By Harshana Sellahewa
Sri Lanka has seen a historical increase in both the number and intensity of droughts, floods and geographic changes to vector borne diseases, coastal erosion, tropical storms, lightening, crop failures, and landslides.
These events have devastating and adverse impacts on Sri Lanka’s environment, citizens, infrastructure, businesses, and national budget, as proclaimed by Attorney-at-Law Dr. Lalanath de Silva, at the recently held third Annual General Meeting and CEO Forum of the Sri Lanka Business and Biodiversity Platform (Biodiversity Sri Lanka).
Dr. Lalanath de Silva’s speech at the occasion, titled ‘Climate Change Challenges and Solutions for Sri Lankan Businesses’, addressed some of the main and critical factors in Sri Lanka’s stance in regards to climate change, such as the country’s future climate impact outlook, whether the severity of the impacts of climate change were known, and steps that should be taken, not to combat, but to adapt, as Sri Lanka has little or no choice but to prepare for and adapt to climate change.
“Sri Lanka’s greenhouse gas emissions are minuscule in comparison to those of developed nations like India or China,” Dr. Lalanath said. “Climate change is not of Sri Lanka’s making- but have no doubt, we are and will continue to be the victims of it.”
He went on to say that it is possible to beat this negativities and prosper, emphasising that the necessary bodies to successfully enforce this and achieve this objective “must act now.”
The Government of Sri Lanka is taking steps to adapt to climate change, having established a Climate Change Secretariat under the Mahaweli Development and Environment Ministry, and adopting a national climate change policy in 2012. A National Adaptation Plan for Climate Impacts in Sri Lanka 2016-2025 was adopted, and previous to this plan, the National Climate Change Adaptation Strategy 2011-2016 was also adopted.
“Sri Lanka has received a technical assistance grant from the Asian Development Bank for strengthening its adaptation capacity, and has received funding from the Green Climate Fund for a climate adaptation project in the North-Central province. The project seeks to strengthen the resilience of smallholder farmers in the dry zone to climate variability and extreme events through an integrated approach to water management,” Dr. Lalanath opined.
Dr. Lalanath said that in order to get climate change adaptation right, 10 things should be done immediately.
First, a crucial element to this issue is that the people, politicians and public and private sectors are not adequately aware of climate change and the disasters and dangers as well as the opportunities it will bring
to Sri Lanka.
“They are not adequately aware of the need for adaptation and what that means in their daily lives. While climate change is taught in our schools as a scientific phenomenon, the curriculum has not been changed to teach the next generations about the dangers and opportunities faced by our nation and what can and should be done to prepare and adapt to them,” he said.
Second, Sri Lanka is yet to enact appropriate and comprehensive climate change laws and regulations that establish the necessary legal and regulatory infrastructure to effectively deal with climate change and adaptation.
“Some would argue that we have laws and institutions for environmental protection, disaster management, generation, analysis and dissemination of meteorological data and information, and planning, and that these are adequate to deal with the situation.”
However, Dr. Lalanath opposed that while in a perfect world that may be the case, Sri Lanka’s laws, agencies and law enforcement are far from perfect.
“The relevant agencies struggle to collaborate and cooperate. When they do, actions move far too slowly. The result is a patch-work of projects and initiatives, that don’t add up. Each initiative or project is isolated and is hardly ever replicated. Lessons learned are disseminated but not absorbed and mainstreamed. And so, we repeat the cycle of ignorance,” he said.
Speaking on the third point which revolves around the national adaptation action plan, Dr. Lalanath said: “Plans are exactly that, a futuristic set of activities that ought to be done, and looks great on paper- and remains impotent until and unless acted upon and funded. Plans go nowhere without action, without funds and without the necessary agency to implement them. We are doing far too little to implement our adaptation plans.”
For the fourth point, Dr. Lalanath stressed that right economic and political incentives and disincentives for climate adaptation should be created.
“For example, We already know that several areas of our shoreline will be lost to rising seas. Despite this, allowing businesses to invest in such areas and construct permanent buildings in the form of hotels and tourist facilities is, to say the least, foolish and short-sighted. Yet we continue to do so because our economic and political incentives are skewed in favour of it,” he said.
Fifth, the private sector needs to become proactive and should influence the government to take climate change seriously and put adaptation on a war footing.
On this point, Dr. Lalanath said: “We need businesses to do so, not only because it is right or good, but because it is in their best financial and economic interests to do so.”
He said that the private sector’s failure to do so would result in lowered returns on investments with significant economic losses.
The sixth point aims to mitigate and manage climate risks better, which follows the objective to beef up the local insurance industry, especially those willing to undertake climate insurance.
“This is particularly important for our agricultural sector. Crop insurance is not popular among farmers for several reasons, which I will not go into today, but suffice to say, insurers and research institutions, including the Institute of Policy Studies, have studied this issue and much of that research is on the web.”
Seventh, financial support from all possible quarters should be mobilised. Many multilateral development banks such as the World Bank and Asian Development Bank have climate finance available.
“The UNFCCC has some small windows under the clean development mechanism for funding which is available to the private sector. The Green Climate Fund is another growing source of funding available on both public and private sectors, but Sri Lanka is not doing enough to tap into these funds.”
Dr. Lalanath highlighted that a major requirement is dedicated staff who know these funding sources, befriends them and can help those who need the funding to develop proposals and shepherd them through the decision-making process.
However, he said: “We are nowhere near achieving this goal. Sri Lanka does not even have an accredited entity at the national level with the GCF (Direct access entity).”
Eighth, the private sector must take unilateral action within the law to protect itself from climate change impacts. Dr. Lalanath remarked that this should be done without waiting for the government, because when the impacts come, it will be the private sector that suffers the losses.
“Mitigate those losses now, the way to go about doing so is to undertake a climate risk assessment of your business. However big or small you may be, commission a competent professional to do a climate risk assessment of your industry, your infrastructure, buildings, machinery, your labour force and your host investment.”
The ninth point shouts the urgent need for a proper and accurate weather and climate prediction and early warning system in place. “We also need solid research from our universities, International Water Management Institute, Institute of Policy Studies and other such centres of excellence,” opined Dr. Lalanath.
The final point highlights the need for an interim, urgent and transitional plan; a plan to bridge the gap from where the country is now to where it needs to be. The transitional plan needs to establish an interim coordinating body under the president at the highest level, consisting of key regulatory and infrastructure related agencies and ministries dealing with industry, tourism, lands, forests, coasts, marine affairs, local authorities, environment and wildlife.
“We need a transitional plan where agencies are instructed through appropriate legal instruments to start taking climate change considerations into account in decision-making. The transitional plan needs to mobilise local authorities and provincial councils in vulnerable areas to be made aware of the oncoming dangers and to prepare for it within their mandates. We need to plan to mobilise funding for climate adaptation,” he stated.
Reaching the end of his speech, Dr. Lalanath said: “None of these 10 actions can even be started, unless and until we have our minds readied ourselves for them. Climate change will bring damage and loss to Sri Lanka, but it may well also bring some opportunities and positive outcomes.”
“It is not enough to mitigate and avoid the damage and loss that climate change will bring. What is perhaps equally important for all Sri Lankans is to re-imagine the way we live and to use the opportunities that climate change will present to us.”