Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday newspaper on 31 March 2013
Now it can be revealed. A highly advanced but devious alien race has been sapping the island of Sri Lanka of its freshwater, and secretively dispatching it to their parched and dying planet.
Deepening the mystery, the aliens have either intimidated or brainwashed everyone who found out, to make sure this ultimate ‘resource grab’ continues. That explains the recent severe droughts – and the spate of UFO sightings.
Alright, I just made it up – and it’s not even original. I simply adapted a theme very common in science fiction.
But trust me, if I said this on local TV with a straight face, at least half my audience would probably believe every word. Some might even panic…
I draw from the Global Status Report on Road Safety 2013, released by WHO in mid March 2013, for this week’s Ravaya column (in Sinhala). I discuss how the attitudes of Lankan road users — pedestrians, cyclists and motorists — contribute to road traffic accidents.
The challenge of reducing Sri Lanka’s alarmingly high rate of road accidents needs technocratic, sociological and attitudinal responses. This isn’t simply a law and order issue, or one that can be fixed by traffic engineering.
Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday newspaper on 24 March 2013
When it comes to collectively and rationally managing our freshwater, many Lankans seem to suspend their good judgement. Any passing conspiracy theory, no matter how far-fetched or implausible, is uncritically accepted and readily passed around.
Why do some people get so ‘drunk’ on water? Sure, everyone is entitled to their own opinions (and fantasies). But not to their own facts. When myths and paranoia shape activist agendas and influence (or inhibit) public policies, things go wrong.
As we marked another World Water Day this week (March 22), I wondered how we can seek greater clarity in these muddied waters.
Sri Lanka isn’t yet classified as a country with water scarcity by global definitions – at least when cumulative national values are taken. But there are local disparities in how freshwater is distributed.
In this week’s Ravaya Sunday newspaper column (in Sinhala), I’ve written a tribute to Dr Carlo Fonseka, Emeritus Professor of Physiology at the University of Colombo, rationalist and public intellectual, who turned 80 earlier this month.
Asanga Abeysundara was my zoology teacher as well as my earliest editor-publisher. For several years in the 1980s, he edited and published (in properly printed form) a progressive science magazine in Sinhala named Maanawa (meaning ‘human’).
This non-profit publication, started in 1978 as a wall newspaper at the University of Colombo by its founder when he was an undergraduate there, later evolved into a magazine with a small circulation and loyal readership.
It was a platform for aspiring young writers – many of them in school or university at the time – to write about science, technology and their impact on society. As part of the editorial team, I remember we covered big issues like the origins of life, cost-benefits of space exploration, HIV/AIDS and human evolution.
Maanawa was entirely a labour of love: everybody, including the editor, worked for free. But printers and distributors charged for their services, which the limited sales couldn’t recover. So, despite passion and voluntary editorial inputs, the magazine stopped printing after sometime.
Yet, showing resilience and innovation, Maanawa became the first Sinhala publication to produce an Internet edition in 1996 — the year after commercial connectivity was introduced in Sri Lanka. The web edition, which played a pioneering role, is no longer online.
But this modest yet spirited publication had lasting influence on Sri Lanka’s science communication scene. Many writers who cut their teeth at Maanawa later joined Vidusara, a weekly science magazine launched by a commercial publisher in late 1987.
Others, like Chanuka Wattegama and myself, went in different directions — but are still active in science communication in one way or another.
In December 2012, I invited Asanga as a guest of honour to the launch of my Sinhala book, Mind Journeys with Arthur C Clarke. Chanuka, who wrote the introduction to the book, was a speaker (along with Dr Rohan Samarajiva).
I’m delighted to read Asanga write a review of the book, which appears in Vidusara issue of 20 March 2013:
The writer is Sunil Mihindukula, a senior journalist who is best known for his writing on the performing arts, especially cinema. But Sunil has broad interests, and is a rare open-minded and skeptical person among Sinhala language journalists many of who are ‘true believers’ of assorted dogmas.
