Can Sri Lanka survive climate change?

The most recent Global Climate Risk Index prepared by a German environmental policy think tank Germanwatch has identified Sri Lanka as the second-most country affected by impacts of weather-related loss events (storms, floods, heat waves, etc.) in the year 2017, the first being the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico (see the link at the end of the article).

This assessment was based primarily on the heavy landslides and floods which occurred in Sri Lanka after strong monsoon rains lashed the south-western regions of the country in May 2017. More than 200 people lost their lives after the worst rains since 2003. The monsoons have displaced more than 600,000 people from their homes and 12 districts were affected. The most affected district was Ratnapura where over 20,000 people faced flash floods.

These kinds of environmental catastrophes are now commonplace the world over as reported recently in the Amazon region and also in our own country in the Balangoda, Badulla and Moneragala districts where man-made fires have not only destroyed unknown numbers of existing flora and fauna in these regions, but also released an equally unestimated amount of greenhouse gases to our already strained atmosphere.

Another equally disturbing global assessment report has been produced by the Inter-governmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) in May 2019. In this report, the IPBES Chair, Sir Robert Watson says that there is overwhelming evidence to conclude that the health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever.

We ourselves are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and the quality of life worldwide. This comprehensive assessment of its kind carried out to date by the IPBES says that more than 1,000,000 species are threatened with extinction and that the current global response is sadly insufficient.

A ray of hope that this report brings to the public domain is, however, its Chair’s optimism that it is still not too late to make a difference, but only if we start now, at every level from local to global. He goes on to say, “through ‘transformative changes’, nature can still be conserved, restored and used sustainably – this is also key to meeting most other global goals. By transformative change, we mean a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.” The report further says that opposition to these comprehensive transformative changes that may come from vested interests could be overcome for the public good by creating and sustaining strong evidence–based opinions across the globe.

Strong global commitments to reducing greenhouse gases and restoring biodiversity and ecosystem services while re-establishing connectivity among fragmented landscapes is already in the forefront of the global agenda. It has been elevated to an even higher level of global attention as a result of recent fires raging in the Amazon. The Paris Summit, the Bonn Challenge, the UNDP’s New York Declaration on Forests and the recent declaration of the decade 2021–2030 as the International Decade of Forest Restoration during which 350 million hectares of degraded and deforested areas across the world have been pledged to be restored are some initiatives. However, in order to achieve the expected results, technological, economic and social transformative changes that the IPBES report suggests, need to be turbo-charged especially in their ground-level action.

The Asia–Pacific Chapter meeting of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC–AP) for 2019 is to be held in Sri Lanka, for the first time since it began in 2006, from September 10 to13 at MAS Athena in Thulhiriya. It is a timely gathering of international and local scientists and other stakeholders to re-orient their vision and mission to incorporate the transformative changes to take us to a greener world. One of the main goals of ATBC is to improve communication, cooperation and collaboration among researchers, educators, environmental managers and practitioners, and local communities. The theme of the ATBC AP 2019 is ‘Bridging the Elements of Biodiversity Conservation: Save, Study, Use’ which is in line with the global, regional and local agendas for sustainable development.

Over 200 local and overseas participants will be presenting their findings on saving and sustainably using biodiversity having studied them using the most appropriate methodologies some of which are known as ‘smart technologies’. Therefore, this conference is set to address a number of issues raised in global environmental fora in recent times, particularly those relevant to Sri Lanka and the Asia-Pacific region. Details of the plenary presentations and others spread over 30 or so different symposia and workshops are available on the conference website atbcap2019.org.

Another important and novel addition to this conference is to establish a partnership with Biodiversity Sri Lanka (BSL), a national platform which promotes the strong leadership of the private sector in helping to raise awareness on biodiversity and sustainability issues amongst the Sri Lankan business community. Through this partnership, an opportunity is given to the BSL to showcase the environmental conservation efforts of their members to a wider international audience.

Since there will be a wide cross-section of biologists, conservationists, environmentalists and the business community attending this international event, the organising committee has taken an initiative to launch a forum for ecologists (and bio-geographers) to provide a local platform to interact, discuss and collaborate with their like-minded colleagues in Sri Lanka, in the region and indeed, worldwide. The organizers are planning to launch the Sri Lanka Ecological Association (SLEA) as a professional body of ecologists during this symposium. SLEA is expected to be Sri Lanka’s institutional member of the International Association for Ecology (INTECOL).

The broad subject of ecology is taking center-stage in most global agendas and consequently spilling over to regional and local agendas through legally binding agreements or otherwise, as the case may be, in our collective initiative to move towards a greener tomorrow. The need for a professional body to address some of the following major objectives is indeed timely, if not overdue:

· Promote cutting-edge ecological and biogeographic research while learning from globally- recognised socio-culturally sustainable traditional agro-ecological systems in the country through international collaboration and capacity building of the next generation of researchers.

· Establish research linkages and collaboration with global and regional ecological networks to share befits from each other.

· Recognise and promote ecosystem restoration and nature conservation projects with emphasis on biodiversity, ecosystem services and their valuation in order to move towards an era of green economic growth.

· Provide advocacy towards policies and declarations related to conservation and sustainable development of natural biological resources in terrestrial, aquatic (inland and marine) and coastal ecosystems of the country. In particular, providing scientific underpinning in response to issues raised by international and regional instruments on biodiversity, climate change, desertification, wildlife trade, and ocean that Sri Lanka is a signatory to.

· Promote environmental awareness and nature conservation by designing, assisting and conducting field-oriented training programmes, and

·Strengthen, integrate and collaborate with the existing organisations related to ecology in Sri Lanka to find synergistic solutions for national and regional issues related to environment.

The Sri Lanka Ecological Association would be expecting the strongest support from interested stake-holder groups in realizing these objectives.

As Sri Lanka is an island sharing the same continental shelf with India and also a global hotspot of biodiversity with India’s Western Ghats, there is every opportunity to strengthen existing collaboration and help initiate new collaborations on conservation issues common to both countries in the light of rapidly developing economic initiatives. The ecology, biogeography and sustainability science of our shared biodiversity hotspot is an area that needs the urgent attention of scientists in this changing climate.

Similarly, the biogeographic and ecological similarities of our rain forests with those of South East Asia is also an area that needs joint scientific investigations for their long-term sustainability and impacts on livelihoods of people in the face of climatic anomalies like El Nino and La Nina.

This conference, to be held for the first time in Sri Lanka, offers many opportunities especially for next-generation biologists and ecologists to learn from each other’s experiences to contribute our due share in making our region and the whole world a better place to live.

(The report can be accessed at https://germanwatch.org/sites/germanwatch.org/files/Global%20Climate%20R...)



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