Dr. Eric Wikramanayake, Chair of the Environment Foundation Ltd, is a Conservation Biologist with over 25 years of experience throughout Asia working on ecosystem based approaches to reducing climate change vulnerabilities and assessing e-flows. He was a senior conservation scientist with the World Wildlife Fund. He was also a senior advisor with the Biodiversity and Wildlife Programme at RESOLVE and consultant conservation advisor to the Asian Development Bank’s Greater Mekong Subregion Biodiversity Conservation Corridors Project (GMS-BCC project). In an engaging interview with the Daily Mirror he aired his views on some of the crucial environment issues that affect the planet. Excerpts.
- Sustainable development is also predicated on environmental and ecosystem resilience
- Instead of having a monsoon spread out over several months we now have very intense rainfall events that are experienced within a short period of time
- Filling of wetlands is illegal. It’s ironic that many of the Government buildings in Colombo are built on wetlands.
- We need education and awareness for us to be more responsible and civic conscious.
- Coral reefs are extremely important in terms of coastal defense, resilience building against climate change, sustainable livelihood and contribution to the economy.
Q What are the main environmental issues that affect Sri Lanka?
We are losing our natural resources. We are losing our forests and coral reefs. There is conversion in a very ad hoc and unplanned way which is going to threaten the future of the ecosystem services that support people and the development agenda. This is not just about forest conservation. This is about ecosystem degradation. Unless we plan our development in such a way that we integrate ecosystem conservation into the development plans, development is going to be unsustainable especially because climate change is also being felt. It’s going to be worse and even more intense in the future which is going to effect the people. The conservation message now isn’t about elephants, leopards or bears. It’s about protecting ecosystems and ecosystem functions. If you do that you will take care of all the species. So we need to think about systems now and not just species.
Q Do you think Sri Lanka is on the right track when it comes to conserving the environment?
We aren’t on the right track. Our priority is all mixed up. We are still focusing on species. If you open a newspaper and look at what the conservation messaging is, it’s about species. No one’s talking about what’s happening in terms of what the consequences of the degradation and conversion and loss of ecosystems and ecosystem functions will be, not just to species, but also to people- their livelihood, their lives and economic goals of the country. We are living the conservation paradigms of the past.
The world is changing. The threats have changed and are changing. No one’s addressing those issues.
We aren’t on the right track. Our priority is all mixed up. We are still focusing on species. If you open a newspaper and look at what the conservation messaging is, it’s about species. No one’s talking about what’s happening in terms of consequences of the degradation and loss of ecosystems
Q In terms of climate change, where do you think Sri Lanka stands?
Sri Lanka is very vulnerable. The World Bank has released a report on climate change hot spots and Sri Lanka is one of them. There are large areas of land especially in the North, North Central and North Western provinces which are considered hot spots. The general prediction for Sri Lanka is that there will be an increase in temperature. The wet zone will get wetter and the dry zone will become drier. We are seeing the impact now. There has been a very acute drought in the dry zone. People in Anuradhapura don’t have water. Farmers have lost their crops for four years in a row.
The predictability of the monsoons is now being lost. Farmers need to know when to plant. They have been dependent on knowing when the monsoon will set in. When they don’t know that, there is trouble. Fishermen don’t know when to go to sea. Think about large sports events like a Test match. There is a huge investment in terms of money. If you can’t predict when there will be rain or when the monsoon will end, how can you do it with any kind of accuracy? Plants and animals depend on seasonality to reproduce. Now they don’t know when those seasonal triggers will occur.
Q Most often than not development projects affect the environment. How do you strike a balance between development projects and protecting the environment?
That’s exactly the point. We have to be able to strike that balance. The development organiaations, agencies and the ministries that are tasked with the development project have to work with ecologists. Sustainable development is also predicated on environmental and ecosystem resilience. In fact ecosystems are much more important now to build climate resilience. Unless you take care of that, any kind of development that you do, is going to be vulnerable. Look at what’s happening now. There are express ways and large infrastructure. They drown every time there is a flood. They’ve not considered the root causes that are creating the problems.
We have a National Climate Adaptation Plan. We are on our third plan. But it’s not being implemented. It’s not being adapted. The adaptation plan includes ecosystem based adaptation as a strategy to increase resilience and reduce vulnerabilities. Just take the past few years as an example. When there were floods what was the Government’s reaction? It’s basically to provide food, water and clothing to people affected by floods. What have they done since then? Basically nothing. So we don’t have an adaptation plan (put into practice), when in fact there is a plan.
Q What loopholes do you see in Sri Lanka’s Environment Impact Assessment (EIA)?
One of the biggest problems with the EIA is that the EIA is commissioned by the developer. The developer pays the consultants. So obviously they will do an EIA that suits the developer. Ideally the developer should bank the money with the CEA for instance, and the CEA should hire the consultants. Then the EIA can be done in an independent and impartial manner.
Q Deforestation is one of the most pressing issues. What are the consequences of deforestation and encroachment?
If you take deforestation in mountain areas, and remove the forests those slopes are going to be vulnerable to erosion and landslides. Climate change has given rise to a pattern of intense rainfall. So instead of having a monsoon that’s spread out over several months we now have very intense rainfall events that are experienced within a short period of time. All that rainfall causes floods downstream. If you have forests much of that rainfall is absorbed into the ground.
The predictability of the monsoons is now being lost. Farmers need to know when to plant. They have been dependent on knowing when the monsoon will set in. When they don’t know that, there is trouble. Fishermen don’t know when to go to sea. Think about large sports events like a Test match. There is a huge investment in terms of money.
