We as a nation collectively uttered these words as we raised our heads after the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004. That mega-disaster, which caught our government unawares and society unprepared, devastated many coastal areas, killing around 40,000 and displacing over a million people.
Even a 30 minute early warning could have saved many of those lost lives, by simply asking them to run inland, away from the waves. But there was no such warning.
Badly shaken by that experience, the then government reformed disaster related laws and institutions. Until then, dealing with disaster response was lumped under social services. The new system created a dedicated ministry for disaster management, with emphasis on disaster risk reduction (DRR).
Living amidst multiple hazards is unavoidable, but preparedness can vastly reduce impacts when disasters do occur. That is DRR in a nutshell.
But in immature democracies like ours, we must never say never again. Our political parties and politicians lack the will and commitment required to meet these long-term objectives. Our governance systems are not fully capable of keeping ourselves safe from Nature’s wrath.
Disaster resilience is not a technocratic quick fix but the composite outcome of a myriad actions. Good governance is the vital ‘lubricant’ that makes everything come together and work well. Without governance, we risk slipping back into business as usual, continuing our apathy, greed and short-termism.
This big picture level reality could well be why disaster response has been patchy and uncoordinated in both May 2016 and last week.
As the flood waters recede in affected parts of Sri Lanka, familiar questions are being asked again. Did the government’s disaster management machinery fail to warn the communities at risk? Or were the hazard warnings issued but poorly communicated? And once disaster occurred, could the relief response have been better handled? Are we making enough use of technological tools?
DRR is easier said than done in the best of times, and in recent years human-made climate change has made it much harder. Global warming is disrupting familiar weather patterns and causing more frequent and intense weather. What used to be weather extremes occurring once in 25 or 50 years in the past now happens every few years.
The UN’s climate panel (IPCC) says that global average temperatures could rise by somewhere between 2 degree and 6 degrees Centigrade by 2100. This would trigger many disruptions, including erratic monsoons, the seasonal oceanic winds that deliver most of our annual rains.
That is more than two thirds of the total number of 646,500 people affected by floods and landslides in the South, as counted on June 1. But slowly-unfolding droughts never get the kind of press that floods inspire.
One thing is clear: disaster management can succeed today only if climate realities are factored in. And coping with climate change’s now inevitable impacts, a process known as climate adaptation, requires technical knowledge combined with proper governance of both natural resources and human systems.
Adapt or Perish
Sri Lanka joined the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992. But 25 years on, climate considerations are not fully factored into our development planning and public investments. State agencies in charge of roads, railways, irrigation works and utilities don’t appear to realise the need to ‘insure’ their installations and operations from climate impacts.
Climate adaptation is not something that the disaster ministry and DMC alone can accomplish. It needs to be a common factor that runs across the entire government, from agriculture and health to power and transport. It needs to be the bedrock of DRR.
On 27 April 2017, I addressed a press conference at the Department of Government Information, Colombo, as a citizen concerned about waste management in Sri Lanka. I was joined by Ven Hadigalle Wimalarasa thero and Hemantha Withanage, Executive Director of Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) Sri Lanka, an advocacy group.
One of my favourite cartoons on energy was drawn by Australian cartoonist Ron Tandberg. It shows two men standing on a bare land and looking intently at the ground. Says one to the other: “There must be a source of energy down there!”
Overhead, meanwhile, the sun looms large and blazes away…
For too long, despite living on a tropical island, most of us have looked everywhere for our energy needs — except skywards. Is that about to change? Is the government’s new solar power drive likely to be a game changer?
Plugging to the sun is not entirely new: Sri Lanka has taken an interest in solar photovoltaic (PV) technology for over 40 years. The earliest PVs – which can turn sunlight into electricity — were installed in the village of Pattiyapola, in the Southern Province, where the United Nations set up a rural energy demonstration centre in 1975.
Those early prototypes had many problems which were fixed within a few years. By the mid-1980s, small, stand-alone solar PV units came on the market. This time, it was private companies that promoted these while the government’s power utility (CEB) was mildly interested.
In the late 1980s, three entrepreneurs – Lalith Gunaratne, Viren Perera and Pradip Jayewardene – pioneered local assembling and marketing of solar PVs. Their company, initially called Power & Sun (Pvt) Ltd, offered simple, easy-to-use solar units for rural homes that were not yet connected to the grid.
