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.
Beginning in the 1990s, thousands of people in Sri Lanka’s Dry Zone – heartland of its rice farming — developed kidney failure without having diabetes or high blood pressure, the common causative factors. Most affected were men aged 30 to 60 years, who worked as farmers. As numbers rose, puzzled doctors and other scientists started probing possible causes for what is now named Chronic Kidney Disease of unknown etiology (abbreviated as CKDu).
CKDu has become a fully-fledged public health crisis and humanitarian emergency, affecting thousands of people and their families – most of them subsistence farmers. Investigating causes of this ailment — still not pinned down to a specific cause or factor — has proven difficult. While scientists follow rigorous scientific methods, some ultra-nationalists and opportunistic politicians are trying to hijack the issue for their own agenda setting.
Sadly, some journalists and media outlets have added fuel to the fire with sensationalist reporting and unwarranted fear-mongering. For several years, I have documented the kind of misinformation, myths and pseudo-science uncritically peddled by Lankan media on CKDu.
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. In December 2015, 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.
Each time I see a Finance Minister struggling to deliver annual budget speeches, I remember Ronnie de Mel.
President J R Jayewardene’s Finance Minister from 1977 to 1988 was one of the most colourful and articulate persons to have held that portfolio. Ronnie was instrumental in creating the free market economy, ending years of socialist misadventures in the early 1970s.
Ronnie, now a nonagenarian, still keeps an eye on the transformative reforms he initiated. In a recent media interview (The Nation, 24 Sep 2016), he recalled the big challenges his government had faced in explaining to the people about the benefits of an open economy.
“The whole country…had all got so used to a closed economy that it was rather difficult to convince them that an open economy with certain restrictions would be better for Sri Lanka than the closed economy which had been in existence for a long period and was strongly supported by the leftist parties and by a powerful section of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party,” he said.
The hardest part, according to Ronnie, had been to get the media to support those reforms. “In fact, it took a long time to convince the press that the open economy would be better for Sri Lanka than the closed economy. As has always to be emphasized, it had to be an open economy which would safeguard the poor.”
JR and Ronnie set in motion economic reforms that have since been sustained by successive governments, sometimes with minor modifications. We will soon be completing four full decades under free market policies.
Yet the market still seems a dirty word for some Lankans, especially those in their middle or advanced ages. Their mistrust of the country’s economic system occasionally rubs off on the younger generation too, as evidenced by university students’ political slogans.
There is a pervasive notion in our society that businesses are intrinsically damaging and exploitative. I attribute this to ‘residual socialism’: we have plenty of frustrated socialists who grudge the current system, even though they often benefit from it personally.
So we pursue free market economics only half-heartedly. We were never a communist state but we seem to be more ‘red’ than Marx, Lenin and Mao combined.
In other words, many among us have closed their minds about the open economy.
Yes, it’s a free country and everyone is entitled to own myths, beliefs and nostalgic fantasies. But collectively harking back to the bad old days – and romanticising them – does not help anyone, and can distort policy choices. Protectionism and monopolies can thrive in such a setting.
Anti-market attitudes also feed public apprehensions about entrepreneurship in general, and against certain economic sectors in particular.
Take, for example, the tourist industry. Half a century has passed since Sri Lanka adopted policies of tourism development and promotion, but large sections of society still harbour misgivings about it.
A few years ago, I helped organise an environmental education programme for school children in the Negombo area. A leading hotel chain which originated from that city provided the venue and catering for free. Yet some accompanying teachers were rather uneasy over our venue choice: for them, all tourist hotels seemed to be ‘dens of vice’.
This perception, reinforced by prejudiced commentary in Sinhala language newspapers, extends to other sections of the leisure industry such as spas. I recently heard how a Lankan spa chain struggles to recruit female therapists. Because spas are demonised by media and society, few women apply despite the competitive salaries.
Societal prejudices might also be one reason why the country’s 12 industrial zones, administered by the Board of Investment (BOI), are struggling to fill some 200,000 vacancies from the domestic labour market. Many youth would much rather drive three-wheelers instead of working in factories. There are no sociological insights as yet on why they frown upon such work.
To be sure, there are unscrupulous businessmen who cynically exploit our country’s poor governance and weak regulation. There are also some schemers and confidence tricksters. But our anti-biz media would make us believe that all entrepreneurs are corrupt and untrustworthy.
Study any Sinhala daily for about a week, and we are bound to find several headlines or news reports using the phrase Kotipathi Viyaparikaya (multi-millionaire businessman). In the peculiar worldview of Sinhala journalists, every businessman is a kotipathiya, and is usually presumed guilty until proven innocent! Often a Roomath Kanthawa (pretty woman) is linked to the businessman, suggesting some scandal.
Tele drama makers love to portray businessmen as villains. Newspaper editorials frequently highlight unethical biz practices, condemning all businesspersons in the process. Bankers and telecom operators get more than their fair share of bashing in letters to the editor.