We need to take very careful stock on what we’re doing with our forests. We need to be very strategic about what kinds of development we can initiate. If you want to build a road, you can build a road. There are now engineering designs and techniques that allow you to do it with the minimum impact. So you can maintain both human connectivity and ecological connectivity. There are designs where you can build elevated roads so that wildlife and water flow can take place under, and people can drive their cars or walk over. So it accommodates both human connectivity and ecological connectivity. And it makes the infrastructure more resilient. You won’t have a flood that wipes that entire road or expressway. Yes. It does cost a bit more. But it costs even more to go back and repair it.
Q Our mangrove forests are depleting. What is the importance of mangroves?
A lot of mangroves in Sri Lanka are being cleared to build aqua culture prawns. Historically we have seen that prawn farms are short lived and not sustainable. Within five years disease sets in and the prawn farms are abandoned. If you look at the coastal landscape from Mundalam to Puttalam for instance, the mangroves were cleared back in the 1980s. They started prawn farms. They did not last long. This is a phenomena not only in Sri Lanka, but elsewhere in Asia too. So prawn farms are not sustainable.
Once you clear the mangroves you lose an important nursery where you have the shrimp, the crab and the fish. If you have the mangroves you’re sustaining the fishery off-shore. If you google search the mangrove protection programme in Fiji for instance, they are very strict about conserving mangrove because the communities have realised the importance of having those mangroves to sustain the fishery. We went to Vidattaltivu which is a nature reserve near Mannar. There is a plan to clear 3000 hectares of mangrove. This is our largest mangrove forest. If you talk to the fishermen, there is an artisanal fishery just off-shore. They have realised that it is those mangrove areas that sustain the fishery. So they won’t touch the mangrove. If some company comes and clears the mangrove and pitch in prawn farms, in five years that’ll be ruined. The viability of those ponds will be lost in about five years. That company will make money and leave while those poor fishermen will be left stranded with no livelihood. That entire ecosystem is going to be destroyed. The reason they want to clear that mangrove and put in prawn farms is to increase productivity, so they can tap into the European market which has increased our fish quota after the GSP + restrictions were lifted. But if you read the GSP+ regulations it says that you cannot violate any international covenants and conventions. Clearing those mangrove forests will be a clear violation of our commitments to the Convention on Biodiversity.
Q How do you conserve coral reefs which are considered precious?
Way back in the 1960s and 1970s when you went down Galle Road to Hikkaduwa, you saw large piles of corals stacked along the roadside. People used them to make calcium carbonate for the building industry. All these coral reefs are gone. They are also a big tourist attraction. There was potential to have a sustainable and highly lucrative tourism industry. Coral reefs and mangroves are the first line of defense against storm and wave surges which are now going to increase with climate change. We see an increase in the number of high intense cyclones, tornadoes and hurricanes with climate change. It’s a pattern that is very clear.
After the coral reefs, mangroves and sand dunes were removed there is now coastal erosion which affects many people. Sri Lanka’s coast lines are highly populated. So coral reefs are extremely important in terms of coastal defense, resilience building against climate change, sustainable livelihood and contribution to the economy.
Q What are the possible adverse consequences of coastal degradation?
First and foremost we’re losing land. The infrastructure along the coast such as the railways are now threatened. The coastal areas are some of the densely populated areas in Sri Lanka. Those people will be displaced. Where are they going to go? Most of them are fisherfolk. They can’t go very far inland because they lose their livelihood. Then there are hotels along the coast. Sri Lanka is still promoted as a sun and sand, beach kind of destination. So we are losing that opportunity as well.
Q Wetland areas in Colombo are decreasing. What is the importance of wetland areas and what are the consequences of losing wetlands?
Wetlands have its own biodiversity. Wetlands serve a really important ecological service by helping to ameliorate the impacts of floods. When you fill the wetlands, those flood waters then spread out across the city and affects much of the urban infrastructure. There’s a huge economic cost as well. Wetlands are extremely important, but they also have to be managed because they are dynamic systems. The Sri Lanka Land Development Corporation (SLLDC) has proposed that the Colombo wetlands be declared a Ramsa site (Ramsa is an international covenant to protect and conserve wetlands). This is commendable. But they are also allowing others to fill lands illegally. This should be condemned. There was also a Cabinet Paper recently to conserve all the wetlands in the Colombo Metropolitan area and have the Department of wildlife take them over and protect them. Filling of wetlands is illegal. It’s ironic that many of the Government buildings in Colombo are built on wetlands.
After the coral reefs, mangroves and sand dunes were removed there is now coastal erosion which affects many people. Sri Lanka’s coast lines are highly populated. So coral reefs are extremely important in terms of coastal defense, resilience building against climate change, sustainable livelihood and contribution to the economy
Q What are the sustainable ways in which urban and industrial waste can be disposed of?
Plastic has to be recycled. We have to reduce, reuse and recycle. There are innovative ways to recycle and reuse plastic. We need to learn from other countries and come up with our own ideas. There are many innovative people here who can come up with ideas. But implementation and enforcement are problems. The CEA brought a ban on the use of polythene. They have not been able to implement its enforcement very effectively. We need education and awareness for us to be more responsible and civic conscious.
Q What role does the public play regarding decisions made by politicians which affect the environment?
A section of the public tries its best to lobby and object. I think our messaging needs to be clearer and must be tailored for the policy makers to understand as well. There has to be a dialogue. There needs to be a forum for that dialogue. Right now there is no forum because politicians don’t listen to the public. Politicians need to understand that there are fairly decent strategic plans, work plans and action plans usually done by competent technical people. So follow those plans instead of catering to a few voters. They are basically putting the entire country in jeopardy in an effort to gain votes. This is not fair.