Colombo Telegraph

Progressing, Not Knowing Where

By Ranil Senanayake

Dr Ranil Senanayake

Sri Lanka has opted to enter the global economic system with a very poor appreciation of the scientific considerations of the different options and paths available. In the global financial system, growth is seen as engine of development, but the source of power that has been chosen to propel that growth is making this nation dangerously vulnerable to the emerging global reality of Climate Change.

Power, as is used in the present context, is energy in a state utilizable for our uses. It is inexorably tied to the economy of any nation. However, power should be categorized into two distinct groups: Internalized power or power that can be generated locally within the boundaries of a given nation and externalized power or power that has to be obtained from outside the nation and has to be imported.

If the rate of growth is constrained by internalized power, it will produce excellent effects vis-à-vis inflationary trends in the economy. Conversely, if growth is dependant on externalized power, the economic system becomes hopelessly locked into whatever inflationary cycle that the external suppliers are prone to, and any internal attempts in controlling it are useless. Given the exponential rise in the environmental and social cost of fossil energy, the wisdom of attempting to develop based on the consumption of externalized fossil power is questionable.

The promotion of the current perverted vision of ‘development’ where massive projects, consuming huge quantities of cement (sixteen times more potent than gasoline in producing fossil carbon dioxide), steel where every ton of is responsible for 1.2 tons of CO2 form the basis of this ‘development’ must be questioned.

Pollution in the Indian Ocean

It is such uninformed ideas of development, of unplanned construction and undervalued human health that seek the creation urban centers carrying a massive fossil carbon footprint. Growth for the sake of growth without directing it towards a nationally accepted plan reeks of self-interest. An example is the promotion of a megapolis without considering the Carbon cost of the air conditioning and coolants needed for such a megapolis. This jump in our Carbon footprint makes us irresponsible in terms of our international obligations to address Climate Change.

As an island state we have not been responsible by the sea around us either. Sri Lanka is exposed as the worst polluter of the Indian Ocean. The new maps on human impact on the world’s oceans are now on the web. Although there had been regular commentary on the need of every government and various authorities to be cognizant of oceanic health, it was a shock to see the evidence that is now before us. The map of the Indian Ocean shows an ugly halo of pollution and ocean impact that rings the ocean around Sri Lanka.

The irresponsible use of our land, cutting the forests, eroding the soil and drenching it with artificial fertilizers and agro/ industrial toxins, finally result in polluting the ocean. The biological indicators of a healthy shoreline are the rock pools, once the rock pools that fringed our shores were alive with fishes and even corals, all the rock pool corals were lost by the 80’s. The inshore corals and the fringing shallow reef was next and finally the deep reef. We saw this national patrimony degrade and disappear within our lifetime. Those who have experienced the biodiversity of the Welawatte canal, before the advent of the textile mills pumping their affluent into it, will know the changes. It was a time when coral reef fish such as Butterfly Fish (Cheatodons ) could be seen under the road bridge at Welawatte. The toxic affluent changed the clear waters to a dark, opaque hue and destroyed all the things that lived in and along the canal. Even at that time, many of us realized the damage that was being done to our inland waters by irresponsible industrialists, predictably the politicians and bureaucrats ignored public concern, but the extent of the damage to the ocean around us was not even remotely realized until the advent of satellite sensing.

A study of the satellite data also indicates that a major source of marine pollution comes from the shipping that goes through our waters, polluting without any care, what will happen, when the dirty, bunker fuel burning, cheap freighters begin to call in at Hambantota?

Now we are being told that huge areas of land in the South of Sri Lanka are being offered to industrialists to invest in projects of their choice. In a global reality where polluting and toxic industries are being forced out of responsible nations, are we surprised that they will seek, poor and desperate countries with weak environmental safeguards and corrupt guardians, to invest in?

FDI should be a process that we could welcome if the investors are concerned with maintaining the quality of life enjoyed by the population of the host country. FDI could contribute greatly to achieving the Sustainable Development goals that the nation has ascribed to. But to allow FDI that brings in irresponsible industrialists, who profit from environment degrading processes, must be seen as a traitorous act that betrays our nation. We do not want to wind up like the poor butterfly fish of the Welawatte Canal.

It is in this context that we should look at our watchdogs, responsible for protecting our environmental security, the Central Environmental Authority. The current plethora of Environmental Assessment Impact reports that have been approved by them is appalling. The Port City, The Hambantota fiascoes, The Uma Oya project are just a few examples where they have failed miserably to protect the wellbeing of this nation. Approvals have been given on extremely questionable reports. One wonders if there are any professional Ecologists in this institution? From the nature of their evaluations I will venture to guess that they do not have one. To have poorly trained individuals in charge of environmental protection dancing to the tune of politicians and ‘investors’ is dangerous for the future.

The question now is ‘What can we do ?’ A public demonstration was held in Bandarawela last week to protest the irresponsibility of the Government officials responsible for the Uma Oya project, which was destroying the shallow aquifer, robbing all the wells of their water and cracking the foundations of dwellings and commercial buildings. There, the level of irresponsibility by the Government was publicly exposed. The Uma Oya project began almost a year before an EIA was issued and approved. In the face of this illegality, some officials are still attempting to force the project to proceed. It is now a question of a person protecting his or her property. If a group of foreigners are engaged in an illegal activity that threatens the sustainability of an entire region of a nation, whom will the government protect? The Nature of the underlying rock formations in respect to the shallow aquifer has not even been considered in this EIA. The threat of landslides already a concern in the area, could be greatly increased if the tunneling is allowed to proceed.

It is said that actions speak louder than words, many words to placate the people of the Uva have been spoken but houses continue to split, wells continue to dry.

Community protest against the Uma Oya project.

As the affected people stated, they need their disrupted lives settled urgently, but how do we pay compensation for a drinking water well that provided water for ten generations or more? What compensation can be paid for weakening the rock structure of the Southern mountains and exposing us all to landslides? And finally, who is this water for anyway?

If these perverted process are termed ‘development’ then we have truly lost our direction. Egotistical bombast is not leadership. Compromising our environmental and public health for ‘investments’ can never create a bright future for us or our children.

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