On Boxing Day 2004 as my phone beeped with an SMS news alert, a new world entered my vocabulary: tsunami. …
On Boxing Day 2004 as my phone beeped with an SMS news alert, a new world entered my vocabulary: tsunami. Pronounced soo-nah-mee (with a silent t), I learnt that the Japanese word stood for ‘a series of water waves caused by the displacement of a large volume of a body of water, typically an ocean or a large lake.’ News broadcasters both local and International were reporting that an undersea megathrust earthquake that occurred off the west coast of Sumatra has caused a tsunami. After Indonesia, the Sri Lankan Island was the hardest hit with over 30,000 reported dead.
In the days immediately following the 5th Asian Ministerial Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (AMCDRR) there were several disaster and extreme weather incidents that were reported from around the world. Hurricane Sandy hit the Caribbean, Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern United States while cyclone Nilam hit Sri Lanka and Southern India. Just days back a tsunami warning was issued to Hawaii following a 7.7 quake off western Canada. Here in Sri Lanka months of drought that left farmers hapless were followed by incessant rains that led to the rise of water levels in major rivers inundating several cities. The need to prepare is real: the urgency, imminent.
Disaster Risk Reduction
As the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Risk Reduction’s Guide for DRR Reporting explains ‘Hazards are natural. Disasters are not. There is nothing natural about a disaster. Nature provides hazards-earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods and so on-but humans help create the disaster. We cannot prevent a volcanic eruption, but we can prevent it from becoming a disaster.’ ‘Once we understand that there is a difference between a natural hazard and a disaster, we then understand that disasters are mostly human induced.’
The Curious Case of Tilly Smith
Tilly Smith is a British girl who, at the age of 10, was credited with saving nearly a hundred tourists at Maikhao Beach in Thailand by warning beachgoers minutes before the arrival of the tsunami caused by the 2004 earthquake. Tilly had learned about tsunamis in a geography lesson two weeks before from her teacher. She recognized the symptoms of receding water from the shoreline and frothing bubbles on the surface of the sea and alerted her parents, who warned others on the beach and the staff at the hotel where they were staying. The beach was evacuated before the tsunami reached shore, and was one of the few beaches on the island with no reported casualties.
Meanwhile, in Sri Lanka, in a rather unfortunate turn on events, clueless beachgoers ran towards the sea in snooping excitement at the receding of water levels. This cost the better half of them their lives. Awareness is key. What people know is more important than what they have when it comes to saving lives, reducing loss and in the bigger picture of building a culture of safety and resilience. Being a product of the system of free education of Sri Lanka, DRR was not incorporated in my school curriculum. Unlike Tilly, I wasn’t taught that if water levels are receding, that’s the sign of a tsunami to come, or that one should duck under a table in the event of an earthquake etc… While information on disasters were taught as part of environmental studies, geography and science; what steps to take when a hazard strikes were never taught in schools, or for that matter, in universities. Speaking at a side event at AMCDRR Dr. Deepthi Wickramasinghe from the Department of Zoology of the University of Colombo highlighted the need for the inclusion of DRR Strategies in school and university curricula. The need for countrywide public awareness is real.
A tale of two Cities
As important as awareness, risk assessment and disaster resilient infrastructure is protecting the natural defenses that nature has blessed us with. The story of Kapuhenwala and Wanduruppa, two neighboring villages in the lagoon of southern Sri Lanka, shows the importance of mangroves in saving lives: while in Wanduruppa 5,000 to 6,000 people died following the 2004 tsunami, in the neighboring town of Kapuhenwala, the tsunami killed only two people — the lowest number of tsunami related fatalities in a village in Sri Lanka’s South. The reason for this turn of events: Kapuhenwala was bordered by 200 hectares of dense mangroves and scrub forest while the mangroves surrounding Wanduruppa have been degraded for commercial purposes. Coastal wetlands such as mangrove forests, marshes and coral reefs serve as natural buffers and reduce the impacts of waves and storms. It is our responsibility to protect them from degradation.
The host of this year’s Asian Ministerial Conference Indonesia; is an example of a country that strives to be prepared despite being constantly faced by the wrath of nature. Indonesia sits between the world’s most active seismic and tectonic regions — the Pacific ”Ring of Fire” and the Alpide Belt. However, the country is taking steps to be prepared in the wake of hazards. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono addressing the opening ceremony of the conference said his ‘ultimate goal is to ensure that Indonesia is better equipped and more ready in the wake of any natural disasters.’
Furthermore, disaster resilient infrastructure is also absolutely imperative. Speaking following the launch of the Asia–Pacific Disaster Report 2012 Dr. Shamika Sirimanne, Director-Information and Communications, Technology and DRR Division of the UN ESCAP, highlighted the need for the prioritization of DRR in the post war development agenda of Sri Lanka.
