By Thosapala Hewage –
The Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka clearly states the role of the government in relation to environment.
Article 27 (14) states that,
“the State shall protect, preserve and improve the environment for the benefit of the community.”
Article 28 (f) also states that
“it is the duty of every person in Sri Lanka to protect nature and conserve its riches.”
Hence it is obvious that the government is bound by the Constitution to protect, preserve and improve environment of the country. That is why it is important in good governance to look after the environment carefully.
Sri Lanka like many other developing countries has to confront with wide range of environment challenges that are associated mainly with its economic development. This was clearly evidence especially during last six decades during which time the emphasis was given to achieve rapid economic growth, employment creation for poverty alleviation, large scale development projects (without due consideration to environment), increase in population exerted more pressure on the environment. All these contributed to the rapid degradation of the environment which resulted in additional economic and social costs and new issues that need to be addressed by the government.
The purpose of this paper is to identify major environmental problems of the country at present and make proposals to address them under good governance.
Although there are a plethora of environmental problems faced by the country let me identify major environmental problems for our analysis. Chief among them are severe land degradation, poor management of water resources, impacts of large scale deforestation, loss of biodiversity, coastal erosion, scarcity of water, pollution, inadequate facilities for waste disposal and loss of agricultural productivity.
It is widely accepted that land degradation is one of the most critical problems affecting the future economic development in Sri Lanka. The demands of a rapidly expanding population has set up pressures on the island’s natural resources and these in turn have resulted in a high level of environmental degradation. The more important manifestations are heavy soil losses; high sediment yields; soil fertility decline and reduction in crop yields; marginalization of agricultural land; Stalinization; landslides, and deforestation and forest degradation. It has been estimated that nearly one third of the land in Sri Lanka is subjected to soil erosion, the erodible proportion ranging from less than 10.0% in some districts to over 50.0% in others. Severe erosion takes place in the hill country on sloping lands under cultivation and chena cultivation. Soil erosion is also considered a threat to agricultural production in the rain fed farming areas in the Dry Zone.
A part of the soil that is removed is transported by rivers and streams leading to sedimentation of reservoirs, downstream floods etc. Some recent studies undertaken within the Upper Mahaweli catchment have shown high rates of sediment yield in some rivers. Sedimentation is also taking place in small village tanks in the Dry Zone.
It is commonly believed that the depletion of soil fertility has led to a loss of productivity of agricultural lands in the country. The decline in yields of major food crops as well as plantation crops over the past several decades has been attributed to the loss of valuable top soil due to erosion. A sizeable extent of agricultural lands in different parts of the country has become marginal or uneconomic. It has been estimated that there are now 1.2 million hectares of land mostly in the Dry Zone which are unproductive and put to only limited use. It has also been estimated that at least 30.0% tea lands in the country can be considered as marginal or uneconomic. A substantial portion of the remaining unutilized state lands is also considered to be marginal in nature.
A reconnaissance survey carried out in landslide prone areas has indicated that approximately 12,500 square miles are vulnerable to landslides. The available evidence seems to indicate that the country has been experiencing a spate of landslides over extensive areas in the central and south-western parts of the country, since the early eighties.
Deforestation and Forest Degradation is another major environmental challenge we faced in Sri Lanka. The closed canopy natural forest cover in the country which stood at 80.0% until the turn of the century had dwindled to less than 24.0% by 1992. The deforestation has taken place both legally and illegally. Legally forests have been cleared for agriculture, settlement schemes, hydro power development, timber extraction and other development projects. They have been cleared illegally for shifting cultivation and for agriculture and settlement by encroachers. The rate of deforestation has been of 54,000 ha per year since 1983. The quality of the forests in the country has also been declined due mainly to shifting cultivation, illicit felling of trees and encroachments.
The most serious consequences of deforestation and land degradation are; reduction in biodiversity due to destruction of wildlife and plant habitats, irregular water supply, siltation of reservoirs, soil erosion and loss of soil fertility, increased scarcity of wood and fuel wood, contribution to the greenhouse gas emissions (FSMP,1995).
There is a strong link between population growth and deforestation and forest degradation. Agricultural production has been increased mainly through expanding the area under cultivation. Natural forest has been the victim of this type of unplanned development activities. The depletion of forest resources is also linked to demand for forest products such as timber and fuel wood. Population increase combined with economic growth has resulted in a higher demand for housing and construction, which in turn has resulted in increased demand for wood. The continuous economic growth and increasing population has influenced the demand for industrial round wood and poles rising from 1.7 million cubic meters in 1995 to 2.0 million cubic meters in 2020. At the same time, the closed canopy natural forest cover is expected to decline from 22.7% in 1999 to about 17% by 2020, if no planned action is taken.
