Sri Lanka needs a National Environmental Policy that can be effectively enforced to deal with current threats. We should not only react, but should develop and implement policies that will reduce risks. In fact the Disaster Management Centre, together with the National Building Research Organization, has developed plans in some sectors. But these institutions need to be strengthened, and given a mandate to ensure implementation of the Risk Reduction Plans that have been produced.
It is also necessary to lay down clear guidelines about the relations between such policy making bodies and those who implement. While the DMC has staff in the Districts, manpower for support has to come from the services, the military as well as the police. Active involvement of village committees is also vital. But in addition there must be direction on the basis of clear authority, which is where the Divisional Secretaries, and even the District Secretary, have a crucial role. This should all be laid down in Standard Operating Procedures, which should be known and understood by all officials, including the Grama Niladharis.
Particular attention must be paid to landslides and floods. The continuing problems in certain areas must be addressed through coordinated mitigation measures. These should include a comprehensive Water Policy, since otherwise many areas are subject to flood during some periods, and drought in others.
At present interventions with regard to irrigation and to the supply of water, are made with no proper coordination. It is essential to develop methods of storing excess water, which requires greater attention to small reservoirs that could serve a small group of villages. More responsibility for identifying schemes and for implementing them should be given to Divisional Secretariats, which are able to consult the stakeholders in the area. Such consultation should be mandatory and people kept informed of projects in their home areas, with space to object and have their concerns noted and addressed before action is taken. This should be a regular agenda item at consultative committee meetings at Grama Niladhari level, and suggestions should be collated and assessed in the formulation of Divisional Secretariat level plans.
The Policy should also aim at ensuring that safe drinking water is available to all. In coordination with the Ministry of Health, the Water Board should ensure that threats to life such as the now rapidly spreading kidney disease are eradicated. Fertilizer must be subject to rigid testing, since it seems that excessive use of chemicals is destroying traditional agricultural lands. It is also essential to develop effective information dissemination systems to ensure that necessary precautions are taken. Some time back the DMC together with UNDP produced simple booklets for schools, and such resources must be increased, with time given in the school curriculum to ensure proper understanding. In this regard it would be useful for the Education Ministry to review the Life Skills curriculum, and perhaps reintroduce some of the ideas in the curriculum developed in 2005 which was summarily changed when a new regime took over at the Ministry of Education. The Ministry should also consider making this subject compulsory at Ordinary Level, instead of History, which was hurriedly made compulsory without proper analysis of the benefits to students and the wider community.
An effective programme of Disaster Management will also involve attention to environmental protection, since steps must be taken to protect forest cover and wildlife. But this cannot be at the expense of the lives and livelihoods of rural communities. Now we find that farmers are not permitted to function in their traditional grounds while politicians amass large fortunes through acquisition of what should be common lands, along with excessive deforestation.
There is also need of a comprehensive policy and swift action to deal with the increasing threat from elephants. In part because of badly planned development projects, the threat has increased to villagers in several Districts, and has led to much loss of life in recent months. Though it may be a myth that the Mattala airport displaced a lot of wild life, what happened should be investigated, and remedial measures taken if needed.
Another reason for increasing problems with elephants, as the energetic and thoughtful Minister in charge of elephants, Vasantha Senanayake, has noted, is incursions of cattle into parks. This is a problem I had kept raising with the President and the relevant Ministry, though from the opposite perspective, when I had asked for allocations of grazing grounds to promote milk production in areas in the East. Little had been done about this despite claims that livestock development was a priority. The result was that cattle went into parks, and elephants, deprived of their traditional grazing grounds, made incursions into villages.
This is a matter that requires urgent attention. Even late last year I pointed out to the then Preisdent that this was the most frequently raised problem at my Divisional Reconciliation meetings in the East, but there was a deafening silence. The failure to pay attention to clear instances of suffering – and death in increasing frequency – was incomprehensible, but unfortunately all systems seemed to have broken down by then in that government. We can but hope that the present government will at least be more sensitive.
Sri Lanka also has need of more coherent policies with regard to energy, so as to limit the use of fossil fuels. These are both expensive and destructive. However plans to develop renewable energy sources have been held up by what Minister Susil Premjayanth, in confessing that he could achieve nothing during his tenure as Minister of Petroleum, described as the ‘Oil Mafia’. Though his officials have discussed plans with regard to bio-energy, these could not be taken forward. It was recognized however that using trees such as gliricidia could help with our energy problems whilst providing an additional source of income to farmers and villagers in general.
Crops such as gliricidia could also help with producing organic fertilizers that do not harm the soil. We need to encourage the use of these, while promoting research that will help us to use local products instead of relying heavily on imports, and allowing the growth of profiteering that has little regard for national development.
We should therefore
- Strengthen Disaster Management Units in every Divisional Secretariat with a mandate to develop and implement Risk Reduction Strategies, with effective coordination of relevant agencies
- Put in place and ensure implementation of Water Policies in all Provinces, and in particular the East, so as to reduce the adverse impact of floods and drought conditions
- Publicize and implement the work of the NBRO with regard to landslides, and ensure that mitigation strategies as well as effective Early Warning Systems are in place
- Develop strategies to encourage organic agriculture and reduce reliance on chemicals which are destroying the environment and threatening lives
- Develop and enforce a National Policy with regard to threats to village communities from wildlife, and in particular ensure that the elephant menace which is increasingly dangerous in the East is controlled
- Ensure provision of grazing lands for cattle, without disturbance to farming communities or to wildlife
- Put in place clear policies with regard to forest preservation that will not deprive rural communities of traditional livelihoods, whilst also reversing improper acquisitions of land that have been perpetrated by individuals
- Develop a policy with regard to renewable energy and encourage its production, in particular through cooperatives that will provide additional income for villages through cultivation of crops such as gliricidia that could be used for fertilizer as well as energy