World Environmental Day 2014: Sri Lanka and Sea Level Rise

Thursday, 5 June 2014 00:42 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By Tharuka Dissanayake Environmental Sustainability and Disaster Resilience Cluster, UNDP Sri Lanka 2014 is the year of Small Island Developing States (SIDS). World Environment Day 2014 therefore brings to focus the phenomenon of sea level rise, which is the biggest existential threat to SIDS, and what then, could be done to prevent the rising seas. Sri Lanka is not a SIDS, despite being an island; and (relatively) small in size. The SIDS is mostly tiny island nations in the Caribbean and Pacific, with some representation from the Indian Ocean region including Maldives and Seychelles. The UN recognised the unique developmental challenges facing SIDS in 1992, and called for a separate grouping of the countries in the arena of international climate change negotiations. In 1994, The Barbados Program of Action was produced to assist the SIDS in their sustainable development efforts. Small island countries often rely heavily on imported fossil fuels to meet domestic energy needs, spending an ever-larger proportion of their GDP on energy imports. These countries are often remote, making it expensive to ship oil or coal to; they are highly prone to natural disasters and are faced with the threat of losing the little landmass they have to rising seas. Sri Lanka too faces many of the same challenges.  The country’s economy is fuelled by imported oil and coal. The Ceylon Electricity Board’s future generation plan relies hugely on coal; while the burgeoning transport sector and many industries are completely dependent on imported oil. Sri Lanka has 1,600 km of coastline; large parts of it disappear in to the sea each year during the South West monsoon from severe erosion. Coastal erosion in Puttlam is severe enough to threaten the Noraichcholai coal power plant and coastal windmills established by the private sector. The UNDP-supported Hazard Profiles for Sri Lanka (2012) looks at coastal hazards that could be aggravated by sea level rise, including coastal erosion, and storm surges. Sea level rise is predicted to inundate low lying coastal areas around Sri Lanka, displacing coastal communities and destroying important fisheries habitats such as lagoons. The study models sea level rise for Sri Lanka, using the internationally recognised scenarios for climate change, placing Puttlam district most at-risk of sea level rise between 2025-2100. Jaffna and Hambantota districts closely follow in terms of having large extents of low-lying coastal areas. The focus of this year’s Environment Day is not just about saving SIDS; but about saving the planet from sea level rise. The most recent assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) does point that some sea level rise is inevitable as human activity has already caused irreversible damage to the environment. Global warming is already happening at different scales, and happening faster than predicted in earlier assessments. Sea level rise is driven by melting glacial ice due to high temperature and also thermal expansion of oceans. Warming water and melting land ice have raised global mean sea level 4.5 cm from 1993 to 2008 at a rate of about 3 mm/yr. But the rise is not uniform across continents and oceans. The worst affected are the small islands in the Pacific. The solutions to sea level rise goes back to curbing fossil fuel-enriched lifestyles and aiming for ‘low-carbon’ development paths. Understandably, this is easier said than done. Trading cars for bicycles and forgoing imported food items is not easy within a global economic framework which counts consumption as an indicator of progress. Low carbon means more than switching off that extra light. It means a change of lifestyle and consumption patterns that could be perceived as a threat to conventional business. Sustainable consumption is likely to be a goal and indicator of the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations. It will be interesting to see how well the indicators will navigate the treacherous currents between economic development needs and a low-carbon pathway. That, of course, is a topic for a future article.