Branded as SUNTEC, their basic solar unit could power five light bulbs plus a radio and a (black and white) TV set. The introductory price in 1988 was LKR 7,000 (bulbs and battery cost extra). At the time, two thirds of all households did not have electricity so this generated much interest.
Power & Sun not only sold domestic solar units, but also ran rural workshops that trained youth on the basics of solar energy and equipment maintenance. By reaching out to the grassroots through innovative marketing schemes and tech support, the SUNTEC team ushered in a quiet revolution.
They not only provided clean, safe and cheap energy to rural homes but in that process, also raised people’s aspirations. They were no longer beholden to politicians with promises of ‘gamata light’ (electricity for the village), a common but often unfulfilled promise. (Read full Suntec story at: http://tiny.cc/SunTec)
During the 1990s, other companies — and non-profits such as Sarvodaya and SoLanka — entered the domestic solar market. The World Bank came up with a credit mechanism for solar units through SEEDS, the economic arm of Sarvodaya. Thanks to these efforts, over 100,000 homes adopted solar PV within a dozen years.
“The establishment of community-based solar photovoltaic programmes by non-governmental organizations…has developed a novel approach to bridge the gap between this state-of-the-art technology and the remotely located end-users,” wrote Lalith Gunaratne, a pioneer in off-grid domestic solar power, in 1994.
But the early appeal of solar PV diminished as rural electrification intensified. In some areas, families who had taken loans for their solar PVs defaulted repayment after the grid reached them. Sarvodaya, for example, was left with lots of half-paid loans and second hand solar units.
Nonetheless, that first phase of solar energy promotion holds valuable lessons still relevant today. For example, it’s not simply a matter of promoting PV technology but providing a package of training, maintenance support and on-going engagement with solar consumers.
While off-grid solar PV can still offer energy solutions to specific, isolated locations, a second solar revolution is urgently needed in cities and towns. It is the higher consuming homes, offices and other buildings that most drive the electricity demand which keeps rising by about 9% each year.
Bulk of the country’s electricity is generated using large scale hydro or thermal power plants (burning either oil or coal). The ratios vary from year to year according to data tracked by the regulator, the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL). In a year of good rainfall, such as 2013, 50% of all electricity was generated using hydro, and another 9.85% through non-conventional renewables (NCR) like mini-hydro, wind, biomass and solar. Less than half came from thermal plants.
But in 2014, the last year for which PUCSL data has been released, hydro’s share dropped to 29.4% and NCR share remained about the same. The balance (over 60%) was generated by CEB’s oil or coal plants, complemented by private power producers burning oil.
The fuel bill weighs heavily on the country’s already overburdened budget. Low petroleum prices since 2014 have helped, but that is not a bankable option in the long term.
“Sri Lanka annually imports 2 MMT of crude oil, 4 MMT of refined petroleum products and 2.25 MMT of coal. This costs approximately 5 billion USD and covers 44% of the energy requirements. It also accounts to 25% of the import expenditure and almost 50% of the total export income,” wrote Chatura Rodrigo, research economist with the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) in August 2015. (Petroleum also supports the transport sector that relies almost totally on this fuel source.)
Burning petroleum and coal also contributes to global warming and causes local air pollution – more reasons for phasing them down.
For all these reasons, scaling up NCR’s share of electricity generation mix is thus receiving more attention. This can happen at both power plant level (e.g. with wind power plants that could tap an estimated 400MW potential in Mannar), and also at household levels.
Decentralised solar power
Encouraging consumers to self-generate part of their electricity from renewables received a boost in 2009 with the introduction in net metering. This allows private individuals or companies to supply their surplus power – usually generated by solar panels — to the national grid, for which they receive ‘credits’ or rebates from the monthly bill. A two-way electricity meter enables this process.
During the past few years, hundreds of households and businesses have vastly reduced their electricity bills through this method. However, this made economic sense only to high end electricity users as the initial investment remained high.
The new solar energy drive, announced in August 2016, intends to change this. Known as “Soorya Bala Sangramaya” (Battle for Solar Energy), it is expected to make at least 20% of electricity consumers to also generate electricity using solar panels – they will be able to sell their excess to the national grid under a guaranteed tariff.
