Climate change: Devastation across the country while leaders have a party

This baked earth is all that is left following back to back droughts.

When in 2007, a Sri Lankan scientist predicted that Anuradhapura would experience desertification by 2050 with temperatures rising to 36 Celsius, few took any notice.  Then came back-to-back droughts, which devastated the agriculture based dry zone.  The North, North Central and Eastern Provinces are still battling the effects of the prolonged drought that has placed a heavy toll on both human and animal life. The drought also affected other areas of the country.   A short respite came only in the early months of December 2017 when the country experienced heavy rains and wind caused by cyclonic type weather.

The alert for 2050 was first made by Prof. Shanthi de Silva, of the Faculty of Engineering, Open University of Colombo and others, in a Study concluded in 2007, entitled “Predicting the impacts of climate change – A case study of paddy irrigation water requirements in Sri Lanka.”  Yet, it was not taken seriously at the time, says de Silva.  The vagaries of the weather that has caused havoc with the country’s monsoon patterns should be no surprise to anyone.

The warning signs have been around for years. Successive governments commissioned many plans to mitigate the effects, though a sustained commitment to implement those has been glaringly absent.  Sri Lanka was the first amongst Asian countries to introduce the National Environment Action Plan with the aim of setting up an environmental agenda.  The plan, which came into being in 1992, outlined corrective and preventative measures in the areas of forestry, water and land resources, industrial pollution, bio-diversity and wildlife, coastal resources, urban pollution, energy, education and culture.

The owner of the vegetable shop takes a nap until a buyer turns up. Less produce means skyrocketing prices few can afford.
The owner of the vegetable shop takes a nap until a buyer turns up. Less produce means skyrocketing prices few can afford.

The plan outlined activities under each of the above areas for a five-year period initially. Amongst these were the drafting of a new Act on Soil Conservation to supersede the 1951 Act, increasing incentives to farmers and tea small holders to encourage soil conservation, ensuring tobacco and other private companies re-  invest an adequate amount of profits into soil conservation. The  report also called for the creation of ‘green belts’ around  hydrological reservations and coastal areas, returning uneconomical  tea lands to natural forests, preparing a master plan for water  resources and educating officers and farmers on water management  methods, identifying a strategy to minimise the impact of the rise of  the sea level, the establishment of a special forest protection  division within the Forest Department, a national Wetland Master  Plan involving the participation of local residents in managing  aquatic resources, a strategic plan for solid waste management in  Colombo and urban areas, the setting up of an “environmental cell”  within the Ceylon Electricity Board as well as in the Urban  Development Authority, education on the environment to begin at  pre-school level and the use of cultural resources to raise  awareness.

Then, in 2008, the Climate Change Secretariat was established to “adopt a comprehensive national approach to address climate change challenges" The Meteorology Department often pilloried for inaccurate weather forecasting, also set up its own Centre for Climate Change Studies in 1999.  Research into, monitoring of climate change and creating awareness on the issue are listed amongst the work of the Centre.  Just recently, the private sector lent its support to combat the impact of climate change, when the Dilmah Group, famous for its Teas, set up the Dilmah Conservation Centre for Climate Change Research and Adaptation. Dilmah which owns and manage tens of thousands of acres of tea saw how the changing weather patterns was affecting tea output.

The Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment meanwhile has released the “National Adaptation Plan for Climate Change Impacts in Sri Lanka, 2016-2025.”  The report which identifies and recommends a variety of methods that would help the country adapt, claims that a rise of 1-3 mm a year is observed in the sea levels of the Asian region, which is slightly above the global average. The report adds that though an accelerated rise had been observed in the region during the period 1993 -2001, Sri Lanka is yet to assess the rise of sea levels around the island.

Climate map

The plan identifies key activities under “adaptation need” and “cross cutting area”, to minimise the effects of climate change in agro-eco systems, food security etc. and recommends the review of relevant macro and sectoral policies, ordinances and statutory procedures to find options to mainstream climate change adaptation activities.  It also advises the restructuring and strengthening of the Climate Change Secretariat to enable it to be the National Focal Point implementing the National Action Plan and the creation of a Forum of Civil Society Organizations to assist with coordinating community-based interventions. Local and international  partnerships and a National Adaptation Fund to support the  activities and programs, more national level research through  networking of agencies and universities, seed funding for  community level programs, compiling traditional local knowledge  on climate adaptation, training of relevant officers and  incorporating climate change in formal education, the setting up of a  National Task Force on Climate Information Products and the  identifying of capacity development needs of the Department of  Meteorology.