And even our usually perceptive cartoonists caricaturise entrepreneurs almost always negatively – either as pot-bellied black market mudalalis, or as bulging men in black suits and dark glasses, complete with a sinister smile. These images influence how society thinks of business.
So what is to be done?
Teaching business and commerce in schools is useful — but totally insufficient to create a nation of entrepreneurs and a business friendly public. Corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities can help soften society’s harsh judgement of business and enterprise. But that too needs a careful balancing act, as a lot of CSR is self-serving or guilt-assuaging and not particularly addressing the real community needs.
More ethically driven businesses and less ostentatious biz conduct would go a long way in winning public trust. As would more sensitive and thoughtful brand promotion.
The biggest challenge now, as it was to Ronnie a generation ago, is to nurture a media that appreciates and critically cheers entrepreneurship.
Paradoxically, media’s own revenues rely critically on advertising from other businesses. No, we are not asking media to compromise their editorial independence under advertiser pressure. But simply toning down media’s rampant and ill-founded prejudices against entrepreneurship would be progress.
The open economy’s legacy must be rigorously debated, and the policy framework needs periodic review. Let’s hope that it can be done with more open minds.
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.
What does Donald Trump’s election as the next President of the United States mean for action to contain climate change?
The billionaire non-politician — who lost the popular vote by more than a million votes but won the presidency on the basis of the electoral college — has long questioned the science underlying climate change.
He also sees political and other motives in climate action. For example, he tweeted on 6 November 2012: “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”
His vice president, Indiana governor Mike Pence, also does not believe that climate change is caused by human activity.
Does this spell doom for the world’s governments trying to avoid the worst case scenarios in global warming, now widely accepted by scientists as driven by human activity – especially the burning of petroleum and coal?
It is just too early to tell, but the early signs are not promising.
“Trump should drop his pantomime-villain act on climate change. If he does not, then, come January, he will be the only world leader who fails to acknowledge the threat for what it is: urgent, serious and demanding of mature and reasoned debate and action,” said the scientific journal Nature in an editorial on 16 November 2016.
It added: “The world has made its decision on climate change. Action is too slow and too weak, but momentum is building. Opportunities and fortunes are being made. Trump the businessman must realize that the logical response is not to cry hoax and turn his back. The politician in Trump should do what he promised: reject political orthodoxy and listen to the US people.”
It was only on 4 November 2016 that the Paris climate agreement came into force. This is the first time that nearly 200 governments have agreed on legally binding limits to emissions that cause global warming.
All governments that have ratified the accord — which includes the US, China, India and the EU — carry an obligation to contain global warming to no more than 2 degrees Centigrade above pre-industrial levels. Scientists regard that as the safe limit, beyond which climate change is likely to be both catastrophic and irreversible.
“Will a Trump presidency revoke the ratification of the Paris Agreement? Even if he is not able to revoke it because of international pressure…he will dumb down the US action on climate change. Which means that international collaboration being built around the Paris Agreement will suffer,” he said in a video published on YouTube (see: https://goo.gl/r6KGip)
“If the US is not going to take ambitious actions on climate change, I don’t think India or Chine will take ambitious actions either. We are therefore looking at a presidency which is going to push climate action around the world down the barrel,” he added.
During his campaign, Trump advocated “energy independence” for the United States (which meant reducing or eliminating the reliance on Middle Eastern oil). But he has been critical of subsidies for solar and wind power, and threatened to end regulations that sought to end the expansion of petroleum and coal use. In other words, he would likely encourage dig more and more domestically for oil.
“Trump doesn’t believe that renewable energy is an important part of the energy future for the world,” says Chandra Bhushan. “He believes that climate change is a conspiracy against the United States…So we are going to deal with a US presidency which is extremely anti-climate.”
Bhushan says Trump can revoke far more easily domestic laws like the Clean Power Plan that President Obama initiated in 2015. It set a national limit on carbon pollution produced from power plants.
“Therefore, whatever (positive) action that we thought was going to happen in the US are in jeopardy. We just have to watch and ensure that, even when an anti-climate administration takes over, we do not allow things to slide down (at global level action),” Bhushan says.
Some science advocates caution against a rush to judgement about how the Trump administration will approach science in general, and climate action in particular.
Nature’s editorial noted: “There is a huge difference between campaigning and governing…It is impossible to know what direction the United States will take under Trump’s stewardship, not least because his campaign was inconsistent, contradictory and so full of falsehood and evasion.”
We can only hope that Trump’s business pragmatism would prevail over climate action. As the Anglo-French environmental activist Edward Goldsmith said years ago, there can be no trade on a dead planet.
On 19 October 2016, I spoke on climate change communications to a group of Asian journalists and other communicators at a workshop organized by Sri Lanka Youth Climate Action Network (SLYCAN). It was held at BMICH, Colombo’s leading conventions venue.
