Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Policy Challenges in Climate Adaptation in Sri Lanka: Identifying Major Gaps

Athula Senaratne
Research Fellow, IPS 

Being a tropical island located in a disaster prone region, Sri Lanka is vulnerable to impacts of climate change. The 2004 tsunami has indicated that a large extent of densely populated low lying coastal areas is vulnerable to a future rise in the sea level. The country has frequently been experiencing disaster prone weather extremes such as droughts, floods and cyclones.  Predictions by global studies on climate change suggest that both intensity and frequency of such extreme events are likely to increase in the future. As a significant population of the country is directly dependent on weather-reliant livelihoods such as agriculture and fisheries, adverse changes in weather patterns could lead to chaotic conditions. Among the community groups that are more vulnerable to climate change impacts are residents in coastal areas, rain-fed farmers in the dry zone, fishing community, workers in the estate sector and small-scale producers of export crops.

Climate change is a complex challenge and well-designed policies for adaptation are necessary to face the impacts of it.  Adaptation is a dynamic process of adjustment in response to changing conditions of climate. A pragmatic approach towards adaptation policy has to fulfil a few essential steps. They are: identify and evaluate likely impacts of climate change; assess vulnerability/adaptive capacity of key stakeholders; identify major gaps that affect effective actions against impacts; and, appraise alternative strategies for overcoming gaps so that the country can adapt to impacts in a successful manner.
Whereas some work has already been done to identify/evaluate impacts on at least a few sectors and assess the vulnerability of some key stakeholders, assessment and evaluation of gaps that could impede national efforts for adaptation appears to be poor so far. This article attempts to fill this void by exploring the major gaps that could affect climate adaptation in Sri Lanka.     

Information from different sources indicates that five major gaps act as barriers to make effective adaptations against climate change impacts, namely: 

  • information gap, 
  • technological gap, 
  • policy and governance gap, 
  • institutional and coordination gap,  and  
  • resource mobilization gap
A brief discussion of the nature and importance of these gaps is presented in the article.  It argues that national agenda on climate adaptation should focus on overcoming these gaps at macro level policies as well as in sector level policies/strategies so that the country can face the threat of climate change successfully.

Information gap

Climate is an inherently uncertain phenomenon and anthropogenic causes of global warming increase the uncertainty even further. Uncertainty lies with real impacts of climate change at global, regional, national and local levels and successful adaptation needs information that could reduce uncertainty associated with impacts. Hence, Adaptation to climate change is essentially an information-driven process. Climate information could range from advanced information products and from sophisticated forecast models to laymen’s practical experience about local weather conditions. Scientific climate forecasts and projections have a major role to play in bridging the climate information gap.  The value of reliable climate forecasts is best illustrated in the recent event of cyclone Phailin―the second strongest cyclone to strike India. Improved forecasts helped the government to organize one of the largest evacuation operations saving many lives. On the other hand, a high loss of fishermen’s lives due to poor communication of forecast information in Sri Lanka in June 2013 underscores the necessity of a reliable system of climate information.  

As far as the situation in climate information is concerned, the Department of Meteorology (DM)—the nationally mandated climate information provider in Sri Lanka—offers a limited portfolio of climate information products (CIPs) which are channelled via different public media including its own website.  It includes routine short-term weather forecasts on a daily basis and warnings/advisories on bad weather situations such as cyclones, heavy rains, lightning and high wind. DM has also recently launched the ‘Monsoon Forum’ with the aim of providing a seasonal outlook for a lead time around 3-6 months period in two monsoons, south-west monsoon and north-east monsoon.  Those products are based on information from satellites, a network of weather stations around the country and global forecasts issued by international weather/climate research centres. In addition, some complementary products such as classification of agro-metrological zones published by the Department of Agriculture (DA) also exist. According to that,  the country has been divided into a number of agro climatic zones based on long-term records of local rainfall and elevation classes (MSL). As far as scientific projections on long-term impacts of climate change are concerned, information so far available is based on basic level analysis of local meteorological data and intellectual speculation. Generation of more reliable projections is hampered by limited scientific capacity for developing locally applied models or downscaling local effects from global models. Even the few attempts made to downscale information from global models have limitations in terms of reliability and applicability of information for practical decision-making.

