An Ecosystem Based Adaptation Plan against Climate Change and Natural Disasters
The weather patterns we are now experiencing is the new ‘norm’; climate change is here to stay. It’s the present, not in the future.
Climate projections show that we can expect more severe, unpredictable weather patterns now and in the future. Gone are the days when farmers, businesses, and people could plan their lives and livelihoods based on relatively predictable seasons. Instead, the ‘new norm’ will be erratic and heavy bouts of rainfall, severe storms and cyclones, and long droughts.
Consider the most recent timeline. In May 2016, there were floods which set the government back over 1.5 Billion USD. Eight months later the country was gripped by a severe drought that cost another 1.5 Billion USD. And a year later we are now experiencing floods after two days of incessant rains that have taken over 150 lives and caused heavy damage to people, property, and expensive infrastructure.
So what is our adaptation plan?
Clearly we don’t have one. Soon after the recent flood, the Ministry of Disaster Management issued a statement admitting that it was not prepared to deal with the disaster, despite the fact that they had a year to prepare for floods that should have been expected. During the drought, the plan was to distribute water to affected people using bowsers. These are not plans. These are desperate reactions.
Ecosystem based adaptation as a solution
Evidence-based scientific research has clearly shown that forests and forested watersheds play a crucial role in mitigating natural disasters. Forests act as giant sponges that absorb rainfall by allowing it to percolate into the ground and releases it gradually over time. This ‘sponge effect’ therefore also ensures a sustained supply of water during the dry period. Thus, forests store water, and act as the ‘water towers’ in the ecosystem.
Tree roots bind soils, especially on hillslopes. The leaf litter covers the soil and protects it from erosion. The canopy intercepts the raindrops, and reduces the impacts on the forest floor, that could otherwise loosen the topsoil and cause it to be washed away.
When forests, especially in steep slopes, are cleared, the rain water runs off the surface rapidly, eroding the soil, destabilizing the slopes, and creating landslides and floods. Because most of the water is lost during rainfall, there is no water for sustained release during the dry season. Conserving and restoring forests in Sri Lanka’s mountain slopes and along rivers is a sensible ecosystem-based adaptation plan against the impacts of climate change. After devastating floods and landslides in 1998, the President of China initiated the Natural Forest Conservation Program to increase forest cover by 40 million hectares by 2020. This was the largest forest restoration programme in the world, costing 37 billion USD in the first 10 days. China even went to the extent of converting agricultural areas into forests under the Grain to Green program. The Natural Forest Conservation Program now contributes to China’s global climate mitigation commitments through carbon sequestration.
The Hon. President has now pledged to increase forest cover to 32% by restoring 200,000 acres, in line with the ‘Sri Lanka Next: Blue Green Era’ policy, yet large areas of forests are still being sacrificed for ‘development’. Recently a cabinet paper was approved to convert 62,500 acres of land in Uva-Wellassa into sugar cane; a crop that has not been profitable in Sri Lanka before, and requires large amounts of water which is scarce in the Dry Zone. Forests in headwaters and erosion-prone slopes—including in protected areas—are being released for conversion to other land-uses that bring economic benefits to a few individuals, but eventually result in loss of livelihoods, lives and properties of communities.
While the President has made commendable pledges to conserve and restore forests, the reality is that significant areas of forests are being lost, making these targets unrealistic and jeopardizing the potential for sustainable national economic growth. The consequential severe natural disasters that cause great loss of lives and properties of individuals and expensive public infrastructure also set back economic development targets.
As Sri Lankans, we must take collective action and responsibility to protect, conserve, and restore our forests, which are a national heritage. While development is a necessity for all, it must also be in line with the Green Economic Growth models that the government has acknowledged as our future.
Eric Wikramanayake, PhD