By Laksiri Fernando –
New York Storm: A Reminder of Environmental Calamities
I have posted the following on my Facebook yesterday, a recent venture on my part, about Juno – the winter storm in the US. It is still pounding.
“A severe Winter Storm is about to occur or in the offing in the US affecting New York, New Jersey and surrounding areas. Over thousand flights have been cancelled. Emergency has been declared. People have been asked to take their vehicles out of the streets and stay completely indoors. Metro service is also cancelled.
While we can extend sympathy and support with those who would be affected badly, especially the old and the poor, what this reminds us again is the severe effects of climate change. As this is still the beginning of the New Year, all the world leaders and the people equally should commit themselves to preserve the environment, take measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote more and more solar and wind energy. Can we think what we can do individually to preserve the environment?”
What I am focusing here in this piece is not what we can do individually, but what our ‘good government’ in Sri Lanka could do to address the issues of climate change, constructively. Our new government promised for ‘good governance’ when they were in the opposition, and therefore, at least for the time being, I would address it as ‘our good government.’ This piece is not entirely a researched one, but a spontaneous reaction to what we hear from our ‘Uncle Sam’ in New York. Therefore, others can add more flesh, I would suppose, those who are more knowledgeable about the subject.
One pleasing thing about Sri Lanka, as far as I am aware, is that there are no climate skeptics. All appear to agree, at least superficially, that there is a major manmade disaster in our midst, the climate change. Some of the indicators are that the overall global temperatures have risen (and still rising), glaciers are melting and the sea levels are climbing. If not Sri Lanka, our vulnerable neighbor, Maldives, will be devastated because of this calamity.
*It is commendable that a Minister who cares for environment, Patali Champika Ranawaka, is again appointed for Power and Energy. However, there are other sectors that are involved, and therefore, the need for coordination is also important.
Sri Lanka also will not be spared, and because of the rising sea levels, the coast lines will shrink and the future geographical size of the country will be much less than the present. I can recollect from my childhood how quickly the broad beaches that we used to cherish in Moratuwa disappeared. The proposed Port City in Colombo also might contribute to the adverse effects; if necessary precautions are not taken. I am not sure whether a proper environmental impact assessment has been done. If one enclave is raised, the surrounding areas possibly can get affected. When the Singapore land reclamation was done to expand the city, it was done evenly for a large coastline, preventing adverse effects. This is not the case in the Port City project as far as I am aware. The most bizarre thing I have seen so far is an opinion piece in ‘The Island’ newspaper yesterday saying “Anybody against this project is not a patriot”!
Rising sea levels is not the only adverse effect of climate change. There are erratic weather patterns. Perhaps weather cycles have changed dramatically for us to change our weather calendars. That may be ok if there are no extreme fluctuations. If general observations are of any indication, when the dry season comes it is extremely dry, humid and hot. When the rainy seasons occur, they go to the other extremes of continuous pouring and then for devastating floods. This is like El Nino and La Nina effect. It is as if, the environment is angry with us.
There can be many reasons for flooding including deforestation. This goes back to the period of our colonial past. It was perhaps not the tea plantations per se that devastated our hill forests but doing so indiscriminately by cutting down almost all the important forest covers in those areas. It could have been done selectively. Dr. S. A. Wickremasinghe, one of the foremost left leaders, was one who raised the issue in the 1930s initially. Rohana Wijeweera did the same much later in the 1970s, rather distortedly.
According to reports, the forest coverage of Sinharaja is now reduced from 30,000 hectares to 12,000 hectares, largely due to illegal encroachments.
Similarly when modern development took place with roadways and building construction, even for dwelling, most of the environmental conditions or effects were not considered. This was the case both before and after independence, and much worse in recent times.
It was not long time ago that a tea plantation area of Haldamulla became devastated due to land and mud slides that no one could control. Nearly hundred people lost their lives. When children came home after school, their mothers could not be found. When husbands came home after work, their wives or children were buried under soil.
There was no point in blaming the villagers of Haldamulla that they didn’t listen to the advice to move from the area, as they didn’t have anywhere to go. That was an outrageous claim by the administrators. Most of the victims of environmental calamities are usually the poor. That could be one reason why the powers that be don’t care much about the climate change or environmental disasters. Even at the brink of the presidential elections, heavy rain, landslides and flooding displaced thousands of people. It is not clear how did they manage to cast their votes.
It was 10 years ago that the Asian Tsunami struck Sri Lanka. Over 30,000 people belonging to all ethnic communities lost their lives and nearly a half a million people became displaced. This was in the midst of an equally devastating ethnic conflict. What it proved was that the climate change or natural disasters do not discriminate people on ethnic lines. Perhaps the people learnt the lesson soon, or for the time being, by cooperating with each other beyond ethnic lines in facing the difficult times that they were undergoing equally.
It was not clear, however, whether the politicians, the administrators or the powers that be, learned the lesson clearly. There were credible allegations that even the former President, and that time Prime Minister, squandered the funds that came to assist the Tsunami victims. The controversy is still not cleared. The challenge of the climate change is something that should promote unity among peoples even beyond borders. Mere national efforts might not suffice.
There are many other adverse effects of the ways that we use energy and chemicals. The kidney diseases in Nuwarakalaviya are still a mystery. All these are related. Rathupaswela is also a reminder of the pollution of the ground water as a result of unregulated industries. Continuous air pollution in cities and suburbs causes many diseases and some are not yet fully known. All these may point out to the ‘mad’ ways that we (the humans) exploit the nature to satisfy our short term needs.
Climatic challenges are not something that the world could completely eliminate. To think otherwise is too idealistic. There are certain natural events or cycles that could always inflict harm to the humans. We need to accept them as natural. However, what should be avoided are manmade disasters or the major adverse effects. Those are abundant today. We not only have to work towards the future, but also need to correct the past as much as possible.
It is generally or scientifically accepted that greenhouse gas emission is the single most cause for the climate change. Sri Lanka’s adverse contribution to CO2 emissions might be low as 0.04 percent as a portion of the overall global emissions. Still it is a high rate for a small country although with a high population. As far as I know, Sri Lanka did have a target of moving for renewable energy up to 10 percent this year. I am not sure whether we have achieved that. It is true that the mitigation measures have to encompass a large number of sectors: power, transport, industry, commerce, household, land use, forestry and even waste management. This is the case in all other countries as well.
Within the mad rush for superficial development, there were several ventures that perhaps went against this target during the last regime. It is commendable that a Minister who cares for environment, Patali Champika Ranawaka, is again appointed for Power and Energy. However, there are other sectors that are involved, and therefore, the need for coordination is also important.
The commitment of the government for environmental protection is verbally visible from what the President says in his speeches. It was also included in his Manifesto. However it is clear that the new government might not be able to do anything significant during the 100 Days. What might be possible is to plan out the future directions and targets if we were to consider the mitigation of climate change a priority. This is a task that can be assigned to the concerned experts/scientists and relevant officials.