Climate Change Issues in Sri Lanka

Launching the report on ‘Climate Change Issues in Sri Lanka’ prepared by the IPS by the Minister of Environment and Renewable Energy Susil Premajayantha. L to R: Dr. Dushni Weerakoon, Deputy Director, IPS; Dr. Saman Kelegama, Executive Director, IPS; Minister Premajayantha; and Mr. W.A. Wijewardena, former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka.

Book Review

Review by W.A Wijewardena

The Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka (IPS) has made available in journal form some selected papers published in its BlogSpot CLIMATEnet during January to December 2012 under the title "Climate Change Issues in Sri Lanka". The purpose of the publication as the cover page indicates is to promote research, inform people and assess impact. As an independent think-tank on economic development issues, this is an act warranting appreciation by all.

Climate change issues have been in the forefront of discussion in the global arena since mid 1970s when the simple models developed by scientists established the existence of a greenhouse effect caused by the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere, mainly due to human action. The examination of the global temperature data since 1900 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 had first worried scientists who had been engaged in research in this area and then civil society leaders and finally policy makers and politicians.

The consequences of such an accelerated global warming have also been identified as catastrophic. The range of identified impact consisted of many disasters. Some of them are the gradual desertification of the earth, loss of productivity of agriculture, rising of sea levels submerging many low lying countries under water, unexpected and sporadic forest fires and finally making the earth an uninhabitable place for species. Yet, how climate change issues will affect Sri Lanka and what Sri Lanka should do in advance to avert adverse consequences have not been studied at policy levels except a few studies done by the International Water Management Institute or IWMI based in Colombo. But the rich information contained in these few studies has gone unnoticed and not been reckoned in the country’s policy making. In this background, the initiative taken by IPS will provide a suitable platform for policy makers to incorporate climate change issues in their development policy strategies.

The current volume 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 Executive Director of the IPS, Saman Kelegama, in his foreword to the publication says that developing countries, though not massive contributors to the present climate change disaster, have been unwitting victims of a global issue. According to him, Sri Lanka too has to cope with these concerns in a fruitful and productive manner.

Kanchana Wickramasinghe in a short article on Impact of Global Climate Change on Inclusive Growth in Sri Lanka has argued that natural disasters that arise as a consequence of climate change make inclusive growth goals unattainable 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, Sri Lanka will also be energy poor since the country depends up to 40 per cent of its electricity generation on hydropower. Low economic growth will definitely affect the livelihood of marginal groups making economic inclusiveness difficult.

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 – and suggested that a proper water management by means of tapping rain water and storing the same in a cascade of small tanks to maintain soil moisture on a continuous basis.

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 up to 2050. The results have been mixed with some centres recording increases in rainfall and some centres 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.

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 a more viable option.

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 it in economists’ parlance.

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 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 withstand prolonged drought conditions.

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.

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 is to change the acidity levels of the oceans. 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.

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.

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.

The volume also contains the review of two UNDP Human Development Reports that have discussed the theme at issue. The first review by Athula Senaratne of IPS of the 2007-8 Report on Fighting Climate Change is a reproduction from the South Asia Economic Journal. Having taken his readers through a summary of the report, Senaratne has concluded that national level policies to battle climate change are as equally important as the global level policies. Given the scarcity of information to make such plans at national levels, he has commended the authors of the report for assembling a wide range of data that can go into the planning agendas of individual countries. The other review has been done by Saman Kelegama of IPS on the Human Development Report of 2011 that has discussed the sustainability and equity issues relating to development. Kelegama has emphasised on the need for taking bold decisions relating to financing and environmental controls as argued in the report under reference.

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.

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, our 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. But it requires funding and that funding has to be done by the state, since the private sector has no interest in spending money on a huge public good project. Though IPS has not recommended it, it is the view of this reviewer that the government should cut its wasteful consumption expenditure and divert savings so generated for the production of this vital public good.

(W.A Wijewardena, former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lank, can be reached at )

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