“We need to be visionaries”

“Sri Lanka has seen a historical increase in both the number and intensity of droughts, floods, geographic changes to vector borne diseases, coastal erosion, tropical storms, lightening, crop failures, landslides, and siltation of reservoirs,” says Dr. Lalanath de Silva, PhD, LL.M, Attorney-at-Law in his speech at the recently concluded Biodiversity Sri Lanka’s Annual Meeting.

The causes of these changes are climate change and sea level rise, among other artificial factors. Climate change is considered to be a force that will negatively affect the natural environments and eventually deteriorate humanity as we know it.

This article is based on our conversation with Dr. Lalanath de Silva an environmental activist and Attorney-at-Law and Dr. Chaturangi Wickramaratne of the Environmental Foundation (Guarantee) Limited (EFL).

The causes of climate change

Climate change is a prevailing issue in Sri Lanka; several coastal areas have suffered severe damage due to sea levels rising and coastal erosion, and communities living in the seaside areas have lost property and housing.

According to the Environmental Scientist/Head of Science of EFL Dr. Chaturangi Wickramaratne, some of the processes that are resulting in sea level rise are still being studied. Thermal expansion of water with increasing temperatures as well as melting ice caps in polar regions mainly cause sea level rising.

Sea erosion is also a major consequence of climate change and is mainly caused due to unplanned city building and sand mining according to Dr. Lalanath de Silva.

Impacts of climate change

It is important to identify that sea level rising has a larger impact on island communities like Sri Lanka or the Pacific islands. Therefore, coastal erosion is predicted to worsen over the years.

Dr. Chaturangi believes that the impact on coastal habitats is adverse. “Sea level rise may result in saline water intruding into fresh water bodies and this will have adverse impacts on the environment and its surrounding communities. For example, 80% of Colombo uses the water from the Kelani River for everyday purposes and therefore in a case of mixing with saline water, we will have to implement proper costly water treatment mechanisms to desalinise the water. Salt water intrusion also destroys the key aquatic ecosystems.”

Then there’s the direct impact on coastal constructions such as tourist hotels and buildings erected on the beach.

Page 12 of The World Bank, Sri Lanka Development Update, June, 2017, stated that an average of annual losses for housing, infrastructure, agriculture, and relief from natural disasters are estimated at Rs. 50 billion, with the highest annual expected losses from floods (Rs. 32 billion), cyclones or high winds (Rs. 11 billion), droughts (Rs. 5.2 billion) and landslides (Rs. 1.8 billion). This is equivalent to 0.4% of GDP or 2.1% of government expenditure. With reference to the said report, Dr. Lalanath is of the sentiment that “facts and statistics have been put forward, and the Government has acknowledged the prevailing issue, but what are they doing about it?”

How do we tackle climate change?

Dr. Lalanath declared: “Sri Lanka has little choice but to prepare for and adapt to climate change. Sri Lanka’s greenhouse gas emissions are miniscule in comparison to those of developed nations – India or China. Climate change is not of Sri Lanka’s making – but have no doubt, we are, and will continue to be the victims of it. So it is important that we take action and take action now.”
There are two ways of tackling climate change. That is adaptation and mitigation. Adaptation goes hand-in-hand with the acceptance of climate change and the understanding that the only way is to learn how to live with it. According to Dr. Chaturangi, one of the key ways of adaption is to develop effective pre-warning systems with regard to floods, landslides, and droughts. This will minimise the impact it may cause.

Another important element under adaptation would be to try and reduce flooding and other natural hazards. “A lot of flash floods occur, especially in Colombo, as a result of poor constructions. Smart building plans should be made, with effective drainage systems and more green covers. The wetlands in city areas should be protected; these ecosystems act as a buffer against floods.”
The next part is mitigation. This is combating climate change by reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and increasing our forest cover. Reduction in GHG can be achieved by moving towards renewable energy sources and moving away from traditional energy sources that are major GHG contributors, such as coal.

Protection of the forest covers in the country is crucial, says Dr. Chaturangi. “We should also protect our forests and pristine ecosystems, forests are said to absorb as much as 30% of the anthropogenic emissions, and mangroves act as carbon sinks. Therefore, the removal of these ecosystems will increase the amount of greenhouse gases in the environment.

Are we moving forward?

Sri Lanka submitted the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) in the year 2015 before signing the Paris Agreement on Climate Change – one of the key environment protection conventions in the world. The NDC of Sri Lanka, considered a key document with regards to climate change in Sri Lanka, swore a mandatory 4% cut down and a voluntary 16% cut down in the energy sector.

The Government also put forward the National Climate Protection Policy (NCPP), put forward by the Ministry of Environment. The policy swears to take initiative and minimise greenhouse gases and work to battle against climate change. The policy dictates that “while taking adaptive measures as the priority, Sri Lanka will be actively involved in the global efforts to minimise the greenhouse gas emissions within the framework of sustainable development and principles enshrined in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and its Kyoto Protocol (KP).”

The NCPP aims to address climate change issues locally while engaging in the global context; the adaptation and mitigation of climate change impacts within the framework of sustainable development in order to create a future where climate change will have no adverse consequences on Sri Lanka.

There are also several non-governmental organisations such as the EFL, committed to work towards adaptation and mitigation against climate change.

Our agro-businesses, fisheries, local government institutions on the southern and western coasts, businesses in vulnerable areas along the coast – including tourist hotels, and our plantation sectors will suffer massive losses when climate change impacts.
While it is important to implement government policies and initiatives to bring out successful results and a positive upgrade in the movement towards sustainable development, it is also crucial that we educate the masses about the causes, the consequences and the magnitude of this catastrophe that we are facing as a nation.

Dr. Lalanath said: “We need to be visionaries and act to ensure the survival of our people – our children and grandchildren. If we don’t act now – if you don’t act now – we will be left with a devastated nation hurtling down an economic spiral of doom.”


By Pujanee Galappaththi

Nature shots: Zaineb Akbarally