The writer of this article Leslie C. A. de S. Wijesinghe has served as Senior Asst Conservator of Forests, Additional Director General of NARESA (now National Science Foundation), IUCN Country Representative, President of the National Academy of Sciences, and a lead consultant in many national environmental projects. “Sustainable Nation” welcomes more reader contributions from experts and those who have qualified in the related subject.
I was pleased to see the editor’s note that regularly appears in the Dailymirror under the caption Sustainable Nation, alerting the readers to the immediate threats to the environment through human activities and the need for every one of us to play our part in arresting environmental degradation. How serious is the threat, worldwide, to the environment? In answer, I can do no better than quote the highly respected late Judge of the International Court of Justice, Christopher Weeramantry. “Our current generation is the most wasteful generation that has ever lived. We are most neglectful of the rights of future generations. We are polluting the environment for thousands of generations to come. It is our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren who are affected. But what does it matter; there is profit in it now! That seems to be the criterion”. I was also inspired to write this article by recently reading Pope Francis’s message (given in 2015) entitled On Care for Our Common Home, addressed not only to Christians but to “every person living on this planet”. The message deals with a whole range of human activities that are currently causing immense damage to the environment and putting in peril the integrity of planet Earth, our common home. It calls for an inclusive dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet, and for all people of the world to take “swift and unified global action”, asking themselves, “What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us”? We need to recognise that the natural environment is a collective good, the patrimony of all humanity, and safeguarding it is the responsibility of everyone.
I have for many years, in association with government and scientific institutions in Sri Lanka, been actively engaged in addressing issues relating to protecting the environment. I would therefore like to touch on a few key areas of particular concern regarding the adverse impacts on the environment caused by human activities, and the kind of action we Sri Lankans have to take in order to mitigate those impacts.
The need for global action for protecting the environment was recognised by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1983 when it set up the World Commission on Environment and Development. Since then, the United Nations has taken several measures to address the issues relating to environmental degradation. These include convening world conferences on environment and development (e.g. the Earth Summit in Brazil in 1992 and the follow-up, Rio+20), and the adoption of the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Framework Convention on Climate Change, and several others aimed at protecting nature and safeguarding the environment. Regular follow-up international conferences are organised to monitor progress on implementing the recommendations of these conventions by the different countries.
At the present time, the developed countries are consuming natural resources (both renewable and non-renewable), discharging greenhouse gases that cause global warming and using environmental space on an exorbitant scale, which compromise the opportunities available to the developing countries that are striving to promote economic development in order to meet the needs and improve the quality of life of many millions living in conditions of poverty. The United Nations, recognising that the protection and improvement of the human environment will continue to be a major issue which affects the economic development and the well-being of people throughout the world, designated 5 June every year as World Environment Day. This was done in order to promote public awareness and to urge every person on the planet to take whatever action needed in the course of their day to day activities for the protection of our environment. Although much of the action for conserving the environment is what the developed countries should do, there is a great deal that a developing country like Sri Lanka and, more importantly, what we as individuals could also do towards caring for the environment.
I will confine my attention in this article to three of the most serious and immediate effects of environmental degradation caused by human activities. They are: Loss of biodiversity; Global warming leading to climate change and pollution.
The depletion of biological diversity, worldwide, through human activities (mainly deforestation and forest degradation), is one of the most serious threats to the integrity of the environment of planet Earth. From the Sri Lankan perspective, our country has a rich heritage of biological diversity. Deforestation in the island has already gone too far, and we need to take special measures to protect the remaining natural forests and other biodiversity-rich ecosystems. On the positive side, much has been done in terms of enacting laws and regulations to conserve biodiversity. Sri Lanka has many legally protected areas for conserving forests and wildlife, and the Sinharaja forest and forests in the central highlands (Knuckles, Peak Wilderness and Horton Plains) have been declared World Heritage properties. The laws pertaining to the protection of these ecosystems should be strictly enforced. We, as individuals, have a role to play in conserving our nation’s biological riches. For example, we should not turn a blind eye to illicit activities that are still taking place such as felling of trees in protected forests, illegal encroachment, prohibited fishery activities (e.g. taking dolphins, turtles), and attempts to export protected species of ornamental and medicinal plants, and animals including live fish. And we should avoid polluting the environment as contaminants cause loss of biodiversity, mainly in inland water bodies and in the sea around us.
That climate change is occurring through human activities is now well established. Non-renewable natural resources (oil and coal) are being used on an unprecedented scale to sustain the life-styles in the developed world. Carbon emissions, mainly due to such use, is predicted to cause global warming, sea-level rise and climate change. Some of the people that would be most affected by sea-level rise are the vulnerable, coastal- dwelling communities. Climate change would also result in increased rainfall in some areas (causing frequent flooding) and enhanced drought conditions elsewhere. The carbon footprint per capita – that is the total quantity of carbon emitted per individual mainly through the use of fossil fuels, including the use of electricity powered by fossil fuels – in Sri Lanka is quite low compared to the developed countries. However, the carbon footprint of the more affluent citizens among us comes close to the per capita average in the developed countries. This is where we, in Sri Lanka, have a moral obligation to contribute to the global effort to reduce carbon emissions, even though our national contribution will be small in relative terms. We could, for example, reduce our consumption of electricity – much of which is now being generated using oil and coal – and we could use public transport wherever possible.
Pollution is one of the worst forms of environmental degradation. It has grown in magnitude in recent times owing to a wide range of human activities. One of these is consumerism which encourages the acquisition of goods and services in ever-increasing amounts, well beyond our real needs. This, coupled with the throw-away culture, when something which could very well be reused is discarded, causes resource depletion and results in the accumulation of waste. Another trend stemming from developments in technology is where more sophisticated and improved versions of commonly used household appliances and other products (e.g. television, mobile phones, computers) are coming into the market at an unprecedented rate, tempting the consumer to go in for the new product. This consumer habit is primarily seen in developed countries but is also practised by the more affluent among us in the developing countries. We should try to avoid indulging in this wasteful practice that leads to environmental pollution.
Another practice causing pollution of the environment is the indiscriminate use and discarding of polythene and other plastic material. This is a worldwide problem that prompted the United Nations to declare “Beat Plastic Pollution” as the theme for World Environment Day in 2018, and it called all of us to come together to combat one of the great environmental challenges of our time. Plastic material is used for bottling (water and soft drinks), producing shopping bags, making trash bins and other containers, packaging (including prepared food packs which also contain plastic cutlery), nylon used in clothing, and so on. Plastics are not biodegradable and, when discarded, keep on accumulating on land, in rivers and other inland water bodies, and in the ocean, causing irretrievable harm to the environment. Reusing and recycling are ways that are expected to reduce environmental pollution, but these practices fall far short of the desirable level. Here in Sri Lanka, there is clear evidence of pollution on beaches and in wetlands and inland water bodies (e.g. the Bellanwila Sanctuary, Beira Lake), and there are ever-growing mounds of garbage seen in urban waste dumps. Every one of us should respond to the UN call to “beat plastic pollution”. I would like to conclude by referring to the importance of environmental education which should go hand in hand with action to increase public awareness in protecting our environment. Let us join hands in taking meaningful steps towards protecting the environment of mother Earth, our common home, and leaving a wholesome environment for future generations.