Climate Change on Water Resources in Sri Lanka

Session Report
Aasthaba Jadeja

Understanding the Nuances of Climate Change in the Indian Subcontinent: Impact and Way Forward is an Online International Monsoon School Program, a Six-Week Immersive Online Introductory Certificate Training Course from August-September 2023 by IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute. An informative and interactive panel discussion on“Climate Change on Water Resources in Sri Lanka” was held by Mr. Arjuna Seneviratna

Introduction to Climate Change in Sri Lanka

He began by providing an overview of Sri Lanka, highlighting its abundant biodiversity and rich agro-diversity, despite being a relatively small country with 103 rivers. He went on to emphasize how climate change acts as a multiplier of threats, negatively affecting the country’s biodiversity. 

Mr. Seneviratna discussed the adverse consequences of poorly planned large dams, which not only jeopardize the overall ecological balance but also pose safety risks to the population. Additionally, he touched upon the detrimental effects of flawed land policies, which reduce available land for agriculture and subsequently diminish the amount of arable land for farming. Reductionist agricultural practices were also highlighted as contributors to significant land and water pollution.

Mr. Seneviratna pointed out that inequitable value chains and business models have greatly undermined the ability of rural communities to sustain their agrarian livelihoods. Furthermore, he underscored the negative impact of tourism on Sri Lanka’s biodiversity, citing pollution and careless practices on both sides as significant factors.

The mentioned threats have had severe consequences in Sri Lanka, including an overall increase in the country’s temperature and a decrease in rainfall over the past century. The Wet Zone has become wetter, the Dry Zone has become drier, and the Intermediate Zone has disappeared. These changes have exacerbated water stress for farming communities and led to a reduction in green cover and watershed due to adverse weather conditions. Additionally, farmers have increased their greenhouse gas emissions by adopting less sustainable farming practices to sustain their livelihoods in the face of climate change. This has resulted in reduced food availability and higher food prices. 

Due to a lack of adaptation measures, many agricultural livelihoods have been abandoned, compromising climate, food, water, and environmental security simultaneously. Mr. Seneviratna pointed out that in countries like Sri Lanka, which have weak social institutions and lack constitutional guarantees, access to legislative instruments, enforcement agencies, and limited financial resources, there is a significant challenge. This has resulted in fractured communities that cannot effectively unite against challenges. To address these issues, the enforcement of community rights is crucial, with the community encompassing not only human residents but also ecosystem components such as mountains, valleys, plants, and more.

In the ongoing struggle to combat climate change, there is a stark and often contentious division between different stakeholders. On one side, we have those who prioritize environmental preservation, sustainability, and the well-being of future generations. These individuals and groups often advocate for stricter regulations, cleaner energy sources, and conservation efforts to safeguard the planet.

On the other side, we find those driven by economic interests, industrial growth, and the status quo. They may resist changes that could potentially impact their profits or require significant adjustments to established business models. This binary conflict is not limited to environmental concerns; it permeates various aspects of society. It extends to debates over wealth distribution, where the “haves” may be reluctant to adopt policies that could redistribute resources more equitably, even if it means addressing poverty and social inequality. 

It also surfaces in discussions about cultural norms and traditions versus legal frameworks, particularly when customs clash with laws designed to protect individual rights and social justice. In this context, “them” often represents institutions and individuals with a staunchly capitalist perspective, who may prioritize immediate economic gains over long-term sustainability and societal well-being. Moreover, Mr. Seneviratna’s discussion highlighted the complex challenges faced by Sri Lanka’s upper watersheds. These regions, responsible for the country’s river systems, have experienced significant changes due to large-scale dam construction. 

While the accelerated Mahaweli Program aimed to boost development, the rapid creation of dams disrupted the natural hydrology of the area. This has not only resulted in severe climate-related problems but also rendered some dams unsafe and nonfunctional due to the impacts of climate change.

As a consequence, communities reliant on these water sources for their livelihoods have been left in a precarious position, unable to utilize these vital resources for their sustenance. This situation underscores the importance of considering the long-term environmental and social consequences of development projects.

The dams constructed as part of the Mahaweli project have had detrimental consequences, including the complete destruction of highly fertile upper watershed valleys along the rivers. Unfortunately, the aging of these dams and security concerns were not addressed in line with international agreements.

Furthermore, these dams have led to the siltation of large reservoirs, resulting in a substantial reduction in water availability, up to 25-30%, due to the disruption of hydrological systems. Consequently, these areas now experience intense rainfall in a short span, causing rapid filling of the reservoirs, which poses challenges for engineers in managing the water effectively. 

Additionally, these dams have forced the relocation of communities, creating both climate and development refugees. They have disrupted stable farming livelihoods by introducing ill-suited and environmentally harmful agricultural practices.

Mining, initially banned, has been resumed due to pressure from mining companies, leading to destabilization of the geographical landscape and even causing tremors in areas surrounding these massive dams. This has resulted in significant imbalances at the Human-Environment Interface, exposing vulnerabilities for both human populations and ecosystems. 

Furthermore, these developments have fueled an increase in human-animal conflicts, eroded hope among affected communities, and triggered internal and external migration of farming populations. The application of foreign laws designed to disenfranchise communities from their rightful natural wealth has fractured societal cohesion and resulted in widespread impoverishment.

Mr. Arjuna Seneviratna places significant importance on pursuing a just transition when it comes to managing water resources and addressing climate change. His call for collective action among South Asian countries, irrespective of national boundaries, underscores the urgency of the climate crisis.

He forewarns that waiting for formal treaties or agreements to tackle climate change may prove inadequate given the potentially severe repercussions climate change will have on water resources. His concern extends to the possibility of global conflicts arising from water-related disputes, making it imperative for nations to collaborate proactively. 

Moreover, Mr. Seneviratna highlights the intricate nature of hydrosociology, characterized by its complexity, uncertainty, and ambiguity. Successfully addressing water conflicts requires a comprehensive and interdisciplinary approach, involving fields such as sociology, hydrology, anthropology, politics, and diplomacy.

This holistic perspective is necessary to develop sustainable solutions to the multifaceted challenges posed by water resource management in the face of climate change. He stresses that working strategically and thoughtfully, both regionally and nationally, is essential to navigate these intricate water-related issues. Collaborative efforts among South Asian nations are particularly crucial in resolving transnational water conflicts and addressing inequalities in water resource management.

Conclusion 

Mr. Seneviratna concludes with an emphasis on the pivotal role of women in water management, recognizing their vital contributions to harvesting, conserving, and collecting water resources. Lastly, he underscores the need for substantial improvements in Integrated Water Management Systems across all countries, a key element in effectively addressing the complex challenges posed by water resources in the context of climate change.

Acknowledgement: Aasthaba Jadeja is a research intern at IMPRI.

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