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Unravelling the environmental dimensions of the Sri Lankan crisis

Old Parliament Building, Colombo, Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka, officially declared ‘bankrupt’ by its government, is facing the worst crisis in decades. Protesters stormed the Presidential palace in July 2022; and former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country. As protests against the newly formed government continue, political and economic uncertainties remain. While the crisis is mostly a creation of years of economic mismanagement by the Sri Lankan government, environmental concerns have also contributed to peoples’ hardship in the country.

Sri Lanka is extremely vulnerable to climate and environmental change. It is an island country that has not only lost a vast proportion of its biodiversity to developmental activities, but also is increasingly being battered by “droughts, floods, landslides, cyclones, and coastal erosion.” Unplanned implementation of organic farming, unsustainable Chinese investments, the price spike caused by the Ukraine war, and a shipping disaster that continues to pollute coastal areas have structurally weakened living conditions on the island. Sustainable food production practices, renewable energy infrastructure, and climate adaptation efforts among others, could help to provide better solutions that bring stability and prosperity in the crisis-affected country.

An ‘Organic’ Debacle

As a part of its efforts to reduce dependence on imported fertilizers, and introduce eco-friendly measures with health benefits, the Sri Lankan Government under former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa declared a bold policy in 2019, switching to organic farming over a period of 10 years and imposing a ban on chemical fertilizers. While the policy is indeed forward-looking in an age of ecological crisis, which reinforces the need for food systems transformation, it was rolled out without any strategy and/or planning. In particular, the farmers were not equipped to switch to organic farming so quickly.

This move led to disastrous consequences for the vast majority of farmers, most of them being smallholders, whose production was highly dependent on state-subsidized chemical fertilizers. Production of major crops such as rice and tea reduced drastically. This came on top of reduced demand due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the COVID-19 recovery phase, agricultural exports were still low, but Sri Lanka’s own food security was hurt badly, as food prices spiked – forcing the country to import major food crops such as rice.

Infrastructure Rush and Environmental Fragility

Sri Lanka has defaulted on US$ 51 billion external debt. It has also borrowed from various multilateral organisations such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and Asian Development Bank. However, the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in particular injected an impetus into large infrastructure projects, often called the “white elephant projects”, as they are offered at higher interest rates, provided low returns, in addition to not benefitting the local population. These large-scale infrastructure projects have also added to environmental disruptions and pressures.

For instance, The Hambantota project and the Colombo Port City project have been the focal points of several protests by the local communities against the government. The Chinese investments on the island, in particular, have led to diversion of agricultural lands, cutting of shrub jungle, and disruption of elephant corridors. The lack of transparency around these projects and their environmental and social impacts have raised serious concerns, especially since the Sri Lankan government went ahead with the project approvals without enough public consultations or risk due diligence. In the case of Hambantota project, apart from environmental risks such as landslides and coastal erosion, the lack of environmental impact assessments has already been blamed for flooding in the area in the past. 

A Shipping Disaster

Sri Lanka’s geographical location – lying at the centre of the Indian Ocean shipping lanes – is yet another factor that adds to its vulnerability (as much as it could boost its economic prospects). In 2021, a container ship (‘MV X Press Pearl’) allegedly carrying “25 tonnes of nitric acid, 348 tonnes of oil,” and “up to 75 billion” of nurdles (plastic-particle water pollution), caught fire and sank off the coast of Colombo. The real impacts of this disaster are still unknown, as various national and international agencies have failed at measuring the cost and extent of environmental damage. In addition, the disaster response itself has been an expensive affair, as Sri Lanka’s clean-up mission on its shores and beaches are far from over.

This disaster may not be in the news now, but has long-term consequences for a country already grappling with current unrest. In a country, where close to 5 million people are dependent on coastal and marine fisheries for their livelihoods, the dangers posed by this disaster to marine biodiversity and future disaster risks, coupled with overfishing and illegal fishing, destruction of marine and coastal habitats, pollution, and climate change, are immense.

The fishing communities, already affected by the COVID-19-related lockdowns, were further struck by the ban on fishing in the aftermath of this disaster, leading to further economic and livelihood losses for these communities. This is yet another case of systemic and compound risks that have worsened the crisis in Sri Lanka further.

Russia-Ukraine Crisis

The Russia-Ukraine crisis has aggravated Sri Lanka’s environmental and socio-political fragilities. Like many developing countries, Sri Lanka is dependent on wheat, cooking oil, and fertilizer imports from Russia and Ukraine. In addition to the debt crisis, the war in Ukraine has led to hikes in food, energy, and consumer prices in the country, while creating severe shortage of several commodities, especially fuel. Amidst the brewing crisis, the country has also been struck by a heatwave. Finally, since the economic crisis worsened, many Sri Lankans have been trying to flee the country, legally or illegally, crossing dangerous oceanic waters.

According to a United Nations survey, “some 70 per cent of Sri Lankan households reported cutting back on food consumption, with food price inflation running at around 57 per cent.” With long queues at fuel stations and extended power cuts (coupled with the lack of assistance offered by the G-7 countries), Sri Lanka is looking to buy crude oil from Russia at a cheaper rate. With this crisis, Sri Lanka’s fossil fuel dependence is further entrenched, with a risk of also falling foul of secondary Western sanctions.

The Way Forward for Sri Lanka is Shaky

Any efforts to bring normalcy and ensure stability on the island nation should entail integrated risk planning, which clearly acknowledges and targets the structural risks mentioned above. While the immediate priority would be to alleviate the suffering of the Sri Lankan people by providing aid (food, fuel, etc.), the scale of the crisis is too big to be resolved within a short span of time.

International donors, including European ones, could consider assisting the country reduce dependence on fossil fuel imports and develop renewable energy infrastructure in a sustainable and participatory manner. One of the solutions could be to invest in decentralized renewable energy systems that ensure access to affordable energy to all. Considering that sectors such as tourism are already adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and now the ongoing political crisis, it could be rejuvenated by investments in sustainable tourism, focussing on biodiversity protection, climate adaptation, and socio-economic well-being. Similarly, in the agricultural sector, lessons learnt from the organic farming debacle could be used to roll out measures to re-introduce organic and regenerative practices in a phased manner.


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