Sri Lanka’s contribution to global warming is negligible. It is the heavy carbon footprint of industrialized nations that has contributed largely to climate change the world over, and its negative effects can been seen in the intensity and regularity of floods, hurricanes, earthquakes and droughts throughout the world.    Even though Sri Lanka’s actions do not exacerbate the global situation, our willful destruction of natural resources and the environment for self-seeking gains, is speeding up the process that is radically changing the country’s weather pattern and by extension negatively affecting our livelihoods, and very survival.  Sri Lankan scientists involved in food production, the environment, water management etc are warning that we cannot be complacent.  With night time temperatures now higher than it used to be, food crops such as potato which need a clear variation in temperatures between night and day will be affected.

Professor Buddhi Marambe, Chairman of the National Expert Committee of Climate Change Adaptation at the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment notes that Sri Lanka has analyzed data since 1961, and that “there were hints of climate change in the 1970” adding that the reduction in the gap in temperatures between night and day is a clear sign of climate change. As of the year 2000, he adds, globally, temperature levels have increased, and since that year, the world has experienced 16 warm years.  The warmest year before that had been 1998.

All of the experts Counterpoint spoke have the same message; In the case of Sri Lanka, monsoon rains are no longer predictable.  The Maha season does not receive adequate rain, leaving farmers with little or no water to commence cultivation.  There is an overall decrease in the volume of rain the country receives as a whole, even though the Western Province has experienced more rain than usual these past few years.  A study conducted in 2015 by Professor de Silva, on climatic impacts on Sri Lanka, indicates that while the South West monsoons will bring increased rainfall, the dry zones, where most of the land is under agriculture will continue to receive less rain. The study predicts that Hambantota will experience the highest rainfall of 4% from amongst the cities in the dry zone expected to receive a slight increase.  Meanwhile, Anuradhapura, Trincomalee and Batticaloa will receive the least amount of rain, with the latter seeing a 14% decrease.

The tired beaten expression on the face says it all. It is the poor who have to pay the biggest price of climate change.
The tired beaten expression on the face says it all. It is the poor who have to pay the biggest price of climate change.

Erratic rainfall patterns, say experts, will also affect commercial crops, such as tea and rubber. The recent drought devastated the coconut plantations in the coconut triangle and will take years to recover. This drastic change in the weather has prompted the Agriculture Ministry to promote fast maturing rice varieties and those that could survive with less water.  Not only food and water shortages, rising temperatures and its consequences negatively impact health, ecosystems and infrastructure.  There will also be more human to human conflicts as coastal residents begin re-locating to higher land as sea levels rise.

Dr. Shiromani Jayawardena, Deputy Director, Research and Agrometeorology of the Department of Meteorology says that   data obtained from 19 meteorological stations from 1998 -2015 show an increase in minimum annual temperatures across the country. The study also finds that the diurnal temperature range, (the difference between minimum and maximum temperatures), ‘is decreasing, indicating that the minimum temperature is increasing faster than the maximum temperature.”  This decreasing trend is more significant in the dry zone during the Maha season.  The past observations of increased air temperatures which are expected to continue, will impact heavily on agricultural and urban demand for water and energy requirements. Dr. Jayawardena’s study claims that paddy cultivation during the Maha Season, could down by almost 70% impact owing to the reduction in the northeast monsoon rains. The changing trends will result in heat waves occurring more often, vector-borne and other diseases that result from contamination of surface and ground water, and more natural disasters such as landslides and floods.

Dr Sumith Pilapitiya, former Director General, Wildlife who also served as Environment Specialist at the World Bank says the issue is not the lack of policies but the inability of the government to implement. “Sri Lanka has enough policies and documents stating how to tackle this issue. But they are poorly implemented. If we implemented what we have in these documents, we would not be facing the consequences this way ” says Pilapitiya adding “clearly the weakness is in the implementation part. To implement these plans we need political support. However, politicians make decisions based on the next election and do not look at the long term effect, not national interests. Professionals can recommend but professionals do not decide what to do. It is the same with any government.”

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s statement in Parliament on December 8, 2017 was the first time a government minister tried to explain the impact on the country of the recent drought.  The prolonged drought and erratic weather patterns had negatively impacted both paddy and coconut harvests.  There has also been a 30% drop in the production of vegetables.  The Prime Minister said that though the department of Agriculture had aimed at having 14,798 hectares in the up-country and 32,216 hectares in the low country under vegetable cultivation in 2017, only 10,712 hectares and 19,673 hectares respectively had actually been cultivated. The Food and Agriculture Organization has predicted a 40% drop in paddy production. To meet the shortfall, the country has had to import rice.

