As the world prepares for yet another â€˜scary’ report by the United Nations panel on global warming and climate change, a Sri Lankan specialist in the group says Tamil rebels and government troops are actually fighting over land due to be submerged as sea-levels rise.
”A major part of Jaffna and other northern areas (of Sri Lanka) will be submerged when the sea-level rises. So people are fighting and dying over areas that may soon not be there,” Prof. Mohan Munasinghe, vice-chairman of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), said in an interview.
Jaffna, seat of a revolt for an independent homeland for minority Tamils, lies on the northern tip of the island. Northern and eastern coastal areas, both claimed by the rebels as traditional Tamil homelands, are vulnerable to submersion as they are flatter than other coastal areas.
The vulnerability of the north and east was highlighted during the Dec. 26, 2004 Asian tsunami when these areas bore the brunt of the damage caused by the killer waves that hit the island, following an undersea earthquake off the coast of Indonesia’s Sumatra island.
Munasinghe, known internationally for his work on energy and sustainable development, says climate change in Sri Lanka will have dire consequences on water, agriculture, health and the coast. “Already there are early signs of the impact which would assume serious proportions by 2025,” he said. “But unfortunately if the developed world doesn’t do anything to mitigate the impact, there’s little Sri Lanka can do.”
IPCC is releasing the third volume of its 4th assessment report in Bangkok on May 4. Since the first one came out in 2001, IPCC reports have been closely scrutinised by policymakers across the world, but action has been painfully slow in tackling the problem of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and carbon dioxide emissions that are said to cause global warming.
The biggest culprits are the United States and Europe through their fossil fuel industry and its powerful lobbies.
Providing a peek review of the forthcoming report Munasinghe, a former World Bank who has advised several Sri Lankan governments on energy issues, said among the key messages would be the need to take immediate action to mitigate or reduce GHGs.
The report will also focus on the methods and technologies to make this early start and provide clear signals to industry to develop the technologies to make such a change. “Industrialised countries should lead the way as they are the biggest polluters,” he said, adding that the Europeans clearly recognised these concerns earlier this year. “Thus there is now some action in the developed countries,” he said.
The IPCC vice-chairman is frustrated at the general apathy of countries in dealing with global warming despite the fact that some of the best experts in the world prepare the reports on global warming. The latest one has contributions from 3,000 scientists.
“No one takes it seriously because it is something that does not happen today or tomorrow. The biggest culprits are the rich countries…so it’s difficult to take action,” he said, adding that one of the weaknesses in the campaign is the inability of scientists to translate their jargon into language that is understood by everyone, including politicians.
The world response to global warming has been very slow. When IPCC’s first report, released in 1990, provided scientific evidence to show the existence of GHGs that can alter the climate, the public was sceptical. The second report dealt with the impact of GHGs, the impact on humans and need for mitigation.
The third report in 2001 focussed on vulnerability and adapting to situations. It said even if there were zero emissions, what is already in the atmosphere would cause global warming and impact mostly on tropical countries, and thereby the poor. Experts say even in rich countries it is the poor that are affected by global warming — as the impact of Hurricane Katrina in the U.S. has shown.
More than 80 percent of the emissions that cause climate change come from rich countries with lifestyles and development that cause the problems. The per capita emissions of countries like India or China, despite being large, are a mere 1/30th or 1/40th of what is emitted by the U.S. or Europe.
Munasinghe says his argument, made during a presentation at the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, that there is a strong need for integrating climate change and longer term issues into sustainable development strategies has become a reality today. “Sustainable development is the way out… starting with the industrial nations,” he said.
In the Sri Lankan scenario, population shifts where the country would have a bigger aging population in 20 years will exacerbate the problem since health is one area where the impact would be high.
“Remember malnutrition and disease affects mostly children and older people. An aging population means there would be fewer people to carry the burden as well and all these would be vulnerable. Productivity will get affected because there are fewer young people,” he said.
Sri Lanka expects that over the next two decades the sea-level will rise by half a metre with dry areas becoming drier and wet areas becoming wetter, leading to floods in some areas and drought in others.
Earlier this month, Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of IPCC, said at a press conference in New Delhi that up to 60 million coastal people in the low-lying areas of South Asia could be displaced by global warming by the end of the 21st century.
Especially vulnerable, said Pachauri, are the coastal metropolises of Mumbai and Kolkata which are already showing signs of strain on their drainage systems and infrastructure.
India could be most seriously affected by scantier rainfall and by glacier melt in the Himalayas which supply the river systems on which agriculture depends, Pachauri said, adding that glacier melt could also seriously affect China.
According to Pachauri the impact of global warming on India, where almost 700 million people are dependent on agriculture, would be really serious and trigger mass migration of rural communities to urban areas in search of alternate livelihoods.
The most frightening prospect for Sri Lanka is also in agriculture. â€˜’We have done some studies with the meteorological department which show higher temperatures and less water,” said Munasinghe. ”This will result in paddy farming output falling by 20-30 percent in the next 20 to 30 years. The output will begin to drop gradually over the next few years.”
The other issue is that of equity, says Munasinghe, in the wet zone where the hill country is filled with tea bushes — the tea crop will increase making those workers well off. While paddy is cultivated mostly by farmer-families in which the cost of production is much higher than the selling price, tea workers are assured of their monthly wages even if tea companies find production costs higher than selling prices. Tea is generally a profitable crop.
He says in the hotter areas mosquitoes will be more rampant and even move into the more hilly areas. Thus the incidence of vector-borne diseases like malaria and dengue in endemic areas could increase in addition to diseases triggered by poor quality water that accompanies droughts.