Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday newspaper on 7 April 2013
As Sri Lanka sizzles in April heat, some ask: is this due to global warming?
Well, not exactly: high temperatures are typical for this time of the year. At the same time, meteorologists confirm that average temperatures in Sri Lanka have risen by almost one degree Centigrade during the past 70 years.
Global warming accelerated by human activity is now scientifically accepted. The UN’s climate panel (IPCC) predicts that global average temperatures could rise by somewhere between 2 degree and 6 degrees Centigrade by 2100. (And we thought this is too hot!)
The big challenge for most non-specialists is: how can we discern climate change impacts that unfold slowly over time and in many different ways?Dr W L Sumathipala, former head and now chief advisor of the Environment Ministry’s climate change secretariat, sounded the alarm this week about one key impact: sea level rise.
“There will be a loss of coastal landmass,” physicist Dr Sumathipala said in an interview with Ceylon Today on 4 April 2013.
In his view, Sri Lanka’s map may have to be redrawn by 2100. He cautioned that “parts of Sri Lanka are likely to be submerged by the turn of the century”, and called for “immediate action to avert a future crisis”.
This isn’t the first time that such dire warnings have been made by credible local scientists (not alarmist environmentalists who love to overstate their case).
In April 2007, physicist turned economist Dr Mohan Munasinghe, a former vice chair of IPCC, speculated how climate change impacts – if allowed to mount – could be even more devastating than impacts of Sri Lanka’s prolonged conflict.
”A major part of Jaffna and other northern areas will be submerged when the sea level rises. So people are fighting and dying over areas that may soon not be there,” he told the globally distributed Inter Press Service (IPS). Significantly, these remarks were made while the conflict was still underway.
Sea Level Rise
Global warming affects sea levels in two ways. Large volumes of ice in the polar regions and glaciers are melting, most of it flowing to the oceans. Higher temperatures also expand the volume of sea water. Both raise the overall levels.
How much sea levels can rise — and how fast — is still being worked out. In 2007, IPCC projected a worst-case scenario of less than 2 feet of sea level rise by 2100. Since then, some scientists have said that was too conservative – they predict around 3 feet by the turn of the century.
Sea level rise is a gradual process, not a tsunami like event (so forget Hollywood’s over-dramatisations). Land first goes under temporarily during high tide as well as stormy weather. Salt intrusion can render soil and groundwater unusable well before eventual permanent inundation.
Whatever the rate of rise, island nations will bear the brunt of it. Sri Lanka’s 1,620 km long coast is where most industry and commerce are concentrated. Over a quarter of our population lives in coastal areas.
The usually cautious Dr Sumathipala has outlined a worrying scenario. He says the highest impact from the rising seas will be in the North: low-lying parts of the Jaffna Peninsula, as well as some offshore islets, could eventually go underwater. (Atlases show 113 such islets, many of them along the eastern, northern and north-western coasts.)
Other coastal areas won’t be spared either. Coastal habitats in many parts of Sri Lanka, particularly on the highly populated western and southern coasts, will be battered. Relocation is the only long-term solution according to Dr Sumathipala.
Infrastructure in Danger
Climate change impacts will claim more than just land. Vital economic infrastructure is also in danger – and not only in coastal areas.
Emerging from three decades of conflict, Sri Lanka is busy rebuilding and catching up. During this decade, major investments are being made in road, rail and air transport, housing and power. Climate change can affect these projects, and disrupt life in different ways.
Raised temperatures and unpredictable rains are already affecting the country’s food production efforts and can lead to higher prices. Water quantity and quality are at stake. There is increasing frequency and intensity of disasters such as floods, droughts and landslides.
However, climate considerations are not fully factored into development and public investment planning. State agencies in charge of infrastructure and utilities haven’t realised the need to ‘insure’ their installations and operations from climate impacts.
The National Climate Change Adaptation Strategy (NCCAS) tries to fill this gap. Prepared in 2010 for the government’s climate change secretariat, and covering the period 2011 to 2016, it takes a macro view, and recommends many specific adaptation measures — at policy, legal, regulatory and practice levels.
The Strategy argues that living and coping with uncertain impacts of climate change is not a choice, but an imperative. It recognizes the need “to adapt to climate change to ensure that economic development can continue without disruption or setbacks, and investments in poverty reduction, food and water security and public health will not be undone”.
The Strategy was prepared after a thorough vulnerability assessment.
For example, it points out how major roads and railways running through coastal areas are already exposed to seasonal coastal erosion. Sea level rise and storm surges can further damage or destroy these economic lifelines.
Dr Sumathipala says the Colombo-Galle road (part of A2 highway) may need to be moved inland in time to come. The Colombo and Galle ports may also be impacted and eventually rendered unusable. He has not speculated on what could happen to the Hambantota and Trincomalee ports.
So is it all doom and gloom as some greens suggest? Not quite.
“Many development projects can be climate-proofed,” says Nayana N Mawilmada, the strategic planning specialist who headed the Lankan team that prepared the Climate Adaptation Strategy. “This requires some incremental extra costs — but that cost is negligible compared to what it would cost to fix them later. It makes financial and economic sense to take on the problem now.”
Many small but consequential changes are possible. Among them:
• Engineers use rainfall intensity curves to establish drainage requirements for new projects. Updating these guidelines to reflect changed rainfall patterns can help improve the climate resilience of newly built structures.
• New tourist hotels in coastal areas should be designed and built to withstand projected rises in sea levels and storm surges. That’s far cheaper than fixing them later.
“There are many more actions in sectors as diverse as plantations, water resources and town planning. The principle is the same: an ounce of prevention is better than a ton of cure,” says Mawilmada.
Implementing the adaptation strategy, during the initial 2011-2016 period, has been estimated to cost LKR 47.7 billion.
“This might seem a huge amount, but it’s a small price to pay for insuring the bigger development agenda — and safeguarding our children’s future — from climate change-induced risks,” says Mawilmada. He points out it is “just 1% of the LKR 4.3 trillion being invested in development projects from 2006-2016”.
Disappointingly, climate adaptation has few takers and the whole subject remains ghettoised as a ‘green’ concern, left mostly to the environment ministry. As Dr Sumathipala said this week: “Sri Lanka is yet to wake up to the reality of climate change.”
What would it take to awaken our sleep-walking nation?
[Disclosure: I was part of the team that prepared NCCAS in 2010.]