Sunil places my book in the context of rationalism and critical thinking that is so lacking in today’s Sri Lanka. Here’s an excerpt:
“You lay crushed
Under twisted metal.
I held you, stunned
until someone in the crowd shouted
At the hospital
they asked my name, told me to stop weeping
And take charge
… of your jewellery.”
Thus opens a deeply moving poem by Vivimarie VanderPoorten. She wrote it in memory of her best friend who died in a car crash.
That human tragedy repeats, with increasing frequency and ferocity, on our roads everyday. Most of us have had the harrowing experience of a family member or friend being killed in a road accident. Aggregated statistics can never capture that grief.
“I listened to one of our leaders talk about the statistics, and I just lacked the power to tell…
Feature article published in Ceylon Today broadsheet newspaper on 14 March 2013.
The Coming Pesticide Tsunami: Made in China?
By Nalaka Gunawardene
Countries in Asia and Africa are threatened by a ‘Pesticide Tsunami’ that can seriously affect people’s health and the environment, a leading Asian entomologist warns.
Many developing countries that lack laws and regulations for pesticide marketing are vulnerable to ‘South-South dumping’ of highly hazardous agrochemicals coming from elsewhere in the developing world itself.
In recent years, China has become the world’s largest producer of pesticides, with most of its output being exported to developing countries, says Dr Kong Luen “K.L.” Heong, Principal Scientist at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), in Los Banos, the Philippines.
Dr Heong has been researching insect ecology in Asian paddy fields for decades. He is a leading advocate of integrated pest management (IPM) and sustainable agriculture that seeks to reduce current high dependence on agrochemicals in farming.
“Unless developing countries develop mechanisms to protect themselves, the coming Pesticide Tsunami is going to hit them hard. We urgently need to build self-protection at country level,” he said at a regional workshop of science and environmental communicators held recently in Bangkok, Thailand.
Dr Heong called for developing country governments to play a stronger governance role “to ensure quality information and pesticide prescriptions for farmers”.
In that time, however, China’s domestic use of pesticides showed only a modest increase. That means much of the surplus was exported.
“It goes to countries that have lesser controls. It will not go to Australia, or Europe, or the United States for sure. Where else would it go? The developing world,” Dr Heong said in an interview.
Statistics maintained by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), which collates national data received from member governments, show that pesticide imports into developing countries have escalated during the past few years.
According to this database (available at: http://faostat.fao.org) Sri Lanka imported pesticides worth a total of USD 60.15 million in 2011. The figure for the previous year, 2010, was USD 47 million, i.e. an increase of over 20%. (Import quantities are not shown.)
For decades, health and environmental activists have accused western multinational companies of ‘dumping’ hazardous pesticides in the developing world when, in fact, many such substances are banned in their own countries.
During the past decade, however, countries like China and India have also begun exporting their pesticides to the rest of the developing world. Some of these are no longer allowed use within their countries. (See box below: China’s Rising Toxic Exports).
“We are not (sufficiently) well aware of South-South dumping,” Dr Heong said. “We in Southeast Asia know this now. (But) what about Africa? There is a mechanism that dominates pesticide sales there, and it is worrying.”
In 2001, an international treaty called the Stockholm Convention was adopted to eliminate or restrict the production and use of persistent organic pollutants (POPs). These chemical substances, once widely used in pesticides, run off from farmlands and slowly build up through food chains, threatening human health and the environment.
The Stockholm Convention, and the related Rotterdam Convention for Prior-Informed Consent, both came into force in 2004. The latter provides a first line of defence giving importing countries the tools and information they need to identify the potential hazards and to exclude chemicals they cannot manage safely.
Dr Heong emphasized the critical role of governance in strengthening defences against the pesticide tsunami: sound policies, adequate national laws and regulations, and their proper enforcement.
“We cannot control exports by another country. But we can all control imports into our own countries. It’s all about individual countries acting in their own defence,” he said.
