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Time for Action to Halt Environmental Destruction


Photo courtesy of WNPS

Today is World Habitat Day

International days and weeks are occasions to educate the public on issues of concern, to mobilize political will and resources to address global problems, and to celebrate and reinforce achievements of humanity.” United Nations Observances

In 1985, the United Nations declared that the first Monday in October is celebrated as World Habitat Day. The purpose was to “…to reflect on the state of our towns and cities and the basic right of all to adequate shelter. It is also intended to remind the world of its collective responsibility for the future of the human habitat.” While adequate shelter is dependent on geographical location and largely determined by socio-economic factors of the host state, it must have sufficient space, give protection from the elements, be structurally safe and have an acceptable standard of sanitation. It also must afford the occupant access to services, facilities, materials and infrastructure and conform to cultural appropriateness.

In Sri Lanka, although the greater majority of the population has access to some form of shelter, not all of it may prove adequate. The ultimate aim should be to fulfill this need for all, for it is at the root of many ills that affect society from crime to communal discord to environmental destruction and many others. Ultimately it will hinge on the improvement and maintenance of the economy and on upholding the principles social justice. The other factor important to the habitat is that of the collective responsibility for the future of the human habitat.

Human needs 

Apart from adequate housing, other basic human rights include access to safe water and clean air as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In today’s context, with climate change threatening once balanced systems and little practical, political intent to mitigate for this, access to clean water and air takes on even greater significance. Sri Lanka, which once enjoyed predictable seasonal changes as directed by the monsoons, has seen these certainties turn to misgivings with times of extreme drought followed by unseasonal, torrential downpours that wash everything away in their path. This not only directly endangers human life but also food security as farmers find it increasingly difficult to know when to plant their crops. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, as at August 29, 2023, 58,766 acres of paddy fields were damaged this year due to the drought. Some 53,965 farmers have been directly affected by this loss. What was once referred to as the granary of the East now finds it hard to meet the needs of its own people and has to rely on the largesse of neighbours for its staples. Nothing comes free and at a time when foreign capital is required, it bleeds out for essentials that were once adequately produced at home.

In a matter of days, this unpredictable parchedness suddenly changed to torrential downpours and flooding as unseasonal heavy rains pounded down on land that had been baked into rocky hardness and the gathering waters were not absorbed but flowed out from their previous courses to drown their surrounds. Was this the late Southwest monsoon, inter monsoonal rains or the early onset of the Northeast monsoon? Does the farmer plough his fields today or wait until the once expected day?

We reap what we sow

Nature provides clean air and water and if its balance is destroyed, then humanity faces uncertainty too. Overwhelming scientific evidence indicates that the current rapid climate change and the warming of the earth are human induced. Even if there was political intent, reversing it will take many years so humanity will have to live with the possibility of increased difficulty in obtaining the basic needs of survival. However, if action is taken now to stop the detrimental actions that lead to climate change and global warming, then a slowing down of the negative effects may be achieved.

Although the earth is referred to as the blue planet due to a large percentage of it being covered by oceans, nearly one third is covered by forests or was since humans are clearing millions of acres of natural forests every year, especially in the tropics. Sri Lanka is no exception to this. According to Global Forest Watch, between 2002 and 2022, the country lost 10.7 kilo hectares (1,000 hectares) of its humid primary forests. From 2001 to 2022, Sri Lanka lost 210 kilo hectares of tree cover, over 5% decrease, which amounted to a loss of 77.7 metric tonnes (mt) of CO2e emissions. Between 2013 and 2022, 100% of all tree cover loss was from natural forests. This amounts to a loss of 43.3 mt of CO2e emissions. Just between September 23, 2023 and September 30, 2023, there were 2,252 deforestation alerts received amounting to 27 hectares of forests. It is estimated that Sri Lanka is losing approximately 1.14% of its forest cover every year. Compare this to a paltry 60.1 hectares being planted between 2000 and 2020 and it is clear that the losses far outweigh any gains.

Why are forests important?

Destroying forests will result in the demise of the earth’s most valuable ecosystems. As to why forests are important, much of the reasons are well known by even primary school children but not acted on by those who matter – the policymakers – not just in f Sri Lanka but the world over.  If reminders were necessary, some of the main reasons that forests are important are:

  1. They pump out oxygen and absorb CO2 and are only second to the phytoplankton of the oceans in providing humanity with clean air to breathe.
  2. Nearly half of the earth’s species live in forests (80% of terrestrial biodiversity), especially in tropical rainforests.
  3. Approximately 300 million people live in forests and depend on them for their survival. About 60 million of these people belong to indigenous communities.
  4. They keep the earth and its creatures cool, mainly by their absorption of CO2.
  5. They make rain. Without them, the earth would bake and most living things die.
  6. They prevent flooding by absorbing excess water, reducing soil loss and runoffs and protect other ecosystems, and human life.
  7. They act like giant sponges and soak up the water which percolates into aquifers and other natural sources of ground water collections that are used throughout the world by human societies.
  8. They act as buffers from strong winds.
  9. They stabilize soil systems and even remove pollutants from them, even toxins.
  10. Apart from the above, they provide humans with a wide range of services, wildlife with food and homes, are aesthetically pleasing and it is our ethical duty to protect them.

Climate change is critical for Sri Lanka

Climate change is real. Global warming is real. Clean air and fresh water are essential for human existence. Forests are vital for the provision of these and other biodiversity. These are all integral to the future of the human habitat. If Sri Lanka is to secure such a future, then it must act, and now, to reverse these destructive trends. Deforestation must be changed to reforestation, and encroachment into the re-acquisition of stolen lands for return to nature.

Dr. Anil Jasinghe, the Secretary of the Ministry of Environment, in a recent media release stated that the government, in partnership with the international community, is actively taking measures to reduce the impact of climate change. He said, “President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s proposal encompasses all aspects of formulating a National Climate Change Act. A committee has been tasked with crafting a new environmental act that aligns with the contemporary world’s priorities, with an emphasis on climate change. These initiatives are also integrated into the National Environmental Action Plan developed approximately two years ago. All these endeavours are intended to be executed in a legal, transparent and meticulously structured manner, ensuring maximum benefits with minimal drawbacks. It’s imperative to emphasize that all these investments are directed toward environmental preservation and nothing else. The more we safeguard the environment, the better equipped we are to mitigate the challenges and disasters stemming from climate change. This approach yields benefits across various sectors, including agriculture and fishing.”

While these are all fine words and intentions, their good purpose is eroded by the daily destruction that is being perpetrated on the environment – the piece by piece devastation of the country’s hope for the future. What is needed is action now, transparency now, implementation of the law now and “collective responsibility for the future of the human habitat…and to celebrate and reinforce achievements of humanity”.

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