Everything else.. Post-Election – Environmental Issues Authorities must Focus on

Post-Election – Environmental Issues Authorities must Focus on

2020 Aug 20

Sri Lanka, the pint-sized island in the Indian Ocean, packs a punch when it comes to the richness in biodiversity.  Named as one of the World’s 25 biodiversity hotspots, the island abounds in hundreds of species of flora and fauna – many of which are endemic.

Sadly, much of Sri Lanka’s pristine wilderness has already been or is being, destroyed.  Due to the 30-year civil war which ended in 2004, the country has been playing catch up in terms of development – a development that has been ill-planned and at the cost of what makes Sri Lanka so special – her natural world. 

Post-election, here are five burning issues authorities must now take seriously.

The Human – Elephant Conflict (HEC)

Reported to have the worst rate of Human-Elephant Conflict in the world, in 2019, Sri Lanka recorded 405 elephant deaths due to the HEC – the highest ever recorded.  Of the 35 plus State Ministries and 50 plus Government Departments, only the Ministry of Wildlife Resources, and its corresponding Department of Wildlife and Conservation, has been appointed with the sole mandate of looking after the welfare of wildlife.  With no empathy or understanding, however, of the subject, these representatives of the people do just that – represent people only, and not wildlife.  Of the current mitigation strategies followed by the DWC to manage HEC, not a single strategy focuses on the welfare of the elephant.  All of them only deal with the welfare of the people.  Why you ask?  Quite bluntly, it is because elephants can’t vote, but people can.

What the government fails to realise is that wild elephants are a huge asset to Sri Lanka’s economy. Tourism is the 3rd highest foreign exchange revenue earner and Sri Lankan tourism is largely ‘Nature-Based’.  According to estimates, in 2018, the National Parks famed for their elephants generated an income of Rs. 1, 050, 298, 321.42 (~$ 590, 000) for the country.  Elephants are also a ‘Keystone Species’ – meaning they provide overarching services to other species, both to flora and fauna, and are extremely important for the health of the eco-systems within which they live.  In some African countries, the loss of elephants from the environment, due mainly to poaching, have resulted in the total collapse of these ecosystems.

How could HEC be managed?
  • Community & Seasonal Agricultural Fencing: according to Dr Prithviraj Fernando of the Centre for Conservation & Research (CCR), the leading researcher on HEC in the island, this is a tested and successful method which the government needs to invest in if the country is to protect its elephants:
  • Community fencing: wildlife does not understand administrative boundaries.  They move along traditional ranges, some of which they have used for hundreds of years, in search of food supply. Therefore, rather than trying to fence elephants into National Parks, and as the main aim should be to protect people, the concept is to erect fences around villages, to keep elephants out, while still allowing them to move freely from forest to forest along their traditional pathways.
  • Seasonal agricultural fencing: Similarly, to protect the cultivations of the villages, electric fencing can easily be used to protect the croplands; fencing which can be removed after harvest, to allow the elephants to feed off the remaining stubble.
  • Elephant Conservation Areas (ECAs): these focus on protecting elephant habitat (not merely within National Parks) and stopping illegal settlements in traditional elephant movement pathways.
  • Better storage for paddy and grains: the provision of safe means for community paddy/grain storage, away from homes and with better security, would help stop some of the incidents of ‘attacks’ on village homes.
  • Additional sources of income: change perceptions of villagers and help them see elephants as being an economic asset rather than a liability.  Responsible eco-tourism could provide these hardworking farmers with an alternative income during the fallow season. 


Sri Lanka has one of the highest recorded rates of primary forest destruction in the world. At the turn of the 20th Century, 70% of the island was under forest cover.  Today, we have less than 17% of primary forest left.

Forests are absolutely vital to the natural balance of the island’s eco-systems, rainfall, temperature, and, of course, habitat for the amazing species of wildlife.

Currently, the greatest threat to Sri Lanka’s remaining forests is the proposed amendment of the 5/2001 Forest Department Circular to hand State Forests over from the custody of the Forest Department (FD) to local government – Divisional Secretaries in particular. This threatens over 650, 000 hectares of forests. What needs to be understood is that every single tree and forest, which makes up the last remaining 17% of forest cover in Sri Lanka, matter a great deal for the future health of this island’s wild animals, and people.

Without these forests, Sri Lanka will not be the same. Its weather systems will change so drastically that the environment may no longer become healthy to live in. Food shortages, power cuts, water cuts and rising living costs will also be likely.  It will also mean that many of Sri Lanka’s precious flora & fauna, many of whom are already threatened or endangered, will be fast-tracked towards extinction. Furthermore, CCR confirms that 70% of Sri Lanka’s elephants live outside the boundaries of Protected Areas, mainly in what is classified as ‘other state forests’.

