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  • Unseasonal seasons in the Land of Serendipity: Climate change impacts and adaptation in Sri Lanka

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Unseasonal seasons in the Land of Serendipity: Climate change impacts and adaptation in Sri Lanka

Source(s):  United Nations Development Programme - Headquarters (UNDP)

Surrounded by the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka is an island blessed with rich biodiversity, ancient ruins and natural resources.

The South Asian nation is endowed with many assets and, over the past decade, has made significant development progress, continuing to emerge from a debilitating 30-year civil war and the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. Yet now the nation’s economic and social gains are being threatened by the onset of climate change.

What are the impacts, who is most vulnerable and – most importantly – what action is underway to adapt and prepare? Tharuka Dissanaike, Policy and Design Specialist at UNDP Sri Lanka, explains. 

Tharuka, extreme weather events dominate the news, but what are some of the other key climate-related challenges that Sri Lankan communities face?

Being a water-rich tropical country, I would say Sri Lanka’s biggest challenge is protecting its catchment forests and ensuring water availability, at the right time and in the right quantities, in the vast Dry Zone (a region already experiencing alternating droughts and flash floods driven by climate change).

Saline intrusion is another serious issue. Colombo and many popular tourism destinations are coastal cities and salinity affects drinking water sources. The low-lying coastal districts in the war-affected north and east are especially prone to saline intrusion, making it hard for returning families to resume their lives and livelihoods. 

Another key emerging set of risks relate to health. Urban areas are increasingly affected by insect-borne diseases like dengue (often flaring after periods of rainfall, though exacerbated by haphazard waste disposal). Meanwhile, rural areas are rife with more insidious threats such as Chronic Kidney Disease and Blue Baby syndrome, attributed to agro-chemicals and unsafe ground water, which communities turn to when there is not sufficient rainfall for household use and healthy crops.

Rainfall variability, extreme weather, salinity and the spread of diseases and pests will worsen exponentially if carbon emissions continue unabated in the next 15-20 years.

In 2017, Sri Lanka ranked second worldwide on the Global Climate Risk Index. What makes the country so vulnerable to climate change?

Much of Sri Lanka’s population live in rural areas and rely on agriculture and natural resources, sectors dependent on a steady climate. It’s also about coping capacity. Despite being a middle-income country and with low extreme poverty, 25 per cent of Sri Lankan’s still live below US$2.50/day. This renders people much less able to cope with frequent disasters and set-backs to agriculture or other informal sector livelihoods.

You know, Sri Lanka’s challenges are further complicated by the fact the country is recovering from 30 years of armed conflict and that there are grave disparities in wealth and well-being between the Western Province of the country and far-flung districts. This inequality breeds discontent and widens the opportunity gap, especially for women and educated youth.

In the past ten years, deep drought and monsoon flooding have worsened – this has affected development, eroding the post-war economic boom expected of a middle-income country.

What changes have you personally witnessed?

Over the last ten years I have seen fluctuating monsoons bring widespread flooding and deep drought to the same district in a single year. 

I have also seen the flowering times and market prices of seasonal fruits changing. Unseasonal rambutan in the market indicates that the fruit’s flowering time has changes due to changes in temperature and rainfall. The price of coconuts in the market is also an indicator of drought in the previous year, as drought during flowering season lowers yields. 

What action is the Government of Sri Lanka taking to address the impacts on communities?

The Government of Sri Lanka is to be commended for its efforts to address climate change.

In 2008 the Government established a Climate Change Secretariat under the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment. Since then, the Secretariat has developed a National Adaptation Plan to complement the country’s Nationally Determined Contributions for climate change and is currently working towards mainstreaming the actions identified in the National Adaptation Plan into national agencies working in agriculture, tourism, forestry, fisheries and disaster management. The plan is also being rolled out sub-nationally where discussions on provincial-level identification of adaptation priorities, key agencies and financing gaps will help to reach out to donors and external climate financing.

Meanwhile, the Government also has a disaster management policy and framework through which support is extended to managing risks (preparatory actions) and compensation for damages and recovery support for floods, drought and landslides. The Ministry of Agriculture and Department of Meteorology is promoting seasonal forecasting for agriculture and issuing advisories based on rainfall predictions. 

Along the way, UNDP has supported the government to access climate finance for both mitigation and adaptation through the Global Environment FacilityGreen Climate Fund and Adaptation Fund

What do you perceive are the main hurdles in addressing climate change in Sri Lanka?

Like many other countries, maintaining the political will to address what is a long-term issue.

Access to technical solutions also remains a challenge. We need to bring in new technologies to addressing salinity, early warning for disasters, early warning systems for disease outbreaks such a vector-borne diseases and high-tech solutions for farmers to adopt ‘climate-smart’ practices.

How is Climate Action (SDG13) linked to the other Sustainable Development Goals?

Actually, everything is linked. Climate action is very much tied to the goals of No Poverty (SDG 1),Gender Equality (SDG 5) and Affordable and Clean Energy (SDG 7). And of course, because managing the impacts of climate change requires a holistic management of natural resources – and conversely, climate change impacts our natural environment and biodiversity – it is also bound to the goals of Clean Water and Sanitation (SDG 6)Life Below Water (SDG 14) and Life on Land (SDG 15)

Climate action is also closely linked to Partnerships for the Goals (SDG 17), that is the mobilisation of global finance, technology transfer and capacity-building to achieve the 2030 Agenda. 

This is the interconnectedness and totality of the Sustainable Development Goals. 

Finally, Tharuka, you’ve been at UNDP for over ten years now, involved in natural resource management, conservation and disaster risk reduction. During this time what is an achievement, or something you contributed to, that you are most proud of?

I am most proud of my role in securing climate finance to address some of our most pressing challenges. 

Over the past years I have led the project development process initiatives strengthening the resilience of post-conflict recovery and development to climate change risks in Sri Lanka, financed by the GEF—Special Climate Change Fund, a Green Climate Fund-financed project supporting smallholder farmers in the Dry Zone to adapt to climate variability and extreme events through improved water management, and an Adaptation Fund-financed project which we are supporting the World Food Programme to implement. 

It is very rewarding to see, despite the bottlenecks in accessing funds and challenges in implementation, these projects rolling out on the ground, making a real difference to communities facing the brunt of climate impacts.

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  • Publication date 08 Mar 2019

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