Climate change comes home to Sri Lankans | Sunday Observer

Climate change comes home to Sri Lankans

“Change is the only unchangeable reality in the world,” goes a saying. But, does it have to be? Though change is natural and inevitable, some changes naturally go beyond – such as climate change.

With the dawn of the New Year, bizarre climate trends were experienced round the globe. USA and Canada marked record low temperatures, with the bomb cyclone snowstorm in USA resulting in sub freezing temperatures. Temperature in many areas in USA dropped to approximately minus 40 degrees Celsius. Experts have noted that exposed skin under this temperature can freeze within minutes.

Meanwhile, Australia is experiencing a massive heat wave. Temperature in Sydney soared to 47.3 Celsius last Sunday (7), the highest that New South Wales has experienced in 78 years. Warnings were issued in Sydney, on ozone pollution, a consequence of extremely high temperatures.

On Monday(8), several areas in Singapore experienced flash floods, after a heavy downpour. On Wednesday (10), a tsunami warning was issued to the Caribbean, following a 7.8 Richter scale earthquake in Honduras.

Some raised concerns that this bizarre and simultaneous weather patterns are the result of global warming.

However, speaking of the bomb cyclone, CEO of Global Weather Oscillations, David Dilley has told the Express that “cold snap is the combination of a La Nina event (period of cooling of surface waters of the Pacific Ocean) and the onset of global cooling. Thus, it is the beginning of a long-term colder cycle that will last from 50 to 100 years.”

Dilley argues, “earth is coming off a 230 year global warming cycle and moving on to a 120 year cooling period.”

There was a time when global warming and climate change were considered to be an inherently western phenomenon. However, with the change in rainfall patterns, increase in temperature, ground frost in the hill country, and with frequent formation of cyclones, climate change has come home to Sri Lankans.

According to NASA, climate change refers to a broad range of global phenomena created predominantly by burning fossil fuels, which add heat-trapping gases to Earth’s atmosphere. These phenomena include the increased temperature trends described by global warming, but also encompass changes such as, sea level rise, ice mass loss in Greenland, Antarctica, the Arctic and mountain glaciers worldwide, shifts in flower or plant blooming, and extreme weather events.

Global warming is the gradual increase of earth’s atmospheric temperature levels due to the release of green house gases caused by combustion of fossil fuels.

Speaking of climate change, Vice Chair of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC-AR4), Prof. Mohan Munasinghe, who shared the 2007 Nobel Prize for Peace, said, in the last century, global temperature has increased by about one degree Celsius, while sea level has risen by about 1.8 centimeters.” If the trend continues, the temperature will go up by three degrees Celsius or more by 2100, indicating that the temperature rise is accelerating.

A further sea level rise of at least 50 centimeters could be expected by the end of the century, if no action is taken,” Prof. Munasinghe said.

He said, these events are primarily the result of carbon emissions from energy use and deforestation.

Sri Lanka’s role in climate change

Sri Lanka’s role as a contributor to climate change is very low, said Prof. Munasinghe. He said, on a per capita basis, Sri Lanka’s Green House Gas (GHG) emissions are only a very small fraction, when compared with US and Europe. “Therefore, we are not a principal offender, although we are now seeking to further increase the share of renewable energy, beyond the significant amount of energy already produced by our large hydroelectric schemes,” he said.

Speaking on the impacts of climate change on the country, Director of Climate Change Secretariat, Dr. Sunimal Jayatunga said, Sri Lanka, as a tropical country, is experiencing several adverse effects of the climate change.

“These include, severe droughts, increase in rainfall, slow onset of sea level rise and temperature rise. This increase in rainfall contributes to flash floods and landslides,” he said.

Dr Jayatunga said, these adverse weather conditions impact agriculture, fisheries, water availability, crops such as, tea and rubber, and biodiversity and ecosystems, which in turn have an impact on the country’s economy. Sri Lanka is currently experiencing a change in weather patterns, including rainfall precipitation and storms. However, we cannot say conclusively that this is entirely due to climate change, since it can be a natural variation in weather, said Prof. Munasinghe.

He further said, temperatures have been going up in the country. “There is an average hike of 1degree Celsius or more, and in the dry zone the hike is over 2 degrees.

There is also a change of rainfall pattern where the dry zone receives less rain and the wet zone receives more rain, worsening both, droughts and floods,” he said.

In particular, the dry zone will experience more droughts, which would contribute to the reduction of crop yield. He said that by 2050, these effects will be much more severe due to climate change. “For example, rice cultivation will be affected by droughts. This could have an effect on other agricultural crops as well, and reduce food security in the country,” he said.

He added that this will increase the inequality in the country, since it will be the poor rice farmers of the dry zone who will be most affected by climate change.