The new scheme will introduce two new concepts, viz:
Net Accounting, where a consumer will get paid in money if her solar-generated power is greater than what is consumed from the grid. Tariff is set at LKR 22 per unit (1 kilo Watt hour) for the first 7 years, and at LKR 15.50 thereafter.
Net Plus, where there is no link between how much electricity the consumer users from the grid (for which billing will happen), and how much of solar-generated electricity is supplied to the grid (which will be paid in full at the above rates).
The government’s plan is to add 220 MW of clean power from NCR to the country’s energy grid by 2020, which is about 10% of the country’s current daily electricity demand. Another 1,000 MW is to be added by 2025.
The solar PV technology market will be left to multiple private sector suppliers. In a recent TV talk show, deputy minister of power Ajith C Perera said national standards would soon be set for solar panels and associated technology.
Currently, installing 1 kWh of solar generation capacity costs around LKR 200,000. Investing this much upfront will only make sense for those consuming 200 kWh or more. Under the current, multi-tier tariff system, those consuming up to 30 units of electricity a month pay LKR 7.85 per unit while those above 180 units have to pay LKR 45 per unit.
How much and how fast Soorya Bala Sangramaya can energise the solar PV market remains to be seen. The Ministry of Power is talking to banks to encourage easy credit. PUCSL will need to monitor these trends to ensure consumers’ interests are safeguarded.
Promising as they are, renewables are not a panacea for all energy our needs. Some limitations apply, such as cloudy days that reduce sunshine and dips in wind blowing. Their contribution to the grid needs to be balanced by power from more conventional sources. At least until storage systems get better.
“Renewables have an important role in any developing country energy mix as a part of the national energy supply security strategies,” says Lalith Gunaratne. “Yet, thermal energy technologies like oil, coal and gas will not go away in a hurry. Most of them, unless we have large hydro, will provide base load power from large centralised stations for two or three more decades.”
The energy sector can become a sink for large volumes of public and private funds — unless there is an effective regulatory process.
Climate change COP21 in December 2015 adopted the Paris Agreement to avoid, mitigate and adapt to climate change. Among many other solutions, Sri Lanka’s “intended nationally determined contribution” (INDC) has agreed to reduce 7% emissions from energy and transport and 23% conditional reductions by 2030.
Sri Lanka’s Centre for Environmental Justice in collaboration with the government’s Climate Change Secretariat, UNDP and Janathakshan held a national conference on “SRI LANKA’S READINESS FOR IMPLEMENTING PARIS CLIMATE AGREEMENT” on 7 and 8 September 2016 in Colombo. It was attended by over 200 representatives from government, civil society and corporate sectors.
I was asked to speak in Session 5: Climate Solutions, on “Climate communication and Behaviour changes”. This is a summary of what I said, and the PowerPoint presentation used.
As climate change impacts are felt more widely, the imperative for action is greater than ever. Telling the climate story in accurate and accessible ways should be an essential part of our climate response.
That response is currently organised around two ‘planks’: mitigation and adaptation. Climate communication can be the ‘third plank’ that strengthens the first two.
Encouragingly, more journalists, broadcasters, researchers and advocacy groups are taking up this challenge. They urgently need more media and public spaces — as well as greater resources — to sustain public engagement.
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which Sri Lanka has signed and ratified, recognizes the importance of IEC. It calls for “improving awareness and understanding of climate change, and creating solutions to facilitate access to information on a changing climate” to winning public support for climate related policies.
The UNFCCC, through its Article 6, and its Kyoto Protocol, through its Article 10 (e), call on governments “to educate, empower and engage all stakeholders and major groups on policies relating to climate change”.
When strategically carried out, IEC can be a powerful force for change on both the ‘supply’ and ‘demand’ sides of climate adaptation and climate related public information. In this analogy:
‘supply’ involves providing authentic, relevant and timely information to all those who need it, in languages and formats they can readily use; and
‘demand’ means inspiring more individuals and entities to look for specific knowledge and skills that can help make themselves more climate resilient.
These two sides of the equation can positively reinforce each other, contributing significantly to Sri Lanka’s fight against climate change.
