It’s time to find remedies!

By Sarasi Paranamanna
Except for war, which is directly generated because of man’s hatred, the second worst thing which affects planet earth on a mass scale is climate change. The consequences of climate change affect our very existence on earth, but we turn a blind eye to these consequences till the next major natural disaster strikes somewhere in the world.
Year by year the consequences of climate change affect us more frequently and in bigger magnitudes but are we taking adequate action to face this challenge? The attempted actions do not speak very positively because summits like the 2009 Copenhagen Summit concluded without any agreement on climate change mitigation.
According to the data presented by UN HABITAT, industrial countries are the main contributors to climate change as their green house gas emission per capita is higher. However the whole world is affected by climate change which poses major threats to industries, power generation, health and other sectors. Hence it is each country’s duty to work towards the common goal of protecting planet earth from the adverse effects of climate change.

Climate change
The average patterns of weather can be identified as climate. Usually these patterns are consistent for centuries but since the human kind do not leave Earth to itself, the patterns have changed drastically and the changes are occurring more frequently and in larger magnitudes. Natural disasters are the most adverse and immediate effects of climate change. As we have seen in the recent years Sri Lanka too have been experiencing drastic climate changes.
The el Niño condition, extreme weather conditions, frequent floods, tsunami are results of climate change. Further the building industry, agriculture, availability of food, infrastructure are affected adversely due to extreme weather patterns.
Professor P. K. S. Mahanama, Dean of the Faculty of Architecture from the University of Moratuwa who is also working together with the Ministry of Environment and UN HABITAT noted that Sri Lanka will be facing major threats.
“The monsoon patterns have changed. This will even cause the farmers to alter their harvesting seasons because we no longer can rely on ‘yala’ and ‘maha’. The fishermen are not sure about when they should go fishing. The coastal areas will be affected due to rising seas levels. Major changes have to be done with construction of buildings because they have to resist all the major weather changes,” he explained.
According to the Department of Meteorology the annual rainfall in Sri Lanka has decreased by more than 7 per cent in the past 3-4 decades. The weather patterns have become less predictable making the annual mean air temperature anomalies to have significant increasing trends.
Looking at the global picture the temperature has increased by 2˚F during the past few decades and the C02 values has hit a high figure in 20 million years.

National Climate Change Policy
Though Sri Lanka has relatively low greenhouse gas emission levels, the recent natural disasters have forced the authorities to take action against climate change. By having a procedure to mitigate climate change in our country it will also be a preparation for natural disasters and other adverse effects. In addition it will help the Sri Lankan community to adapt to climate change.
As Professor Mahanama explained mitigation could be done through environmental conservation, switching to sustainable energy, reducing CO2 values, green house gas emissions. However he pointed out that mitigation alone would not help in the future as the community had to prepare to face natural disasters.
Until now Sri Lanka has not had a National Climate Change Policy and in the light of the circumstances it is only fit to introduce the policy to be put into action as soon as possible. The Ministry of Environment supported by a team of consultants from the University of Peradeniya has devised a draft national policy for climate change. The UN HABITAT has supported the Ministry to draft the policy through a consultative process and the Draft is now ready to be published to garner public opinion. According to the Ministry of Environment the absence of a National Policy has been a major obstacle in the country in responding to concerns and repercussions of climate change.
Professor Mahanama pointed out that even though the policy would not be legally binding the concerned authorities in localities such as the Urban Development Authority and municipal councils would be compelled to consider the policy as a responsibility of theirs. Laxman Perera, the UN HABITAT programme manager for Sri Lanka noted that through the policy the concerned authorities would have to base their actions and procedures on the national climate change policy which would enable every governmental body to adhere to the policy. “The common complain was that we do not have specific financial allocations to mitigate and adapt for climate change. Hence this policy will enable each governmental body to have budget allocations to work towards mitigating and adapting to climate change,” he added.

Cities as a starting point…
As professor Mahanama pointed out the general public is not very much aware of the concept of climate change. He explained that even though most knew what the term means they were not fully aware of the repercussions and how to face the adverse effects of climate change.
“They usually avoid this as they think it the work of scientists and researchers but it should start with the common man because at the end of the day they are the ones who are getting affected and they should commence action because mitigation and adaptation cannot be done without the support of the public,” he added.
As the Ministry recognises the need to address the issue of climate change through strategies for climate change mitigation, education and awareness on adaptation, UN HABITAT had carried out special studies to raise awareness among people about climate change in 2010. The Climate Change in Cities Initiative had selected two cities which are vulnerable to natural disasters and had been affected previously to develop climate change city profiles, strategies and action plans.
Batticaloa and Negombo are the cities which have been chosen for the project. Both were hit by the tsunami and Batticaloa especially was affected by severe floods in the last few months indicating drastic change in the usual weather pattern. Sri Lanka as a whole does not emit high levels of green house gases but Professor Mahanama pointed out that during the research they had found out about high levels of methane and he added that methane levels had increased because of open dumping of garbage and inadequate methods of proper garbage dumping.
However, UN HABITAT and the Ministry of Environment are looking forward to take this experience from the two cities as a pilot project and carry out similar mechanisms once the National policy is ready to be enacted.

Why cities?
Laxman Perera noted that both the Ministry and the experts shared the idea that action for mitigating climate change and adaptation for climate change had to be initiated within cities. As he pointed out, climate change directly affects the population and in most countries the majority is urban populations. Even in Sri Lanka though the estimated figure of urban population is about 25 per cent, the actual figure would increase if the definitions of urban areas are redefined as still in Sri Lanka there is no proper definition due to the categorization of municipalities and pradeshiya sabha.
Estimated figures show that by 2030 60 per cent of the world population will live in cities. As cities are the focal points of industrial activity and decision making, both the government and UN HABITAT view that it is most appropriate and effective to commence action from the cities.
This is not the only reason to choose cities as the starting point for the enactment of the national policy because considering the vulnerability of the cities it will soon be a must to initiate the Policy. UN HABITAT figures show that in Asia, 18 of the region’s 20 largest cities are either coastal, on a river bank or in a delta. The data goes on to show that 17 per cent of the total urban population in Asia lives in the low elevation coastal zones. In Colombo alone 65,000 families live in under-served settlements and the urban poor live in places vulnerable to flooding, by railway, on slopes prone to landfalls, near polluted grounds. Given these circumstances it is crucial to start action from the cities.

We often hear that the Earth is warming, and the polar ice caps are melting but how often do we realize that there is a bit to do on our part. With the enactment of the national policy if the strategies planned are put into action Sri Lanka will be a ‘green country’, resilient to natural disasters. However the success of this depends wholly on the government bodies’ ability to collaborate.
As professor Mahanama noted mitigation and adaptation cannot be done imposing strict regulations. “If strict regulations are imposed, for instance when you are building a house we just want to get the documents approved but how many of see whether the land is actually prone to landslides or whether we have made an elevated foundation if the land is in a coastal area or in a flood prone area? Then when the house is flooded or caught in a land slide we blame the authorities for approving. It is the repercussions and the effects of climate change we need to be aware of and it should not be all about getting the right documents. So hopefully we can increase awareness through policy and when people are aware they will know how to face the challenge or how to mitigate the challenge. After all climate change is a challenge we all will have to face sooner or later,” he said.