Given the scale of future challenges associated with climate change, this level of climate information availability can hardly be considered as adequate and there are major gaps in the existing system of climate information and communication. Not only is the availability, but the quality of information is a major issue since the credibility of the existing information has been challenged on  many occasions. This situation warrants little room for designing effective adaptation activities against impacts of climate change. Hence, major improvements in supply of climate information products (CIPs) are necessary to provide effective guidance to adaptive actions in different sectors.

Technological gap

It is widely acknowledged that innovative technological options are essential for successful adaptation. Except for a few developments in areas such as agricultural technologies, water management methods and sources of renewable energy, technological improvements for adaptation in many other areas remain largely unexplored.  Even the existing technologies such as drought/flood resistant crop varieties cannot be considered as highly dependable to meet the demands that will be placed upon by uncertainties of climate change in the future.  Considering this gap, the Climate Change Secretariat (CCS) of the Ministry of Environment and Renewable Energy (MERE) has initiated a project to undertake technology needs assessment (TNA) for adaptation and mitigation with the support of United Nations Environmental Programmes (UNEP) to identify measures and practices to decrease GHG emissions and to reduce vulnerability to climate change in different sectors. It focussed on identifying priority sectors that need technology improvements, removing barriers for deployment and diffusion of technologies, increasing the capacity of local institutions/experts and raising public awareness of climate change issues. The project has identified five sectors—food sector, health sector, water sector, coastal sector and bio-diversity sector—as priority areas of adaptation and three sectors—energy sector, transport sector and industry sector—as priority areas of mitigation to undertake technology development activities. Based on the findings of TNA and barrier analysis, the project has developed technology development action plans for adaptation and mitigation separately. While the outcome of the project may help to fill the existing technological gap to a certain extent by identifying necessary actions to improve the situation, developing a sound technological base may need time and resources. Hence, developing climate resilient technologies deserves priority attention of all stakeholders that includes public, private, community and non-government agencies.

Policy and governance gap

Recent efforts initiated by the Ministry of Environment and Renewable Energy (MERE) have helped to fill some gaps in policy on climate change at the national level. MRE introduced the National Climate Change Policy (NCCP) in 2012 that declared the national vision and policy principles on climate change.  In addition, in 2010, the Ministry prepared the National Climate Change Adaptation Strategy (NCCAS: 2011-16) that identified strategic priorities and broad interventions to address them. Currently it is working towards preparing the National Adaptation Action Plan (NAAP).  Beyond the purview of MERE, however, climate change issues are yet to receive the due attention of policy makers at macro as well as sector level policies. Even the activities of interested researchers, academics, development workers have somewhat been restrained due to poor policy recognition of the matter.  No priority has been assigned to identify the impacts of climate change on many sectors of the economy or to initiate necessary policy actions to overcome them. This cannot be considered as a favourable situation for a vulnerable country like Sri Lanka. Overall, despite some recent efforts by MERE, a significant gap exists in policy and governance of climate change issues in Sri Lanka that needs to be addressed through carefully designed policies with the participation of public sector as well as non-state actors such as community organizations, private sector, and civil society organizations.

Institutional and coordination gap

A decision-making framework on climate change is slowly emerging in Sri Lanka with the initiation of limited policy developments mentioned earlier. The Ministry of Environment and Renewable Energy (MERE) plays the leading role here.  The Ministry’s activities are spearheaded by the Climate Change Secretariat (CCS)—the national focal point for coordinating climate related actions at all levels including international negotiations. However, climate change is a complex problem that cannot be governed through efforts of a single ministry or a line agency alone. Impacts of climate change are  spread over multiple sectors as well as different regions across the country. The multi-sector, multi-regional impacts imply that no single ministry, department, authority or provincial/local government body can take the burden singlehandedly without the cooperation of other stakeholders. Currently, different activities are undertaken by various agencies in an ad-hoc manner without proper coordination. Not only government agencies, but a significant number of non-state actors are also undertaking various initiatives on climate change. These efforts need to be coordinated so that the desired policy outcomes are achieved. Government organizations and non-state actors should work together as a broad strategic alliance against climate change impacts through a coordinated effort. The gaps identified above—especially, information and policy gaps are also contributing to some extent apart from the coordination gap that exists between relevant organizations and stakeholders. Currently, CCS is trying to achieve some level of coordination through a system of inter-agency committees on adaptation and mitigation which is participated by different stakeholders including academics. This situation needs to be improved further and a proper institutional mechanism that can coordinate numerous individual initiatives has to be developed.  

