In the first six months of this year, Sri Lanka has experienced a number of major events that demonstrate exactly how critical managing the environment is: drought, landslides, a garbage avalanche, flash floods — and many other events at scales that have not caught the attention of those not affected. The damage to lives and assets and the disruption to routines that make us who we are psychologically and spiritually is tough to live through and slow to reverse – if it ever does.
So why would we leave thoughts on sustainable environmental management to just one single day a year? We typically celebrate ‘Environment Day’ by picking up rubbish around the city or from the rivers or the sea; or by participating in a charity walk or a charity run and so forth. The excitement builds, everyone engages and the next day everyone moves on to “more pressing matters” until the next calamity and the blame game starts all over again.
Let me assert the following key point: Nothing will change until we all see ourselves as part of the problem and part of the solution. For many of these issues we can make a difference, every day!
Let’s talk trash. We all of us generate rubbish at a private level, in our homes. Once we haul the garbage bags out it no longer exists as far as we are concerned. In fact, it becomes a public issue. If we were to make the simple commitment to segregate our waste inside the home between biodegradable, recyclables and residual waste and if it was collected honouring these waste streams and disposed of correctly, overall waste would be significantly reduced. Even better, compost can be used to fertilize crops and gardens.
What about the rubbish that we throw away casually as we travel? It ends up in drainage systems, blocking them and exacerbating flooding and sewage releases or disfiguring a country that rightfully prides itself on its beauty; in the seas and oceans where it degrades those environments too. Should we really wait until the Environment Day each time to then go and collect our rubbish? I would like to challenge every one of us to turn the inertia that sets in after the Environment Day into action.
Here is my proposal
Let’s support and challenge the government to facilitate and strengthen environmental regulatory and policymaking. Let’s encourage them to invest in the infrastructure that supports ongoing efforts to safeguard our environment – be it sanitary land-fills, small-scale irrigation schemes and reservoirs to stem droughts and store water for a dry day and better regulation of biodiversity use, for example.
The private sector must step forward and bring their experience and financing to help the government fund these investments. Experiences from other countries show that there are parts of the waste management value chain that are sufficiently robust to return profits to financiers. Schools must teach children better environmental awareness — children will carry these habits to adulthood. While it’s important that the NGOs retain their ability to contest what they see as wrong, it’s also important that they come closer to the government to help develop and implement solutions.
Solving these issues may come with some discomfort. The government will have to place infrastructure in someone’s neighbourhood – one of the penalties of a fast-growing economy where land is at a premium. People may also need to be moved away from potential harm. And, development partners may need to take up new areas of investments.
Ultimately, there is need for clarity on what roles we — the public, government, private sector, NGOs — can play to contribute to this complex agenda. We all must engage, though. If we let the environment become degraded, the local and global effects will be detrimental and very long lasting. These problems could considerably reduce opportunities for future generations, as the impacts will affect economic growth, the safety of our hard-earned assets and even our life expectancies.
The environment does not remind us of its importance once a year – it does so daily. I yearn for a day when the most important news is not who dropped the ball, but how much — as a collective — we have achieved to better our environment – reducing loss of life, increasing the quality of life and creating an environment that we are proud to leave for our children and their children.
This will only happen if every day is the Environment Day! Happy World Environment Day!
(Idah Pswarayi-Riddihough is World Bank Country Director for Sri Lanka and the Maldives in the South Asia Region (SAR))