Climate Change, Food Security & Virtual Water an Asymmetric Threat to Sri Lanka

Climate Change, Food Security Virtual Water an Asymmetric Threat to Sri Lanka

Image courtesy Mercy Corps

Today, in an integrated and inter-dependent world, Sri Lanka does not have the leverage to reverse climate change but mitigate and adapt. Climate change is caused mostly by human actions which began with the industrialised West and followed suit by emerging economies exacerbating this. Some consider climate change to be a negative result of human efforts for development whilst others consider it as irresponsible efforts for profit making at the cost of the planet. Wherever the argument lies, Climate Change is real and an effective response is very urgent.

Human development is a necessity irrespective of one’s bearing towards the West or East.  The economic development planners and the political leadership should seriously consider the sustainability of the society, region, country and then the world to achieve development that satisfies human needs without tipping the ecological balance that supports us. Overriding market capitalism that drives on the seats of global power today is an obstacle to sustainable development. This is evident in the failure of missions of the climate conferences hitherto held.  This is because large corporations in their profit centric drive for hyper consumerism generate insatiable needs and greed that are beyond the limits nature could provide. This tips the ecological balance to the detriment of mankind whilst giving profits to corporations that are masquerading as Angels of sustainability.

Sri Lanka is economically linked and inter-dependent with the world economy but physically it is an island nation. As an island nation, it has opportunities to be independent as regards its sustainability policies to protect its ecosystem. In an inter-dependent world, flow of goods by way of imports and exports do lead to over extraction and exploitation of nature and at the same time a country becomes a dumping ground for imported waste which is harmful to the ecology. Sadly, the economists and development planners’ yardstick of measurement is the GDP. If the GDP is high and derives a high per-capita income, their bottom-lines are met. Unfortunately the environmental and social cost incurred to achieve such GDP is not reflected anywhere. This leads to a situation of one step up and two steps down in respect to the sustainability of a nation.  This is the reason why in spite of all the attractive and indoctrinating rhetoric by planners and politicians, the ground reality has not changed. More often than not, modern market economic concepts are more destructive than otherwise. Professor Stuart Sim of Northumbria University in his book The End of Modernity: What the Financial and Environmental Crisis is Re-ally Telling Us says: “modernity has reached its limit as a cultural form, all because it is ―destructive of both the planet and…socio-economic systems”. This is an incisive edict by a Western scholar on the imperative of an alternative economic philosophy to answer the current situation.

Climate Change

Climate change influences human behaviour in their lifestyles, consumption patterns and migratory patterns. As a cyclic effect this influenced a host of other things like urbanization, industrialization, wars, colonization and the resultant destruction of societies: all in the name of development and civilization in an unsustainable way. The last three centuries of unsustainable development globally snowballed to what is to become now ‘the climate change’ threatening mankind and the planet.

Climate change if not successfully addressed can create havoc in society. It can have cyclic effects influencing our micro climate; impede our agriculture by flood, depletion, temperature change and scarcity of water. Socially, it can influence internal migration to resource rich and safe areas creating new socio-economic and political issues. This can also possibly deplete the forest cover by human settlements that exacerbate conflict with animal habitat and flooding and scores of new problems hitherto un-confronted. This can also create the problems of food insecurity, water scarcity, extinction of businesses industries and consequent unemployment, the issues of energy, power etc.

In reality, this can potentially change our lifestyles to keep up with the changing scenario brought about by climate change. Therefore, we cannot face this problem in the ‘business  as usual’ way, instead we have to frame policies, educate people, lead societies and set examples of sustainable living to make this a positive change.

The pitfalls that climate change could bring to Sri Lanka are many and need serious and urgent deliberations. However, dwelling on them all is beyond the scope of this article and hence this attempts to dwell on the problems of food security and virtual water that is newly emergent.

Food Security

The issue of food security in the world is not a new phenomenon. It varies from country to country due to climatic and geographic factors. In an inter-dependent and peaceful world, exchange of goods between countries sustains the whole of mankind in terms of satisfying the needs for food. However, today due to population increases, affluence and climate change, sustainable sources of food is becoming a major issue that threatens the security of nations in a geopolitically unstable world. Compounding this, more attention to production and consumption of consumer goods and other ephemerals have rendered agriculture and food production secondary. Also industrialization, urbanization and consequent profit motivations have driven food production to the third or fourth place in some economies. Most developing economies prioritize investment in non food producing industries seeking economic growth without realising the fact that dependency for food threatens their national security.

