Environmental Policy a MUST for Prez candidates

Today, even if you wish to dig a canal to provide water to rural people who are suffering from kidney diseases an environmental impact assessment is needed. One of the reasons given for the cancellation of the Port-City project by the Ranil-Maithri -Sampanthan co-habitation was that the construction of the port would destroy the marine ecosystem of the Western Sri Lanka. Coal power plants approved by a previous regime were cancelled and new LNG projects were commissioned, ostensibly for environmental reasons, but a dark under belly of commissions and kickbacks was revealed later.

The economic impact and the long-term political implications of such decisions are enormous. It is imperative that each presidential candidate spells out his/her policies for tackling major environmental issues.

The major environmental issues faced by the country, are actually dire threats that can eliminate millions of people within a few decades. Let us list the main issues:

(I) Climate change due to global warming.

Global warming is caused by the activities of massive populations in the developing countries, and the high consumerism of the developed world even with its lower populations. A single urban American has a climate footprint ten times that of a dry zone farmer. An important consequence of global warming is the rise in sea level, already a stark reality with parts of cities like Jakarta going under sea and the polar caps melting rapidly.

Such environmental events need the over-arching reach of central governments, and concerted action at a global level. The Paris Accord and such accords must be a cornerstone of the policies of presidential candidates. An authority over-arching any provincial power devolution must exist to deal with environmental problems, as detailed in my article entitled "A Tenth province or Coastal Authority to deal with climate change - A must for a 21st century constitution of Sri Lanka" (available at Researchgate: DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.27092.30085). The 13th Amendment can become 13A, where the "A" authorizes the central government to intervene on environmental and other concerns at a national level. Unfortunately, the TNA who should be most concerned about the North and the East, fails to comprehend that "Eelam" will soon be below sea level.

We must give credit to Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa for mentioning the environment in his candidature address. He should elaborate his plans for climate change, and dealing with the rise in sea level.

(II) Loss of habitat for flora and fauna

Human encroachment into every nook and corner is causing a catastrophic loss of biodiversity. While honey bee populations are soaring, wild bee populations are dropping fast. This implies that the main cause of the loss of biodiversity is not agrochemicals, because excessive use of agrochemicals should harm honey bees as well (see review by Goulson et. al. in Science 2015 and my article in the Island 31st July 2018).

Mr. Sajith Premadasa, a potential UNP presidential candidate, is well known to favour the environmentally catastrophic housing polices of his father. The old concept of "Gama, Weva, and Dagaba" (Village, Tank and Temple, VTT), with a house per family is a favoured paradigm of a certain sector of the leisured classes of Sri Lanka. They want to "go back" to the pastoral society depicted by, say, Robert Knox, with Humpty Dumpty back on the wall. Such a model inherent in the "Gam Udaawa" concept of Premadasa Sr., is possible ONLY IF the Sri Lanka's population was as in the early 19th century. Even then such models evolve to the sordid reality of Baddegama – 'Village in the Jungle'- penned by Leonard Wolfe.

In today's context, simple mathematical modeling shows that creating the VTT with the needed number of villages, tanks, temples etc., for 22 million would require the harnessing of every bit of arable land; converting the country into a veritable maze of concrete, asphalt, clusters of matchbox houses, and intensely eroded little bits of farmland covered by garbage mounds, short of water and power.

The only viable alternative is High-density Housing (high-rise apartments), with as much land returned to nature as possible. Such land, returned to nature must be linked by green corridors that connect with each other, and allow wild life to migrate freely from one nature area to another. Animal underpasses to cross highways must be built, as implemented in many Canadian Highways going through forest reserves. Highway expansion should be stopped and only public transport by electric trains should be encouraged.

Feeding the people has to be done while conserving habitat. This means we maximize harvests using a minimum of land. We go well beyond the possibilities of the "green revolution", and embrace the most modern farming approaches where fertilizers, pesticides and water are not released to the environment, but re-used in grow-towers (factory farms) sealed from the environment. I have described these in my article entitled "How a menaced humanity facing a threatened environment turns to ludicrous remedies -I" (Island, February 19, 2019), and in two follow-up articles.

The late President Ranasinghe Premadasa, and leaders of earlier generations the world over treated the environment as an infinite resource that we need not worry about. Indeed, the Bible says that God created nature for man to exploit! But how should one exploit it?

The environmental destruction caused by the Gal Oya and Mahaweli programs was a hundred times worse than what the British did in clearing hills and planting coffee and tea. But Gal Oya and Mahaweli reflected the best engineering thinking of the time, which was already decades behind the best science. The Club of Rome published its warnings in the 1970s, but their warnings were considered a worry for the future. The Club of Rome red alerts on feeding the world were resolved for those decades by ushering in the "green revolution", saving millions of lives.

