Physical security of Sri Lanka nobody spoke about

Wednesday, 22 January 2020 00:04 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

When Munich Re brought us into the group of 10 most vulnerable countries in successive listings in 2016, 2017 and 2018 they mentioned that 80% of the countries including us got into the listing due to water related disasters and not due to high temperature related events like droughts – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara


Year 2019 was the year in which security situation in Sri Lanka received an unprecedented level of attention after those dark days prior to May 2009. Ten years is not a long period in the history of a country, but the average Sri Lankan never expected an event of the type of the Easter Sunday tragedy. 

Then national security came to the limelight and occupied front page slots for a few months followed by 10 weeks of electioneering. I, not an expert in national security, would not attempt to estimate whether national security situation is better today than it was at beginning of last year.

Going by the number of articles appearing in local media, I opine that physical security of Sri Lanka is still occupying a backseat in spite of annual events which prompt a need to bring it to focus. One may ask what I mean by physical security of a country. Using definitions given in the Oxford Dictionary, I would say that it means safety of Sri Lankan nation against dangers arising according to laws of nature, but prompted by us. In my mind it is similar to our throwing up stones in air because I may not be harmed by what I throw, but stones will definitely come down according to laws of nature and will harm somebody. 

If one wants examples, I can quote all those calamities which made us the second most vulnerable country in the world as per Munich Re’s estimates in 2017. We had been battered by unprecedented rains and our losses had been estimated at $ 517 million in 2016, second most vulnerable country with $ 1,048 million losses in 2017, sixth most vulnerable with $ 1,100 million losses in 2018. 

We became sixth because Japan, Germany, Philippines and India entered the listing. It is interesting to note that we commented on the potential of Japan, Germany and India for such vulnerabilities annulled only by their geographic locations in Daily FT on 2019-01-02 (

Someone might try to portray it as natural disaster; after all rainfall is a natural phenomenon and there had been heavy rainfall even in the past.

From 2008 – when I started looking at our vulnerabilities – up to 2015, our climate vulnerability had remained around 98th in the world as per Munich Re’s estimates. Then in 2016 we became the fourth most vulnerable country, and we have been losing much more since then.

When Munich Re brought us into the group of ten most vulnerable countries in successive listings in 2016, 2017 and 2018 they mentioned that 80% of the countries including us got into the listing due to water related disasters and not due to high temperature related events like droughts.


Why so much water and its quantification

Then question arises as to how so much water has got into the atmosphere. What most people don’t know is that when you burn one gallon of petrol or diesel, you are emitting one gallon of Newly Formed Water into the atmosphere. I call this Newly Formed Water (NFW) since it is new water formed by reaction of hydrogen in diesel or gasoline with oxygen in air.

I have computed this NFW formed due to fossil fuel based on Table 8.1 given in Sustainable Engineering by Prof. Jefferson Tester, which says that there are two atoms of hydrogen with one atom of C in gasoline. It was in July 2011, that I wrote a full-page article on what this water vapour could do to mankind, compared with what CO2 could do.

Recently, my friend Chaminda Serasinghe – electric vehicle enthusiast – sent me a paper published in 2003 by the US Army’s Automotive Research, Development & Engineering section authored by four personnel headed by James Dusenbury describing the results of an experiment they had carried out to capture water vapour generated in a diesel vehicle engine and their computations were based on C12H26 formula for diesel which led to one kg of water vapour associated with 2.25 kgs of CO2.. 

So, both these sources clearly indicate that when you burn one litre of petrol or diesel, you are adding a liter of water in vapour form to atmosphere. Now the important question crops up, i.e. what happens to this water vapour and does it come down after a few days like other water molecules that get transferred from earth to atmosphere. Can NFW entering atmosphere lead to temperature increases like other greenhouse gases? These are questions I intend to address in this article.

Water vapour considered in numerous general pronouncements is what would get evaporated from earth’s surface to maintain constant relative humidity. During the daytime, atmospheric temperature goes up and atmosphere needs more moisture to maintain constant relative humidity – 7% more for each degree Centigrade rise in temperature – and surface moisture from land area or the oceans get into atmosphere. When temperatures come down during night-time, this moisture will condense back. These two may not happen at the same locations, since there will be air circulations between the two events.

Annual global precipitation is about 40 times the moisture in atmosphere. Hence, it is deduced that moisture in atmosphere do about 40 trips up and down during the year and thus the conclusion that lifetime of water vapour emanating from ground is only about ten days.

But, would water vapour emanating from combustion of petrol/ diesel in a motor vehicle meet with the same fate in atmosphere and come down in such a short period of two weeks? In arriving at a conclusion on this, we wish to refer to “climate change” – a 55-page article written by Prof. John Seinfeld which appeared in Chemical Engineering Review – 2008.

In this article Prof. Seinfeld explains how atmospheric temperature would increase by 2.80C when CO2 concentration in atmosphere changes from 280 ppmv (X) to 560 ppmv (2X) using thermodynamic reasoning. This increase in CO2 concentration will be equivalent to addition of about 2094Gt of CO2 to the atmosphere and will initially increase temperature by only 1.20C and this increase of 1.20C will demand about 1362Gt of H2O vapour to enter atmosphere to maintain constant relative humidity at the elevated (by 1.20C) temperature. This 1362Gt of H2O vapour will increase temperature by another 1.60C and this is how that well known 2.80C (1.2 + 1.6) increase due to doubling of CO2 in atmosphere was arrived at.


