By Jithendri Gomes
Our ambient temperature has been increasing 0.01-0.03% per year. In 10 years, this will be 0.1-0.3% and in a 100, 1-3%. This is climate change. The sooner we face this reality, the better it will be for us. Shockingly, there are still some people out there who refuse to believe this is happening. The good news, however, is that the Sri Lankan Government has now identified this as a problem and is working on introducing initiatives to adopt to these climate changes.
The agriculture industry has been hit the hardest and there are many farmers who have been left helpless. The entire island is affected by these climate changes, with the dry zones and hotter provinces most affected.
The Global Climate Risk Index 2019 analyses the extent to which countries and regions have been affected by impacts of weather-related loss events (storms, floods, heat waves, etc.). We looked at data from 1998 to 2017.
The countries and territories most affected in 2017 were Puerto Rico, Sri Lanka, and Dominica. For the period from 1998 to 2017, Puerto Rico, Honduras, and Myanmar rank highest.
This year’s analysis reconfirms earlier results of the Climate Risk Index: Less-developed countries are generally more affected than industrialised countries.
Regarding future climate change, the Climate Risk Index may serve as a red flag for regions with already existing vulnerability that may further increase and where extreme events will become more frequent or more severe due to climate change.
But the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season also proved that high-income countries feel climate impacts more clearly than ever before. Effective climate change mitigation is therefore in the self-interest of all countries worldwide.
‘Climate change has been evident in Sri Lanka for more than 20 years’
We spoke to Dr. B.V.R. Punyawardena, who is an expert on this subject. He has been studying climate change and its impact on agriculture for the past 25 years. He is the Principal Scientist in Agroclimatology of the Department of Agriculture. Meanwhile, he also serves as the Governing Board Member of SAARC Agriculture Centre in Dhaka, Bangladesh representing the Government of Sri Lanka. He is a member of the National Expert Committee on Climate Change Adaptation (NECCCA) and a National Steering Committee Member of the National Science Foundation (NSF) on Climate Change and Natural Disasters. He has the same responsibility in the National Council for Agriculture Research Policy (CARP) as well. His current research covers community-based adaptation to climate change, climate smart agriculture (CSA), and even studying on the vulnerability of women and children to climate change in Sri Lanka.
Dr. Punyawardena spoke exclusively to The Sunday Morning Brunch regarding this matter and more importantly, explained to us how climate change has been evident in Sri Lanka for more than 20 years. The first paper article on this was published in 1995, but the people obviously didn’t take notice. Farmers and laymen weren’t even aware of the term “climate change” till 2005. We have experienced heavy and intense rains up until 2010 and that is when the people noticed a change in the weather patterns. By 2015, it had become something that people were completely afraid of.
The south west monsoons have completely failed us this year, and what is terrifying is that even though “it is not the first time it most definitely won’t be the last”, he explained.
The variability and the rhythm of the rains have changed completely in comparison to what it was. It does not happen within the expected time frames. When it is above normal, it will result in floods and below normal, droughts. “It has always been a feature of our climatology. We have always experienced droughts and floods – it even dates back to the Mahavamsa and we can find references made to it. The difference is that it didn’t happen so often back then. Sometimes, there were 30 to 80-year gaps. And now, it has become a common thing,” he said.
“From 2015 to 2018, we have had below-normal rainfall. It was only in the 2018/2019 north east monsoons that we had some good rains and were able to cultivate 7,800 hectares of paddy fields. And now, it is time for the south west monsoons and we are failing – it used to be the more reliable one of the two monsoons. Because of these changes in our weather patterns, we are now educating our farmers accordingly.”
Farmers have been advised to choose their crops according to the new patterns. They are asked to change the varieties to high-yielding ones like green gram and sesame and also to adjust their irrigation intervals whenever possible depending on the rainfall experienced during that time. He also highlighted that all the water available in tanks cannot be used for agriculture as it is also used for the country’s water consumption, vegetation, to feed animals, and also cool down the environment. So it is always important to make better use of the rain. Adoptive methods have to be in place to face these challenges.
“We are also motivating them to apply for crop insurance schemes, as they will have some relief if the weather fails them,” he concluded.
