Sustainable development: Is this the panacea for Sri Lanka’s ills?

Friday, 16 June 2017 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

01Sri Lanka continues to be under the spotlight in the local and as well as in the international media for all the wrong reasons. The massive floods in May 2017 killed nearly 200 innocent people and more than 200 are still missing. 

The floods in Sri Lanka in May 2017 are one such tipping point. It displaced around half a million people and the estimated damage cost of the floods is Rs. 30 billion. The Meethotamulla garbage disaster which killed 32 people is another recent tragedy that has raised the eyebrows of the nation. The chronic kidney disease which has killed nearly 25,000 people in the dry zone over the last two decades is another blot on the escutcheon that could have been resolved. 

These came as a shock to many in Sri Lanka including the politicians but not to many others who had a good grasp of the multitude of ways by which the Sri Lankan environment and society were destroyed by myopic, narrow-minded policy decisions by all governments for decades. Media comments tend to be apocalyptic in tone in recent months targeting these unfortunate events.

To a large extent these results are preordained by the way governments are elected and the way the country is run, both of which are fatally flawed. When President Sirisena was elected in 2015, there was a ray of hope that the environment will receive priority attention it deserves. He displayed genuine environmental vision but this optimism quickly dissipated when many bad decisions made spawned a daunting array of challenges for the people and the country.

Mismanaging critical environmental attributes

A common feature of all disasters experienced in Sri Lanka is that they emanate from mismanaging the critical environmental attributes of the country by the Government and the people alike. Sri Lanka’s environmental resources such as forests, water, rivers and wetlands deserve careful attention and protection as they form the basis of life of a nation. Severe deforestation still occurs in Sri Lanka and the UN estimated that 8,000 ha of forest are cleared every year even now. 

Corruption, mismanagement and covert and overt support by politicians exacerbate this destruction. Climate change, droughts and floods are closely related to deforestation and people and politicians are all culpable in this tragedy. The severe droughts and floods in many regions in Sri Lanka and growing water scarcity, and air pollution have already had a major impact on Sri Lanka’s economic growth and development. 

This trend is clearly a deep worry for Sri Lanka in the 21st century as Asia is destined to be the economic centre of gravity of the world by 2040. The issues are not new but are the cumulative results of years of mismanagement of the country by all governments, present and previous. The head in the sand attitude of the present Government and a large but impotent Cabinet have exacerbated the disasters in the country.  

Enlightened and deeper understanding of the environment, economic growth, and poverty and their interconnections are necessary to usher in a promising future for Sri Lanka. I believe that we can still achieve this provided that the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Government makes the very hard decisions necessary. These hard decisions need the backing of many academics in universities, research institutes, bureaucrats and independent thinkers in Sri Lanka who can provide the expert knowledge in their special areas. These academics are vital to provide effective leadership to the Sri Lankan Government because the global system is driven by knowledge, information, revolutionary communications technologies and ideas.

The present Cabinet is hardly the place to look for the critical developmental inputs necessary. Knowledge is replacing resources and Sri Lanka has not positioned herself to benefit from this global trend. The university system can nurture the hopes of society if we can shore up their sagging image and solve myriads of continuing conflicts. We celebrate the global knowledge economy concomitantly undermining its foundations. Perhaps separation of higher education from highways may be a useful idea. 

Embrace the goals of sustainable development

Sri Lanka should embrace the goals of sustainable development which is the only true development trajectory left. In 2015, the UN 02developed the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) ratified by 193 countries, including Sri Lanka. The SDGs were designed to mobilise global scientific and technological expertise to promote practical problem-solving by governments for sustainable development. Sri Lanka is fully committed to support the implementation of the SDGs.

President Sirisena made a promising speech to the UN where he reaffirmed: “Sri Lanka is fully committed to dealing with the Sustainable Development Goals. He agreed to minimise risks of possible environmental hazards and climate change on Sri Lanka’s contemporary development challenges which included poverty alleviation, food security, increasing aging population and natural disasters.”

The Prime Minister attended and spoke at the UN Oceans Conference, in New York on 6 June, to discuss freedom of navigation, marine habitats, quality and temperature of sea water and focus on the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals relating to the sustainable use of the oceans. Clearly, Sri Lanka’s top echelons are fully committed to sustainable development at least in words if not in deeds. 

Can the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Government resolve the complex challenges to sustainable development for Sri Lankans? Judging by past experiences, President Sirisena will have an uphill battle even if he is genuine in achieving the 17 SDGs of the UN. Sustainable development is a complex phenomenon which deals with the intersection between environment, society and economy, which are highly interconnected. The separation of environment, society and economy led to narrow techno-scientific approaches, leading to economic exploitation and destruction of the environment, communities, and cultural diversity.   