Sri Lankan scenario

Talking about Sri Lanka’s physical security situation, now, let us look at what we generate locally. According to CBSL Annual Report 2018, we had burnt nearly 1,179,000 tons of petrol and 1,987,000 tons of diesel in 2018. This petrol consumption was a 53% increase over what we used in 2014. This consumption in 2018 would have generated about 4,071,000 tons of water vapour in total and 9,950,000 tons of CO2. So, what will happen to this 4,071,000tons of water vapour – would it come down in 2 weeks like water vapour formed at normal times due to day time temperature increases or would it remain in atmosphere due to the increased CO2 concentration in atmosphere?

So, we see that this amount of water vapour generated with CO2 could be easily sustained in atmosphere without making it precipitate. Please note that 2094Gt of CO2 needed 1362Gt of water vapour to maintain constant relative humidity, according to which 9,950,000 t of CO2 would need 6,471,000t of water vapour to maintain constant relative humidity.

Furthermore, as lifetime of CO2 is much longer in atmosphere than that of H2O vapour, this CO2 will ensure that the temperature remains high so that atmosphere needs more water vapour to maintain constant relative humidity. And atmosphere would get the balance 2,400,000t of water from ground thus reducing ground moisture or from the nearby oceans. 


Fate of this water vapour

What will happen to this water vapour? Will it and can it remain up above us in our own atmosphere like in a silo of 65,000km2 cross sectional area? Yes and no.

There will be two phenomenon which will influence this. One is the large scale atmospheric circulations and the other is the temperature variations during the year.

Two main air circulations relevant to Sri Lanka are the Hadley circulation in N-S direction and Walkers circulation in E-W direction as depicted in ‘Frontiers of Climate Modelling’ by Kiehl and Ramanathan. According to the Hadley Circulation air currents starting in area around Sri Lanka will go up and north up to 300N, will drop the moisture, come down and towards Sri Lanka. 

This happens at rates of about 120 x 109 kg /sec. Then according to Walkers Circulation in the longitudinal direction at our 800E longitudinal coordinate, the air circulation will be between 0 – 10 x 109kg /sec. From this, one could see that our moisture laden air would go up to about 300N in India and would come down and back reasonably dry, but with bulk of CO2.. 

Then we will talk about the variation in temperature throughout a given year. This is clearly depicted in a graph in Chapter 5 – again in ‘Frontiers of Climate Modelling’. This graph shows how temperature, greenhouse gas effect and atmospheric moisture at two elevations vary during a 12-month period and the graph is prepared for 300N – 600N belt. For us at 70N Latitude, the respective months corresponding to these Minima and Maxima might vary, but the shape of the graph would not change.

A most important characteristic of this graph is that the maxima and minima of all three graphs of temperature, moisture and GHG effect occur at the same points of time for both elevations. 

From this it follows that amount of moisture in the atmosphere depends on the atmospheric temperature – nothing new – and the amount of moisture in the atmosphere and GHG effect following the same contour implies that at least this variable GHG effect is dependent on amount of water vapour in the atmosphere. That means not only on water vapour that is inherently in the atmosphere but also on new water vapour entering and exiting on a regular basis. 


President Obama’s contribution to climate emergency

It is President Barak Obama who made that historic decision to (a) explore fossil fuels using fracking technology and (b) use the natural gas thus obtained instead of coal and other fossil fuels. I always thought that this is (i) one of the two worst decisions made by him in respect of climate change (the other was not decarbonising US economy in the aftermath of Deepwater Horizon) and (ii) the key turning point which converted climate change to be the climate emergency of today.

The four-pronged attack on climate change he pronounced at the Georgetown University in March, 2011 wherein he suggested all heavy vehicles in USA switch over to natural gas and how the Americans responded to the request with 55% of heavy vehicle purchasers in second half of 2011 opting for gas fired ones followed subsequently by Sandy which cost the US economy $60 billion are all history now.

Probably President Obama didn’t know the links involved, but technological fraternity in USA knew that a diesel engine emits 4 kgs of water vapour with every 9 kgs of CO2. US Scientists would have known that when you start using natural gas instead of coal you start putting out 19kg of water vapour instead of 14kg of CO2 reduced and if the gas usage is instead of oil, then the replacement is of 4 kg of CO2 by 8 kg of water vapour. And in both these cases we introduce water vapour into an atmosphere which is been fed with fresh CO2 and thus H2O would have never come down unless temperature decreased due to solar radiation effects.

So, this Newly Formed Water vapour emitted to the atmosphere along with CO2 will definitely stay in the atmosphere and exert a climate change effect far greater than from oil, just as Prof. Seinfeld explained. In 2015, the whole world burnt coal, oil and gas and generated 43,000, 50,000 and 36,000 TWhrs respectively and in doing so they generated a total of 33.8GT of CO2 and 11.9Gt of NFW.

