By Lalith Dhammika Mendis
Sri Lanka is going through a harsh spell of dry weather. Rains are scanty. Rivers, lakes and water bodies are running dry. The ferocity of raging wild fires are devouring large expanses of rich foliage. An aerial view would clearly show large brown patches of cleared areas dotting forest lands caused by illegal & chena cultivations for various other reasons. All these are symptomatic of the environmental catastrophe fast taking place in this country. Sri Lanka which could once boast of exuberant lush vegetation at the turn of the 20th century when nearly 50% of the landmass was covered by pristine forests is now heading for environmental calamity with large scale deforestation taking place at a rapid pace. It has caused the forest cover to shrink to a level below 20% of the total landmass today. Sri Lanka was endowed with salubrious weather with guaranteed periodical rainfall, amply supporting priority needs such as agriculture and hydro-power generation during the days gone by.
Forest cover has given way to accommodate increasing needs of agriculture, plantations and timber to meet the needs of the growing population. Moreover, allocation of large extents of forest land for irrigation schemes has also contributed to dwindling of forests. Besides, large-scale illegal felling by racketeers and illicit cultivations clandestinely carried out by criminal elements too continue to cause colossal damage to hundreds and thousands of hectares of precious forest cover, depriving us of the wonderful gift of nature.
The post-war construction boom currently underway too, has accelerated deforestation with large swathes of forest land being drastically denuded for development purposes. Whilst large-scale development of infrastructure is important, it is equally or more important to ensure that development programmes are executed in a prudent manner to ensure minimal adverse impact on the environment, for any failure to do so would spell inevitable disaster in the long term. Nonetheless, unbridled damage caused to forest cover for legitimate as well as illegitimate purposes over the years have clearly taken a heavy toll on the sustainability of the natural ecological equilibrium and water cycle portending irreversible consequences.
Destruction of forest cover in the long run spells doom even if it takes place in the name of achieving materialistic development to elevate Sri Lanka on par with the developed world. Loss of greenery has enormously contributed to global warming and the green-house effect, of which ill effects are being increasingly felt throughout the world today.
Although planet earth is predominantly covered with water, expanding world population has heightened demand for drinking water which has made water a precious resource in short supply. This phenomenon calls for urgent measures of conservation as a top priority. Notwithstanding the fact that there is an overarching urgency to implement prudent measures within the quickest possible timeframe to conserve water, it does not appear to be commanding the right level of priority it deserves in the hierarchy of burning issues that are being addressed today. For example many tanks and reservoirs which functioned as perennial sources of water during the days gone by are remaining abandoned. Most of them have got silted through years of sheer negligence and due to dismal lack of necessary measures for rehabilitation. As a result none of them contributes to store and conserve water, which people find in short supply during dry weather spells such as what is being experienced at present. Sadly a matter of crucial importance such as this does not appear to have attracted the attention of echelons of power.
Fast developing undesirable weather patterns indicate that Sri Lanka is destined to experience frequent spells of dry weather as time passes. Drinking water would undoubtedly be in short supply sooner or later unless decisive measures were initiated to arrest this catastrophic trend. Not only would we run short of drinking water, we would also have to contend with an insufficient supply of water for crucial needs such as agriculture and hydro-power, precipitating economic consequences of cataclysmic proportions. Drop in agricultural productions would compel importation of food items draining state coffers. Due to insufficient generation of hydro-power to meet continuously rising demand, the state would be forced to resort to thermal power generation thereby sharply increasing fossil fuels imports. Whilst prolonged and harsh drought conditions would parch arable lands making food crops more expensive, burning of mammoth stocks of fossil fuels would worsen atmospheric pollution causing unforeseen public health implications. Combined impact of these phenomena would lead to detrimental macroeconomic fallout in terms of escalating trade deficit, depletion of foreign reserves, deterioration of exchange rate, escalating health care costs as well as issues and increasing cost of living etc.
Sri Lanka which is forging ahead in a relentless rat-race seeking materialistic advancement is fast drifting down the precipice of environmental adversity knowingly or otherwise. We are sitting on a time bomb. Very few appear to feel that the clock is ticking faster than they think.
It is crucial that those who matter wake up to this reality soon, before it is too late.