To be effective, climate communication also needs to strike a balance between alarmism and complacence. We have to place climate concerns within wider development and social justice debates. We must also localise and personalise as much as possible.
Dr M Sanjayan, vice president of development and communications strategy at Conservation International, a leading advocacy group, says environmentalists and scientists have failed to build sufficient urgency for action on climate change. He feels we need new communication approaches.
The Lankan-born science communicator wrote in 2013: “By focusing on strong narratives about peoples’ lives in the present rather than the future; by keeping stories local and action-oriented (solvable); and by harnessing the power of narrative and emotion, we have a better chance to build widespread public support for solutions.”
Scientific Literacy: ‘Mind Vaccine’ Sri Lanka Urgently Needs
By Nalaka Gunawardene
Sri Lanka’s first Science and Technology for Society (STS) Forum will take place from 7 to 10 September in Colombo. Organized by the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of Science, Technology and Research, it is one of the largest gatherings of its kind to be hosted by Sri Lanka.
Modelled on Japan’s well known annual STS forums, this event will be attended by over 750 participants coming from 24 countries – among them will be local and foreign scientists, inventors, science managers, science communicators and students.
What sets STS Forums apart is that they are not merely events where scientists talk to each other. That surely will happen, but there will be many more voices and, hopefully, much broader conversations.
As a member of the content planning team for this event, my particular focus has been on the strand called “citizen science” – interpreted, in this instance, as activities that enhance the public understanding of science and technology.
Under this strand, there will be four sessions that explore: community involvement in science and research; informal science education for the 21st century; communicating science, technology and innovation; and using social media for discussing science.
At first glance, these topics don’t seem as exciting as nanotechnology, robotics and space technology that are being covered in other sessions. But I would argue that public engagement is the most decisive factor if science and technology are to play a significant role in the economic development and future prosperity of Sri Lanka.
Wanted: Mind Vaccines!
Public engagement of science goes well beyond teaching science and technology subjects in schools or universities. It is also bigger than (state or private sector driven) science centres, exhibitions or science content in the media. All these elements help, but at its most basic, what we need to promote is a way of thinking known as scientific literacy.
Scientific literacy is defined as “the knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity”.
Indeed, some basic scientific knowledge and technical skills have become essential for survival in the 21st century. But scientific literacy provides more than just utility benefits.
As Dr Neil deGrasse Tyson, American astrophysicist, cosmologist and science communicator, says, “Scientific literacy is an intellectual vaccine against the claims of charlatans who would exploit ignorance.”
Sri Lanka takes justified pride in its high literacy levels and equally high coverage of vaccination against infectious diseases. But we cannot claim to have a high level of scientific literacy.
If we did, it would not be so easy for far-fetched conspiracy theories to spread rapidly even among educated persons. For example, claims of an ‘infertility plot’ to make majority ethnic group lose its ability to reproduce. Or tales of miracle waters and ‘cosmic forces’ healing those terminally ill. Or alien spacecraft (allegedly) threatening national security…
It is customary to temporarily suspend our disbelief to enjoy films, novels and other creative art forms. But most of us don’t confuse fiction with fact, even with highly plausible scenarios.
These inconvenient questions are worth asking, if only to make us pause and think.
Half a century ago, a Kerala-born science teacher named Dr Abraham Thomas Kovoor (1898 – 1978) settled down in newly independent Ceylon. After retirement, he took to investigating so-called supernatural phenomena and paranormal practices. He found adequate physical or psychological explanations for almost all of them. In that process, he exposed many ‘god men’ who were thriving on people’s ignorance, gullibility and insecurities.
Dr Kovoor, who founded Ceylon Rationalist Association in 1960, summed it up in these words: “He who does not allow his miracles to be investigated is a crook; he who does not have the courage to investigate a miracle is gullible; and he who is prepared to believe without verification is a fool.”
Most Lankans would fall into one of these three categories – and the minority with open minds are under ‘peer pressure’ to assimilate!
Progress of science and technology since the 1960s has given us many gadgets and media tools, but the more information we have, the less we seem to be able to think for ourselves. Thus, we have broadband alongside narrow minds, a poor juxtaposition!
