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Is Global Warming Mass Murdering Sri Lankans?

In the first few months of 2016, if you recall, there was barely a drop of rain. But come mid-May, there was a torrential downpour that resulted in flash floods that killed hundreds and displaced thousands. No sooner had the rains stopped, many parts of the country were engulfed in a devastating drought. A year later, it was a similar story—only, on a larger scale. Months of drought, interrupted by unprecedented amounts of rain, soon to be followed by yet more drought. There seems to be a pattern emerging here.

Let’s hear it straight from the horse’s mouth. Recently retired Director General of the Department of Meteorology, Lalith Chandrapala, told Roar: “There is no clear pattern, but every year, the severity and the frequency of disasters are on the rise. Over the past 30 years, there has been an increase in the number of disasters.”

While this increase isn’t monotonic, Chandrapala says weather patterns are definitely changing, and more calamities are to be expected in the near future.

Last year, parts of Polonnaruwa were engulfed in a debilitating drought – it wasn’t just humans that suffered. Drone photo courtesy Sanjana Hattotuwa

The blame game that inevitably follows any disaster, natural or otherwise, ends up with no one party being held responsible for the devastation caused and, least of all, its mitigation, but with regard to the recent droughts and floods, there is one culprit whose ugly head is slowly but surely becoming clearer every day: man-made global warming and the resultant climate change. But is there really a direct link?

It’s Complicated

Dr. Roxy Mathew Koll of the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology sees a connection. As a climate scientist who has been studying weather patterns in the South Asian region, he knows a thing or two about the effects of global warming in our corner of the world.

“As the atmosphere warms due to increased heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions, it can hold more water and that too for a longer time. This can result in long dry periods intermittent with a few days of heavy rainfall. Globally, extreme events—both droughts and heavy rainfall—are on a rise. Studies show a 20-30% increase in extreme events over South Asia during the recent decades. The recent droughts and floods in Sri Lanka may also be an impact of global warming,” Dr. Koll told Roar.

Former Meteorological Department Head Chandrapala, too, sees it. He attributes the high frequency of droughts and the unusually heavy rainfalls to global warming.

“We believe extreme weather events are becoming more frequent due to global warming. High  CO2 concentration in the atmosphere is altering weather patterns—not just in Sri Lanka, but in most parts of the world,” he said.

The worst flooding in 14 years was accompanied by landslides that claimed many lives. Image credit: Roar/G. Gamage

Climate activist and Chairman/CEO of the Strategic Enterprise Management Agency at the Presidential Secretariat, Asoka Abeygunawardana, while holding climate change directly responsible, believes the issue is more complicated.

Abeygunawardana puts some of the blame for the the recent flash floods—the rapid onset of floods of short duration with a relatively high peak discharge—on what he calls unplanned development projects.

“The reasons for floods are unplanned destruction in hills due to deforestation, encroachment, and development projects happening in an ad hoc manner. The water retention ability of the upcountry has decreased due to these human activities and the lowland area is also unable to retain the fast-flowing water due to unplanned development activities,” he told Roar.

According to Abeygunawardana, decreased territory for retaining the water due to wetland destruction and landfilling, the movement of people into sensitive areas, and poorly planned road projects, have increased the potential landslide risks A sentiment shared by Lalith Chandrapala. However, he asserts that climate change did, in fact, play a role.

“Due to climate change, evaporation has increased, resulting in longer drought periods. The distorted rainwater pattern has led to a disaster in the agricultural sector. So, yes, there is a direct connection between climate change and the recent droughts and floods that wreaked havoc in Sri Lanka,” he said.

Western Problem?

Even though an overwhelming majority of the scientific community is united in its stance on global warming, it is a hot button topic in the developed world—particularly in the US—where climate denial, preposterous though it may seem to the rest of us—is a real, political issue. President Donald Trump famously made headlines last month for pulling out from the Paris accord on climate change that set out to maintain the increase in global temperature below 2 degrees Celsius. Thankfully, there aren’t many vocal climate change deniers in Sri Lanka—and if there are, we don’t hear of them much. But there is a school of thought—however minor—that global warming is largely a Western issue that doesn’t really affect a small country like Sri Lanka. This, needless to say, couldn’t be further from the truth.

Dr. Koll concurs.

“Climate change is no longer an issue of a single nation or a region. Of course, the US and Europe have contributed largely to the present-day climatic conditions and still lead in terms of high carbon dioxide emissions per capita. However, the developing nations in South Asia, especially China and India, lead in the growth rate of carbon dioxide emissions and are part of the issue. While the global carbon dioxide emissions increased by 61% during 1990-2013, the emissions grew by 205% for Asia. China has a growth rate of 367% during this period, while Sri Lanka and India saw its emissions rise by 294% and 253% respectively,” he said.