Paddy production

Professor Wijesekeras says what needs to be done immediately is look at preserving the water resources.  “When it comes to water management we need to immediately look at irrigation. Irrigation can be divided into two categories. One is minor irrigation tanks and the other is medium and large scale tanks. The first category is the most impacted. They are small tanks in the Dry Zone where 20-30 farmers depend on.”  “The water crisis is at our doorstep now and we don’t have time to lose” he adds.

The 2015 report on the study on climate change suggests that more irrigation water must be allocated to the dry zone through restoration of and/or augmenting the existing tanks in the area.  Rain water harvesting and introducing water saving irrigation methods such as drip irrigation with agro wells are amongst the recommendations.  There is also an urgent need to improve the drainage system in Colombo and surrounding areas to cope with increased rainfall.   The Assistant Country Director, UNDP, Vishaka Hidellage points out that we need to handle the situation, both through mitigation and adaptation.

Samurdhi Officers, Agrarian and Provincial staff, says Hidellage are committed to working with farmers “It is necessary, to involve the locals in gathering data and information on weather patterns” she points out.  That would help both the officers and the farmers make informed decisions on which crops would be resilient to the vagaries of the weather and cultivate accordingly.  Sri Lanka has been home to one of the world’s best irrigation systems but has been largely neglected over time.  It is now being revived in a bid to combat the serious water shortage, and the UNDP is providing US $ 38.2 million to restore small tanks in the dry zone.  There will also be a comprehensive restoration of irrigation schemes in the Yan Oya, Malwatu Oya and Mee Oya areas, as they involve nearly 3500 small tanks and cover more than one district.  The project, which will re-introduce the ancient cascade system, will take nearly 7 years to be completed said Hidellage.

Innovative solutions are the need of the hour. Sri Lanka needs to identify and plant more trees that are good as fuel wood, and also promote more inter-cropping added Hidellage.    And of course, it is now necessary to take a critical look at our lifestyles, starting with those of us living in urban areas.    Who would think that a parapet wall increases the heat in the house by 2 degrees?  But that is exactly what happens, says Hidellage, who promotes using live fencing, with trees or hedges forming a natural separation of land. This would keep temperatures low, and will also reduce electricity usage.

The ever expanding construction industry has resulted in the indiscriminate mining of river sand, damaging eco systems and bringing in salt water into the rivers.

Urban and village dwellers are in the habit of throwing away refuse, often in plastic bags. Apart from damaging the environment, some of these bags get into the water ways.  Sri Lanka now has the honour of being the fifth amongst 20 countries that pollute the seas with plastic.

Over a half a million people were affected by flash floods and landslides in May last year. While there are no temporary camps set up, nearly 15, 000 families displaced by floods and landslides in 2016 and 2017 now live with family and friends. The long drought in the North, says Hidellage, resulted in many people moving to Vavuniya last year.

Seasonal crops

Meanwhile, the government is offering about Rs. 1.2 million per family for land and house, with the aim of persuading people to move to less high risk areas.

The 2018 budget, presented in November introduced a carbon tax aimed at supporting the “Sri Lanka Next” government initiative which promotes a Blue/Green sustainable development strategy to protect and mitigate the effects of global warming on the country.  This is a step in the right direction which, hopefully would not fall on the way side as a victim of hollow, opportunistic political opposition.

Despite the many reports, plans and projects and a serious commitment from the government to at least mitigate the impact of climate change, Sri Lanka needs to be more aggressive in enforcing policy to support these initiatives.  Sixteen thousand scientists from around the world issued a second notice, in November 2017, repeating an appeal made by scientists twenty-five years ago.  “Since 1992, with the exception of stabilizing the stratospheric ozone layer, humanity has failed to make sufficient progress in generally solving these foreseen environmental challenges, and alarmingly, most of them are getting far worse” The statement goes on to add “we have unleashed a mass extinction event, the sixth in roughly 540 million years, wherein many current life forms could be annihilated or at least committed to extinction by the end of this century”

In Sri Lanka then, it is essential that we advocate and practice more inter-connectivity between the public and government on this major challenge to the country, through better awareness. Politicians and government officials who permit indiscriminate destruction of our natural resources must be held accountable as should the corporate sector and the general public for any omissions or commissions that would worsen an already critical situation.  And that is a challenge that can be overcome only if all Sri Lankans realise the dangers.

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