Sri Lanka, Climate Change And Its Impact On Societies – Analysis


What has until now been considered the prerogative of environmentalists is fast becoming important to those in national governance. Moreover, the inextricable link between climate variability and conflict is specifically important to a country like Sri Lanka that is seeks to consolidate the dividends that come with the ending of an armed struggle.

A recently convened round table by International Alert and the South Asia Network for Security and Climate Change explored probable governance responses to climate variability in South Asia. As the impact of climate change increasingly unfolds in South Asia and the region experiences varying degrees of insecurity, understanding the linkages between climate change, conflict and fragility has never seemed more relevant.


The second largest brackish water lake in the world, Lake Chilika has been considered a success story in ecological restoration. However, the absence of a regulatory mechanism and clear decision-making structure for the lake has resulted in community livelihoods and well-being being compromised by encroachment, inequitable distribution of lake resources and inter and intra community conflict over fishing territories.

Issues underlying community vulnerability centres on the governance of lake resources: the growing trend of powerful elites finding mechanisms within existing legal and cultural frameworks to dominate access to ecosystem resources and the establishment of inequitable power balances over historical fisher communities through rent-seeking and unfavourable credit access.


The politicisation of climate-related impacts has fuelled political conflict in riverine communities in the hills and plains of Nepal. Key conflict drivers which climate and environment change will exacerbate are political uncertainties and transition; poor resource governance and mismanagement of environment and natural resources; poor access to basic services; poor livelihood options; and corruption and misuse of resources.

A positive approach would entail specific climate-resilient livelihood options and peace opportunities such as adopting a pro-poor focus to adaptation aid by ensuring the livelihood security of poor and marginalised people.


Two districts in the Sindh province in Pakistan with traditional resource governance systems i.e. the tribal system has been unable to cope with the increased stresses of climate change resulting in conflict and crisis. Moreover, unequal distribution of power and elite capture of resources alongside the increased frequency of natural disasters has resulted in the impoverishment of resources. It was stressed that poverty is not the issue; rather it is impoverishment of resources which is the real problem.

Sri Lanka

The key issue that climate change researchers must explore in Sri Lanka is to access conflict-affected sites to assess impacts of climate change on the highly vulnerable IDP communities so as to build their resilience through resettlement which is both sensitive and responsive to climate change. This will in turn significantly and positively affect the process of reconciliation and peace-building.

Sri Lanka falls into the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) category of ‘vulnerable’ small island nations under serious threat from various climate change impacts, such as sea level rise and severe floods and droughts. These threats are considered to have significant negative consequences on various sectors within Sri Lanka.

The Sri Lankan government ratified the UNFCCC in 1993 and the Kyoto Protocol in 2002. As a party ratifying the UNFCCC, Sri Lanka is obliged to prepare periodic national communication reports. The Sri Lankan government submitted its First report to the UNFCCC in October 2000 and its Second report to the UNFCCC in October 2011.

The Second report to UNFCCC states that from the period between 1961 to 2000 an increasing trend in annual maximum temperatures with the rates up to 0.046 o C per year were recorded at many locations in Sri Lanka except at Nuwara Eliya and Ratnapura which showed decreasing trends. During the period 1961-1990, the country’s mean air temperature increased by 0.016 0C per year. It is predicted that Sri Lanka’s mean temperature may increase by about 0.9 to 4 0C by the year 2100.

Ministry of Environment

The Ministry of Environment in 2011 conducted a vulnerability mapping exercise and produced a report which uses a composite sector-specific vulnerability index by combining three indices, namely, exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity. The housing and urban development sector vulnerability to drought exposure is widespread in the island, but more concentrated in the North-central and Southern regions. The housing and urban development sector vulnerability to flood exposure appears to be concentrated in the Western region of the country, although smaller pockets of high vulnerability are also seen elsewhere. Irrigation sector vulnerability to drought exposure is widespread in the island, but more concentrated in the Dry Zone where there is high dependency on irrigation for agriculture.