In April last year, 171 countries, including Sri Lanka, signed the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Image courtesy iisd.ca

Regardless of who has emitted more, Dr. Koll went on to say, the impact of climate change is global, and the most vulnerable are the developing countries in the tropics. Considering the countries on the Indian Ocean rim, he said, sea level rise could be a major issue.

“Most of the sea level rise along the Indian Ocean region is due to the increase in ocean temperatures because water expands with increased heat. More than 90% of the heat due to global warming goes to the oceans. Among the oceans, the Indian Ocean has warmed rapidly, two to three times faster in comparison to the Pacific. The warming can be partly attributed to increased levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, in addition to the fact that the Indian Ocean is landlocked in the north, unlike the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans,” said Dr. Koll.

Hypocrisy In Preaching?

There is an argument that is hard—but not altogether impossible—to refute. There is no denying that the West made its wealth by burning fossil fuels, becoming rich, developed nations by basically raping the planet. Therefore, some point out, it’s hypocritical of them to “lecture” developing nations such as ours and expect us to limit our emissions, potentially limiting our industrial and economic growth. These critics also argue that it’s going to be difficult to meet our economic growth targets by reducing emissions at the rates that are demanded of us. The fact of the matter is, however, that global warming is a real issue that affects us all, irrespective of geopolitics, and something has to be done—sooner rather than later.

Abeygunawardana counters that while it is true that the West is undoubtedly responsible for the looming threat of armageddon that we’re all now faced with, those of us in the developing world also have a role to play.

“As far as cause for climate change is concerned, western countries are responsible because of their historical responsibility. Per capita emissions of the developed world are significantly higher and there is no doubt that they should take the responsibility for climate change. However, as the population in the developed world is very high, though the per capita emission is low, the total emission of CO2 is still high,” he said.

While acknowledging that the reasons for the status quo were initiated by the West, Abeygunawardana says the developing world must find ways to bypass what he calls its destructive development model and move towards a sustainable era. Impacts of climate change are felt by the developing world, he says, adding that as a result, the vulnerability of our countries has gone up because more people have been forced to live in sensitive areas.

Dr. Koll sees the need to move beyond the finger-pointing.

“We already had a lot of blame games, and that is not going to help either side. Probably the US and Europe should focus on transferring clean energy solutions to the developing nations. Whether there is transfer of technology or not, this is also an opportunity for Asia/South Asia to take bold steps and invest in clean and smart solutions to address energy requirements and for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Smart, clean solutions can bring in the future economic growth as well. Some of the fastest growing startups are now in Asia. We just need to set our priorities right and we can be the key players in the global scenario.” he said.

Rising Sea Levels And Temperature

Chandrapala points out that in Sri Lanka, since the 1960s, a monotonic rise in temperature has been observed, at a rate of 0.16 degrees per decade.

“This continued from the ’70s till now. That’s comparable with the global temperature average increase,” he said, adding that even though this was an issue created by the western world, the effects are felt by all.

“There is real data that sea levels are rising. Global warming is real,” he said.

Small island nations, says Chandrapala, are the most vulnerable. The Maldives are already on their way out, and over the next 50 to 100 years, the Sri Lankan coastline, too, – particularly in Batticaloa – will undergo some changes.

Abeygunawardana warns that as Sri Lanka is located in the tropical region, we are faced with drought, landslides and changes in rainfall pattern. Scientists predict a temperature increase of 3 degrees Celsius in the mountains and 2 degrees in the lowland areas. In addition, the wet zone will become wetter and the dry zone drier, increasing the impact on agriculture.

Batticaloa lagoon will be among the many coastal areas that may change in the wake of rising sea levels. Image courtesy Royal Leisure Tours

Echoing Chandrapala, he says that the increase in the Mean Sea Level (MSL) has a significant impact on the coastal belt. Seawater intrusion and beach erosion will be the more prominent effects of this. If not mitigated, tourism and fisheries industries will take a sizeable hit due to climate change. According to Chandrapala, water shortages could cripple the agriculture sector. Things are looking pretty grim, to say the least.


Abeywardana believes that adaptation should be the main focus in developing countries. Chandrapala, too, thinks that, where Sri Lanka is concerned, in its limited capacity to actively fight global warming given its relatively small carbon footprint, adaptation needs to be considered.

