw1949@gmail.com

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Latest comments

  • 0

    Yet another informative article from Mr Wijewardene. So many basic issues for Sri Lanka to deal with, dengue, education and obviously water , oncoming ill effects from climate change etc. The political class does a good job of redirecting the public attention towards petty issues. Who will give the lead in tackling these important issues?

  • 0

    Human body is 60% water. So the saying that water is life is not untrue. We depend on it in so many ways. One of the miracles of thiss world is the water cycle where billions of gallons of water are evaporated from the ocean using heat from a source 93 Mn miles away and then discharged on the land to give life to crops and animals.

    The Quran says

    “And He who sends down (from time to time) water from the sky in due measure, and We raise to life therewith a land that is dead. Even so will you be raised (from the dead).” [Al-Qur’an 43:11]

    “It is Allah Who sends the Winds, and they raise the Clouds: then does He spread them in the sky as He wills, and break them into fragments, until you see rain-drops issue from the midst thereof: then when He has made them reach such of his servants as He wills behold, they do rejoice!”[Al-Quran 30:48]

    Pure water is essential for the survival and sustenance of mankind. So it is provided in abundance. However it is required at the correct time and in required quantities. So storage is a must. Also the need is for pure water suitable to drinking and irrigation of crops. So the need to control and prevent pollution. Some years back I remember attending a seminar where Dr Mohan Munasinghe mentioned that as a result of climate change, wet areas will get wetter and dry areas drier.

    Dr Mohan Munasinghe and Dr Sumathipala have also drawn attention to the impending effects of rising sea level. Quote

    “There will be a loss of coastal landmass,” physicist Dr Sumathipala said in an interview with Ceylon Today on 4 April 2013.

    In his view, Sri Lanka’s map may have to be redrawn by 2100. He cautioned that “parts of Sri Lanka are likely to be submerged by the turn of the century”, and called for “immediate action to avert a future crisis”.

    “In April 2007, physicist turned economist Dr Mohan Munasinghe, a former vice chair of IPCC, speculated how climate change impacts – if allowed to mount – could be even more devastating than impacts of Sri Lanka’s prolonged conflict.

    ”A major part of Jaffna and other northern areas will be submerged when the sea level rises. So people are fighting and dying over areas that may soon not be there,” he told the globally distributed Inter Press Service (IPS). Significantly, these remarks were made while the conflict was still underway.”

    “The usually cautious Dr Sumathipala has outlined a worrying scenario. He says the highest impact from the rising seas will be in the North: low-lying parts of the Jaffna Peninsula, as well as some offshore islets, could eventually go underwater. (Atlases show 113 such islets, many of them along the eastern, northern and north-western coasts.)”

  • 0

    Somebody will have to explain all these to President Rajapaksa and his band of yes men before it is interpreted as Buddhism bashing.

    I was privy to a presentation on climate forecast about 10 years ago, a collaboration between Sri Lankan scientists and those in New Zealand and Ireland. There was an interesting point that was made. It was projected that the Jaffna and Hambantota districts would become desert and the present dry zone in the North Central, Eastern and Lower Uva would become like the present Jaffna district within the next 50 years. Looking at the current political polarization it seemed to me ironical that Jaffna and Hambantota may in time share a commonality that is absent in the present day. A conspiracy you think?

  • 0

    As usual Mr. Wijewardene has written a very stimulating article. Rain water harvesting is one method to conserve water. But I have seen newspaper reports in the recent past of moves to ban gutters when new houses are constructed. Presumably this has been prompted by the dengue epidemic. How is this issue to be resolved? Aren’t there other ways to eradicate dengue?

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