Gathering storms Sri Lanka facing severe climate risks needs to get ready

13 November 2015 06:51 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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As someone who spends time studying environmental problems, I’m particularly sensitive to the increasing frequency of weather events described as the “worst in history”. So much so, that sometimes I wonder if this is really about poor history than it is about a changing climate.  A closer look, however, confirms an alarming trend in both history and climate change. At home and abroad, we are experiencing a historically unprecedented pace of climate change that is resulting in severe weather distortions including rising sea-levels, melting glaciers and irregular monsoons. These changes are taking place because of the increasing concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which are responsible for trapping heat and keeping the planet warm – like a green house.

But how can a small, lower-middle income country like Sri Lanka, respond to climate change? Adapt. There are two ways of adapting to climate change: we could either reduce our sensitivity to climate change by investing in technology and infrastructure; or we could reduce our exposure to climate change by diversifying our social, economic and cultural behaviour. Deciding the appropriate balance between the two approaches requires a public debate that is thoughtful, inclusive and transparent. These climate risks don’t affect everyone equally and our responses cannot ignore that fact.  Not all climate risks are created equal  

Risk is simply the probability of loss. Climate risks, like other risks, broadly fall into two categories: those that affect a specific individuals or households at a time (i.e. idiosyncratic risks); and those that affect most, if not all households at the same time (i.e. systemic risks).

An example of an idiosyncratic risk may be a drought that causes a particular farmer in a village to experience a serious loss of income. An example of a system risk would be a drought that causes the entire village to experience economic decline. More severe systemic risks involve rising sea-levels and rising temperatures. Since systemic are more threatening, they deserve our immediate attention. Admittedly, there are many systemic risks, but I will briefly focus on a few of them involving our energy security, food security, and the potential losses due to sea-level rise. 

Energy security is defined as the uninterrupted availability of energy sources at an affordable price. Sri Lanka is currently energy secure but could face acute insecurity in coming decades. According to the Asian Development Bank, which studied the costs of adaptation in South Asia recently, Sri Lanka could face an energy demand-supply gap of about 1.33 TWh by 2050s (that figure is an average of the various predictions). In other words, Sri Lanka will lack the energy necessary to power the equivalent of 250,000 homes. Moreover, we are increasingly dependent on fossil fuels such as coal and oil, which accounted for about 41% of total energy in 2013.An emerging concern is the transportation sector, which accounts for about 28% of total energy demand and is almost entirely powered by petroleum. The increasing reliance on fossil fuels is costly. According to the Ministry of Petroleum Industries, Sri Lanka spends an annual average of about $5 billion on crude oil and other petroleum products, which can account for up to 25% of total import expenditure. Meanwhile, renewables –such as solar and wind power -accounted for about only 3% of the total energy mix (biomass contributed 43% while hydro contributed 13%) in 2013. At-least in the case of energy, it is our response to the problem (turning to fossil fuels) which is the main concern. But with agriculture, the problem maybe the lack of response. 

Sea-level rise is amongst the most pernicious climate-change effects and therefore does not get the necessary political or public attention. Like many other countries in region and beyond, Sri Lanka faces serious risks due to sea-level rise. According to the IPCC, even an optimistic climate scenario envisions the sea-level rising about 40cm by the end of the century. This could affect over 94 million people and more than half of those affected are those from South Asia, especially those living in coastal zones. Sri Lanka, like many other states, concentrates a lot of its economic activity in the coastal zones.   More risks don’t mean more vulnerability   

Risks do not always translate into vulnerability; they are two different but related concepts. Some people are more vulnerable - in other words, more susceptible to loss - because they are either more exposed to risks, start at a weaker position when responding to risks, or have poor risk management measures. That last item, risk management measures, deserve the most attention since it is the only variable of vulnerability that we can change immediately. These measures take the form of knowledge, protection, and insurance. All this may sound quite abstract until we get a chance to witness the disproportionate effect of risks in real life.