He added: “This is deadly poison we are talking about! I feel strongly that the poison should not be sold like toothpaste in the open market. And that is the key: governments should either revive their laws or implement the laws (for effective regulation)”.
He emphasized the need for structural transformation in policy and governance — which he likened to the ‘roof’ of the ‘house’ of agricultural production and consumption.
“We spend a lot of money training our farmers; we spend even more money researching ecological engineering, new (plant) varieties and so on. These are like the furniture, and very nice furniture. But because they are placed in a ‘house without a roof’, they just get washed away. So building a roof is vital,” he explained.
In his view, registering importers of agrochemicals and licensing wholesale traders is necessary – but not sufficient. Toxic agrochemicals are currently being peddled to farmers mostly by untrained salespersons and vendors – they have no certification, and operate without much (or any) supervision and accountability.
“Most subsistence rice farmers across Asia simply ask their nearest local vendor for crop protection advice – and the vendors, in turn, promote whatever they have in stock, or whichever brand that gives them the highest profit margins,” Dr Heong said.
He wants to see developing countries introduce regulatory and certification systems similar to how pharmaceutical drugs are imported and distributed. The medical and healthcare professionals have their own certification schemes to ensure compliance with laws and regulations.
“We are dealing with a profession, and we are dealing with poison! Why are we not having a certification programme (for those peddling it to end users)?” Dr Heong asked.
Malaysian-born K L Heong holds a PhD and DSc from Imperial College, London. Besides insect ecology, he has also studied the sociology of farmers’ decision making, and designed communication strategies for educating farmers on sustainable agriculture.
His research and campaigns have changed rice farmers’ attitudes and practices in plant protection in many countries. For example, his work in Vietnam contributed to farmers more than halving their insecticide use in several provinces in the Mekong Delta; similar reductions were also recorded when his work extended to Central Thailand and Northern Vietnam.
Dr Heong is a leading voice interviewed in ‘Hopper Race’, a new documentary film produced by TVE Japan looking at rice planthopper threats to rice production in Asia. The Bangkok workshop was held to plan the documentary’s distribution across South and Southeast Asia.
China’s domination in the world pesticides trade is borne out by global statistics compiled by the UN’s FAO, and confirmed by independent researchers.
Writing a paper in the Proceedings of the International Academy of Ecology and Environmental Sciences in 2011, researchers Wen Jung Zhang, Fu Bing Jiang and Jiang Feng Ou say China is now the largest producer and exporter, and the second largest consumer of pesticides in the world.
The researchers, attached to the School of Life Sciences at Sun Yet-sen University in Guangzhou, note: “Since 1983, China has increased the production of organophosphorus and carbamated pesticides. Meanwhile, pyrethroid and other pesticides were developed. Since 1994, pesticide export of China has exceeded its imports.
“So far, more than 2,000 pesticide companies, of which more than 400 companies are manufacturers of original pesticides; more than 300 varieties of original pesticides and 3,000 preparations are being manufactured…”
They add: “Pesticide pollution of air, water bodies and soils, and pesticide induced deaths in China has been serious” in recent years.
They say China has banned the use of high-residual HCH, DDT and other organochlorined pesticides since 1983. And since 2007, several highly poisonous organophosphorous pesticides (namely, parathionmethyl, parathion, methamidophos, and phosphamidon) are also banned.
What is not clear is if similar considerations are applied to pesticides that China exports to other developing countries.
Their full paper, “Global pesticide consumption and pollution: with China as a focus” is online at: http://tiny.cc/PestC
Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday newspaper on 10 March 2013
The prevailing big match fervour raises the question: why is the quintessentially English game of cricket our de facto national sport? How did a one-time colonial and elitist pursuit evolve into a national obsession, a rare common denominator in a land that has so few?
Cricket didn’t achieve this status automatically (the game was played on the island from the early part of the 19th century). It wasn’t any politician’s diktat or some committee’s recommendation that took cricket beyond urban and English speaking sections of Lankan society.
It was the power of radio: broadcasts of cricket commentaries in Sinhala (and later, in Tamil).