Hierarchically, water and food are fundamental for human survival and all other goods come later. Therefore it is prudent to give priority to water conservation and food security over and above other needs. All other secondary goods are obtainable in a competitive market but food and water are vital assets to be secure within the domain of a nation state. Dependency for food and water on external sources are not sustainable to a nation even if they are industrial giants. At times of crisis, food and water as commodities can be withheld to make a country subservient. Therefore sustainability of water and food becomes almost important as having a standing army protecting the boundaries of a nation. The command of these resources cannot be delegated to outside sources.

Responding to this emerging crisis of food insecurity, resource rich countries which are having resources other than food are buying large tracts of agricultural lands in the form of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in other countries. They are maintaining these as their national assets as contingencies vis a vis food insecurity. The host nations that focus on increasing their GDPs are rarely aware of this emerging new trend that casts potential food insecurity to the host nation in the long run.

Host nations catering to the food security of other nations by permitting FDI in the food and agricultural sector would possibly face severe political problems within the country when food is exported whilst the citizens are starving. This would define very clearly the rich and the poor gap in a society and would set one against the other in their quest for survival. Therefore it is imperative for a country like Sri Lanka to have policies that ensure food security to its citizens first and then concentrate upon economic growth that uplift other sectors.

Discussions on food security cannot be discussed in isolation of the water management of a nation, since water is the source of life that underpins food production. Sri Lanka is blessed with abundant water though there are regional disparities. It was this source of life that once made Sri Lanka the ‘Granary of the East’. Today, we are dependent on imports for some of our food items creating a potentially unwarranted security breach impinging on our national integrity.

This is common in most of the developing economies, in their rat race to achieve high GDP they forge ahead focusing more in the development of technological, industrial and service base of the economy at the expense of the development of the agricultural sector. In line with this, our economists and development planners too were keen on merely achieving higher GDP and per-capita income derivatives and focussed on economic growth. Surprisingly, to an average citizen, economic growth makes no sense unless it reflects food security or self sufficiency in food. How many citizens’ basic needs are satisfied in this country by the so-called increase in the per-capita income? In the contemporary Sri Lankan economy, the middle class sector is narrowing whilst creating a wide gap between the rich and the poor. This is unsustainable and is a clear proof of a majority living below the so-called stated ‘per-capita income’.

Economic growth increases only the profit of the investor with extremely marginal upsurge in the income level of a worker or a citizen. Apart from this, the per-capita income varies from province to province within the country and it serves only a small percentage whilst a large population is below the per-capita income level and some are below the poverty line.

Therefore considering the current economic status, it portends that, if climate change and consequent food insecurity is not addressed prudently now by adjusting our economic policies to strengthen the food security of the nation, the results would be catastrophic.

For Sri Lanka, the potential food insecurity currently experienced is reversible to ensure food security and to attain self sufficiency. The expertise and the resources as an agricultural nation that we have is still dormant and once the right atmosphere and incentives are provided, would spur an agricultural revolution in a very short time. Directing us towards being a successful agricultural nation is possible but it is dependent upon how we manage the following emergent issues:

Water Management

Being abundant in water, Sri Lanka receives rain from the sky and is surrounded by sea. We have an annual average rainfall of 2,000 millimetres covering a total area of 65,610 Sq.Km representing a total volume of 131,220 million m³. This gives an annual rain water per-capita of 6,165m³/person.

Generally, rainwater is stored as blue and green water. Blue water is what is stored in the rivers, lakes and ponds and green water is the water that saturates the soil. In managing this vast reserve of water that we get annually, we are very much behind in making optimal use of this. Considering the usage cost of this water, green water generally has zero cost since it is saturated in the soil and can be harnessed for agriculture directly whereas blue waters require irrigation and therefore incur distribution and management costs.

In addition to the above, according to studies by the UNEP, Sri Lanka has a ground water potential of 78,000M³ per annum.

