26 September, 2020

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Sri Lanka Is Still Not Prepared For Tackling Climate Change Issues

By W.A. Wijewardena

Dr W.A. Wijewardena

Maurice Strong: Godfather of climate change issues

Ever since the man credited to be the godfather of the global climate change issues, Maurice Strong, founding Director of United Nations Environment Programme or UNEP, started to talk about these issues in early 1970s, it became the hot topic at many international forums. Strong, together with Barbara Ward and Rene Dubos, submitted a report titled “Only One Earth: The Care and Maintenance of a Small Planet” to the UN Conference on Environment held in Stockholm in 1972 and that was the first report on the state of the global environment or at least the doomsday predicted for environment.  In an interview with BBC in the same year, he reconfirmed his doomsday prediction for earth which according to him was mainly due to the short-sighted actions of the mankind (available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1YCatox0Lxo ). Since then, climate change issues have been globalised and he had supporters as well as opponents. His critics condemned him for being a ‘malevolent force’ to destroy the earth rather than a crusader to save it. The reference here is to the enormous power which the climate change campaign he initiated had gathered over the years among the global leaders making it the single most important global issue today. While the causes of climate change are due to the actions of the people at large all over the globe, its adverse consequences are felt mostly by people living in individual countries. Sri Lanka being a country sitting at the receiving end has to concern itself about the likely consequences of the predicted changes in the climate over the years. To facilitate Sri Lanka to do so, the Institute of Policy Studies or IPS has discussed the major climate change issues facing Sri Lanka in its newest publication titled “Climate Change Issues in Sri Lanka”.

Global warming claims despite mini ice ages

The examination of the global temperature data since 1900 by a section of scientists in early 1970s had shown that the earth had been warming gradually despite there had been a mini ice age that had started in mid 1940s and ended in early 1980s. The acceleration of the warming process since then has vindicated Maurice Strong who first talked about it in early 1970s. The consequences of global warming as identified by the scientific community have been the following: The gradual desertification of the earth, decline in agricultural productivity, rising of sea levels and the consequential submerging of many low level countries, unexpected and sporadic forest fires and unusually extreme weather conditions. The sum total of all these catastrophic developments is to make the earth uninhabitable for living. Yet, how climate change issues will affect Sri Lanka and what Sri Lanka should do in advance to avert the adverse consequences have not been studied at policy levels except in a few studies completed by the International Water Management Institute or IWMI based in Colombo. These studies contain rich information but they have gone unnoticed by a nation that has to prepare itself to face any consequential catastrophe.

“Small is Beautiful” for IPS

The IPS publication under reference is small – just 34 pages with the back cover – but like any small thing, it is beautiful. The short articles which it carries have been authored by a diverse group of people who have interest in the subject. In addition to those from its own research staff, IPS has assembled articles from those who work at local universities, government institutions and international bodies. The articles are the outcome of the serious research done by the experts concerned but have been written in simple language to ensure easy readability by even the ordinary readers.

Natural disasters worsen the conditions of the poor

Kanchana Wickramasinghe of IPS in a short article on Impact of Global Climate Change on Inclusive Growth in Sri Lanka, the target of the government in its present policy package, has argued that natural disasters that arise as a consequence of climate change make inclusive growth goals unattainable. This is so by displacing the vulnerable groups in the society and causing a diversion of resources which otherwise would have been used for inclusive growth. Since many in Sri Lanka are engaged in agriculture – whether plantation or food crop production – the climate change and water scarcity will adversely affect both groups. In addition, water scarcity will make Sri Lanka energy poor since the country depends on hydropower for generating up to 40 per cent of its electricity requirements. Low energy production means low economic growth and low economic growth will worsen the conditions of marginal groups making economic inclusiveness difficult.