Unfortunately, today we need technologies going well beyond the green revolution. Instead, the Yahapalanites deployed a Buddhist monk and his hangers-on to launch a program proposing to get Humpty Dumpty back on the job, with ancient seed, homemade compost and pesticides like Neem ("kohomba"), with the glyphosate banned. Little did they know that plants bio-accumulate large toxin loads from even low natural levels of toxins from the soil. So the compost has a much higher toxin level after a few planting seasons.

When the "army caterpillar" attacked crops in a recent pestilence, a monk claimed that he could destroy thousands of caterpillars and demonstrate the power of old fashioned "bio-pesticides"! Fortunately, the offer was rejected and modern technologies were used. Most weeds and insects have developed resistance to such bio-pesticides used by our ancestors. Even modern pesticides need continual reformulation, as the buildup of resistance is an inevitable evolutionary process.

(III) Imminent threat to the food supply

An imminent threat to the global food supply is caused by the rapid decline of wild bees, wasps and other pollinating insects with less and less habitat available to them. Honey bees cannot pollinate, say tomatoes, but wild bees can. The situation is already so critical in the UK that wild bees and other pollinating insects are imported from Eastern Europe annually!

In Sri Lanka, when farmlands become "unprofitable", conversion to housing or tourism is common. The unprofitable outcomes are mainly caused by outdated agricultural technologies and poor facilities for marketing the harvests. Once housing is built, road infrastructure, traffic with its diesel exhaust and fossil-fuel emissions, plastic pollution, urban garbage, sub-micron particulate dust etc., follow inexorably. The fragile ecosystems needed by bees, moths, wasps, dragonflies and wild flowers are destroyed. The interconnectedness of the web of life has been forgotten by a largely Buddhist society, eroded by mercenary ideologies.

There are many so-called "environmentalist" NGOs in Sri Lanka, usually manned by lawyers misled by reading pseudoscience published by the likes of Dr. Mercola. They uncritically believe that "agrochemicals" are the main cause of illness and the loss of biodiversity. Reverting to "traditional agriculture" is their "environmental solution".

Prof. Siriweera and other scholars have written about the precarious food supply, the hydraulic system and traditional agriculture, in facing enemy attacks, drought, floods etc., in ancient times, even though Sri Lanka called itself the granary of the orient. The world’s output of "organic" agriculture remains below 2% and increasing it even by ten-fold is a probably impossible.

If Sajith Premadasa or Gotabaya Rajapaksa proposes to hand over the "Gam Udaawa" lands to nature, increase forest cover, build high-rise residences that use solar power, twinned with high-tech grow towers built for providing food, and then we can applaud their environmental programmes. If the candidates agree to follow the best technological knowhow rather than fall prey to ideologically motivated fear-mongering Luddite NGOs, then we can again applaud them.

(IV) Rejection of fossil fuels

An urgent threat to the ecosystem is posed by continued acceptance of fossil fuels. Oil explorations in Sri Lanka’s oceans are an affront to ecological initiatives. Why invest in fossil fuels when the world is trying to phase them out, owing to their negative effect on health and the climate? Such explorations are inherently far more damaging to the marine ecosystem than the construction of a port city. The opponents of the port city have not even bothered to monitor the marine ecology to see how it is impacted now. They don't ever seem to need data.

If oil and gas were found in the Mannar basin, a long term environmental catastrophe and a serious threat to the nation's sovereignty are unleashed. Oil and gas extractions are inherently polluting and lead to periodic accidents and spills, even in highly experienced oil-producing countries. The TNA should rise tall against Mannar sea bed explorations, but it values ethnic purity more than environmental purity. Sri Lanka DOES NOT NEED oil or gas because she has huge resources in solar and biomass energy. They are sources of firm power and not intermittent power. I discussed these in a series of articles, e.g., "Clean, practical solutions to Sri Lanka's energy crisis - I", Island, 6-May-2019 and in two subsequent articles.

Besides the negative ecological effect of oil and gas exploitation, the country itself will be subjugated by powerful international oil companies backed by powerful countries, as is the case with oil rich countries like Nigeria.

So, we applaud any presidential candidate who will give a firm rejection to fossil fuel usage and fuel exploration, with diesel, gasoline etc., phased out within the next decade, while firmly committing to clean energies.

[The author, chandre.dharma@yahoo.ca, is affiliated to the National Research Council of Canada, and conducts research on topics in environmental science as well as on as aspects of quantum physics.]


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