Seminar on “Implications of Climate Change in South Asia: The Experience of Sri Lanka”

Organised jointly by Regional Centre for Strategic Studies (RCSS) and Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS), Hong Kong, Committee Room E, BMICH, Colombo, Sri Lanka, January 19, 2017

Prof. Imitiaz Ahmed, Executive Director of RCSS, in his introductory remarks, reaffirmed the idea of this conference that is to illustrate Sri Lanka’s understanding of climate change. RCSS works on traditional and non-traditional security and climate change has been understood as a part of non-traditional security.  Dr. Peter Hefele, Head of the Regional Project Energy Security and Climate Change in Asia and Pacific, Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS) Hong Kong, has begun his keynote speech with a brief introduction about their work at KAS including understanding the impact of climate change on social and geopolitics in South Asian region with the emphasis on Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan, help decision makers to collaborate in order to make concrete solutions and disseminate findings on climate change to a broader youth generation in order to increase awareness and unleash creativity of the youth.  Also, one of the main objectives of KAS is to understand how to change the way we produce and consume energy. Here, the main concern is the problem of how to eliminate fossil energy and find common grounds and partners to face this problem.

In the introduction to the report, Prof. Ahmed emphasized that the human effected climate change can no longer be ignored due to the impact of fossil fuel civilization. As a result, the demarcation between natural history and human history has been blurred significantly in recent years. Due to the impact of the capitalism’s new phase which begun in 1980s, developing countries too –from large countries such as China, India and Brazil to smaller countries such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Vietnam – started to emit carbon dioxide. On the contrary, developed countries have been transforming themselves into a knowledge-economy, however, selectively mainly in urban centers. Trump presidency can have a negative impact to the international agreements on reducing global warming. This will prompt other big polluters like India and China to ignore the importance of reducing global warming (the Copycat syndrome). However, the negative impact of this for large polluters were minimal where for small, fragile states such as Sri Lanka, it would be significant. Finally, he forwarded the problem of development paradigm: “energy security required for development is largely conditional on having access to fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas) but then the latter can fuel climate change to the detriment of living beings.”

Avanthi Kalansooriya , in her paper ‘Post-COP 21 Climate Change Regime and Prospects for Renewable Energy’, placed Sri Lanka’s approach on economic development on a global context of international agreements and developments.  As she elaborated, the post-COP 21 has been a positive impact on the idea of renewable energy. The western approach of “development first and renewable energy later” is now visible in South Asian region as well. For instance, Sri Lanka shifted from hydro-power to coal-power recently and spends a considerable amount of its income for fuel and oil. Instead, SL can use wind, hydro, solar and bio mass as alternatives of generating energy. The concept of regime in international relations can be used as an effective form of environmental governance. Here, the paper proposes a renewable energy regime for Sri Lanka. In terms of challenges, lack of grid capacity to absorb the energy generated through renewable energy sources, limitations of Sustainable Energy Authority (SEA), failure of the bids, which were submitted for using bio mass for energy generation, to meet the environmental standards set by the SEA can be highlighted. Therefore, in order to counter these challenges, she recommended investing to strengthen SEA to a fully-fledged government institution and encouraging the think-tank’s, epistemic community and the civil society to generate more knowledge on renewable energy issues.

The paper of Dr. Minna Thaheer, Associate Director, RCSS, ‘Disaster Management sans Conflict Sensitivity: A Receipt for Disaster’ which was presented on behalf of Dr. Thaheer by Ayodhya Krishani Amarajeewa, discussed how natural disasters impacted daily lives in a diverse and pluralistic as well as ethnically fragile and war torn Sri Lankan state. Aid interventions sometimes make victims more vulnerable due to ill-informed interventions and unorganized aid distribution. She underlined the importance of cultural sensitive interventions. For example, during Tsunami disaster, there was a burial issue where different religious sects had disputes and also there was a problem of distributing aid only to converted Christians or people who are willing to convert. There was also the issue of neglecting old displacements. As she discussed, in the post-Tsunami period, the displaced people were placed near a displacement camp for people who are affected by the armed conflict and displaced victims of Tsunami received more benefits and attention than displaced people of armed conflict.

Sumudhu Jayasinghe, Research Officer, RCSS, in her paper ‘When Mother Nature Marks Women: The Gendered Implications of Climate Change’, presented how climate change and natural disasters affect women in Sri Lanka. As she pointed out, women in different geographical areas face different issues. For instance, in dry zone, deaths and disability of males due to the civil war has created a large group of women households. Therefore, environmental issues in dry zone including notable decrease of rain have given women ‘a triple burden’- an environmental burden apart from ‘the double burden’. In wet Zone, women are more stable due to its infrastructure development and mega-economic projects such as constructing highways, a port and an airport. But the rural community still faces the problem of resource empowerment. She analyzed the impact of climate change in Sri Lanka through three different cases. The first case is Tsunami. In the Tsunami disaster, female deaths were three times more than male deaths due to physical and cultural constraints. In the post-Tsunami era, women had more stability compared to the women in dry zone due to the support of their male counterpart and self-employment. The second case discussed floods in 2016. During this disaster, women lost their assets such as jewelry. Importantly, taboo nature of female goods such as undergarments and sanitary goods made it difficult to collect and provide as aid for women. The final case which is not included in the report due to the recentness is the drought in 2017. This has been the worst drought Sri Lanka has faced in 40 years. Sri Lankan government has established a presidential commission and declared a state of alert in order to implement water-use restricting policies and other relevant measures. Also, UN is working with the government to take necessary actions by providing expertise on monitoring and evaluating the drought situation and exploring food or cash for work programs. She recommended that women should play a key role in policy making in order to support women in a natural disaster.

Replying to these papers, the discussant, Ambassador Sarala Fernando, highlighted that infrastructure development has been the most popular approach towards development. As a result, the energy consumption has increased and other aspects of development have been neglected such as human security. Responding to Kalansooriya’s paper, Fernando emphasized that Sri Lanka’s recent attention towards coal energy illustrated the idea that economic development should come first and other issues can be addressed afterwards. The other discussant, Mr. Jeevan Thiagarajah, stated that water capacity of Sri Lanka has been reducing due to less rain fall, unplanned ground water removal and extended use of water in agriculture. Sri Lanka possesses an excellent knowledge on water management (especially in University of Moratuwa). However, still this knowledge has not been connected with the national grid.

In the open discussion session, one participant stated that policy makers have to work more to fulfill people’s expectations. He also pointed out that there is a lack of social accountability in Sri Lanka regarding this issue. Another participant pointed out that policy makers in Sri Lanka do not consider development as sustainable development.

In her speech, the Chief Guest, Ms. Una McCauley, UN Resident Coordinator & UNDP Resident Representative of United Nations, pointed out that old people and children should be included as victims of climate change as well. She also stated that Sri Lanka will lose millions of Rupees in future years for environmental disasters. For instance, the predictability of droughts has been impossible and as a result, the most vulnerable people in the country will be affected. Therefore, Sri Lanka needs regular drought preparedness through increasing the awareness about this issue and share the burden collectively by saving water in your daily private activities. Also, the state and the society can use labor to work on tanks and clean wells. Looking for alternative fields of energy, bio gas, solar and wind energy is another option. She finally highlighted that water has become an economic force in Sri Lanka due to tourism. For instance, rivers and waterfalls have become main tourist attractions as well as a basic consumption good. Therefore, it should be protected.

Prof. Ahmed, in vote of thanks, briefly stated two important points. One is that South Asia is land centric rather than water centric. Therefore, he proposed of developing the idea of water museums in order to make public awareness. The other is proposing to conduct water futures research for protecting water.