Prof. Munasinghe added that floods will give rise to diseases such as diarrhoea and also a risk of the spread of mosquito-borne diseases such as, malaria and dengue. “Although we have eradicated Malaria, the warm and wet conditions can bring this back,” he cautioned.

He went on to explain that storms will have an effect on coastal communities, putting fishermen at risk. “With the rise of sea levels, cyclones will push the waves further inland, eroding the coasts. People should not be located close to the sea, it is unwise to build right down to the sea shore.

These properties should be offset. There are laws in place preventing dwellings within 100 meters from the sea, but they are not properly implemented,” he said.

Infrastructure is another area that would be affected due to climate change. “If the rains fail, hydroelectric power generation will be affected,” he said.

Dr. Lareef Zubair, Principal Scientist, Foundation for Environment, Climate and Technology, commented that while extreme weather conditions have increased in frequency and severity, human actions have led to and exacerbated the disasters. Human arrogance, the lack of sensitivity to nature and establishing human settlements in unsuitable locations is disastrous both to nature and humans, he said.

Taking the recent landslides in Sri Lanka for example, he explained that establishing settlements in watershed and catchment areas was the main cause for the landslides.

The predicted rise in sea levels and extreme weather conditions, both affect the human settlements. According to simulated climate change scenarios, most of the coastal belt of Sri Lanka, where the highest number of human settlements is established, will go under water by 2100, and the landmass for human settlements will grow less, he said.

According to Zubair, the effect of climate change on the water table of the country will be ‘serious’. His research has shown that the stream flow of the main rivers flowing from the western hill slopes (Mahaweli, Kelani,Walawe) have declined over the last 30 to 40 years. Especially during the dry season this would have a massive impact on the supply of water to a large part of the country.

The drought will be longer and severe, and affect the in river use of water, such as, bathing and washing. It will also affect hydropower generation and the supply of pipe borne water for drinking and household use.

The effect of climate change would affect the main export agricultural crop adversely, opines Zubair. Ceylon Tea, which fetches high prices due to its quality and exquisite flavour depends largely on climate factors, he explains.

“It is grown under specific climate conditions – wind, temperature, and rainfall and so on. Any change in these conditions will pose a risk and would be a threat to the industry.

Measures to counter the effects

Prof. Munasinghe said, under the UN Paris Agreement, all countries pledged to make efforts to limit the increase in global temperature between 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius. This is except for the US, which has withdrawn from the Agreement. “To manage this, carbon dioxide emissions have to be reduced sharply.

Planting trees is one way of achieving this, as, when trees grow, they absorb carbon dioxide.”

Prof. Munasinghe explained, it is very expensive to reduce Sri Lanka’s emissions at the moment. “Since, our emissions are low to begin with, as a country, we have to focus on adapting to climate change rather than on mitigation. Protecting the poor from the adverse impacts of climate change should be the priority in the Government’s climate adaptation strategy” he said.

As Chairman of the Presidential Expert Committee on Sustainable Sri Lanka 2030 Vision Strategic Plan, he stressed that climate change policies would be well integrated into the overall national sustainable development strategy.

In the National Adaptation Plan (NAP) for Climate Change Impacts in Sri Lanka, 2016 to 2025, nine areas are recognized as key sectors to be addressed in facing climate change. Food security, water resources, the coastal and marine sector, health sector, human settlements and infrastructure, ecosystems and biodiversity, tourism and recreation, export agriculture sector, industry, energy and transportation are the nine key areas to be addressed.

Dr Jayatunga said, several projects are ongoing to provide water for agriculture to build the resilience of farmers.

“There is a US$ 38.1 million fund project, carried out in the Meeoya, Yanoya and Malwathuoya areas. Adaptation Fund has provided US$ 7.9 million to provide resilience to farmers in the Walapane, Lankapura and Medirigiriya areas,” he said.

Dr. D.S. Jayaweera, Consultant, Strategic Enterprise Management Agency (SEMA) is of the view that with the climate change effects in Sri Lanka we should seek the option of establishing roadways and railways away from the coastal area.

To mitigate the effects of transportation, the greenhouse gas and other noxious gas contributing to climate change, he suggests improvements on public transport options.

“Within the past five years, the operational fleet in Sri Lanka had increased 100 percent. Between 2015 and 2017, there had been a 25 to 40 percent increase. With this, petrol consumption rapidly increased. Although there’s good quality fuel available, a majority uses regular diesel and petrol contributing to air pollution,” he pointed out.

Natural change of weather patterns is inevitable. Also, there is a possibility of experiencing adverse effects of climate change in time to come. Thus, it is essential that as a country, Sri Lanka looks ahead and comes up with strong measures to adapt to the effects of climate change, to ensure the country is prepared to face what the future offers. 

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