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Adapting to future climate change

by Prof. Ananda Gunatilaka

(June 18, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The reading public in Sri Lanka has a general awareness about "impending climate changes" in the not too distant future, although very few seem to be aware of the overall impacts, vulnerabilities and adaptations and the spatial-temporal aspects of such changes. Essentially, the discourse has been on global scale impacts. There is now a general consensus that the frequency and intensity of extreme hydrometeorological events (droughts, floods, cyclones, hurricanes and typhoons) will increase in the future. 2008 is a particularly disastrous year for floods (in Europe, USA, Sri Lanka, India, South America, Philippines, Indonesia, Hong Kong, China etc), droughts (in Australia, Spain, Greece and Africa) and cyclones/hurricanes/tornadoes (in the USA, Australia, Burma). Now, both extended drought phases interspersed with severe flood episodes follow one another (as in Australia). In Sri Lanka, both flood relief and drought relief were given even within a given year. Whether these disturbing patterns are a reflection of global warming is still being argued, although the balance of evidence seems to support the case for rising temperatures.

Adaptation will be a key factor that will shape the future responses to such changes. It is most likely that the greatest immediate negative impacts will be on water and food security. Global water demand has been doubling every 20 years and this cannot be sustained in the long term. Water scientists predict that by 2025, water shortages due to increasing demand alone would decrease global food production by more than 25 per cent of the current U.S. grain harvest – this is without factoring in the possible effects of global warming. Adaptation to climate change will inevitably favour some crops and regions over others.

A recently concluded multi-disciplinary study by Stanford University has important implications for Sri Lanka. An analysis of climate risks for crops in 12 food-insecure regions, based on statistical crop models (FAO database) and climate projections for the year 2030 from 20 general-circulation models (GCM) concludes that South Asia and Southern Africa as the two regions that, without adequate adaptation measures, will be subjected to severe negative impacts on water availability and crop production. Both these regions are characterized by large, food-insecure human populations. Sri Lanka experienced a microcosm of such negative impacts, first in 1996-1998 due to inadequate rainfall, which curtailed production and caused large scale imports of rice. In 2008 severe floods wiped out much of the rice crop in the eastern province – its bread basket. In typical fashion, we reacted to the situation by running around the region looking for rice imports from Thailand, Viet Nam, India and Burma (all affected by adverse weather conditions), who put a moratorium on rice exports. Sri Lanka did not have sufficient buffer stocks and panic buying, hoarding and manipulating the rice market resulted in shortages. Eventually, Burma (a gross human rights violator) came to the rescue, despite the devastating cyclone there, which killed over 100,000 people and are still without adequate food for survival. Can Sri Lanka learn a lesson from these episodes?

What kinds of adaptations are required before 2030 and starting now? Shifting planting dates or switching to other crops will not mitigate negative impacts. Again, more costly methods such as developing new crop varieties and expansion of irrigation may be required. This brings into focus the vast investments that will be necessary by governments, farmers, scientists and development organizations, all of who face other demands and priorities in resource allocation. Already, the World Bank is applying risk-management strategies for incorporating climate change adaptation in their operations. Sri Lanka by 2030 could be a potential "climate change hot spot" (its small size and dense population is a disadvantage). If the predictions by the Stanford Group are to be taken seriously, then prioritization of investment needs to overcome a crisis by 2030 should receive the highest attention. Primarily, Sri Lanka will have to change immediately from the present chaotic, wasteful and anarchic irrigation water usage, to one where integrated water resources management is a priority. This will come at a cost. By 2030, water will become a very expensive economic commodity. It is very difficult to predict how our life styles will change for better or worse. Certainly, adaptive strategies have to be thought out carefully for managing our water and food resources. It is well to remember that Sri Lanka today is a net food importing country and by 2030 we could face drastic shortages if we stick to our usual habits. In the absence of regulatory controls, people will continue to extract groundwater because of inadequate pricing mechanisms. In South Asia, aquifers will be depleted (already happening in India) and melting glaciers will result in reduced fresh water availability in the rice growing areas. In Sri Lanka, almost 90 per cent of the available water is used up in agriculture and food production (contributing just 13 per cent to the GDP in 2007). Catastrophic water shortages will be a far greater threat than escalating food prices and energy costs.