Sound policies and correct vision vital

Sound policies based on scientific analysis and a correct vision for the future are indispensable for supporting sustainable development. Policymakers in Sri Lanka failed to understand the interconnectedness and the need to ensure holistic integrated management because of a fractured political system totally disconnected to the needs of the country, society and the environment.   

The policymakers failed to understand that the frequency and intensity of floods and droughts have risen to dangerous levels due to climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) confirmed that the Earth’s climate is getting warmer and the likely increase in temperature ranges from 1.1°C to 6.4°C and the likely increase in sea level ranges from 0.18 meters to 0.59 meters. The unpredictability of climate extremes mean that Sri Lanka must be better prepared and be proactive and this is the major role of the Ministry of disaster Management which failed miserably.

These issues will intensify and even worse disasters will occur and Sri Lanka is not prepared. Asia contributed 31% of global emissions in 2006 which is expected to rise to 42.1% of global emissions in 2030. Much of the emissions have been due to forest clearing in South East Asian (SEA) countries which also destroyed considerable biodiversity and ecosystem services. Forest clearing and logging are still occurring in Sri Lanka against ministerial imperatives and some politicians are complicit in this tragedy impacting our economic future and livelihoods. Tourism is permitted even during drought years in Yala, and Wilpattu which is most unsound from an environmental conservation perspective.  

The Sri Lankan Government

Sri Lankan Government’s political will and institutional capacity to develop effective strategies is limited and hence political responses to environmental problems are weak. We need to bring in a different vision towards environmental conservation. Embracing its multi-disciplinary and holistic nature of sustainable development and explicitly recognising economic, environmental and social issues is critical. 

The Sri Lankan Cabinet of Ministers and Deputy Ministers, a majority of whom have a poor educational profile, cannot contribute much to this vision. Politics in Sri Lanka has got fragmented and broken and unified thinking and decisions making is not possible. This multitude of ministries has become an arena for political contestation, inter-ministerial conflicts and power struggles as we can see in the recent cabinet reshuffles.

The institutional mechanisms and procedural norms and oversight responsibilities of Parliament are equally confusing. The Ministries deal with cross-cutting and overlapping issues and the specific jurisdictions are not clear. This general deterioration of political culture and growth of political fragmentation is accompanied by a decline in quality of political institutions and governance. 

The Parliament has 94 members without even the most basic qualification (GCE Ordinary Level). How such a grouping can preside over the destiny of this nation and spearhead development defies understanding. I believe that all right-thinking Sri Lankans call for immediate steps to be taken to ensure that the Parliament is of high quality. It is not surprising that there is decline in efficiency and performance and that much has not been achieved. The political outcomes are not much different to any previous regime. Regardless of qualifications, these parliamentarians will all get the same perks including expensive cars. What is the return to the country from spending Rs. 50 million on a car for a person who does not even have GCE (Ordinary Level) or even a university degree?  Not much. 

Government has 

clearly failed 

The Government has clearly failed to identify and allocate ministerial responsibilities on a scientific basis and there must be synergies when several sectors are allocated to one Minister. The most bizarre cohabitation is the combination of higher education with highways. Another oxymoron is the Ministry of Sustainable Development and Wildlife. Wildlife is part of sustainable development and not apart from it. 

The Ministry’s activities are even more baffling. The decision made recently is that rubbish depots inside wilderness areas should have electric fences around them to protect the elephants who are attracted to them because they have nothing to eat. There are 54 waste disposing dumps located in wildlife zones and about 300 wild elephants are loitering around those dumps. Many elephants died because they ate plastic from the rubbish dumps. In 2016, 174 elephants were killed. 

The simple solution is to remove all rubbish dumps from wilderness areas and allow those areas to grow into natural wilderness thus expanding the area of wilderness for elephants. The rubbish can be separated into biodegradable material which can be composted and the other material can be reused and recycled where possible and use of plastics must be halted in the country. These complex challenges of the modern world are alien to many Ministers who are too old to absorb new themes and challenges. A dads’ army is not what President Sirisena wants and he should look for educated young people to lead the nation forward. 

Another issue is the Ministry of Disaster Management, which does not know even basics of disaster management, disaster preparedness and minimisation. The basic problem is not that they do not do anything but because they are incompetent and do not know how to handle these issues. Other confusions galore but I cannot discuss all of them here. 

The environment is more complex than what many politicians think 

Clearly the much-trumpeted sustainable development will not be achieved because the environment is more complex than what many politicians think. Many natural and social phenomena are nonlinear and have tipping points. Sudden collapses of systems can occur once they reach the tipping point. The floods in May 2017 are one such. They come unannounced and we must be prepared for that. Climate change is such a phenomenon and a temperature increase that exceeds 2C can pose existential threat to Sri Lanka. The collapse of planetary consciousness among the people and politicians is Sri Lanka is tragic.   

