11 December, 2023


Gathering Storms

By Navam Niles

Navam Niles

Navam Niles

Sri Lanka faces severe climate risks and civil society needs to get ready 

At home and abroad, we are experiencing a historically unprecedented pace of climate change that is resulting in severe weather distortions including rising sea-levels, melting glaciers and irregular monsoons.

In response, Sri Lanka must start adapting. There are two ways of adapting to climate change: we could either reduce our sensitivity to climate change by investing in technology and infrastructure; or we could reduce our exposure to climate change by diversifying our social, economic and cultural behaviour. Deciding the appropriate balance between the two approaches requires a public debate that is thoughtful, inclusive and transparent. This is a responsibility best left to civil society, but before it can begin setting the stage for this debate, it must develop a basic understanding of the various climate risks facing Sri Lanka. These climate risks don’t affect everyone equally and our responses cannot ignore that fact.

Risk is simply the probability of loss. Climate risks, like other risks, broadly fall into two categories: those that affect a specific individuals or households at a time (i.e. idiosyncratic risks); and those that affect most, if not all households at the same time (i.e. systemic risks).

An example of an idiosyncratic risk may be a drought that causes a particular famer in a village to experience a serious loss income. An example of a system risk would be a drought that causes the entire village to experience economic decline. Since systemic are more threatening, they deserve our immediate attention. Admittedly, there are many systemic risks, but I will briefly focus on a few of them involving our energy security, food security, and the potential losses due to sea-level rise.

Energy security is defined as the uninterrupted availability of energy sources at an affordable price. According to the Asian Development Bank, which studied the costs of adaptation in South Asia recently, Sri Lanka could face an energy demand-supply gap of about 1.33 TWh by 2050s (that figure is an average of the various predictions). In other words, Sri Lanka will lack the energy necessary to power the equivalent of 250,000 homes. Moreover, we are increasingly dependent on fossil fuels such as coal and oil, which accounted for about 41% of total energy in 2013. The increasing reliance on fossil fuels is costly. According to the Ministry of Petroleum Industries, Sri Lanka spends an annual average of about $5 billion on crude oil and other petroleum products. At-least in the case of energy, it is our response to the problem (turning to fossil fuels) which is the main concern. But with agriculture, the problem maybe the lack of response.

Food security exists when everyone has continuous physical, social and economic access to safe, sufficient, and nutritious food, which meets their dietary needs and food preferences. Sri Lanka is already in a precarious position and could face severe threats in the future – already about one-fifth of the population does not enjoy food security. The ADB’s report on adaptation costs, models changes with a relatively moderate climate change scenario, which envisions a temperature increase between 1.7 and 4.4 degrees. The results indicate that Sri Lanka could face severe declines in agricultural yields. For instance, in the dry-low level regions, paddy yields could decline by about 16% during the Maha season, and about 19% in the Yala season. Increasing temperatures will also disrupt valuable crash crops and affect livelihoods dependent on the agricultural sector. Sri Lanka needs bold ideas and brave policies, and the same should apply to consequences stemming from rising sea-levels.

Sea-level rise is amongst the most pernicious climate-change effects and therefore does not get much attention. Like many other countries in region and beyond, Sri Lanka faces serious risks due to sea-level rise. According to the IPCC, optimistic climate scenarios envisions the sea-level rising about 40cm by the end of the century. This could affect over 94 million people and more than half of those affected will those from South Asia. Sri Lanka, like many other states, concentrates a lot of its economic activity in the coastal zones. According to recent estimates, the coastal zone accounts for about 25% of the population, 80% of tourism-related activities and 60% of all industrial towns and factories built in the last 40 years. Yet, the necessary policies are often fragmented and reactionary. We need an invigorating debate on the responses to sea-level rise and other climate risks, but that must happen within the broader conversation of vulnerability.

Risks do not always translate into vulnerability; they are two different but related concepts. Some people are more vulnerable – in other words, more susceptible to loss – because they are either more exposed to risks, start at a weaker position when responding to risks, or have poor risk management measures. That last item, risk management measures, deserve the most attention since it is the only variable of vulnerability that we can change immediately. These measures take the form of knowledge, protection, and insurance. All this may sound quite abstract until we get a chance to witness the disproportionate effect of risks in real life.

A few months ago, I visited an ex-employee who was recovering from a motor-accident. Even though he was in good spirits, he was on a long road to recovery. Yet, throughout the entire visit, he was in a state of urgency, wanting to get back to work as soon as possible. Why would someone who was suffering from amnesia and a few broken ribs be so desperate to get back to work? Because of the fear of poverty and destitution. The fear is because of vulnerability. In this case, vulnerability did not depend on the exposure or the starting conditions; we are all exposed to traffic accidents.

Instead, what mattered was the risk management policies in place – even though our friend was educated and well experienced, he was not enjoying the benefits of formal employment (he was a freelancer), nor did he have access to advanced health insurance. It is vulnerability that determines whether an accident or illness results in an inconvenience or destitution. Therefore, it is vulnerability that should guide our understanding of risks in general, and climate risks in particular.