Planting trees is not the answer to deforestation. They are not able to provide the same ecosystem services of established forests. What must be done is to halt deforestation entirely, rehabilitate degraded forests and give full legal protection to any forest patches such as those under the purview of ‘Other State Forests’ by gazetting them as Forest Reserves or Protected Areas.

Destruction of Mangroves

Mangroves, seagrass meadows, and salt marshes, collectively termed “Blue Forests,” are counted among the most valuable and productive coastal ecosystems on the planet.  In fact, international climate and conservation discussions have been focusing on these habitat types.

Mangroves are one of the most highly productive ecosystems. The ecosystem services provided by mangroves can be summarised as:

    • Climate change mitigation and adaptation
    • Protection from coastal erosion
    • Storm protection
    • Prevention of saltwater intrusion
    • Groundwater refill
    • Sediment & nutrient retention 
    • Water purification
    • Providing habitat for biodiversity (breeding, spawning and nursery habitat for commercial fish species; biodiversity)
    • Fisheries & community benefits

Mangroves are nature’s greatest defence against coastal erosion as well as being a saviour to communities that thrive around them.  They form a green barrier that can stave off coastal erosion, storm surges, and there is clear evidence that they help lessen the impact of tsunamis.  Mangroves are one of the greatest weapons against climate change. Why? Because mangroves sequester five times more carbon than rainforests. The ecosystem services provided by mangroves are priceless. To put it in context, an economic valuation on just the Muthurajawela Wetland was estimated at approximately Rs. 727 million per year. 

In the past 30 years, through deforestation and exploitation due to prawn farming, hotel development, settlements, logging, tourism, agriculture, and pollution, more than 50% of Sri Lanka’s mangrove forests have been destroyed forever. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, mangroves are being destroyed at the rate of ~ 370, 050 acres per year (~ 1% per annum).  As such, almost 225, 000 metric tons of carbon sequestration potential is lost each year. Sadly, less than 0.2% of Sri Lanka’s land area currently accounts for mangroves forests.

Destruction of Coral Reefs

An estimated 2% of Sri Lanka’s coastline comprises of coral reefs. They are known to support more species per unit area than any other marine environment, including about 4, 000 species of fish, 800 species of hard corals and hundreds of other species. The value of coral reefs acting as a natural breakwater is invaluable, preventing coastal erosion, property damage and loss of life. Reefs also protect the highly productive wetlands along the coast, as well as ports and harbours, and provides an important magnet for tourism and recreational purposes.  

Estimates indicate roughly 2/3rds of foreign tourist income comes from coastal tourism. About 75% of graded hotels in Sri Lanka, and 80% of hotel rooms, are located in coastal areas.

Coral reefs play an important part in coastal tourism.  In 1998, the minimum economic value of 1 km² of coral reef in Sri Lanka was estimated at US$ 142, 000 – US$ 7, 504, 000.  Due to the rise in tourism in recent years, it would have a far greater value today.

Sri Lanka`s state-owned Marine Environment Protection Authority claims that 90% of Sri Lanka’s once rich coral reefs are now dead – due to coral mining, illegal fishing methods such as bottom trawling and dynamite blasting, exploitative tourism & human activities such as irresponsible glass-bottom boat manoeuvring, excessive climate change and high levels of pollution being dumped into the seas.

Coral reefs comprise clusters of thousands of tiny sea animals called polyps, which are alive, growing, changing and evolving. They are hotbeds of biodiversity, providing habitats for 25% of all marine species, even though they occupy less than 0.1% of the world’s ocean surface. But coral reefs, just like anything living or any ecosystem, will be destroyed if they are not properly cared for.

The use of single-use plastic and polythene waste poses untold harm to marine environments.  Tons of plastic waste ends up in the ocean every year – it is estimated that by 2050, there will be more plastic debris than fish in the oceans!  Plastic waste and micro plastics get entangled in coral reefs and stay in the water infecting, damaging, and killing coral reefs.  This poses a severe threat to marine bio-diversity as these habitats are nurseries for so many species of marine fish species.

Environmental Pollution

As the human population has expanded, so have their demands on the environment.  In the last couple of decades, Sri Lanka has gone through a phase of rapid economic development and industrialisation. With that, the demands on the environment have increased significantly in terms of inputs into development projects (soil, water, sand etc) and as a result, the level of pollution has also increased.

