On being prepared: Sri Lankan experience

By Dr. Ranil Senanayake

While the political narcissists play their pathetic game of musical chairs and the supporting cast of corrupt bureaucrats support that dance are completely removed from the deadly reality that the rest of us have to face. He who occupies any station of power must have some knowledge how of power is used and how that will determine the well being of this nation and its citizenry. The crises are manifold, best illustrated by the changes in weather patterns brought by Climate Change. Sri Lanka has been fortunate to escape the extreme weather experienced by many other nations, but that should not be a reason for complacency, the changes are real, we too will have to face them.

We know what lies ahead, if anyone involved in national governance, politician or bureaucrat missed the warnings that have appeared in the national press for over fifteen years, we might say they are too busy with the hubris of their own importance, to care about other national voices. But now, after being exposed to the consequences of climate change, there is still a willful, stubborn, ignoring of reality.

Fifteen years ago, the effect of sea level rise was being experienced, but there was no public awareness of the process. It was at that time the following observations were made and questions asked:

‘Has anyone wondered at the disappearance of the golden beaches that is being replaced by these rocky barriers to the ocean? Will our beaches go the way of the turtles that need to come up to sandy beaches to lay their eggs? How will tourists react to disappearing beaches? All valid questions ; But ask the community living in these areas and there is no understanding of global warming, its causes or effects. Their biggest concern is another Tsunami, not understanding that there is a creeping tsunami at their feet! Will the current system of irrigation locks be sufficient to prevent saltwater intrusion into agricultural lands? What adaptation strategies have we developed nationally? Perhaps the experts and pundits have sorted it all out but, some public capacity building activity must become evident or we will become unknowing victims to the affects of climate change, unable to mount any meaningful response’

Fifteen years later, the international community is informing us that there will be a rise in sea level by at least three to four inches (it could be more) as a consequence of climate change and there is sill no response from the government. I wonder if the climate change bureaucrats or at least the Ministry of Agriculture had taken notice of the fact that this will lead to the salinization of a large area currently under rice production. Have the urban planners taken notice of the fact that this will mean salt water intrusion up the Kelani River? Has the Colombo Municipality taken notice of the fact that unplanned (corrupt) urbanisation, has stopped water infiltration into the soil and will lead to flooding as the Kelani river loses its ‘fresh water tongue’ into the ocean?

While there is the excitement of building for tourists at the beach, what land planning has accounted for the beach being moved serval hundred meters inland? What sea level rise models does Sri Lanka contribute to? Why are sea level rise models not mandatory in coastal land use planning? These seem reasonable questions for an island nation.

Could it be that the government of Sri Lanka, is downplaying the impacts of climate change because they are following an agenda of ‘development’ set by the producers of fossil fuels? When the decision for Sri Lanka to place her development aspirations on energy based on fossil fuels was made the deed was done.

It was in 1979 when an official communiqué on development displayed in the nation’s newspapers stated: “No oil means no development, and less oil, less development. It is oil that keeps the wheels of development moving”, it seems clear that our current state of fossil addiction was not a function of some natural, uninformed social growth, it was designed to create an exponential demand to fossil fuels as the source of energy to power society. The ‘development’ of centralised energy entailed large sums of money in trading coal and oil. Attracting unsavory political and bureaucratic attention. The sleazy dealing behind our coal and oil supplies are now done as a matter of national importance.

However, today the world has woken up to the reality of climate change driven by the consumption of fossil fuels. Every time one travels or takes a flight or even switches on a light, we contribute to the acceleration of climate change. Renewable energy has become a catchword into the 20’s. but the focus of the government was on centralised energy generation through the purchase of fossil fuels and renewable energy was ignored.

Today, due to a tragic mix of corruption and ignorance, Sri Lanka has become a ‘bankrupt state’ and cannot import those quantities of fossil. It has now become ‘the canary in the coalmine’ of fossil powered economic growth, which promises ‘development’. The pain of withdrawal from addiction is felt from the cooking fires of its homes to the national energy grids. Can this pain provoke a realisation that the only way to stop it from happening again is to cease this addiction to fossil fuels and choose a new paradigm for growth and development?

There are innumerable, creative inventions made by our youth to respond to energy issues at the local level. There are small and medium industries that can arise around sustainable energy production, but unless this potential is recognized and encouraged, we will have to put up with the platitudes of those profiting off our energy dependence and occupying the seats of power that can make the change required.There is an obvious need to decentralise essential services, as much as there is a crying need for local responsibility and accountability. But while we bicker about the control of our national processes, the shadow of the global impact of climate change is almost upon us and the time that we have to plan and prepare is almost gone.

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