Studying major climate risks within the context of vulnerability, allows us to carefully calibrate adaptation policies that improve knowledge, enhance protection and provide better insurance instruments. These policies must be implemented at every level of society: households, communities, the enterprise sector, the financial system, the state, and the international community. Creating such ambitious policies, however, will require the input from as many relevant and interested groups as possible. This is why civil society’s role is vital.

Civil society must prepare the prepare the stage for debating the appropriate balance between the different approaches to adaptation, within the context of vulnerability. Admittedly, everyone should ready themselves for both the ups and the downs of the debate. Many rounds could be hijacked by idealism, nimbyism and narrow-minded thinking. Yet many more could exemplify pragmatism, compromise and long-term thinking. This process, however torturous, is the best approach to crafting thoughtful, inclusive, and transparent climate-change adaptation policies.

*Navam Niles is a research analyst at Janathakshan (GTE. Ltd) currently working on environmental problems and politics involving climate-change adaptation and low-carbon development. He also lectures at the Royal Institute of Colombo, where he teaches subjects including development management, foreign policy analysis and international political theory, for the University of London’s International programme. Navam received his undergraduate degree in International Relations, and is currently reading for his post-graduate diploma in Public International Law, from the University of London.

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Latest comments

  • 3

    Reducing wants or controlling desires is the best practical option. With a Buddhist heritage of over 2500 years Sri Lanka is in a better position to do this. Attitude change does not need capital investment. The writer can do a better service by using comparative religion to enlighten the multi-cultural society in Sri Lanka on the ways of thinking to reach the goal of a society that does desire things that those with commercial interests promote. Doing more with less should be the common philosophy.

    • 9

      Professional, unfortunately the 2,500 years of “Buddhist Heritage” has done zilch to condition the mindsets of the majority of our ‘so-called’ Buddhists. Just look at the state of the Sangha and the frauds in robes pretending to live the teachings of the Gautama Buddha! And our ‘Buddhists’ keep pandering to their ‘desires’!!

      “Controlling desires” is, as you well know, easier said than done!

      What is most important is to somehow spread the word about climate change to our masses, who probably don’t have much of a clue about the implications. The imperatives (on a practical level) would be to condition them to accept the dangers and impracticalities of using inorganic substances for agriculture, pollution of streams, erosion and other associated ills that most of us care tuppence about.

      Educational programmes in schools and universities must also be implemented, especially with our fragile Island-Ecology in mind.

      Hopefully Navam Niles and his fellow-academics will encourage this information campaign and get this Yahapalanaya off (what looks like) its nepotistic butt!

  • 7

    A country like Sri Lanka should resort more to renewable energy, especially solar energy as the country especially the dry zone enjoys plenty of sunshine during most part of the year.
    Sengodan. M

  • 5

    ood luck Mr Niles. Our blessed island has enough environmental problems to keep you busy for the whole of your career.

  • 9

    Now that the China is already making its way to nuclear in UK we are still running on coal plants, make me think of Japan / France run on high speed electric trains we are still on those steam gigantic locomotives of 18 hundreds. Our guys only know to brag about old myths like King Rawana flying on a mercury powered flying machine or how great is our old history but never moved a step towards real achievement in the world. Nothing but a Frog in a well knows nothing of the great ocean.I think that’s because of few reasons not only lack of outside the box thinking.
    For a change I think we must remove all the loudspeakers from all our religious places. Because the old science is a threat to the new science. Second we must pave our way to generate a new education infrastructure which each and everyone will end up to a true national resource not just cheep labor. I think is better to be uneducated in the government driven system because the 30 to 50 students in a packed class listening to a 45 minutes or more of lecture or whatever is totally wrong way to knowledge a ape. the have can buy a better tutor though. And also the most educated / smart are leaving the country due to political nepotism and other reasons.
    Also there are many more reasons the average does not take your points seriously , Some may think that you are also just a bogus environmentalist working for a organization just for the agenda setting. But sadly who else is there to do?!

  • 4

    This is a serious article which those in the government who are focuses on promoting the extended mega Colombo City project that the Mahinda Chintanaya regime embarked upon, have to understand and take expert advise, before making any final decisions.

  • 1

    Anything that comes up has to go down. That is the Rule of Nature. It is the time which determines the act of nature. People can to a certain degree avoid natural disasters through their behaviour. But it is not happening anywhere in the world. So natural disasters will take place here and there. Environmental problems are mostly made by evil men with greediness that affects the innocent people.

    • 1

      ”Environmental problems are mostly made by evil men”
      most of us are using more materials than what is necessary.
      most of us are using plastic packaging/bags that throttle our environment.

      We need to be able to say NO to most of the things.

  • 7

    A very well analysed and relevant article. From an agricultural perspective it’s not only drought that must concern us but also the change in rainfall patterns that have a bearing on cropping cycles. Our rural folk have the wits to realize that there is change to which they must adapt. What is lacking is the research and dissemination of information that must go into supporting and encouraging farming communities to adopt more responsible and improved agricultural practices.

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