Now, one could see that this 33.8Gt of CO2 generated is capable of holding 21.98Gt of NFW and each 18kg bundle of NFW from oil or 36 kg bundle from gas you generate along with 44 kg bundles of CO2 will stay up in the atmosphere till the temperature drops due to the changes in space orientation between the Sun and the planet as depicted in those graphs of temperature, moisture in atmosphere and GHG value versus the different months of the year. And then water vapour in the atmosphere comes down and precipitation takes place.

As we increase the consumption of gasoline and diesel, the GHG effect arising from the change-over will be an increase of 33% and if the change-over is to gas the change-over will be an increase of 60%. These are of course on the assumption that water vapour generated remains in the atmosphere.


Geo-engineering – the killer solutions

All this has a very, very serious impact on possible outcomes of all those strategies called “Geo-Engineering” which includes strategies for both Solar Radiation Management (SRM) and Carbon Dioxide Removal.

Both these strategies are to be implemented in an environment wherein fossil fuels will continue to be used at least at the current rates if not more. That implies not only CO2 will keep on entering atmosphere at their ever-increasing rates, but also that the NFW vapour which will be associated with the CO2 will also enter atmosphere.

In this particular scenario, we need to remember that our atmosphere is in an equilibrium with four parameters at equilibrium values. These are temperature, CO2 concentration, amount of water vapour in the atmosphere and total pressure. So, if you reduce temperature by SRM techniques, while consumers of fossil fuels keep on adding more and more CO2 and water vapour to atmosphere, obviously more and more water vapour will have to come down and there will be unbearable precipitation. Even if you reduce CO2 content in atmosphere, temperature will reduce and water vapour will start coming down.

If one looks at plots of temperature, CO2 content in air and H2O content in air over time, one would see that within one year or each year all these three will increase and then decrease and there will be a gradual increase from each year to the next year and so on. In SRM, promoters try to reduce the temperature – maintaining it constant may not be sufficient – while CO2 content and also water vapour content increasing – i.e. water vapour associated with gasoline and natural gas mentioned earlier.

This strategy will not create a problem with CO2 as it can’t condense at room temperatures. But water vapour can condense and if the temperature is refrained from increasing by SRM technologies, then that water vapour corresponding to such reduction in temperature brought about by SRM should condense and bring in additional rain. If such excess precipitation happens at a time like last few months, results could be disastrous. So, timing of SRM initiatives could be a crucial aspect.

It is high time scientists all over the world study this key issue and ensure that we do not waste billions of dollars on SRM or other Geo-engineering techniques and bring about the worst misery to our fellow citizens of the globe.

The three key points that need to be considered here are as follows. 

1. According to Prof. John Seinfeld, the previously predicted 2.80C rise in temperature arising from doubling of CO2 concentration in atmosphere from280 ppm to 560 ppm consists of 1.20C due to CO2 only and 1.60C due to water vapour entering atmosphere to maintain constant relative humidity at this elevated (by 1.20C) temperature. (‘Climate Change’ in chemical engineering Review 2008). This implies 1362Gt of water vapour entering the atmosphere in response to an increase in CO2 content in the atmosphere by 2094Gt.

2. In 2015 we generated 43,000, 50,000 and 36,000 TWhrs of energy from coal, oil and gas respectively releasing 33.8Gt of CO2 and 11.9Gt of NFW. This would have brought about another 10.6Gt of water vapour from the ground. This was based on the atmospheric temperature being allowed to increase as dictated by what is given in (1) above.

3. In case we prevented the temperature increase due to 33.8Gt of CO2 and 11.9Gt pf NFW by a Geo-engineering or Solar Radiation Management strategy, what would have happened to this 11.9Gt of NFW formed during combustion of fossil fuels? It would have definitely come down as unwanted and unexpected precipitation.

This implies that the SRM strategies are based on the assumption that the temperature increase arising from fuel combustion is only due to the CO2 generated and there won’t be any new water vapour generated in or entering the atmosphere.

Furthermore, Munich Re, German reinsurer says that the bulk of the countries became vulnerable to climate risks due to excessive water related disasters and this would only aggravate that situation.



To sum up what we were discussing related to the climate emergency and its relevance to Sri Lanka’s security situation, I would conclude as follows:

a. During 2019, year of threatened securities, we have revisited most of these – National, Financial, Food, Energy, etc. – and made our pronouncements, proclamations and objectives.

b. But behold, the most fundamental security threat – threat to physical security which has stolen more than $2,500 million from our coffers in 2016 to 2018 – has neither been captured nor addressed. It is strange as according to the throne speech, the people who formulated the policy statements had spent nearly four years, to study everything and they had not noticed the clear-cut decay in our climate risk resilience during exactly that period.

c. I wish they would take time to study this at least now and work out a strategy to save, yes, save, Sri Lanka from Climate Risk Vulnerabilities. It will be far more difficult, time consuming and knowledge demanding than ensuring national security and all other securities. Are we up to it? Only time will tell. What is happening in Australia could be an eye-opener.

(The writer is Managing Director of Somaratna Consultants Ltd.)