A few months ago, I was collecting case-studies on adaptation in Batticaloa, when my colleagues took me on a short detour to visit an ex-employee who was recovering from a motor-accident. Even though he was in good spirits, he was on a long road to recovery. Yet, throughout the entire visit, he was in a state of urgency, wanting to get back to work as soon as possible. Why would someone who was suffering from amnesia and a few broken ribs be so desperate to get back to work? Because of the fear of poverty and destitution.The fear is because of vulnerability. In this case, vulnerability did not depend on the exposure or the starting conditions; we are all exposed to traffic accidents. Instead, what mattered was the risk management policies in place – even though our friend was educated and well experienced, he was not enjoying the benefits of formal employment (he was a freelancer), nor did he have access to advanced health insurance (he was depending on his savings). This is what vulnerability is all about. It is vulnerability that determines whether an accident or illness results in an inconvenience or destitution. Therefore, it is vulnerability that should guide our understanding of risks in general, and climate risks in particular.  Civil society needs to frame climate risks in terms of vulnerability  

Civil society must prepare the stage for debating the appropriate balance between the different approaches to adaptation, within the context of vulnerability. In doing so, it can play two important roles simultaneously: the role of an advisor and the role of a respondent. As an advisor, civil society can bring together its technical expertise on climate change adaptation: designing public policies, environmentally sustainable technologies, human rights, etc. This technical expertise can complement the government’s efforts to craft coherent adaptation policies such as the recently finalised National Adaptation Plan. Civil society can also play the role of a respondent to climate change policies, since most policies are intended to affect the public.  Accordingly, civil society can provide valuable feedback and help the government monitor, evaluate and improve climate policies. Imagine the questions that need to be debated on energy security, food security and the consequences of sea-level rise. 

Our response to climate risks that affect energy security, has focused almost exclusively on fossil fuels. On the one hand, investing in fossil fuel infrastructure reduces our sensitivity to increasing energy demand. On the other hand, it exposes our entire society to fluctuations in the price of oil and the hazardous consequences of air, water, and ground pollution. Moreover, a fossil fuel economy disproportionately affects the poor. In 2011, the IMF estimates Sri Lanka spent about 2% of GDP on petroleum subsidies, which translated to 14% of government revenues. Such subsidies generally benefit middle and upper-income groups. The richest 20% of households in low and middle income countries use six times more subsidised fuel than the poorest 20%. This is because the middle and upper income groups are more likely to use private transport. How should we respond to these challenges in a way that reduces vulnerability? Should we dismantle these subsidies and invest in renewable energy or should we target these subsidies at poorer households? Should we build a better public transportation system and restrict private transport or should we help everyone acquire private transport? Similar questions affect food security.

One school of thought calls on engineers and policymakers to rehabilitate ancient irrigation systems and improve indigenous knowledge. The other school calls for a radical change in our agricultural practices: GMOs, new crop varieties, dietary changes, etc. Both advocate for policies that could reduce our sensitivity or reduce our exposure to climate risks. Yet, when discussing the merits of their choices, we must avoid the temptation of romanticising our past but also proceed cautiously towards the future. Similar thoughtfulness is necessary when we discuss the issue of fishing stocks. Policymakers and the public are obsessed with Indian fishermen; seemingly unaware that our entire region is facing a crisis. The solution is not to huff and puff with frustration, or point to toothless international legal regimes. The question of balance and compensation are particularly relevant when discussing sea-level rise. 

On the issue of sea-level rise, the debate on the appropriate adaptation approaches will be sharper and the solutions will be more diverse. At first glance, there is little room for compromise between reducing sensitivity and reducing exposure. Protecting certain coastal areas from retreating coastlines could cost taxpayers billions of rupees. Falling property values aside, the psychological costs of losing ancestral homes, the loss of livelihoods and the potential housing crises, could lead to passionate debate. The alternative, may involve facilitating migration, relocation and resettlement for those who lose their homes and livelihoods. Yet, there may be a sensible balance between the two approaches and it is important to explore that space. Whether it is about building flood barriers or facilitating internal migration, society needs a coherent approach to the problems. How much should we spend on coastal flood defences? Should certain cities or districts get preference over others? Should governments let the market determine these movements or should it deliberately craft policies that regulate building and migration?All and these questions, and more, await any serious discussion on climate change adaptation.

Framing adaptation options in the context of vulnerability will help set the stage for a thorough and thoughtful debate and everyone should ready themselves for both the ups and the downs. Many rounds of debate could be hijacked by idealism, nimbyism and narrow-minded thinking. Yet many more could exemplify pragmatism, compromise and long-term thinking. This process, however torturous, is the best approach to crafting inclusive, transparent and responsive climate change adaptation policies. 

(The writer is a research consultant at Janathakshan GTE Ltd focusing on climate change adaptation and low- carbon development.) 

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