This has been building up for some years. In an op-ed titled ‘Can Rationalists Awaken the Sleep-walking Lankan Nation?’ published in Groundviews.org in January 2012, I wrote: “Paradoxically, we now have far more communication channels and technologies yet decidedly fewer opportunities and platforms for dispassionate public debate. Today’s Lankan society welcomes and blindly follows Malayalis who claim to know more about our personal pasts and futures than we’d ever know ourselves. And when we see how our political and business elite patronize Sai Baba, Sri Chinmoy and other gurus so uncritically, we must wonder if there is any intelligent life in Colombo…”
Not every source of mass hallucination is imported, of course. As I noted four years ago, “Sacred cows, it seems, have multiplied faster than humans in the past half century. Our cacophonous airwaves and multi-colour Sunday newspapers are bustling with an embarrassment of choice for salvation, wealth, matrimony, retribution and various other ‘quick fixes’ for this life and (imagined) next ones. Embarrassment, indeed!”
Science for All
So what is to be done?
The proliferation of smartphones and other digital tools have not necessarily opened our minds, or made us Lankans any less gullible to charlatans or zealots. This is a huge conundrum of our times.
That is because mastery over gadgets does not necessarily give us scientific literacy. It involves a rational thought process that entails questioning, observing physical reality, testing, hypothesizing, analyzing and then discussing (not always in that order).
A healthy dose of scepticism is essential to safeguard ourselves from superstitions, political claims and increasingly sophisticated – but often dishonest – product advertising. That’s what scientific literacy builds inside our minds.
Unless we make scientific literacy an integral part of everyone’s lives, ambitious state policies and programmes to modernize the nation could well be jeopardized. Progress can be undermined — or even reversed — by extremist forces of tribalism, feudalism and ultra-nationalism that thrive in a society that lacks the ability to think critically.
A sporting analogy can illustrate what is needed. Cricket is undisputedly our national passion. It is played professionally only by a handful of men (and even fewer women) who make up the national teams and pools. But most of the 21 million Lankans know enough about cricket to follow and appreciate this very English game.
Similarly, there are only a few thousand Lankans engaged in researching or teaching different branches of science and technology – they are the ‘professionals’ who do it for a living. But in today’s world, the rest of society also needs to know at least the basic concepts of science.
Giving everyone a minimum dose of scientific literacy requires a similar marshalling of forces – including civil society mobilization, media collaboration, creative innovation and social marketing.
‘Science for All’ acquires true meaning only when every citizen – irrespective of education, profession or income level – gets enough skepticism to avoid being exploited by various scams or misled by conspiracy theorists.
Are we ready to embark on this intellectual vaccination process?
Award-winning science writer Nalaka Gunawardene counts over 25 years of national and international media experience. He blogs at https://nalakagunawardene.com and is active on Twitter as @NalakaG
An experienced mountaineering duo, Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala and Johann Peries, are the first Lankans to attempt the summit of Mt. Everest in the forthcoming Spring 2016 mountaineering season.
They have both individually and as a team successfully completed some of the world’s most challenging treks in Asia, Africa and Latin America – not to mention all key peaks in Sri Lanka.
Professionally, Jayanthi is a women’s rights and gender expert while Johann is a hair and make-up designer and performing artist. They are dedicating this climb to their families, to the causes they advocate (conservation, gender equality and healthy living), and to every child, woman and man of Sri Lanka.
They plan to be part of a larger team led by International Mountain Guides (IMG), a globally renowned mountaineering company which has led several successful Mt. Everest expeditions over the past 30 years.
In this week’s Ravaya column (appearing in the print issue of 27 March 2016), I look at the history of Everest exploration and the two Lankans plans to conquer it.
See also my recent English interview with the duo:
On 16 December 2015, I was invited by Sri Lanka’s Presidential Task Force for the Prevention of Chronic Kidney Disease to speak on this topic at the NATIONAL WORKSHOP ON PREVENTION OF CHORNIC KIDNEY DISEASE held in Colombo.
Speaking to an audience of scientists, health and agriculture sector public officials and policy makers, I briefly explored the kind of misinformation, myths and pseudo-science uncritically peddled by Lankan media.