I recalled what I had written in April 2014, “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 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.”
I argued that we must move away from disaster-driven climate communications of doom and gloom. Instead, focus on climate resilience and practical solutions to achieving it.
We also need to link climate action to what matters most to the average person:
Cheaper energy (economic benefits)
Cleaner air (health benefits)
Staying alive (public safety benefits)
I offered three broad tips for climate communicators and journalists:
Don’t peddle fear: We’ve had enough of doom & gloom! Talk of more than just disasters and destruction.
Look beyond CO2, which is responsible for only about half of global warming. Don’t forget the other half – which includes some shortlived climate pollutants which are easier to tackle such action is less contentious than CO2.
Focus on local level impacts & responses: most people don’t care about UNFCCC or COPs or other acronyms at global level!
Finally, I shared my own triple-S formula for covering climate related stories:
Informed by credible Science (but not immersed in it!)
Tell authentic and compelling journalistic Stories…
…in Simple (but not simplistic) ways (using a mix of non-technical words, images, infographics, audio, video, interactive media)
Poor venue logistics at BMICH prevented me from sharing the presentation I had prepared. So here it is:
“For me as an editor, there is a compelling case for engaging with poverty. Increasing education and literacy is related to increasing the size of my readership. Our main audiences are indeed drawn from the middle classes, business and policymakers. But these groups cannot live in isolation. The welfare of the many is in the interests of the people who read the Daily Star.”
So says Mahfuz Anam, Editor and Publisher of The Daily Star newspaper in Bangladesh. I quoted him in my presentation to the orientation workshop for Media Fellows on Poverty and Development, held in Colombo on 24 September 2016.
Alas, many media gatekeepers in Sri Lanka and across South Asia don’t share Anam’s broad view. I can still remember talking to a Singaporean manager of one of Sri Lanka’s first private TV stations in the late 1990s. He was interested in international development related TV content, he told me, “but not depressing and miserable stuff about poverty – our viewers don’t want that!”
Most media, in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, have narrowly defined poverty negatively. Those media that occasionally allows some coverage of poverty mostly skim a few selected issues, doing fleeting reporting on obvious topics like street children, beggars or poverty reduction assistance from the government. The complexity of poverty and under-development is hardly investigated or captured in the media.
Even when an exceptional journalist ventures into exploring these issues in some depth and detail, their media products also often inadvertently contain society’s widespread stereotyping on poverty and inequality. For example:
Black and white images are used when colour is easily available (as if the poor live in B&W).
Focus is mostly or entirely on the rural poor (never mind many poor people now live in cities and towns).
Under this, 20 competitively selected journalists – drawn from print, broadcast and web media outlets in Sinhala, Tamil and English languages – are to be given a better understanding of the many dimensions of poverty.
These Media Fellows will have the opportunity to research and produce a story of their choice in depth and detail, but on the understanding that their media outlet will carry their story. Along the way, they will benefit from face-to-face interactions with senior journalists and development researchers, and also receive a grant to cover their field visit costs.
I am part of the five member expert panel guiding these Media Fellows. Others on the panel are senior journalist and political commentator Kusal Perera; Chief Editor of Daily Express newspaper Hana Ibrahim; Chief Editor of Echelon biz magazine Shamindra Kulamannage; and Consultant Editor of Sudar Oli newspaper, Arun Arokianathan.
At the orientation workshop, Shamindra Kulamannage and I both made presentations on media coverage of poverty. Mine was a broad-sweep exploration of the topic, with many examples and insights from having been in media and development spheres for over 25 years.
Sri Lanka’s first Science and Technology for Society (STS) Forum took 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.
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 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.
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.
I argue that 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.
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.”
The South-East Asia Region of the World Health Organization (WHO-SEARO) held its 69th Regional Committee meeting in Colombo from 5 to 9 September 2016. The meeting of 15 ministers of health from the region took a close look at Sri Lanka’s public health system – which has been able to provide substantial value over the decades.
Yet, the public health system rares gets the credit it deserves: the media and citizens alike often highlight its shortcomings without acknowledging what it delivers, year after year.
In this week’s Ravaya column (in Sinhala, appearing in the print issue of 4 Sep 2016), I salute the public health system of Sri Lanka that has accomplished much amidst various challenges.
Sri Lanka’s public hospitals and related field programmes – like public health inspectors, family health workers and specific disease control efforts — provide a broad range of preventive and curative services. In most cases, these are provided free to recipients, irrespective of their ability to pay.
This is sustained by taxes: Sri Lanka’s public health sector annually receives allocations equal to around 2% of the country’s GDP.
I quote from the recently released Sri Lanka National Health Accounts (2013) report. Its data analysis shows that the Government of Sri Lanka accounts for 55% of the total health care provision of the country. Considering all financial sources (public and private), the per capita current health expenditure of Sri Lanka in 2013 amounted to LKR 12,636 (97.2 US$).