Main underline causes of deforestation and forest degradation are poverty associated with landlessness and poor land tenure system, large scale agricultural and settlement schemes, major hydropower schemes, conversion of natural forests into plantation (tea), and illicit felling.
Existing National Forestry Policy (1995) is very clear with regard to protection of forest and combating deforestation and forest degradation. Policy objectives of the National Forestry Policy states as follows;
- To conserve forests for posterity, with particular regard to biodiversity, soils, water and historical, cultural, religious and aesthetic values.
- To increase the tree cover and productivity of the forests to meet the needs of present and future generations for forest products and services.
- To enhance the contribution of forestry to the welfare of the rural population, and strengthen the national economy.
National Forestry Policy covers important areas on management of state forest resources, management of private forests and tree resources, wood and non-wood forest products, industries and marketing, institutional support for forestry development, inter sectoral linkages and international forest related conventions. Policy is comprehensive and covers all forestry related areas.
The policy acknowledges that the natural forests are heavily degraded, and expresses concern over safeguarding the remaining natural forests for posterity in order to conserve biodiversity, soil and water resources. It also emphasizes the importance of retaining the present natural forest cover, and increasing the overall tree cover. A large part of the forests should be completely protected for the conservation of biodiversity, soil and water. Multiple use forestry is to be promoted, and the natural forests outside the protected area system should be used sustainably to provide for the growing demand for bio-energy, wood and non-wood forest produce, and various services, especially for the benefit of rural people, while ensuring that the environmental objectives are also met.
The Sri Lanka’s Forestry Sector Master Plan (FSMP) 1995 is considered as a comprehensive biophysical, environmental, socio-political, and economic projection of the forestry sector’s optimal development, intended to guide decision making at national, regional and local levels. It provides a comprehensive long-term development framework for the forestry sector covering the period 1995 to 2020.
The Forestry Sector Master Plan (FSMP) puts particular emphasis on:
• Conserving the remaining natural forests to maintain wildlife as reservoirs of biodiversity
• Empowering people and rural communities to manage and protect multiple-use forests, mainly for their own benefit
• Building partnerships in forestry development activities
• Developing home gardens and other agro forestry systems as well as forest plantations to meet people’s basic needs
• Developing and strengthening forestry institutions, both state and NGOs
Although the policy and the master plan have addressed the issues of forest degradation and deforestation and proposed remedial measures very little have been implemented due to various resource constraints. It is also important to state here that officers of the Forest Department and the Wild Life Conservation Department do not have a free hand to work independently as there are political pressures. Recent incident is the illicit clearing and settlement of people in Wilpattu Conservation area. It is reported that clearing and settlement of people in this forest reserve is still going on without action by the authorities.
The other important environmental issue is loss of biodiversity. Sri Lanka has a very rich biological diversity, reportedly the richest per unit area of land in the Asian region, particularly for flowering plants and all most all groups of vertebrates. Sri Lanka has been identified as one of 25 biodiversity hot spots in the world. However indigenous biodiversity is being increasingly eroded due to the destruction of ecosystems and over extraction of species to meet the needs of the rapidly increasing population. The main causes of biodiversity loss are illegal forest clearing, encroachments, illegal timber felling, filling and reclamation of wetlands, overexploitation of biological resources of commercial value, destruction of coral reefs for the lime industry and other critical habitats and the pollution of inland and coastal waters. It was reported in 2002 that among the indigenous species at least 600 species of fauna and nearly 700 species of flora were threatened with extinction at the national level.
It is necessary to state that the Ministry of Environment has already developed a National Biodiversity Conservation Action Plan (BCAP) but implementation of BCAP has lagged behind due to various constraints. What is required now is to find out the reasons for poor implementation and speed up the process by developing appropriate implementation mechanisms. One option may be to reactivate now defunct Committees on Environment Policy and Management (CEPOMs).