President Sirisena is environmentally conscious, but lacks a coherent plan and smart people to address the issues within a sustainable development framework. Ministries fragmented along illogical lines must now be coalesced into distinct but more meaningful and holistic ministries which support environmentally benign, socially equitable and sustainable forms of development. 

We are on a collision course with the planet with an expanding world economy on a finite planet. The FAO, estimates that global food production should increase to feed 9 billion people by 2050. Humanity is pressing against the finite limits of the planet endangering millions of species, including the human race. In this new environment, we need to change course; adopt new sustainable technologies and get the best intellects in the country and around the world to help solve problems and design new, more sustainable systems. 

Sri Lanka suffers from serious water scarcity and persistent droughts. Nearly 70% of the water is used for agriculture, livelihood security and environmental sustainability.  The network of small tanks in Sri Lanka represents a socio-ecological system with deeply interactive relationships between water resources and social systems in Sri Lanka. Amalgamating the agriculture, irrigation and food ministries under one roof may be a good idea to reduce the number of ministries.  

Shift emphasis towards renewable energy

We must shift our emphasis towards renewable energy. Burning coal and natural gas in energy generation, transport, industry and households is a major offender in climate change. A newspaper on 25 May carried an article by Asoka Abeygunawardhana – Chairman, Strategic Enterprise Management Agency, who was spot on when he said that coal should have no future in Sri Lanka.

Look at Germany, France and where wide use of wind energy and solar. India is active and hopes to have 20% renewable energy use by 2030. China is highly proactive to move away from coal to renewables. But Sri Lanka is going in the opposite direction. If the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) plans to build 2700MW worth of coal power stations during the period 2018-2037, this will completely undermine achievement of the SDGs.

The Energy Ministry is an enigma for the nation and under all governments and Sri Lanka bright young, highly-educated and honest person to put things right in this Ministry. The person appointed must have a good idea about climate change and its long-term impact on world weather, the volatility in the oil industry, prices and demand features, emerging solar, wind and hydro energy in the world and potential for renewable energy in Sri Lanka. This is a tall order but any Minister without proven knowledge on these issues will be a disaster for the country. 

There is a close correlation between climate change and the increase in the incidence of dengue in south Asia and Sri Lanka will not be spared.  The United Nations Development Program in a study in 2004 has shown that disaster risks are considerably higher in developing countries due to lack of coping strategies.

Ignorance, narcissism 

and a corrupt and 

cynical system

Analysis of data on disasters in 73 nations from 1980 to 2002, shows that richer nations with robust institutions suffer less death from natural disasters.  According to the UNDP while 11% of those exposed to droughts, floods, etc. are from the developing countries, 53% of them lose their lives. Even Bangladesh has recently managed to escape the fury of MORA. Under these conditions, cabinet reshuffles are and an insult to the intelligence of the Sri Lankan nation.  

These disasters are partly a product of ignorance and narcissism and a corrupt and cynical system detached from public opinion. Sri Lankan politics has become a game of powerful and rich politicians for whom pollution, environment and climate change or floods are of no consequence. Sri Lankans know that first -hand that her democratic institutions have deteriorated markedly over the last several decades, and people have lost their confidence on their political institutions. 

The mean-spirited policy priorities that are widely backed by sycophantic party politicians such as expensive cars for them at the expense of programs to help the poor and working class; increased spending on mega projects and destruction of the environment has not been halted in spite of wide condemnation by many.

All Sri Lankans want improved standard of living, better environment, and society and good governance and honest development prerogatives. The Government and its cronies are fighting public opinion instead of representing it. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Government is their factotum.

President Sirisena must change his vision

President Sirisena must put mega projects (megapolis) on hold and focus on drainage, water scarcity, wetlands, deforestation, waste management and the dengue menace and myriad other issues. There must be no more imports of expensive cars for anybody. He must spur epistemic communities necessary to coordinate common policy responses to solve these common problems. They have the knowledge and expertise, and practice and alienating these communities is counterproductive for Sri Lanka’s future.

It is now the job of the Sri Lankans to say no to this reckless behaviour and greed, and reclaim their democratic institutions. The situation is therefore salvageable, though it remains highly dangerous. Enlightened leadership by President Sirisena can still provide much-needed life support to the moribund political process in Sri Lanka. 

He can overcome the cynicism, confusion, and obstructionist politics surrounding efforts to fight poverty, inequality, and environmental degradation. If however, President Sirisena continues to indulge in business as usual, the waves of distrust and frustration created by a long string of blunders can grow leading to further conflagration of events to the detriment of his credibility. He is well advised to pull back from the brink and allow rationality and common sense to play a greater role on Sri Lankan affairs.

The future remains volatile and ominous. Cool heads and careful deliberation and clear thinking must prevail and President Sirisena must change his vision from politics first to country first.


(The writer is Professor of Economics at Monash University, Australia /Malaysia. He can be reached via

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