Therefore, considering the availability of water resource in plenty and ready for direct use, the policy makers must frame policies encouraging the citizens to make maximum use of the green water and ground water available to produce food by engaging in home gardening and informal agriculture. This would make the cost of food cheaper; reduce food miles and its carbon-foot print to sustain the economy of the people whilst enhancing food security of the nation. Remarkably, the traditional Sri Lankan ‘Chena’ cultivation is a success story, as this makes best use of the green water and does not rely on inorganic fertilizer producing healthy and nutritious food.

Similarly, the blue water that is used for agriculture through irrigation requires strict water management due to the following factors:

  • Irrigation systems require proper conveyance and distribution system that does not waste water.
  • The system should solve the instances of excess water use in the upstream which preclude sufficient water reaching downstream.
  • Encourage responsible and frugal use of water by famers and cultivators.

Noting the above, it should be emphasised here that successful water management especially of the blue water would help double-cropping in the paddy lands and would potentially make us self sufficient in rice.

Apart from rainwater being used in agriculture, successful harnessing of waste and grey water with proper recycling can be a potential renewable resource to augment water supply for agricultural and other uses

Soil Contamination

Soil contamination in Sri Lanka is becoming a major threat to the food chain. Intensive use of inorganic fertilizer is denuding the soil of its nutritive elements and thereby rendering them barren. Therefore to overcome this negative soil development, it is becoming ever dependent on inorganic fertilizer to invigorate its capacity to produce. Apart from this, contaminants such as the residues of inorganic fertilizer leach into the ground water thereby contaminating the drinking water sources.

In developed nations, soil decontamination is widely used as a mandatory process of environmental protection and unfortunately in Sri Lanka this is nonexistent. Instead, soil remediation is done only to improve its productivity.

With the advent of Climate Change, its influence on hydrology can potentially exacerbate the problems of soil contamination caused by excessive inorganic fertilizer use. These can also potentially impact the future of agricultural productivity in Sri Lanka and therefore strict governance and regulation is required on inorganic fertilizer use.

Dependence on Inorganic fertilizer

Sri Lanka was once a successful food producing nation. Sri Lankan farmers were once evidently successful in producing food using their centuries old traditional expertise in agriculture using organic fertilizer. Their methods had high productivity, high nutrition and were environmentally sustainable. With the introduction of modern methods and in particular the reliance on inorganic fertilizer has diminished the traditional knowledge of the farmer on one hand and on the other, has made the farmer ever dependent on the imported inorganic fertilizer.

Compounding this, next to imported food, Sri Lanka relies on imported inorganic fertilizer to sustain its agriculture. If the current trend continues, our farmers may become reliant on imported patented seeds, thus putting the last nail on the coffin by surviving on external sources of sustenance for food.

Facing the future in particular in a divided and geopolitically threatening world compounded by the on setting Climate Change, Sri Lankan policy planners must be cognizant of the impending threats not just from terrorism but from the ever expanding Corporate Business Organisations that are aiming at owning the sources of human life like food and water in the name of development and management. The collapse of Ireland and Greece are lessons in modern economies and how such collapse is substituted by corporate leaders who are unelected rulers in the name of stabilizing the economy. This evidences how Corporate Business Organisations takeover national economies.

FDI in Agricultural Water Sector

FDI in these sectors should be taken cautiously as this has potential threats to the nation considering the evolving scenarios of domination by global giants in business. As mentioned before, investment in and the ownership of food production and water by foreign companies in a country with untrammelled freedom, can potentially withhold food supply to the producing nation when faced with food shortages but export to profitable markets overseas. This should instead be on the other way round by supplying first to the producing country and only exporting the surplus. National agricultural and water policies should prioritise on national sustainability as opposed to opening up the vital resources to foreign extraction that threatens sustainability. Mismanagement of this would create serious political repercussions in society, as these can worsen food and water poverty already experienced in some regions of the country.

Virtual Water

Virtual water is said to be the amount of water required to produce a unit of crop.  Virtual water is measured in cubic metres per kilogram M³/Kg. Sri Lanka compared to most other countries in the SAARC Region is water rich and its population density derives a per-capita water availability of   6,165m³/person per annum. Apart from this, forecast of per-capita water availability by the year 2025 on a District basis gives a bleak picture needing prompt action by all concerned.