Sri Lanka’s forests play an important regulating role with regard to water on which the country critically depends for its staple food, and also power generation and drinking water. In 1999, the total forest cover of the island was reported as 1.94 million hectares. Over the years, illegal logging, collection of timber for cooking and heating, and shifting cultivation has reduced forest cover from 44 percent of land area in 1956 to 24 percent in 1992 and 23 percent in 1999. As at 2012, the estimates are that forest cover has been further reduced by 2-3 percent.

The Government strategy

The Government of Sri Lanka has formulated a comprehensive National Climate Change Adaptation Strategy (NCCAS) which lays out a prioritised framework for action and investment for the period 2011-2016. The NCCAS is structured into five Strategic Thrusts, namely: Mainstream Climate Change Adaptation into National Planning and Development; Enable Climate Resilient and Healthy Human Settlements; Minimize Climate Change Impacts on Food Security; Improve Climate Resilience of Key Economic Drivers; and Safeguard Natural Resources and Biodiversity from Climate Change Impacts.

The Recommendations

Key recommendations for Sri Lanka in the agricultural sector were tabled as follows. Long-term adaptation strategies should include changes in land-use; Introduction of new technologies such as new land management techniques, water harvesting, artificial groundwater recharge, and water-use efficiency related techniques; Change in agronomic practices; Re-afforestation, forest fire management, promotion of agro-forestry, and adaptive management with suitable species; A broad range of agricultural water management practices and technologies are available to reduce the adverse impacts of climate change: Increasing inter-annual storage of excess rainfall through water conservation measures, including water harvesting; More efficient water use in agriculture – such as drip irrigation; recycling of drainage and waste water, and improved water resource management responses for river basins and aquifers, which are often trans-boundary in nature.

The consensus

There exists consensus that supporting adaptation cannot be targeted on specific actions responding to specific threats; that adaptation means supporting resilience, which is part of how communities develop; and that enhancing the capacity to adapt will go far beyond supporting technical adaptation activities and will become part of the fabric of development aid.

The challenge

There remains the need to explore the following three aspects to enhance governance responses to climate change. First, a better understanding and plan around multiple motivations for investment and change. There is a strong need to incentivise integrated projects, with funds, certification schemes or prizes to drive integration. For example, projects proposed jointly by several departments could be given first access to funds. Second, appreciating what counts as resilience to climate change. The different interpretations of this question have very practical implications for the disbursement of international climate finance. Third, there is much knowledge and good practice already being documented but there is the need now to establish strong examples of what can be replicated and how.

Moving on

As a country emerges from violent conflict, the management of the environment and natural resources has important implications for short-term peace-building and long-term stability, particularly if natural resources were a factor in the conflict, they play a major role in the national economy, or broadly support livelihoods. Only recently, however, have the assessment, harnessing, and restoration of the natural resource base become essential components of post-conflict peace-building.

Sri Lanka must seriously engage in studying further post-conflict environmental damage and natural resource degradation and their implications for human health, livelihoods, and security. An understanding of both the risks and opportunities associated with natural resources can help decision makers manage natural resources in ways that create jobs, sustain livelihoods, and contribute to economic recovery and reconciliation, without creating new grievances or significant environmental degradation. Lessons must be learnt from other contexts and case studies where there have been remediation of environmental hot spots, restoration of damaged ecosystems, and reconstruction of the environmental services and infrastructure for a sustainable peace.

This article appeared at The Daily Mirror and is reprinted with permission.

Salma Yusuf

Salma Yusuf is a Visiting Lecturer, Masters in Human Rights, University of Colombo and University of Sydney; Visiting Lecturer, Bachelor of Laws, University of Northumbria – Regional Campus for Sri Lanka & Maldives; LL.M, Queen Mary, University of London; Queen Mary Scholar 2008-2009; LL.B (Hons), University of London. She provides legal and policy advisory services on both national and international programmes in the fields of human rights law, transitional justice, comparative social justice, and peace-building. She has authored publications for the Sri Lanka Journal of International Law; the Seattle Journal for Social Justice; the Complutense University of Madrid; the Institue of Human Rights; and the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Email: [email protected]

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