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DateLine Sunday, 8 June 2008





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Government Gazette

Before we are washed away....

Every year we mark the World Environment Week. But the tragedy is, we are unable to overcome the shocks the Mother Nature bestowed on us. Not going beyond the land boundaries, ‘Face 2 Face’ is focused on facts that the government and the activists agree and disagree.

Patali Champaka Ranawaka - Environment and Natural Resources Minister

Jagath Gunawardane - Attorney-at-Law and environmental activist


Patali Champaka Ranawaka - Environment and Natural Resources Minister

Jagath Gunawardane - Attorney-at-Law and environmental activist
Pic: Kavindra Perera

Floods and landslides are reported from many parts of the country mainly from the Western and Southern coastal lines and inland areas like Ratnapura for the past few days. According to your observations and information, is this a natural occurrence or merely related to adverse human activities?

PCR: If we consider the worldwide phenomenon 70% contribution is from the global warming. This I find as a very logical thinking. In addition local factors are also there. For the local consequences we encounter, human activities also contribute to a greater extent.

JG: The rains are natural occurrences. But the associated problems are basically man-made.

At present, what have you identified as main human activities that trigger the causes for floods and landslides?

PCR: For example, in Kalutara, though the area is normally flooded, the newly-built express way has become a huge barrier to the water flow.

Deforestation and filling up of flat lands are also contributory factors. We cannot leave out the global warming aspect as well. The results accelerated the evaporation of sea water and this specially affects the bay of Bengal, that has greater impact on us.

Ice caps from the Himalayan hills flow to the Bay of Bengal making the sea water level rise. As the sea in this area is shallow the evaporation rate is high. These changes very much affect the severity of the torrential rains we get.

JG: The forest cover in river catchments is denuded by the people and as a result most of the water that falls on to the soil does not get absorbed. Most of the water gets washed away - the runoff water.

Hence, after a heavy rain large quantities of water suddenly enter the rivers. Most of the rivers surge down and come into a flood plain. Presently many of the flood plains are filled-up and towns have come-up. The rivers have a natural flow.

So anyway these plains will get flooded. In addition, the unwanted and illegal human activities, like gemming on river beds, removing excess sand from river beds etc. can be identified as contributory causes.

Soil is washed away because of clearing the forest cover and agricultural malpractice such activities seriously affect the bio-diversity of these areas and we may possibly drive one or more species toward extinction. Problems are not confined to flooding and landslides alone and this is a chain reaction on organisms, people and the environment.

In your point of view, are these natural disasters on the increase?

PCR: It will increase with the adverse human activities. For example, last year the dry zone received more rain than expected and caused floods as well. Due to floods we lost 15% of the rice harvest.

As a result this year we had to import more rice. The global temperature will anyway increase by 1.5 degrees by the end of the century even though we would totally stop carbon emission.

JG: Natural disasters are on the increase because of man made situations. These are natural occurrences which we have converted into natural calamities. We should not go according to the western way of interfering with the nature and witness disasters such as ocean depletion, climate changes etc.

What is the current Sri Lankan situation, comparative to the South Asian region and to the world?

PCR: Apart from the local factors adversely affecting the environment, Sri Lanka has a very low contribution to the world environment destruction,because we are a low fuel consumption country comparatively.

On the other hand, as a country, I am proud to say, we were able to get the consensus of the international community on ‘Environment debt’.

The developed countries are in debt to the developing countries when the environment pollution, the developed countries have caused is considered. Developing countries are really paying for the sins committed by the developed countries!

JG: It is a difficult question to answer because this is a case by case analysis. When the tsunami hit Sri Lanka nobody died of starvation but when the hurricane Katrina hit America people died of starvation.

In that respect we can say we are far ahead of America! So it is difficult to compare. Of course, we can compare but I do not know how justifiable that would be. It is basically a matter of preparedness to face the calamities.

Do we have adequate strategies to solve these environmental, problems?

PCR: This year we focused on educating and making people aware of living in an oil (fuel)-free world. This is important because, according to the statistics available, in another 40 years the crude oil resources will be totally unavailable.

And on the other hand, we have requested the Urban Development Authority to provide us the zonal plans so that the residential and industrial areas can be demarcated. Yet it is practically difficult due to political pressure, the process undergoes.

JG: Strategies and action plans are there but what is lacking is its implementation. We have environment plans, bio-diversity plans etc.

In addition, the successful conclusion of what has been implemented, is equally important. No law is perfect or fool-proof. But we have adequate laws. What matters is their implementation. It is highly essential.

Effective public participation in environment conservation and protection is a must. What is your comment on the Sri Lankan situation?

PCR: People have a huge responsibility on them. They dump the garbage and later complain of garbage being piled up. Before throwing out we must see how we can reduce the amount and use maximum out of resources.

We have trained 200,000 school children as ‘Parisara Niyamuwo’ (environment protecting leaders) island-wide and it marks a good impact. It is very important to set the future generation towards environment protecting path.

So I request the public not to forget the responsibility cast on them.

JG: As per my experience, the number of actively-involved persons and activists is getting low. The public seems to be very apathetic. Hence the morale is not so high. If the people are really enlightened certain issues can be rectified. There should be a voice from among the people.

On the other hand, today we see a broken-up society where people feel hopeless and helpless! They are not worried about, at least, their basic rights. They do not want to know what they are. But it is important to have at least a minority of actively participating people. At least if 5% of the population is interested, lots of changes can happen.

What are the shortcomings in protecting the environment, in your point of view?

PCR: I feel we are late in certain aspects. We did not build a refinery when required; building urban areas according to a plan did not take place.

On top of all this, we do not have a political consensus. The Provincial council system according to the 13th Amendment also affects the environmental issues. At times the Ministry cannot intervene in environment problems as the PC has taken over the matter. This is not correct because environment is a trans - boundary issue.

In addition, certain decisions taken in the past, politically and legally, were short-sighted. To rectify the matters we have brought the Ministry to an enforceable level, rather than being a puppet, where we can create a possible impact.

JG: Environment conservation should become an integral part of all development projects. The legal system is in place. But encroachment levels should be curtailed. For that we need adequate personnel with sincere motivation, proper training and a backing from the authorities.

We see that currently in the Environment Ministry and the related departments this trend is on the increase. This is a positive sign. But they need to increase the cadre strength and the level of training.

The actual necessity is to have sincerely motivated people. Generally, the public believe the Government sector is corrupt and inefficient, which is not true. There are shortcomings but we need to surmount them and make it more efficient and effective.

How do you compare the past and the present environment conservation strategies of our country?

PCR: This year’s concept is “Simple life, Sustainable Future”. We had a simple life style. It is embedded in our culture. We need to learn from our ancestors on how to live with the environment. This does not mean we must start using carriages to travel. But we can cut down the excessive consumption rates. That is important.

JG: If we consider the era after the advent of the open economy in Sri Lanka, the sub-culture which came along with it was the true fact behind the erosion of some of our values and customs.

The whole human race is geared to the industrial development. With the current trends in the world, the sovereignty of a country assumes greater importance.

International organizations may enter the scene carrying along with them their agendas. Behind comes the cooperate sector. Eventually the Government may become just another spectator!


Gamin Gamata - Presidential Community & Welfare Service
Ceylinco Banyan Villas
Mount View Residencies

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