  • Air Pollution

Even in the mid-1980s, hydro-electricity provided 90% of the country’s electricity needs. Today, however, only 60% of the country’s energy is hydro with a significant amount being generated using coal-power. In the 1980s, Sri Lanka had 523, 723 vehicles on the road. Today, it has over 7 million vehicles on the roads. 

Coal power stations (thermal power stations), as well as fossil-fuel-powered automobiles, are a huge driver of air pollution. Sulphur Dioxide and Carbon Dioxide, greenhouse gases, are the main sources of air pollution.  Emissions from coal power plants can lead to serious harm to human health, global warming and acid rains.  The Lakvijaya (Norochcholai) Power Station, Sri Lanka’s largest thermal power plant to date, built by the China Machinery Engineering Corporation at a cost of US$ 1.35 Billion has been a case in point in the significant environmental cost of promoting coal power.  A recent study carried out by Sri Lanka Energy Managers Association (SLEMA) estimates the social and environmental damage due to the emission of greenhouse gases by this power plant to be Rs. 36.6 Billion (US$ 244 million) per annum, while burdening the local economy with a cost between Rs. 15.7 Billion to Rs. 16.7 Billion per annum.  

Between 2011 and 2017, the total environmental and social cost due to emission of greenhouse gases from Norochcholai was estimated at over Rs. 132 Billion. The burning of coal leads to the emission of hazardous gases with many underlying environmental and health impacts.  Clearly Sri Lanka must move away from coal power towards ‘clean energy’ – investing in solar, wind and thermal power, improving energy productivity, and ensuring energy for all is vital if the country really wishes to bring about ‘sustainable’ development. 

  • Soil pollution

Soil contamination occurs when toxic chemicals damage the natural balance of the soil and ecosystems within it.  Harmful chemical pesticides, fertilizers, monoculture crops as well as improper disposal of industrial waste are the main reasons for soil degradation.  Land degradation, due to soil erosion and decline in soil fertility, is a major issue in the central highlands of Sri Lanka with 50% of agricultural lands in a degraded condition.

For the people of Sri Lanka, almost 100% of their food comes from the soil.  Therefore, the preservation of healthy soils is essential for the sustainability of its agricultural industries as well as for its food production. Moving away from heavy use of industrial agricultural chemicals towards a more sustainable organic or semi-organic way of farming is necessary to preserve the richness of Sri Lanka’s natural soil and to maintain and improve crop yield.  

  • Water pollution

Sri Lanka is blessed with two monsoon seasons and many natural rivers which radiate from the central hills. However, the burgeoning population and rampant unsustainable development activities have had serious ramifications on some of Sri Lanka’s waterways. Whilst poor sanitation and untreated/insufficient wastewater treatment, toxic chemicals from industrial and agricultural activities were the usual suspects, as of late rampant sand mining activities also affects river water quality.  Illegal or poorly developed mini hydropower plants too cause unimaginable harm to natural waterways and the ecosystems which thrive along them. Plastic pollution is once again a culprit in polluting the island’s numerous tanks, lakes and rivers. 

Whilst as an individual we may feel frustrated with state decisions and corporate misdemeanours, we must take responsibility for our own part in environmental pollution. Living an environmentally friendly lifestyle is a decision we can all take and try to minimise the footprint we leave behind on this beautiful island. Following are a few things we can do individually to mitigate environmental pollution:

    • Avoid single-use plastics.
    • When you buy goods for yourself, your home etc – always try to choose items that are decomposable. 
    • Dispose of your plastics in a responsible manner.
    • Move away from a consumerist lifestyle towards a ‘minimalist’, ‘zero-waste’ lifestyle.
    • Understand the environmental costs of your purchase decisions – educate yourself by watching documentaries such as The True Cost, Trashed, Racing Extinction, The 11th Hour.
    • Adopt simple daily habits like carrying a reusable water bottle with you, choosing a cloth handkerchief instead of tissues, carrying a reusable cloth bag in your car or handbag to use at shops.
    • Beginning your own butterfly garden even in small balcony spaces will encourage you to fall in love with the natural world.
    • Garden your own produce. 
    • Practice grey-water usage if your home or apartment allows it.

If Sri Lanka is to continue to be a biodiversity hotspot, with its remaining populations of fauna and flora healthy and intact, and if the people who share this beautiful island with them are to enjoy healthy and prosperous futures, then the policymakers of this country, conservationists and environmentalists, must work together to ensure that all of these dangers are mitigated.  Only then can humans, forests and wildlife be saved for posterity, and for future generations to marvel at.