Conservation Doesn’t Stop for Crisis

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While the whole world celebrated the World Environment Day last week giving much prominence to environmental conservation and the promotion of sustainable development practices, it feels as if the special UN day’s importance was not much felt by Sri Lankans. Granted the country is currently dealing with multiple political and economical crises which demands the policy and decision makers’ immediate attention but it is not as if we can afford to overlook environmental conservation since it can have dire effects in the future.

The Government since it came to power over two years ago, had to deal with a number of global and local concerns namely; COVID-19 pandemic, fuel shortage, promotion of organic farming, and the global economic crisis among others. Judging by the ongoing civil protests against the current regime it is safe to say that the Government has not been able to do a satisfactory job in addressing these issues and similarly, the environmentalists are also among the ‘least impressed’ courtesy multiple policy decisions the Government made during its time that had some detrimental effects on Sri Lanka’s precious natural resources.

Environment affected continuously

Senior Consultant of Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) and the Chairperson of friends of the Earth International (FOEI) Hemantha Withanage, having a look back at the actions the current Government has taken during its course, said that our ecosystems has constantly been in severe threat since the current regime came to power. “Soon after the Government was formed the President took a decision to allow sand mining sans a transport permit.

He then appointed a known sand businessman as the head of Geological Surveys and Mines Bureau which resulted in accelerated sand mining. The new Circular MWFC/1/2020 took Other State Forests under the control of Forest Department and put them under district secretaries, giving them power to use those lands in agriculture and development activities. We saw a lot of elephant corridors, catchment areas, and other protected as well as environmentally sensitive areas being cleared for maize cultivation, especially in Nilgala, Rambakenoya, and Demaliya.”

He further elaborated how the decision of banning chemical fertilisers affected the environment badly which has now developed into a major concern related to food security in the country. “We had an agriculture crisis rather than a food crisis. We had transportation and storage issue rather than a production issue. What Government did was to address the production which caused issues all over. With the ban on chemical fertilisers the Government had to up the production by increasing the lands cultivated, which was achieved by clearing forest areas. Illegal clearing of forests, chena cultivations, and encroachment increased significantly during last two years. Even now, we are seeing setting fire to forests and encroaching forest lands in the areas such as Kebiliththa,” Withanage further added.

Energy crisis

The dried out foreign currency reserves of the country has caused issues in multiple sectors of day-to-day life. Among them, perhaps the most hard-felt sector is the energy sector. The country is facing a severe fuel shortage, managing only on a daily basis, as well as an electricity crisis, with power cuts still being implemented every day.

Many are under the impression that the need of the hour is to improve our dollar reserves so that the food security can be restored, the essential imports can be made, and the fuel crisis can be sorted. However, the country cannot afford to overlook environmental concerns for too long. According to the Executive Vice president of Epic Group, Energy Analyst Dr. Vidhura Ralapanawa switching to sustainable energy is easier said than done and some bold decisions have to be made in this regard, irrespective of the other crises a country is facing. “European countries have set some ambitious targets for themselves in terms of making energy sustainable. These targets are quite challenging even for developed nations but they are following their commitments through. Countries like Sri Lanka, although in favour of going sustainable on paper, are actually reluctant to make that all important first step due to various reasons.”

According to Dr. Ralapanawa the majority of the country’s electricity need is fulfilled by coal power and with the current depreciation of the rupee, the country really cannot afford to buy coal in dollars without suffering a major loss. “It is estimated that Rs 250 billion will be needed to import coal next year. This is roughly how much the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) earns in a year. We can’t simply reserve all the earnings to just buy material.”

In terms of solutions, it is apparent that we should think beyond fossil fuel and coal. Dr. Ralapanawa opines that as a tropical island nation with sunlight year around, it is ideal if we can promote solar power generation. “This can be achieved in two ways; installing rooftop solar panels and installing floating solar power plants. We can also promote wind power generation around many lagoons we have,” Dr, Ralapanawa said.

“On political stage it was mentioned in the past that we can establish a solar power system that can generate 1000 megawatts in a sustainable way. If we can achieve that, we can save Rs 122 billion a year. That is only a small benefit. More and more mini power projects on rural levels need to be initiated and other pilot projects of renewable energy or clean energy such as using hydrogen as fuel should be promoted. All these projects needs to be carried out in a manner that ensures sustainability and the country has provisions and means to make sure the environment is not harmed. However, the progress is agonisingly slow mainly because of the monopoly of the CEB. The CEB’s fuel mafia is directly responsible for the energy crisis we are in as a country. Six months have already gone past since this issue arose but nothing progressive has been suggested from CEB,” Dr. Ralapanawa said.

Impact on the environment

During COVID-19 lockdowns when movements were restricted, the city environments were healed due to lack of vehicles on road and reduced industrial activity. One could assume the same could happen during these times of fuel shortage but according to Withanage the reality is not that favourable for the environment. “There is a severe gas shortage in the country and as a result, people have started using firewood. This has resulted in an increase in firewood stoves in cities, mainly in Colombo, which has resulted in air pollution in urban areas. Due to the high demand, more and more trees are cut to make firewood which is affecting forest areas of the country. Due to the scarcity of food and the increased prices of food items in the market, poaching has increased in rural areas. In some parts of the country it is reported that some animals such as the peacock which was considered sacred and holy are being poached for food,” Withanage revealed how the energy crisis has now grown into an environment and wildlife issue.

Way out of the crisis

Withanage opined that rather than taking instantaneous decisions to momentarily address these issues, the authorities should take bold decisions despite the tough times we are facing, because otherwise it will be too late to take action. “There are countries in the world with severe food shortages that resort to eating unconventional foods such as crickets and cockroaches. Although our situation is not that dire, we just can’t wipe our hands off the issue for the time being, asking the public to resort to firewood or jackfruit. That is not the sustainable solution. The experts, politicians, and policy makers are directly responsible for the mess we are in and the public is also responsible to a certain extent. We need to make bold decisions that are best for the environment and we need to make some unpopular decisions as well. The next 10 years will be most crucial because we are now at a juncture where we just can’t continue to live without thinking how our actions will affect the environment. We need to find solutions soon,” Withanage said.

(These thoughts were shared during a recently-held online webinar, organised by the CEJ, in recognition of World Environment Day)  

By Sanuj Hathurusinghe