Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday newspaper on 3 February 2013
“How did you come here?”
This was a question that the late Ray Wijewardene – maverick engineer, agronomist and inventor – frequently asked of his visitors to his Colombo home cum office. Most travelled in a motor vehicle – bus, car or motor cycle.
“Just think about it for a minute,” Ray would tell them. “You came here in an imported vehicle, fuelled by imported oil — and you drove it on roads paved with imported bitumen (tar).”
After waiting a few seconds for this to sink in, he delivered his punch line: “Do you still believe we’re an independent nation?”
He had a greater vision of independence, not limited to political self-governance that Ceylon obtained in February 1948. He argued that countries should aspire to be as “non-dependent” as possible.
Ray wasn’t a nationalist in today’s common rhetorical sense. He recognised that countries were inter-dependent in the modern world: no nation could remain an island. The term ‘globalisation’, he said, needs to be better understood as ‘inter-dependence’.
In such an inter-dependent world, countries can still pursue non-dependence in key areas such as food, energy, transport and public health. After years of working with the United Nations and the World Bank, he had insights on sustainable development challenges in Asia and Africa.
In an essay written in 2001, he said: “Surely we need a firm national goal of Non-dependence where the basics of life are concerned…food, energy and transport…Not only for strategic reasons, but for the sound reason of national pride.”
He added: “A clear definition of ‘non-dependence’ is essential for providing a direction for national development, and thereby…for national scientific research.”
Scientific research, when properly anchored in priorities, would be an enabler of such non-dependence.
Addicted to Foreign Oil
Ray is not the only thinker who has been concerned about Sri Lanka being a highly dependent on the outside world for its basic needs.
British writer, filmmaker and diver Mike Wilson, who lived in Sri Lanka from 1956 (and later became Swami Siva Kalki), once wrote a short story titled ‘When the Ships Stopped Coming’. In it, he speculated what could happen if ships stopped arriving at our harbours for some weeks or months due to a major disruption such as a distant war.
I haven’t read this story – it’s not in the public domain – but his friend Dr Ranil Senanayake, South Asia’s first systems ecologist, referred to it in a lengthy interview with me last year (Read: Sri Lanka’s Fast-track to Post-war Development: Remember the Mahaweli’s Costly Lessons!, Groundviews.org, 3 June 2012)Considering how totally dependent we are on foreign oil – for transport as well as a large part of electricity generation – even a temporary disruption of supplies could literally bring our ‘independent’ nation to a standstill.
As Ranil noted, “At that time (when the story was written in the 1970s), there would have been chaos. Today, there will be more than that – for Colombo to operate, we need huge quantities of energy to be delivered. Otherwise we will starve! We will die of thirst! I mean, our social breakdown will be horrifying…”
Ranil calls oil a ‘development drug’ to which we are highly addicted. “And the more we become developed in that context, the more we become addicted (to oil). And when it is taken away, Heaven help us!!”
Ray was deeply concerned that Sri Lanka was spending ever increasing amounts of hard earned foreign exchange on petroleum imports. In 2000, he calculated that the entire annual earnings from tea exports was spent on buying oil.
The country’s annual oil bill, which varies depending on world prices, currently stands around USD 3 billion while the size of our total economy is around USD 60 billion.
Grow our Energy!
Ray spent a great deal of time exploring and experimenting on how we can increase energy non-dependence.
While hydro power is indeed renewable, he realised that much of the hydro potential was already tapped (and harnessing it fully depended on timely and ample rain). Other renewable energy technologies, such as solar photovoltaic and wind power, were useful in specific locations especially in remote areas, but these currently cannot provide large quantities of electricity at affordable prices.
The renewable, cheap and scaleable energy source he identified and promoted was Dendro power – generating electricity from burning fast-growing trees like gliricidia. Power planners initially dismissed this idea as unviable, but Ray’s research, experimentation and advocacy eventually convinced them.
With engineer P G Joseph, he built a small dendro power plant as ‘proof of concept’ and drew up a national dendro plan. Their work showed how dendro plantations need not affect food production (use only marginal lands), can generate many rural jobs, and is also carbon neutral. (See tribute: Ray Wijewardene, Bio-Energy Promoter, by P G Joseph)
Dendro power is now proven both technologically and economically; several small plants are already operated by private companies for their own needs. Scaling it up simply requires a firm political commitment towards non-dependence in energy. Are we up to it?
Adapt, not adopt
In Ray Wijewardene’s integrated thinking, growing most of our food as well our energy was entirely within the natural resources of Sri Lanka –with the right vision, policies and practices.
As he often said: “Sri Lanka is uniquely located within the humid and tropical regions of the world, and blessed through year-round sunshine, with year-round photosynthesis to derive year-round (plant) growth, for the sustained production of energy and of fertility.”
He took a dim view of importing food – including rice – that could be grown by our own farmers if only they had the right guidance and market access. He also encouraged diversifying our diet, citing historical evidence that our ancestors ate less cereals and more tree crops such as jak and breadfruit.
Ray used to quote Dr M Nawaz Sharif, a former Professor and Vice President at the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT), who wrote in a book, ‘Technology for Development’: “…the capacity to produce technology is more important than technology itself. The prosperity of a nation depends not on the quantum of technologies it has amassed but on its capacity to generate technologies”.
Ray felt that while the ‘generation’ of new technologies was difficult a small country, the capacity to adapt appropriate technologies was essential. But he cautioned against the uncritical adoption of foreign technology.
He urged Sri Lanka’s scientists and policy makers to study those developing countries generating or adapting technologies for their own strategic non-dependence.
“For Israel, it includes the area of arms in addition to food. But perhaps the begging bowl is now too deeply engrained in our Sri Lankan psyche! And beggars are not choosers!”
Food for thought, indeed, as Sri Lanka marks 65 years of political independence…
Explore Ray Wijewardene’s vision at: www.raywijewardene.net/the_vision.html