Severe droughts will impact the entire agriculture sector productivity due to decreases in water availability. The impact on our rain fed crops (tea, rubber, coconut, rice) will drastically affect livelihoods and food in general will be prohibitively expensive (it is already). Forest cover will decrease further (21 per cent now) by 2030, affecting water retention in soils. Floods will destroy crop harvests and high rainfall phases will cause severe landslides and loss in soil fertility (already a major problem). Without fertilizer usage, soil fertility is very poor in Sri Lanka and 175 years of the tea industry has washed out the better part of the top soils in the central highlands. Poor land use practices and land management (including inadequate soil conservation) is already a problem. A pessimistic view of the resulting impacts envisages a Malthusian scenario as unsustainable water demands will eventually result in about 30 per cent of the population not having easy access to drinking water and affordable food. Without adequate water they cannot grow enough food, nor will they have the means to buy it. The impact on health will be drastic. Lack of access to clean and affordable water today is the primary cause for the prevalence of widespread poverty in the developing world.

It requires about 15,000 litres of water to produce 1 kg of beef, about 5000-6000 litres for 1 kg of poultry and 2000-3000 litres for 1 kg of rice. The water requirements for a variety of crops, animal and milk products, vegetables, fruits etc (more than 100) are known for the south Asian region (FAO database). Increasing drought phases will not provide these water requirements for food production. During the past 10 years around 166,000 farmers have committed suicide in India due to failed harvests resulting from adverse weather patterns and inability to pay back debts. In Australia (a major food exporter) extended droughts over the past few years have devastated food production. So, how should governments address policy and investment priorities to face the oncoming challenges?

The experts consider three factors to be essential to any prioritization programme: (a) selection of a time-scale over which impacts are most relevant to investment decisions, (b) a clear definition of criteria used for prioritization and (c) ability to evaluate these criteria across the south Asian region and its crops, with almost a billion people at risk from food insecurity. 20 years from now is a relevant period to assess large scale agricultural investments, which typically take 15 to 30 years to realize returns. A major criterion is the importance of a crop (s) to the regions food-insecure human population; this is called hunger importance (HI). The South Asian region is characterized by broadly similar diets and agriculture systems and also contains a major share of the World’s malnourished (262 million or 30 %). The HI for any crop is the product of the number of malnourished individuals (40 per cent in Sri Lanka) and the crop’s percentage contribution to per capita calorie consumption. A hunger importance ranking (HIR) is then generated by ranking the HI values for all crop-by-region combinations. Rice, maize and wheat contribute only about 50 per cent of the calorie intake in South Asia.

According to the Stanford analysis, the largest negative impacts will be on South Asia wheat and rice, Southeast Asia rice (the main producing area), and Southern Africa maize, which are the most important crops in need of adaptation investments. Basically, the recommended strategy is to assume worst-case scenarios and target investments on those crops and regions for which the models predict very negative outcomes or switch from highly impacted to less impacted crops (those with lesser water requirements?). The analysis is very robust as the crops in these regions appear for all criteria considered. Impacts will vary from country to country and according to their resource potentials, resource management and country policies. Additionally, better water resources allocation and utilization through a policy of integrated water resources management under a strict regulatory regime, better application of new technologies and large investments in research into new crop varieties and better yields are required. In short, a new "green revolution" under a more severe climatic regime with risk-management strategies in place.

By 2030, Sri Lanka’s population would be at least 25 million, with per capita water availability much reduced and food and energy security under severe strain. The economic regime by then would be quite different to that of today and mostly likely forced upon us to adapt to the changing conditions. Much thinking and action is necessary to face the challenges. But how can we convince the people of a crisis that would happen 20 years from now?
- Sri Lanka Guardian

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