Scientists are researching widely on what causes the Chronic Kidney Disease of unknown etiology (CKDu) in Sri Lanka that affects thousands of people (mostly farm workers) and burdens the public healthcare system. As health officials and policy makers struggle with the prolonged humanitarian emergency, unprofessional and fear-mongering media coverage often adds to public confusion and fear.
As a science writer, I have long been concerned about public communication of risk in times of distress. In late 2012, speaking at an Asian science communication workshop held in Colombo, I first coined the phrase: Mass Media Failure is complicating Mass Kidney Failure.
I revisited and updated this analysis,arguing that there are many reasons for systemic media failure in Sri Lanka that has allowed ultra-nationalists and certain environmental activists to pollute the public mind with half-truths and conspiracy theories. These need media industry level reform.
Meanwhile, for improving the CKDu information flow in society, I proposed some short, medium and long term recommendations.
Sri Lanka’s 2012 Census of Population and Housing categorised only 18.2% of the Lankan population as being urban. However, that figure is highly misleading because we currently use a narrow definition.
Currently, only those living in Municipal Council (MC) or Urban Council (UC) areas are considered urban. However, some Pradeshiya Sabha areas (the next local government unit) are just as urbanised.
At the recent LBR/LBO Infrastructure Summit 2015 held in Colombo in early November, Minister of Megapolis and Western Development Champika Ranawaka took on this myth head on. He argued that Sri Lanka’s urban population share is probably as high as 48% — which is two and a half times higher than the current figure.
His concern: misconceptions such as this distort the country’s policy decisions on infrastructure planning and urban development.
The World Bank’s global lead for urban development strategies, Sumila Gulyani, who spoke during the opening session, agreed with the Minister’s contention of nearly half of Sri Lanka’s population having already become urban.
I discuss the matter in this week’s Ravaya column, (appearing in issue of 29 Nov 2015).
In their manifesto for the Parliamentary Election in August 2015, the United National Front for Good Governance talked about Megapolis. Now in office, UNFGG wants to make it happen.
The proposal is not exactly new. It first emerged over a decade ago, when Ranil Wickremesinghe was last Prime Minister. The original plan was developed by CESMA International, a part of Singapore’s state-run Housing Development Corporation (now rebranded as Surbana).
The aim was to create a large metropolitan region “expanding outwards from Colombo to Avissawella in the north and Panadura to the south”.
The revived megapolis plan would probably resemble original. And it looks set to become the Mahaweli of the new government.
Despite regime change in January 2015, we in Sri Lanka still live with corruption, technocratic arrogance and political expediency. Our rulers love to monitor private actions of citizens in the name of ‘national security’. Can megapolis or smart cities become another extension of our overbearing state?
I argue here that the new government must also learn from the decade-long misadventure of Hambantota where investments did not match local needs or people’s aspirations.
See also: My interview with Dr Ranil Senanayake (2012):
In this week’s Ravaya column, (in Sinhala, appearing in issue of 13 Sep 2015), I look at the controversy surrounding Coca Cola Sri Lanka polluting a key river in Sri Lanka on two occasions in August 2015.
The water contamination was caused when an oil tank at Coca Cola Beverages Sri Lanka Ltd in Biyagama leaked, causing effluents to enter the nearby Kelani River on 17 and 28 August 2015.
Kelani is the second longest river in Sri Lanka, and source of water that is treated and distributed to Greater Colombo and Gampaha metropolitan areas by the state owned utility, the National Water Supply and Drainage Board (NWSDB).
This oil leak aggravated chemical pollution of Kelani River, already the highest polluted water body in the country. The Water Board and state environmental regulator CEA have investigated this oil leak, but details of their findings have not been made public except for media statements.
The incident has highlighted the lack of accountability on the part of both corporate entities and state regulators. It also raised concerns about the country’s environmental monitoring capabilities (samples always have to be sent to India or Singapore for testing, delaying investigations).
High profile Coca Cola is not the only industrial polluter of water sources in Sri Lanka. For example, a diesel powered thermal power plant in Chunnakam, in Jaffna district, has been accused of polluting the groundwater in that area. Over 18,000 residents have been affected, some of who have been protesting for months. The company involved, MTD Walkers PLC, denies responsibility (whereas Coca Cola Sri Lanka belatedly accepted the blame and reportedly paid a heavy fine).