Free water? Not the best way to induce conservation

These arguments by Wickramasinghe have been taken forward by several other writers who have written on water, agriculture in general, rice farming, tea and coconut cultivations. Herath Manthrithilake of IWMI has drawn attention to water problems – droughts and floods – which Sri Lanka is to face due to climate changes. He has suggested that the country should have a proper water management system in which rain water is tapped and stored in a cascade of small tanks to preserve moisture level in soil, a must for continuous agricultural development. Tapping rain water is one thing which is an engineering feasibility given the availability of funding and technology. But the crucial issue is getting farmers to use water economically when it is available without a price. Sri Lanka is notorious for overusing water for paddy farming, at the rate of some 30 litres to produce one kilogram of paddy. If this water is priced even at Rs 2 a litre, the price of rice has to go up by at least Rs 100 per kg making Sri Lanka’s rice production totally uncompetitive. These are crucial issues faced by economists not considered by scientists.

Predicted decline in the rainfall in the dry zone by 2050

C. Shanthi de Silva of the Open University writing on the impact of climate change on agriculture has argued that changes in rainfall and temperature patterns will affect agriculture through reduction in soil moisture, an argument put forward by Manthrithilake as well. Using the classification suggested by United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or IPCC, she has predicted the rainfall changes in Sri Lanka up to 2050. The results have been mixed with some centres recording increases in rainfall and some recording decreases. The decreases are predicted mainly for the dry zone, the food production basket of the country. This has serious implications on the future food production of the country requiring the early implementation of adaptation measures.  Her suggestion is that farmers should learn efficient water management methods, given the shortage of water they might experience as a result of the decrease in the rainfall in the dry zone. As noted above, the best way to force a consumer to use an economic output is to get him to pay for it; education and awareness programmes will not work in the market place with the same efficiency as prices.

Micro irrigation better for preserving soil moisture

B V R Punyawardena and P B Dharmasena, both of the Department of Agriculture, have come up with solutions for agriculture in two articles. Having established the impact of a decrease in rainfall on agriculture, Punyawardena has suggested two adaptation strategies, one technical and the other policy related. At technical level, while going for micro irrigation, he has suggested that dry zone and upland areas should be converted to fruit production that needs a reduced quantity of water compared to paddy farming. Though this suggestion has some merits, it will certainly lead to political and social issues since Sri Lanka is being identified as a ‘nation of rice’ by its people. At policy levels, Punyawardena says that water conservation methods are a must. Dharmasena has reported that studies have shown that traditional farming of rice, when done continuously for a few seasons has the capacity to meet greater drought conditions than modern farming. Hence, according to him, reversion to traditional farming is the more viable option.

Temperature increases benefit high elevational teas, but punish mid and low elevations

M A Wijeratne of the Tea Research Institute has suggested that studies have shown mixed results of climate change on elevational tea cultivation. While high elevation tea is benefitted by rising temperature due to gaining the optimal temperature levels, low and mid elevation tea will suffer due to an increase in temperature. Hence, he has recommended the adoption of good agricultural practices known as “no-regret strategies” depicting a ‘win-win’ situation for all, if one puts his suggestion in the language spoken by economists.

Coconut trees to mitigate climate changes

Sanathanie Ranasinghe of the Coconut Research Institute has written on the climate change and its impact on the country’s coconut industry. According to her, though the coconut plantations would suffer as a result of the increase in temperature, mature coconut trees will be able to sequester or capture and store much of the CO2 in the atmosphere and provide an overall benefit to environment. Thus, though she has not suggested it, proper water management in coconut plantations is a must as suggested by other experts who have written on agriculture. It is time for Sri Lanka’s CRI to do research on developing a coconut variety that will require less water and therefore could withstand prolonged drought conditions.

Will Sri Lanka be submerged by the sea?

One of the important claims of climate change is the sea level rising due to the melting of the glaciers in the Northern and Southern Poles. It has been claimed by the proponents of climate change that the low level countries would be submerged under water which includes the coastal belt and the low plains of Sri Lanka as well. S S L Hettiarachchi and S P Samarawickrama of the University of Moratuwa, having accepted the global consensus of sea level rising due to climate change, have advised that Sri Lanka should make a proper assessment of the risk by undertaking three important risk assessments, namely, hazard, vulnerability and capacity. They have laid down seven critical areas which have to be assessed under the risk assessment programme. Their conclusion is that Sri Lanka should implement a coastal zone planning and management programme in order to mitigate the possible risk of sea level rising due to climate change.

The beautiful corals will be lost forever

Sandeep Jayawardena of IPS has looked at another area relating to sea level rising due to climate change. That is, its impact on coral reefs of Sri Lanka. Any damage to coral reefs due to increases in the temperature in the oceans is irreversible and therefore should be prevented in advance. Since one of the functions of the oceans is to absorb CO2 in the atmosphere and allow it to die over a period, any unusually high emission of the gas into the atmosphere for absorption by oceans will change the carbonic acid levels in them. Jayawardena argues that such a process is harmful to the algae in the coral reefs. Since Sri Lanka is not in a position to prevent the global emission of CO2, Jayawardena recommends the implementation of early conservatory action by the country. But it requires more research in the ocean conservation field.

Global action, no action talk only

Four articles in the volume have discussed the current state of the global action to prevent global warming and consequential climate change. What role should Sri Lanka play in this global game? Should it be an active partner or a passive spectator of the catastrophe being unfolded? These issues have been looked at in these articles.

Kanchana Wickramasinghe of IPS has addressed these issues in two articles. In the first article concerning the Copenhagen Accord, she has looked at the question of raising resources for implementing the principles agreed at the Copenhagen Summit. Naturally, a poor country like Sri Lanka cannot bear these expenses alone and Wickramasinghe has recommended that it should tap the resources available globally under the Accord by developing a suitable national level agenda for implementation alongside the Copenhagen Principles. In the second article on Rio + 20 which has been authored before the conclusion of the much hyped Conference, Wickramasinghe has emphasised on the need for Sri Lanka to follow a green path toward its future development. Given the dismal results the Conference has produced, had she written the article ex post, she would have come to different conclusions. In a post Rio + 20 Conference analysis, W.L Sumathipala of the Open University has documented the major decisions taken at the Conference. It is now up to Sri Lanka to take note of the agreement reached at the Conference and prepare its national agenda on environment accordingly.

Community participation in environmental action is helpful

Leela Padmini Batuwitage, a Vice Chair of the Compliance Committee of Basel Convention, has written about an important aspect of any national level climate change policy. That is how the citizens should participate in such a programme. Batuwitage says that the citizens should be mindful of the emerging catastrophe and make their contribution to avert it by going for sustainable production and consumption methods. She also has emphasised on the need for reducing the gap between the rich and the poor in order to narrow the over-use and the under-use of natural resources which eventually leads to a balanced and sustainable growth.

Ignoring critics doesn’t serve any purpose

One glaring omission which I have noted in the publication is that it has presented only the views of those who believe that there is a climate change created by human action. While a majority of the scientists believe so, there is a group of experts who have voiced the opposite. According to them, 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, but global cooling which is the main catastrophe facing the mankind. To provide a balanced view to readers, it would have been better if space has been allocated for these counter views in this volume. But the present exercise is the beginning and later the compilers may expand their scope by providing a forum for these counter views as well.

Develop drought resistant new varieties

This publication has brought to our focus a number of issues relating to climate change, if it occurs. Sri Lanka should be better prepared for such an eventuality since it is expected to have serious implications on the country’s agriculture. If an elevation of temperature and a reduction of rainfall are the order of the future, the country’s research institutes should be lined up right now to develop new varieties of crops that will require less water and can withstand prolonged drought conditions. As it is the local scientists are engaged in fundamental research and not in applied research that will develop such new varieties of crops. One reason they attribute to the paucity of applied research is the lack of funds which the state has not been able to provide in view of its wider budgetary constraints. In these circumstances, it is of utmost importance to link these research programmes with private sector companies that will exploit the findings of research commercially. This was how the Silicon Valley revolution that paved the way for the current ICT advancements was brought about in California, USA in 1980s.

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

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Latest comments

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    Apparently , the God father of climate change issues in Sri Lanka is none other than our President himself!

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    Climate change is a significant and lasting change in the statistical distribution of weather patterns over periods ranging from decades to millions of years. It may be a change in average weather conditions, or in the distribution of weather around the average conditions (i.e., more or fewer extreme weather events). Climate change is caused by factors that include oceanic processes (such as oceanic circulation), biotic processes, variations in solar radiation received by Earth, plate tectonics and volcanic eruptions, and human-induced alterations of the natural world.”

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