Water Pollution has become one of the major environmental problems in Sri Lanka. The main causes are toxic chemicals released by industries, fertiliser and pesticide runoff from agricultural lands due to over use of these substances, inadequacy of the existing sewerage system mainly in Colombo Municipal Area, poor sanitation in urban slums and rural areas leading to faecal contamination of inland waters. Release of untreated industrial waters to major rivers by big industries has become major water pollution and affected the supply of drinking water to residents. Deterioration of water quality has been reported in some rivers. The main cause of water pollution in urban area is dumping of domestic and industrial wastes and untreated wastewater in to water ways. In agricultural areas, agrochemicals are the main pollutants. Water quality in the Kelani River, which is one of the major water sources for Colombo, is considered to be threatened by untreated or insufficiently treated wastewater and solid waste. Latest example is the large numbers of Industries along the Kelaniganga were releasing highly polluted industrial water to Kelani Ganga polluting the water to that extent where Authorities had to stop supply of drinking water to large number of users for several days. I am sure the respective Authorities such as Central Environment Authority and the National Water Supply and Drainage Board will take action against those irresponsible owners of such Industries.
The coastal region in Sri Lanka has been increasingly subject to pollution during the last few decades. The underlying causes for pollution in the coastal region are a population concentrated on the coast, and increased development activities such as tourism and industries. Sewage discharge is both a point and non-point source of pollution. Although Colombo, the capital, has a sewage system, many other cities do not. However, even Colombo’s sewage system is about 100 years old, with one long sea outfall sited at Mutuwal and another at Wellawatte, both needing repeated repairs. In addition, the capacity for which it was installed has long since been exceeded and ‘the existing system is grossly inadequate to counter water pollution. The census of 2011 shows that the Colombo district has a population of 5.8 million persons, a density of 3,488 persons/km2 (the national average is 323) and 558,755 households. Of these households, 0.1% does not use a toilet. It was reported that ‘at the turn of the last century there were about 1,500 shanty settlements in the [Colombo] city, comprising around 66,000 households sheltering about 51% of the population’. This sector of the population is ‘under-served in respect to sanitation, safe water and waste disposal facilities’.
Tourism expansion in Hikkaduwa, Beruwela and Unawatuna areas has led to the water quality degradation as well as visual pollution of beaches and near shore waters. The problem of sullage is particularly perceived as problem associated with large hotels. Squatter settlements connected with tourism development are another cause of concern as it contributes to faecal pollution which is a severe threat to recreational activities such as contact sports in coastal waters.
Excessive use of agrochemicals both inland and in coastal areas affect inland water courses and coastal waters, as well as ground water, resulting in both point and non-point source pollution.
Aquaculture, concentrated in the north western coastal belt, focuses on shrimp culture, extending over some 4,500 ha and some 1,344 farms. Shrimp farms discharge polluting effluents, rich in both nutrients and sediments, into the environment. Most shrimp farms have no effective effluent treatment procedures and discharge their usually untreated effluent into surrounding land and/or downstream waterways. This negatively impacts on water quality and aquatic life, upon which many poorer households in particular, depend for wild fish catch, nutrition and income.
Although there are standards for discharge of industrial effluents, discharges to near shore waters, lagoons and estuaries are often made with little or no treatment. Most of the industries located in the coastal region are either medium or low polluting industries; in 1994, there were 336 industries with high or medium potential in the coastal zone. Textile, paper, tanning, metal finishing and engineering, paint, chemical, food and beverage, distillery industries contribute most to water pollution. Many industries do not have the capacity for waste treatment.
Environment pollution related to waste disposal has been increasing during last few decades. It is mainly an urban environmental issue. Collection of waste in the Colombo Municipal Council area alone is around 700 tons per day. Rate of waste generation depends on a number of factors such as socio economic conditions, public attitude towards reuse and recycling of waste and geographical and physical factors. Due to the improvement of technology, a tremendous increase in non-degradable packaging materials such as plastic, polythene, metals and glass can be seen. Solid wastes are generated from domestic, institutional, market, medical, commercial, industrial and garden sources. Industries such as food, paper, cardboard, rubber, and leather are good sources of organic waste. A greater portion of commercial and domestic waste is organic and biodegradable. The major problem in relation to solid waste is uncontrolled disposal of wastes.
Toxic and hazardous wastes are generated mainly from industrial and medical sectors. The extent of land pollution increases due to unorganized solid waste disposal practices. Developing facilities for safe disposal and management of solid waste should be a high priority in society. With the rapid development, population growth and urbanization, solid waste has increased and therefore it is essential to manage solid waste. Main problem is the absence of satisfactory ways of collection and disposal of solid waste in properly engineered landfills and lack of facilities for safe disposal of hazardous and clinical waste from industries and hospitals.
Vehicle pollution, air pollution, noise pollution are also environmental issues that affect our environment. Vehicle emission has caused severe respiratory problems mainly among school children, pedestrians and traffic police officers. The number is increasing daily as the traffic congestion is getting bad to worse every day.