‘Sri Lanka also lacks the technology to predict better’
We also spoke with Dr. D.S. Jayathunga, the Director of the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources and from the Climate Change Secretariat, regarding this matter. “Fuel emissions from factories and vehicles are the biggest contributor towards global warming and in the overall contribution, our contribution as a country is less than 1%. It is the developed countries that contribute the most and it is an accepted fact. Ultimately, the whole globe is affected by it.”
He explained that the rainfall in the last few years has been significantly less. Therefore, it is affecting our entire country, especially the dry zones. As a result, our opportunities to engage in agriculture are also fast reducing. From 2015 to 2017, we experienced prolonged drought, which brought about new projects and initiatives to combat the problem.
“Tropical weather in general is difficult to forecast, we can only forecast accurately a week ahead. Sri Lanka also lacks the technology to predict better. The Agriculture Department has been working toward changing the calendar our farmers are currently used to.”
For the last 30 years, our day-time temperature has been somewhat the same; it is our night-time temperature that is increasing. Therefore, our mean temperature value is increasing while the gap between the two is decreasing. And this gap affects our agriculture. If the gap is less, the yield is also less and vice versa.
He also explained the scientific reason behind it in a manner we can understand, saying: “When the temperature is more, all the nutrients the tree absorbs during the day are spent on their sustenance, whereas at other times, it would be spent on increasing the yield.”
This is the reason behind the decline in our crops, and also affects the quality of our produce, for example, the taste of our tea will change significantly in the future.
Plans for the future
There is a National Adaption Plan in place and Dr. Jayathunga explained that a Provincial Adaption Plan will soon be introduced to be implemented. In this, all the challenges faced in each province will be addressed separately and effectively.
As a solution to this entire problem, they are going back to the old ways of a cascade system for our water tanks, where all the smaller tanks will be connected to the bigger tank in the area. “We have taken steps to rehabilitate the cascade system. It is already something that has been in place in Sri Lanka.”
We also asked Dr. Jayathunga to share his thoughts on how we can contribute toward the betterment of this problem as a community, family, and as individuals. He responded with the below.
- Plant as many trees as possible – explaining that this may be difficult for those living in the city or town areas, but he encouraged everyone to try of they had any space at all.
- Reduce electricity consumption – Sri Lanka is currently using electricity that is produced mainly through fuels. Using electricity carefully and reducing the consumption rates will greatly help in the long term.
- Create awareness – help the authorities create awareness and educate the people accordingly.
- Control garbage dumping – garbage dumps exhume a lot of methane, which is more deadly than carbon dioxide; it’s 26 times stronger. The town councils are responsible for the collection and disposal of garbage, but as an individual, you can contribute by separating it correctly and even making compost if possible.
- “We are in the process of introducing Provincial Adaptation Plans, so we are definitely doing something about this problem. The Government has also taken the initiative to reinstate our water tanks, which will assist greatly in this matter. But it is, without a doubt, a pressing need and something we have to pay attention to constantly,” he said.
The National Adaptation Plan for Climate Change Impacts in Sri Lanka (NAP) has been prepared in line with the broad set of guidelines set forth by the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC) for the development of national adaptation plans. The NAP process of the UNFCCC is a generalised process consisting four stages that could be customised according to specific situations in respective countries.
The NAP process in Sri Lanka started from the stage of preparatory elements, which is the real planning stage of the process, and a country-specific NAP methodology was developed and adopted based on the broader guidelines of the UNFCCC. Then, it had been broken down further to suit each province.
The importance of adaptation as a major strategy in facing the threat of climate change has been recognised by all parties to the Paris Agreement and had called for national actions for adaptation in the form of Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). The necessity of adaptive strategies has also been highlighted by a number of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the United Nations in 2015.
It is certainly promising to know that the entire world is making an effort to find solutions to this problem. For Sri Lanka, now that the plan is in place, we can only hope that the authorities will make ensure effective implementation. If not, our famers and all those depending on the agriculture industry will take a big hit. And in the future, we will face a food shortage and the generations to come will have to live on a hotter and inhospitable Earth.