“We have to get involved in the mitigation of climate change. For that, we have to reduce the CO2 input into the atmosphere, though our footprint is so small that it’s almost negligible. The amount of CO2 we emit to the atmosphere is extremely small compared to countries like India, China, and the US. There is not much we can do in [terms of reducing emissions]. On the other hand, we have to get adapted to climate change. That is the only thing we can do,” said Chandrapala.

For example, in agriculture, in the face of looming water shortages, Sri Lanka can develop varieties of paddy which can withstand this issue.

“We have to adapt to the effects of climate change,” he said. In other words, rather than fight it, we should learn to live with it?

“Definitely. A few weeks back, Donald Trump said he’s not going to reduce emissions. If they don’t reduce emissions, we’re also going to be affected. It’s one single world,” he said.

Even if Sri Lanka lowers its CO2 emissions—which is something we absolutely must do, he hastened to add—Chandrapala is skeptical that it’s going to change global warming, given our miniscule footprint. He does concede, however, that Sri Lanka must take every step it can to curb its emissions as much possible, by investing in renewable energy, among other measures.

National Policy

The Government of Sri Lanka is party to the Paris Agreement, and both the President and Prime Minister have made pronouncements on the importance of combatting global warming. But is enough being done?

Abeygunawardana calls for a national strategy that will gradually steer the country away from fossil fuels.

“From a governmental point of view, we need to have mitigation and adaptation strategies. In mitigation, we have to move away from fossil fuel. The fossil fuel era has come to an end; the renewable energy era has begun. There is no proven fossil fuel (crude oil) present in Sri Lanka, but we are blessed with yearlong sunshine, so renewable energies are the best options for us. We would be saving foreign currency by reducing fossil fuel import and the economic benefit will be transferred to the masses of the country,” he said.

Moving to cheaper renewable energy sources to generate electricity as well as in the transport sector, according to Abeygunawardana, will prove beneficial, and private vehicles that run on petrol and diesel ought to be gradually replaced by electric vehicles, perhaps via tax concessions. The Government can also take measures to strengthen public transportation to minimise oil consumption.

“Farmers, livestock, and fisheries suffer due to the effects of climate change. Therefore, adaptation measures are required. We need a proper plan to retain water in the upcountry and lowland areas. The micro climate should be developed with maximum utilisation of the water resources, mitigating drought. A proper plan for the sustainable era should be brought forward with climate-resilient infrastructure. The transition from industrial to sustainability is not a burden but an added benefit to Sri Lanka in increasing the economic benefits. There should be a Master Plan and a Transitional Plan with no added burden to the people during the transitional phase,” said Abeygunawardana.

State vs. Private

While much of the responsibility in curbing the effects of climate change lies with the Government, the private sector can no doubt play a significant role in mitigation.

This means that, among other things, industries should become more eco-friendly. Easier said than done, of course, but Abeygunawardana has some ideas.

“Agriculture should move from chemical farming to natural/organic farming. The government and the private sector have different schools of thought but a paradigm shift has to occur towards the green. The private sector should not obstruct this path, and engaging them in this task is of high importance. Greening the existing industries is a major goal in this process. It is important that the Government creates an enabling environment for the process,” he said.

The importance of switching to renewable energy wherever possible cannot be stressed enough. Given Sri Lanka’s location just above the equator, the country is ideally positioned to get a head start in the sustainable race.

“There is a large array of energy sources which are untapped, such as solar. Thermal air-conditioning and ocean thermal power. Resource mapping for the country is of utmost importance when tapping these energy sources,” said Abeygunawardana.

Solution In Sight?

Aerial view of a drought-affected Pottuvil lagoon last year. Climate change threatens to alter the landscape of the island. Image credit: Roar/Christian Hutter

The politics of climate change can be debated till the proverbial cows come home, but global warming is real and its effects are already being felt. People are paying with their lives for humanity’s greed and, experts agree, the worst has yet to come. While it’s tempting to keep calling out the West on its hypocrisy, the ongoing geopolitical name-calling and hair-splitting is not going to keep the rising water levels at bay. As the former Met. Department head points out, things are changing for the worse, and changing fast, and tiny Sri Lanka is not going to be spared.

“Weather patterns are definitely changing. Within the next few years, they will change more. Extreme events are on the rise. We  have to be prepared for this in the near future.

The severity is only going to increase. Will next year’s floods be worse than this year’s? We can’t say, but this year’s flood was very much worse than last year’s,” said Chandrapala.

The need of the hour, he says, is a united approach.

“Global warming is a real problem, and we all have to get together—all countries have to get together—and find a solution. There is the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Those organisations, and the whole world at large, have to get together and find that solution. One single country cannot do it alone,” he said.

Featured image courtesy writer

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