All the above environmental issues that we discussed are nothing new. Everybody knows about them and also they know the culprits too. People talk about policies, plans, laws, regulations, need of more human resources to arrest this situation. Especially when a new government come to power the change of existing policies and plans will come to limelight. Then they take years to change them. When try to implement new policies and plans hardly any time available. This is the usual picture that we have seen during last several decades. To my mind there is nothing wrong in the existing policies, plans, laws and regulations in relation to environment in this country (please see National Forestry policy of 1995 and National Environment Policy of 2003). National Forestry Sector Master Plan of 1995 and Environment Action Plans that were prepared by the then Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources are very comprehensive and covered all the environment and forestry issues and make recommendations to implement them. As they are not static it may be necessary to amend them to suite the today’s needs which can easily be done by a group of professionals in the subject matter within a very short time.
Important area is to identify why these policies and plans could not be implemented comprehensively. To me the subject of environment was not given its due place in the past. It was not recognized even as a Cabinet Ministry until 1991and since then it was put under several other Ministries such as Environment and Parliamentary Affairs (1991 – 1993), Transport, Environment and Women Affairs (1994 – 1997), Forestry & Environment, (1998 – 2002), Environment & Natural Resources ( 2003 – 2005), Agriculture, Irrigation and Mahaweli Development (2006), Environment and Natural Resources (2007 – 2009), Environment (2010 – 2011), Environment & Renewable Energy (2013 – 2014), Mahaweli Development & Environment (from 2015). If I remember correct all the agencies that should come under the purview of the “Environment” came only under the Ministry of Environment & Natural Resources. It is not unfair to say that during that time there had been a significant development in the environment area with new innovations, exposure to the important environment related international agencies, expansion of the environment Ministry Divisions to address different environmental issues, training of officers in the field and linkages with universities locally and abroad etc.
It is also important to highlight that in most of the cases absolutely needed agencies have not come under the purview of the Ministry of Environment. Even at present important department of Wild life Conservation is not under the Environment ministry. I do not understand the logic of having a separate Ministry for Sustainability and Wild life as the task of the sustainable development comes under the Ministry of Environment. Of cause these are emotional decisions rather than rational decisions. However I am happy that the present President has spoken very firmly about the protection and conservation of environment and that those who involved in illegal felling and clearing reserve forests will be severely dealt with. I am also happy that the subject of Environment although with less departments and agencies is under the President. In most of the countries the subject of environment and natural resources is under the Head of the State or a senior Minster of the Government.
Apart from that it was very difficult to get required funds for the Ministry in charge of Environment from the Treasury. Only the “last coin of the pocket” was given to it in the past. For them the environment was not that important. I hope now the situation has changed. However International agencies that have realised the attempts made by the Ministry to improve the environment, supported in various ways to promote such projects and programmes.
Every government that comes to power used to say that those who involve in illegal felling and forest clearing will take into task. But that did not happen as envisaged in the past. In most of such activities either politicians or influential people were involved. In some cases officials were involved. But none were taken to task. Latest case is forest land clearance in Wilpattu National Park and adjoining forest reserves. Island news paper of 18th December 2015 reported that Environmental Organizations have stated that “deforestation was not limited to the Wilpattu National Park; 15 forest reserves in the Northern Province are faced with the same problem”. According to them currently over 17,000 acres of forest lands have been cleared so far for resettlement purposes (Island 18/12/2015). It is well known that conservation forests cannot be cleared for illegal settlements and it is an offence under the Forest Conservation Ordinance and National Environment Act. Officials of relevant agencies are helpless in these cases as those responsible, according to the news reports, are powerful politicians. Those responsible need to be taken to task by the highest authorities of the country. If officers are involved they can be punished under the disciplinary procedures or by court of law.
Those who involved in major water pollution cases were the large scale industrialists. Although they obtain Environment Protection Licences (EPL) they never adhered to conditions laid down in EPLs. Recent case is the pollution of water in the Kelani Ganga. It was highlighted in the media but action taken against the culprits was not known. We can quote so many cases like this. People know about them but very little action taken against those responsible.
It is high time for the Government to address these environmental issues without further delay. I think government need to consider appointment of a Presidential Task Force on Environment or a National Environment Commission similar to National Land Commissions to look into environment issues on a more holistic manner and make recommendations to the government to protect, preserve and improve the environment for early implementation.
*Thosapala Hewage – Retd. Secretary of Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources