13 April, 2024

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We Must Be More Engaged: Climate Change Effects Are Unlikely To Be Kind!

By Nimal Chandrasena

Prof. Nimal Chandrasena

The inability of Sri Lankan citizens to engage properly with critical issues on time presents the greatest of risks to the society. Needless to say, it is sad that the country ended up in its current, precarious state due to a financial crisis brought about by wicked and corrupt politicians, combined with ignorant and incompetent public servants who are now trying to blame COVID! The Supreme Court recently said that – Not me – and also pointed to the culprits!

Notwithstanding the economic decay, as a scientist, I worry about energy and water supplies, land clearing, sand extraction, illegal developments around ancient tanks, elephant deaths and many other serious issues that should cause urgent concern in our Motherland. As politics consumes daily discourses, climate change is looming as the largest threat that the island faces.

The inadequate capacity for global engagement in scientific disciplines (and other fields like humanities) is a personal shock to me. This is a malady that has plagued the country for a long time, although it wasn’t like this until recent decades. Sri Lanka’s rich publishing history, in all fields of endeavour (books, monographs, research articles, local journals, etc.) attests to the fact that the decay occurred only in the last 30 or so years. Readers of this article can then work out what dominant and influential factors coincided with and may have caused the decline.

The terrorist war to divide the country certainly wasn’t the only factor. Intellectual discourses decayed over about three decades. In this period, politics interfered with all aspects of public life including how institutions set their goal and run their mandates, in line with the country’s development goals. The future will require ‘de-coupling’ of this interference – if we want to save a large number of public institutions and work towards getting the country out of trouble.

The island’s water supplies (quantity) and quality of ‘drinking water’ are looming as potential disasters that might stump a large section of the population. Drinking water is certainly one of the greatest challenges the country faces as El-Nino takes hold from 2023 and unfolds over the next few years. The weather gods are not going to be kind to any country; Sri Lanka also will not be spared.

Every day, there are continuous conversations in this regard in the Asian-Pacific region, including Australasia, and elsewhere. The problem is engineers and scientists, dealing with water resources in Sri Lanka, seem rather distracted and disengaged in these conversations. Media articles and discourses don’t seem to focus on this critical issue in our Motherland. This is indeed the time for ‘constructively engaging’ with the climate change issue and impending scenarios without the ugly political discourses enveloping the island.

The Year 2023 is likely to be declared the hottest in the history of humankind. Rising Carbon dioxide (CO2) levels are now well past 420 parts per million (ppm). It was 421.8 on 14th December, measured at Mauna Loa Observatory, Hawaii. The resultant global warming effects are already causing havoc in weather patterns in many parts of the world.

The island should plan for prolonged droughts and enormous pressures on water supplies. Not just millions of people in rural areas, but the urban population will also suffer due to water shortages and disruption to power supplies. The shenanigans in that bearpit, called the Parliament, are so disruptive that one could excuse the public servants for worrying primarily about their own existence, instead of focusing on water resources, wildlife or impending climate change effects.

Disengagement is a Malady to be redressed

In day-to-day discourses, political corruption, daylight robbery, drug use, maladministration, poverty, murders, rapes and suicides, thuggery, cricket, stories about the underworld, etc. dominate the discourses in Sri Lanka. What a shame! Singaporean and Malaysian colleagues have laughed directly in my face about that political joke about Sri Lanka rising as “A Miracle of Asia”!

The destruction of the island’s agriculture with imported, excrement-laden, organic farming, was a ‘death wish’. The culprits and miscreants are in plain hiding, while we, Sri Lankan-born scientists, have become laughing stock in the South-Asian and the broader Australasian region. An Indian agriculturist, condescendingly and rather cheekily asked me last year ‘Is there any agriculture in Sri Lanka? What a shame on a country with such an agricultural heritage!

In the cauldron of ills adversely affecting society, climate change (CC) adaptation has taken a back seat on the island. If citizens lack knowledge regarding a particular policy issue, if they are unengaged, and if they have high trust in the efficiency of the institutions provisioning a service, there will be very little pressure on those holding power (i.e. politicians) to place the issue on the political agenda. Presently, daily discourses prove that CC adaptation is the least of the concerns of the citizens who do not have much to eat.

Getting back to drinking water – Are we, as a country, prepared for fluctuating water supplies and water quality risks that climate change will bring about? I appeal to the engineers and scientists in the country to forget these corrupt politicians and do what they have to do. Global engagement is a MUST in managing water resources as the risks due to bacterial contaminants (Escherichia coli and other water-borne pathogens) and protozoans (such as Cryptosporidium and Giardia), as well as industrial pollutants, including metals and metalloids.

One cannot ignore the possibility of fertilizers and pesticides also in this category of contaminants, which can end up in waterways as a result of overuse and misuse. However, concentration is the critical issue as to how much people are exposed to via various pathways, including drinking. The threat of such chemicals to well-treated, drinking water supplies is almost always negligible or non-existent, based on globally-accepted drinking water guidelines.

Standard practices of securing ‘safe’ drinking water include chlorination, ozonation, and other forms of disinfection. These are in place for water treatment on the island, reducing the risks posed by drinking water. Reverse Osmosis (RO), a high-input technology,, has also been deployed, albeit on a limited scale, in areas that appear to have high levels of fluoride and other ions that are implicated in the Chronic Kidney Disease of Unknown Aetiology (CKDu). However, as a country, Sri Lanka is way behind other developing countries in many areas of analytical capabilities and instrumentation. Without the capability to rapidly analyse water samples for any or all of these analytes, ‘safe’ drinking water supplies cannot be secured.

The island is also way behind other developing countries in integrating solar energy to drive the RO plants deployed or any other new technologies. We would do well to update the existing plans for disasters increasingly driven by CC. This planning should include how to access and deliver safe drinking water and food to a large populace who might be affected by an unusual climate event. Other countries and even major cities are already well-advanced in this planning because people, both scientists and society, have been more engaged.

CC-related risks identified by the International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) include the prospect of increased extreme weather events, both regarding frequency and severity, floods, cyclones, droughts, heat waves, extreme cold and wildfires. All have the potential, in various ways, to negatively impact water supplies and water treatment processes.

All over the world, the existing guidelines and regulations regarding the management of drinking water quality concerning extreme weather events are judged to be insufficient. Extreme weather events can have negative impacts not only on water quality but also on the availability of drinking water, calling for strategies for adaptation and mitigation to reduce vulnerability.

Better planning and more investments in maintenance (including those RO plants in CKDu-affected villages) are therefore needed. Such planning requires a dialogue between local scientists, government departments and civil society, supported by selected experts on different subject areas. It is crucial for society, in various ways, to engage with the issue. Waiting for the government to tell us what to do is not an option in preparing for potential CC effects.

The next government – if there is going to be a change in 2024, has its work cut out to plan with the relevant public servants how to adapt and mitigate climate change effects. They must wake up from their current apathy, overcome political interference, hope for a better future and plan to ensure the most critical day-to-day requirements for existence, including drinking water and energy supplies. Without those, the future will be far worse than the economic pressure and conditions in which the greater majority of people are currently suffering.

*Professor Nimal Chandrasena (formerly, Department of Botany, University of Colombo), Editor-in-Chief WEEDS, Journal of the Asian-Pacific Weed Science Society nimal.chandrasena@gmail.com

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Latest comments

  • 2
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    Aiyyo Professori, didn’t you hear our hero Ranil Wickremasinghe, who has steered the country out of the economic crisis by securing the second tranche of the IMF’s extended fund facility, attending the recently concluded COP28 Climate Summit in Dubai, has at the said summit, proposed an International Climate Change University (ICCU) to be established in Sri Lanka to carry out research on Climate Change.
    .
    All our Climate Change troubles will be solved once it is done. What’s more? He met Mr. Bill – Know it all – Gates at the same COP28 summit, with whom he has discussed many green initiatives to be taken in Sri Lanka. They even took a photo together.
    .
    So nothing to worry. Our future is in safe hands. Ranil and Bill a match made in heaven. All we need is to sit back and enjoy the rising cost of living and taxes, patiently waiting for prosperity to come in 2048 – So chill!
    .
    PS: forgot to mention now we are ready to export weed, apparently a good source of dollars. Nothing can’t go wrong.

    • 5
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      Isn’t this forum for us to write focussed comments on the main article we supposedly just read, not all sorts of unrelated nonsense?

      If your mind is structured differently [to be polite], then you may believe the forum is there to showcase your brilliance and popularise your photo and alias. Unfortunately, the usual reader reaction is that such aliases get noted for silly snippets and are avoided, but perhaps read and applauded by the individual posting it.

      Such dim-witted aliases are recognised by the habit of supporting each other, penning congratulatory messages on another’s comments and not on the main article, and in turn getting a pat on the back from the daft individual they just admired.

      If a commentator has strayed well off the subject and inserted a silly item, then yes, point it out briefly. No need for more boring and long-winded nonsense in response.

      There is for instance, someone called “Mallum” or “Malluma” or something rhyming with it, who painstakingly writes comments unrelated to the main article, and exceeds its length, numbering snippets from 1 to 50. His language and reasoning is so convoluted only he must understand what he pens.

      • 1
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        Chill!
        .
        Ever heard of sarcasm and satire? Read between the lines – my comment is well within the realms of the subject the main article is addressing, while your long harangue is not. If a comment is out of line there are moderators who would act on it. No need of a self appointed, self righteous comment police.
        .
        Have a great day!

      • 2
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        “Isn’t this forum for us to write focussed comments on the main article we supposedly just read, not all sorts of unrelated nonsense? “
        Sonali, sorry to say that the majority vote on thumb count is a firm NO.

  • 3
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    No, no, professor. Manure has been used from time immemorial. Cattle dung, for instance. Or cow dung, as we call it here in Lanka.

    Also scientific commentary tells us human waste, properly treated, can and is being used as fertilizer. Nothing wrong.

    But the above article insists, in no uncertain terms, “The destruction of the island’s agriculture with imported, excrement-laden, organic farming, was a ‘death wish’.”

    Really?

    That’s in contradiction with the core of the professor’s article. It supposedly encourages us to be more aware of climate change and act accordingly.

    If so, we must revert to organic farming wherever possible, avoiding manufactured fertilisers.

    A previous article by Mr Chandrasena and a colleague about weed-killer Roundup and its broad-spectrum active ingredient glyphosate, failed to mention the herbicide is linked to an increased risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma and other types of cancers.

    Subsequent comments gave this writer much merriment.

    Some pointed out that the journal WEEDS was “probably funded by Monsanto, directly or indirectly?” and “conflict of interest should have been appended”.

    Another claimed there were lucrative gifts hidden among the weeds.

    Continued

  • 3
    3

    Comments continued

    Blank spaces between earholes was one comment you couldn’t miss.

    The two authors’ claimed to have done field research in Sri Lanka – unchecked and unsupervised by any of the island’s authorities – and so published findings that roundly condemned previous international and UN reports on Roundup’s possible poisonous and deadly effects.

    As is usual with published CT articles, we then have various supporters and opponents come onto the forum, some unschooled habituals [habitchola karayas?], AI bots, maybe even author’s aliases, all rushing online to give ticks of approval, even argue that the article is ‘solid’ and ‘educational’.

    Pointing to legitimate flaws are insolently ridiculed.

    Roundup was sold by Monsanto to Germany’s Bayer, all international conglomerates that pat each other’s backs. The author is editor of WEEDS.

    • 7
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      In authors’ defence I thought the main objective of that other article on round-up was to highlight flaws in an article that has been previously published elsewhere, based on an equally flawed (in authors’ opinion) scientific paper published on a scientific journal that linked CKDu with round-up use.
      .
      Ideally they should have submitted their critique to the same publiclication to be published giving equal visibility. (No idea if it was done)
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      But I do agree the authors could have, and even should have disclosed any other negative health effects linked to round-up use as an aside. But have they claimed there is no such effects? There local research I thought was to identify any links between CKDu and round-up use, which they to have found none. Does that contradict with previously published international research?
      .
      Whether they are on Monsanto/Bayer pay-roll directly or indirectly is at best speculative and at worst slander, and should have been avoided unless there’s proof.
      .
      One must not throw the baby out with the bath water.

  • 3
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    There is no real link between this article and the previous. Focusing our attention on the risks of CC, to which I allude to, is an urgent need. We have indeed written a more scientific rebuttal of the Ulrich et al. Glyphosate article and submitted it to the journal, which published it. That is standard procedure in science journals (answer to Ruchira). What we pointed out was that a blatant conclusion that Glyphosate is linked to CKDu, as claimed in the Ulrich et al. article’s title, ‘cannot be made on THAT evidence’. Again, digressing from THIS article, neither author of the previous article was influenced by Monsanto. The Journal WEEDS is the official journal of an international, professional Society, the Asian-Pacific Weed Science Society, which has existed for 56 years. Please see the Link: http://apwss.org.in/Guidelines_for_Authors.aspx.

  • 0
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    Professor Chandrasena’s opening statement reads: “The inability of Sri Lankan citizens to engage properly with critical issues on time presents the greatest of risks to the society.”
    .
    Part of the problem is oppression: Attitudes and acts that actively discourage and curtail such engagement in my experience, by the higher ups in the hierarchical order across the sectors – government, non-government and private.
    .
    The reasons I believe are many. The sense of apprehension that stems from their insecurities. The fear that their inefficiencies and corruption would be exposed and may result in losing their power, priviledges, money and status acquired without any justification or credibility. Sheer jelousy and various prejudices arising from the various ethnoreligious and sociopolitical groups to these individuals subscribe to including caste.
    .
    Geopolitical dynamics and tensions arising from various geopolitical interests of external forces and inclinations and allegiances of the local actors towards these external forces.
    .
    Notwithstanding our love for tourists that bring in dollars that is getting highlighted currently due to the economic crisis, various forms and degrees of xenophobia too contribute to the problem, which may be arising from various factors described above.
    .
    Therefore going back to the original statement of focus, inability is also an outcome of oppression.

    • 0
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      Clarification on my above comment.
      .
      Addition to the opening statement I have quoted the author further states: “The inadequate capacity for global engagement in scientific disciplines (and other fields like humanities) is a personal shock to me. This is a malady that has plagued the country for a long time,…”
      .
      My critique in the previous comment is in relation to both of these statements.
      .
      Disengagement from global knowledge by those who are in hierarchical positions, scientific and otherwise, imv also results in general disengagement of the population from the issues that are crucial to them, as engagement comes from being able to critically evaluate a given concern for which relevant knowledge and skills are prerequisites. They need to trickle down from top to bottom through formal and informal education.

  • 1
    1

    A nice friendly one. Very agreeable. Must have read the article from top to bottom. Clap, clap. Or have I worded it wrong? Should it be claptrap?

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