Deluges to droughts (and Logo Tamasha)

Kitchen Files By Feizal Samath (Sunday Times)

Sri Lanka’s focus last week on an impending drought has drawn a lot of praise in that the authorities – any government for that matter – have got its act together and are preparing ahead for the expected calamity.

While we too add a wee bit of praise to these developments, one must not be too complacent about short-term measures or long-term steps, however well intentioned they are, as these need to be accompanied by an efficient state machinery, finances and the will to succeed ‘against all odds’. Also there are better ways of dealing with these issues.

In preparation for the drought, the armed forces have been placed on alert; multilateral agencies are stepping in to provide drought relief to victims and farmer families, while rice imports are to be permitted to stave off shortages.

But one needs to ask: ‘When will they ever learn’ as legendary singer Pete Seeger says in his immortal classic ‘Where have all the flowers gone?’ When should a government be prepared for a drought or a deluge? Is it on the spur of the moment or years ahead? On the other hand in this day and age where millennials or generation Y are filled with ideas that are transforming the world in the development race, sometimes faster than man can ever achieve, why isn’t there a reservoir of ideas that is sure to generate dams of knowledge on tackling deluges or droughts? Do we have to wait for the last moment or is it that the baby-boomer generation is either unwilling to give young people a chance or hasn’t even thought about it?

Here’s one example. The National Water Supply and Drainage Board (NWSDB), the premier water supplier to the nation, this week launched a competition seeking entries to design a new logo with prizes up to Rs. 100,000 to the winning entry. The winners are to be selected by an independent panel of judges and receive their awards on World Water Day on March 22 at the Nelum Pokuna. The use of Nelum Pokuna itself comes at a huge cost, paid by taxpayers.

So NWSDB gets a new logo and makes a big song and dance about it on a day when the world supposedly focuses attention on the “importance of fresh water and advocates for the sustainable management of freshwater resources”. Will a logo make a change in line with this objective?

Instead of a logo tamasha, what if there is a competition seeking entries for the best short and long terms solutions to Sri Lanka’s perennial water and energy crisis? Solutions on the use of water, what percentage of water should be used for human consumption and industrial consumption, and so on. Isn’t it time we find solutions – and I’m sure there are many out there by young dynamos using the range of technology that the world has access to.

What if a competition – a larger one than designing a logo for the country’s water authority – brings out the best ideas and solutions on ensuring an uninterrupted water supply for all the country’s need throughout the year, 24×7, for decades? I don’t have any answers but a process like this is sure to result in a flow of ideas on how to deal with droughts, efficient water use, rainwater harvesting, generating new energy, etc.

Sri Lanka unfortunately goes through this eternal cycle of droughts to deluges with quick-fix, papering-the-cracks kind of solutions. The usual reaction is to enforce water cuts, power cuts and provide drought relief supported by society chipping in to help the needy.

Everyone is happy. No one talks or even murmurs about climate change and global warming, despite warnings sounded more than a decade ago by experts like Prof. Mohan Munasinghe. In 2007 he sounded a warning about public apathy and lack of state attention on climate change. 2007 saw the worst flash floods through high intensity rains. Munasinghe has visualised a scenario of warmer temperatures in cold climes and vice versa; that half the north would be inundated by water and that the dreaded mosquito (which thrives in warmer climes) will cause sleepless nights for upcountry residents. During a recent visit to Hatton, there were plenty of mosquitoes to keep me company!

Global experts say warmer temperatures increase evaporation in plant soils, which affects plant life and reduces rainfall. And heavy rains in drought-stricken areas result in drier soil being unable to absorb water, increasing the likelihood of flooding. Drier soil also prevents water retention which just flows into the sea when it is more important to get it to soak into the ground.

Be proactive. No one should say Sri Lanka wasn’t warned enough to, instead of institutionalising disaster management as a reactive process, be proactive with ground-breaking efforts on tackling climate change and global warming.

World Water Day comes and goes ‘before one can say Jack Robinson’. Universal days are turning out to be a big farce and just an occasion to raise funds, celebrate and party when these issues need to be addressed all the time, not on a single day of the year. Do you know that there are 132 UN days universally celebrated every year? If there are days like UN Jazz Day, a UN Toilet Day, a UN Parents Day, a UN Blood Donor Day and a UN Charity Day, why not a UN Day to celebrate innovation and creative thought?

Given the burst of ideas, innovative thinking and creativity being the new mantra of the now generation, this is something to think about for the UN.

In the race to develop, quick-fixes seem to be the way forward. Earlier this month, authorities in northern India ordered the closure of a Coca-Cola bottling plant because it was extracting too much groundwater, according to news reports.

On the other side of the Palk Strait, here in Sri Lanka, it was reported earlier this week that Coca-Cola wants to set up a plant to feed the demand in India. If this happens, scarce groundwater resources will be utilized to feed a neighbour.

Do we have a plan on the industrial use of groundwater? Do we have a plan for rainwater harvesting which is a great way to accumulate water? Is there coordination between investment promotion agencies and government agencies dealing with water resources in the approval of industries that require lots of water – in particular bottled water plants and fruit drink manufacturers?

At the end of the day, planners need to chart Sri Lanka’s domestic requirements – basic human needs; then assess the requirement for local industries; and thereafter water-related foreign investments looking at export markets.

Without any such plan, scarce water resources will find their way into overseas markets through bottled drinks and bottled water similar to Evian from Geneva or PepsiCo’s Aquafina found in local supermarkets.

A few days ago there was a heart-warming headline in a local newspaper: ‘Hear the trees whisper’. The report quotes an architect as saying that “… though trees cannot speak, they can hear us”. If only trees can whisper, they would tell us what is wrong with mankind amidst all the warnings on climate change and global warming.

Reminds you of another perennial favourite, Louis Armstrong’s ‘What a wonderful world’ with lines like “… I see trees of green, red roses too//I see them bloom for me and you//And I think to myself what a wonderful world”.

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