Leading academic on climatology Prof. Senevi Epitawatte, in an interview with the Daily Mirror, speaks about the effects of global warming or climatic changes on Sri Lanka in the decades to come. Asserting that Sri Lanka would face severe effects of it in another 25-30 years, he called for action to stand up to the situation in terms of adaptation and mitigation. He recently published two
Q How do you look at the effects of global warming in Sri Lanka?
Global warming is a definite event. Drastic and unpredictable changes will take place as a result of global warming. The problems exist even now, and it will take a turn for the worse in the future. It will be a very serious situation in another 25 to 30 years’ time. The total biosphere, with human and other beings, will have a challenging situation by that time. Unfortunately, there are two arguments.
One section of scientists believes that climate change will take place. At the same time, another set, influenced by sponsorship of companies with vested interests, argues otherwise. They say evidence is very little to prove the phenomenon of global warming. According to my knowledge, it will happen definitely. Unfortunately, in Sri Lanka, the changes will take place not only in the tropical part but also in every other geographical area. In Sri Lanka, it will be even severe. Together, with the climatic change, the sea level will rise. According to the minimum predictions, the sea level will rise by at least 1.5 metres. At maximum it will rise by 15 metres. If it is a 15 metre rise, all the low land coastal areas will be submerged.
Intensity of rainfall will be high at times. It will cause flash floods. We cannot predict what kind of atmospheric behaviour will take place though.
Q Scientifically, why is it so severe for Sri Lanka?
It will be serious because of the rise of sea temperature. Alongside, the velocity of wind will change. The atmospheric moisture will also change. It will affect our vegetation, and eventually the entire environment. Intensity of rain will be severe.
Q How do you elaborate on disasters accompanied with it?
If there is more rainfall, it will lead to an increase of the insect population. We will witness more and more soil erosion. If there is more moisture in the atmosphere, then our crops should go for a phase of adaptation. That is another thing. This adaptation looks impossible in another 25 years. That is the challenge.
It means the entire crop cultivation pattern will change. Rubber cultivation may disappear. Especially, wetland paddy cultivation will get affected. All the settlements, in the low lying areas, will be under the threat of getting submerged by the rising seas.
People will be pushed upwards for resettlement. The Jaffna peninsula will virtually disappear in this manner in another 25-30 years. Then, people there will be forced to come to the central parts of the country.
Q How have you observed the effect of global warming in the present context?
A good example is the drop of the annual coconut a steady yield. If you analyze the yield, you can notice a steady decline during the past few years. The size of a nut is also getting smaller. Alongside, the number of nuts in a cluster has dwindled. It is a phenomenon observed all over the country. Cultivators say it is a reduction of 50 percent. The size of a coconut has also been reduced by 25-30 percent.
In the plantation sector, there are changes in tea, both in terms of quality and the extent of yield.
Q Recently, there were floods that wreaked havoc in Colombo. Is that a direct result of global warming?
We cannot interpret individual events in that way and link it with global warming. You have to take ten or fifteen events like that and analyze them for any conclusion. A trend analysis will only help in determining it.
Q How do you estimate Sri Lanka’s preparedness for it?
It is absolutely at zero level. We seem to be least bothered about it. The universities do not do enough research. What is necessary is to look at genetic developments to be introduced to crops. No research is done in this regard. We are not studying the socio-economic adversities involved. We have a very little link with the international organizations doing climate change studies. We cannot undertake very big research on our own because we are not technologically advanced enough. Unless we have collaborative programmes with advanced countries, we cannot do proper evaluation of the situation.
Q But, the government leaders talk a lot about participation in international fora about climate change. What are your views?
They have attended such conferences and have coffee with high delicacy sandwiches. They can enjoy elaborate meals with high delicacies. But, they do not bring ideas to be acclimatized in the local context. Actually, they can bring some ideas and instruct the university authorities to do some research in this regard.
Q What prompted you to compile the latest volumes of geomorphology?
That is the very reason. I was thinking of it for the last ten years. That is the only the contribution I can make. If the government is not interested in dealing with the issue, I can write such books and promote ideas. That is the reason for me to compile four books, especially on the climate, climatic change, land forms and biosphere. There are four volumes. Three other volumes will come in on human aspects. Even a little child can read these things.
Climatic change is related to geography. For geography, very little priority is given in the school curriculum. Geography is the main subject area where one can study environment and the climatic change. We have neglected this discipline.
Q How should we get ready for climate resilience?
I do not think we can do anything individually. Work has to be done with international cooperation. We can only do adaptation to changes in climate. Otherwise, we cannot stop it as such. We can concentrate on the development of our road network, urban areas and climate resilience agriculture, and housing in areas prone for floods. We can prepare for the situation through engineering techniques, cultural activities and all.
Climate resilient crop cultivation is an idea to consider. As for paddy, we see a difference between varieties we used 30-40 years ago and the ones being used at the moment. During the last 35 years, we have changes the genetic aspects of crops. We have better yields as a result. We develop varieties which yield within a shorter period. If there is constant rain and moisture, you can cultivate and collect harvests as early as possible. We have to develop other crop varieties in a similar way. We should work for genetic developments of livestock. It has happened historically.
Q In the central hills, we see landslides occurring whenever there is heavy rain. How is it linked with climatic changes?
The more it rains, the more you will see landslides. Besides, landslides are caused not only by climatic conditions such as rainfall but also by human activities. When mountainous lands are terraced for various purposes, deforested or cultivated with deep –rooting trees, it will cause landslides. As for the recent landslide in Aranayake, it had been a forest area around 100 years ago. Later, tea was cultivated. Even that was neglected.
People settled in the lands. Every household had dug wells and pit toilets. That means the entire soil surface layer had been changed. Water absorption capacity has also changed. So, heavy rainfall causes landslides. It is a man-made situation. It is not purely a phenomenon of global warming.
QWhat is your suggestion to mitigate damage from such disasters in future?
If it happens everywhere, people can turn to nowhere. It is proverbially similar to people left with no choice in the event of the sky collapsing. We will have to teach people how to reckon with this kind of situation. Then, people can make informed choices. Secondly, you can develop a drainage system, crop pattern etc.
Areas restricted for human settlement should be earmarked. Such lands can be released for forestry or anything.
"It means the entire crop cultivation pattern will change. Rubber cultivation may disappear. Especially, wetland paddy cultivation will get affected. All the settlements, in the low lying areas, will be under the threat of getting submerged by the rising seas "