Scientists may debate and differ on the exact nature and manifestation of climate change impacts. Are the changes in temperature and rainfall simply an anomaly, or are they an indication of long term climatic change? But farmers and fishermen throughout the country are experiencing changed seasons year on year, and for many the past four [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Can people tackle climate change, when science remains uncertain?

A recent meeting in Colombo brings together scientists, policy makers and people from disaster prone areas to discuss practical ‘no-regrets’ actions

Scientists may debate and differ on the exact nature and manifestation of climate change impacts. Are the changes in temperature and rainfall simply an anomaly, or are they an indication of long term climatic change? But farmers and fishermen throughout the country are experiencing changed seasons year on year, and for many the past four years have been the worst in terms of aberrant weather.Many dry zone villages have teetered between flood and drought and flood again, eroding their capacity to cope with normal shocks that are part of an agrarian life.

Although Sri Lanka has a national strategy for climate change adaptation, recommendations in it have not been fully tested on the ground – among people who are at high risk of losing their homes, income and even lives from these changes. With development aid from Australia, and technical support from a number of government agencies, UNDP GEF SGP (Global Environmental Facility, Small

Prof. Sarath Kotagama addressing the climate change conference

Grants Programme) in Sri Lanka implemented five village based projects in identified ‘at-risk’ locations throughout the country during the period 2010-2012. In sharing the experiences of practical ‘adaptations’ to climate variability, the meeting last week hoped to spark government into incorporating some of the learning and experiences in to national development and state-funded poverty alleviation programmes. Projects were implemented in locations prone to frequent drought, flood, erosion/landslides and coastal disasters. In all selected villages, the frequency and intensity of these disasters have increased during the last decade compared to the long term average.

Projects were technically supported by Department of Agriculture, Department of Coast Conservation and University of Peradeniya. During implementation, it became amply clear that villages at risk have a multitude of other problems. Many of them are distant from government service providers. They practise poor land and water management. Technology is absent. New and improved breeds have not reached them. Basic social problems such as education, poor nutrition, poor sanitation and lack of savings all contribute to lessening people’s coping capacity against frequent weather shocks.

It is not only remote villagers who experience climatic shocks. The government has lost large amounts to climate change over the past decade, worsened considerably in the past five years. Dr. Suren Batagoda, Deputy Secretary of Treasury speaking at the conference last week said that many newly constructed infrastructure in the north and east had been damaged by heavy floods in 2010, 2011 and 2012. The drought in 2012 reduced paddy production in the Yala season by 41%. Again, due to the drought hydro reservoirs dried up and generation from hydro power dropped to a dismal 18% in 2012..

As an overall strategy, the government hopes to wean more people away from agriculture by creating new job opportunities in services sector, Dr. Batagoda said. The Finance Ministry estimates that the declining contribution of agriculture in GDP (20% in 2000 and 13% in 2010) will further reduce to 8% in 2020. But to increase productivity and efficiency in agriculture, emphasis will be on improved technology and high-value production. Sectors such as fisheries and livestock will be improved through government-funded programmes. For the first time ever, the 2012 Annual Report of the Central Bank had an analysis of climate change and its impact on national development.

While impacts of climatic disasters could be easily assessed, little is understood of longer term impacts on sensitive ecosystems and species. According to the scientific community, impacts of climate change will be felt in all climatic zones of the country, altering their ecological features. Prof. Sarath Kotagama, senior conservationist and professor of environmental science speaking at the event asked for more funding to be allocated to studying changes in natural systems, forest composition especially, and on the fate of native and indigenous species within forests.

M.H.B. Wanasinghe, a resident of a project location in Mahawa, Kurunegala said that a decade ago nature and climate was more predictable, and therefore the knowledge passed down through centuries of farming was still applicable. “Today, nature has become our foe. We cannot figure it out, it behaves irrationally and unpredictably.” Wanasinghe’s village, despite proximity to the newly widened Padeniya Anuradhapura highway still depends on an ancient rain-fed village tank for sustenance.

The reality of the moment is that Sri Lanka, despite its middle income status, remains an agricultural country. Over 80% of people live and work in rural areas coping with climate change and variability to their best ability. Some of the moot lessons from the climate change adaptation projects implemented by GEF SGP could be easily incorporated into national development programmes to make them more resilient. The general rule of thumb is to advocate activities that will support ‘good’ development anyway, even if predicted climate impacts do not materialize. These are;

nThere is great need for technological developments to reach the rural farmers and fishermen. This includes new varieties of climate and pest resistant crops; new techniques in water and land management; new breeds of livestock and early warning systems that could save lives, tools and implements of people.

nThere is need for safety nets in rural areas in terms of access to low-interest credit, compensation schemes and insurance to ensure that farmers and fishermen can return to their livelihood after disaster.

nHighly vulnerable districts have now been identified and this presents an opportunity for Sri Lanka to design localized plans and strategies to overcome climate change, because obviously the problems of Mulaitivu, Ratnapura and Hambantota are different and cannot be tackled by national level policy alone.

nTake a landscape level approach to development. Many rural development projects are narrowly planned and cause disruptive consequences on the natural and social environment. For example, if rehabilitating a village tank, ensure that catchment area is conserved and future siltation is reduced.

nAt local level, interventions succeed if the two arms of local government (Divisional Secretariat and Pradeshiya Sabhas) cooperate for results. This is especially so, in urban and semi-urban areas where the influence and responsibility is on the Pradeshiya Sabha to satisfy basic requirements of people. (TD)

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