Resource mobilization gap

A major constraint faced by developing countries such as Sri Lanka when taking adaptive actions against climate change is the scarcity of resources.  The government is burdened with numerous fiscal and monetary difficulties to find extra resources for facing climate change issues. Therefore, conventional channels of public finance alone cannot be relied upon to meet the resource needs of adaptation and mitigation.  In this connection, innovative strategies of resource mobilization should be identified for mobilizing resources from sources other than public funds—i.e. international and non-state local sources such as the private sector. Particular attention should be given to utilizing opportunities available at international sources of funding available to support adaptation activities.  Currently, international mechanisms have been developed to support migratory measures that reduce GHG emissions such as Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and program for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation of Forests (REDD+).  Although efforts are being taken to establish multi-lateral funding facilities for supporting adaptation in developing countries, they are not successful yet. However, many existing multi-lateral and bi-lateral donors have identified adaptation as a priority area of development support and therefore international sources for mobilizing resources are gradually rising. Hence, the country should be alert on such sources and develop strategies and sound proposals to capture opportunities made available by such sources. Such funding are becoming available in areas such as research on adaptation, livelihood support for adaptation, technical support for developing adaptive technologies and institutional capacity building.  In addition, established funding facilities such as Global Environment Facility (GEF) also provide support for adaptation. Besides, public-private partnership activities, community-based initiatives, programmes of civil society organizations and corporate funding from the private sector are other alternative sources for channeling resources for adaptation. Lack of necessary resources is fundamental to all other gaps mentioned above and without sufficient resources none of the desired improvements are possible. On the other hand, gaps created by poor information, lack of policy focus and absence of institutional mechanisms could hamper the chances of mobilizing resources too.

Overcoming the gaps

Overall, despite the high vulnerability, the present readiness of the country to face the climate change impacts can hardly be considered adequate. The major gaps concerning information, technology, policy/governance, institutions and resource mobilization can be considered as major barriers that act against the successful adaptation to climate change impacts. They reduce the adaptive capacity and increase the vulnerability of individual citizens as well as the nation as a whole. Hence, overcoming them is an essential condition for facing the threat of climate change. Therefore, all national and local initiatives on climate change should focus on creating conditions necessary to overcome these gaps. Overcoming these gaps in a successful manner would enhance the prospects for facing the challenge of climate change in an effective manner thereby helping to achieve the long-term goals of sustainable development of the country too. In essence, this situation implies that the national agenda on climate change should be built upon five major pillars—a climate information system, programme for development of adaptive technologies,  policy and governance of adaptation,  well-coordinated institutions and a mechanism for resource mobilization. Such an agenda should be aimed at mainstreaming climate change issues within the overall national goals of sustainable development. The success of a national agenda would largely be determined by the effectiveness of measures taken to overcome the major gaps highlighted in this article.


Climate Change Secretariat (2011), Second National Communication on Climate Change, Ministry of Environment, Colombo, Sri Lanka.
Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka (2013) Chapter 8:  Facing Climate Change Threats: The Importance of Better Information. Sri Lanka State of the Economy 2013, Colombo, Sri Lanka 
Institute of Policy Studies (2013) Climate Change Issues in Sri Lanka. A compilation of articles published in CLIMATEnet blog from Jan-Dec. 2013, Colombo, Sri Lanka
Ministry of Environment (2012) National Climate Change Adaptation Strategy for Sri Lanka: 2011-2016, Colombo, Sri Lanka
Ministry of Environment (2012) The National Climate Change Policy of Sri Lanka, Colombo, Sri Lanka
Ministry of Environment and Renewable Energy (2012) Technology Needs Assessment and Technology Action Plans for Climate Change Adaptation: Technology Action Plan, Colombo, Sri Lanka

Ministry of Environment and Renewable Energy (2012) Technology Needs Assessment and Technology Action Plans for Climate Change Mitigation: Technology Action Plan, Colombo, Sri Lanka  
Senaratne, A., N. Perera and K. Wickramasinghe (2009) Mainstreaming Climate Change for Sustainable Development in Sri Lanka: Towards a National Agenda for Action.  Working Paper Series No.14, Institute of Policy Studies, Colombo, Sri Lanka
World Meteorological Organization (2013) Statement on the Status of the Global Climate in 2013, Geneva, Switzerland 

The Author, Dr. Athula Senaratne  is a Research Fellow at the Insitute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka (IPS). E-mail: athula@ips..lk    

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