The above table shows that water is a dwindling resource in Sri Lanka and some districts would experience acute water shortage. It should be noted that the impacts of climate change is possibly not accounted for in the above table and therefore needs corroboration with latest forecasts.

Colombo and Gampaha districts are highly urbanised with high population densities where major services and industrial bases of the country is located, the forecast of 449 and 971 cubic metres/ person respectively is threatening. This is due to the ever increasing use of water for industrial and other purposes which can potentially aggravate this situation affecting the environment and the population living in these districts. Location of industries with intensive water use or of high extraction can potentially make these districts environmentally vulnerable to the extent of damaging the region’s water supply. Similarly, Jaffna, Puttalam and Kandy would experience acute shortages requiring effective water management. Since major industries are not located in these districts it is less concerning, however population growth and regional developments would impose a strain on this and therefore would require strict environmental regulations to mitigate this.

Considering these evolving scenarios, future-proofing sustainable food production and water management would require well defined policies and regulations that direct not only sustainable use but also caters to the national demands.

Having understood the potential scarcity of water predicted in the ensuing years, national policy planners should take note of these new issues that virtual water can impose on the already unsustainable water availability.

In an inter-dependent free market led world, virtual water plays a bridging role between the ’water surplus’ and ‘water deficit’ countries. For example in ‘water deficit’ countries, investing in agriculture is exponentially high due to water scarcity. Therefore importing food from ‘water surplus’ countries are cheap and a prudent choice. This does not endanger their indigenous agriculture if available due to import of foods. However, in ‘water surplus’ countries, importing food is unsustainable as it destroys the indigenous food production. Producing food is cheaper in ‘water surplus countries than in ‘water deficit’ countries.

Exporting crops contains virtual water, similarly, the beverages and mineral water bottling industries contains real water. This also aggravates the water scarcity in Sri Lanka due to extraction of water from aquifers and streams for export overseas. These extractive industries impose a severe strain on the nation’s dwindling water supply sources. Notwithstanding this, export of crops from a ‘water surplus’ country is analogous to exporting water in ‘virtual form’. Therefore virtual water and its much tangible cousin, the mineral water that are exported should serve its citizens first and only the surplus should be exported. This would give an asymmetrical advantage to a country like Sri Lanka if it is used as a commodity to counterbalance the importation cost of fuel and energy etc.

It should be noted here that future wars are going to be fought over water and not over oil, therefore it is vital that this resource is conserved, protected and the system leak proofed so that it will be available to Sri Lanka to serve in a sustainable manner.

The threat of peak oil and having secure and sustainable sources of energy to run our economy is very expensive. But paying for such an expensive commodity would in the long run be possible if Sri Lanka regains its status as the ‘Granary of the East’. So that energy producers in turn would be dependent on food producers.

Today, as global scenarios evolve, inspite of the world being inter-dependent, it is also multi polar and asymmetrical when it comes to the survival of nations. Therefore, it is the responsibility of each nation to be on guard about its own survival. Sri Lanka taking advantage of being an island, developing robust sustainable policies and achieving self sufficiency in food and water would definitely get an edge to survive as a sustainable nation. Achieving this by using sustainable food and water as an asymmetrical tool would also create a sustainable balance of power in real politick in the region.

Investment in education training in Agriculture and Water Management

Ensuring self sufficiency in food and sustainable water cannot be achieved without formulating policies, producing personals and relevant infrastructure.  Our investments should not only be in imported technologies but also in recreating the traditional balance and the relationship our people had with our environment and its people. Our centuries of agricultural traditions and knowhow’s should be improvised to answer current needs and the farmers should be provided with training and practical education thereby binding them with the land they till. They should be recognised for contributing for our food security like the security forces for our defence against our enemies. Farmer education should have academic professional recognition for their expertise and economic social recognition for what they are, so that sound farmer education, training, motivation and recognition facilitation would spur an agricultural revolution to give Sri Lanka a sustainable food security.

Responding to the foregoing factors is an imperative to resuscitate our food security. To bring about this response, the policy planners should develop policies and regulations that ensure national security in respect to our food. The policy makers and other stakeholders in areas of Food Agriculture and Environmental Protection and Sustainability must work in tandem to bring about this security and give the nation this asymmetric tool.

The writer is a Chartered Environmentalist, Architect and Sustainability Consultant. He can be contacted on

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