Is Climate Change to blame?
Disasters happen for many reasons but the four main factors that contribute to the increase of the risk posed by disasters are climate change, rapid urbanization, poverty and environmental degradation. As predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC); Climate change will create new hazards causing glaciers to melt, sea levels to rise, etc… and these effects amp up extreme weather events.
One doesn’t know for sure, if there is a direct link between Sandy, Nilam and Climate Change. But facts show that there have been dramatic changes in weather patterns and if one connects the dots it is easy to see that climate change fuels to extreme weather events. This doesn’t mean that any given storm or flood is caused solely by climate change. That would be wrong and misleading. Its way more complicated and many factors contribute to that. But Climate Change is a contributor and scientific complexity shouldn’t be exploited to avoid discussion and debate.
Disasters hit the most unexpected of regions at the most unexpected of times. As the media guide describes, disasters can affect everyone, and are therefore everybody’s business. Disaster risk reduction should be part of everyday decision-making; from how people educate their children to how they plan their cities. Each decision can make us more vulnerable or more resilient.’
On Boxing Day 2004 as my phone beeped with an SMS news alert, a new world entered my vocabulary: tsunami. …Read post →
During a Rio+20 side event on Intergenerational Dialogue, I met a gent: Brazilian; visibly in his late sixties: there were…
During a Rio+20 side event on Intergenerational Dialogue, I met a gent: Brazilian; visibly in his late sixties: there were wrinkles on his face that radiated a sense of astuteness. He told me he was at the Rio Centro for the Earth Summit in 1992 as a young, zealous activist. There was a sense of pride in his voice as his recollected his memories. This made me wonder (not without reason), if I’d be able to feel the same about being in Rio this June for the Rio+20 Conference.
Societal discourse about the environment is a relatively new phenomenon in the Sri Lankan island. Perhaps when your country is at war, when you have to live with the perpetual fear for your life; and suicide attacks and claymore bombs become words in the common vernacular; speaking of melting glaciers and rising sea levels maybe a farfetched luxury that one cannot afford. Today, several years after the conclusion of the war; the climate has yet to enter political priorities in the run up to national elections.
Sri Lanka has never been a massive carbon emitter (currently standing at a mere 0.57 metric tons per capita), and owing to its size and rate of industrial growth, would perhaps never be one in the near future. However, for a small country with increasing prejudices against the UN system; there was extra hype created around Rio+20 in Sri Lanka, or safe to say, in Colombo. But the bottom-line is that only a handful of Sri Lankans are even aware of the occurrence of Climate Change, let alone the Rio+20 process. While several English daily and weekly newspapers had occasional updates about the conference; Sinhalese/Tamil newspapers had no mention of the Earth Summit besides news features revolving around President Rajapaksha’s visit to the event. Ironically so, it is often those that aren’t aware of these issues that are victimized by them: drought stricken farmers, the unemployed, hapless fishermen among others.
Long before Rio+20; a group of Sri Lankan civil society organizations met in the coastal town of Negombo for the Sri Lanka Civil Society Dialogue on Rio+20. As the outcome document of these discussions, the Sri Lanka Civil Society Statement on Rio +20 was released. The statement echoes the sentiment that even though “Sri Lanka is not a rich developed country.” It is “moving towards the destructive track with its untamed and greedy development model.”
Colonization and Historical Justice
If there was one underlying theme in President Rajapaksha’s address in the Opening Plenary of the High Level segments of Rio+20, it is the concept of Climate Equity. “Addressing the environmental crisis should not be a burden for the developing countries alone” he said. “The developed countries, which largely contribute to the environmental crisis, cannot and should not leave the responsibility of saving the environment to developing countries, at the cost of their economic development.” Similar sentiments were echoed by Indian Premier Manmohan Singh.
When one fifth of the world population causes almost 62% of all global carbon emissions, it is only fair that the rest of the world demands for Common but Differentiated Responsibility, commonly referred to as CBDR (the direct responsibility of developed countries in global climate change as well as the ‘special needs and special circumstances of developing countries’).
Continuous demands by developing nations at climate negotiations for CBDR and climate equity are very much like those of the Occupy Movement. They highlight that the: ‘’largest share of historical and current global emissions of greenhouse gases originated in developed countries’’, ‘per capita emissions in developing countries are still relatively low” and that ‘’ the share of global emissions originating in developing countries will grow to meet social and development needs.’’
Sri Lanka as evolved through over 300 years of Colonization: first by the Portuguese, then the Dutch, followed by the British. The colonial powers grabbed land belonging to locals, developed plantations in the central highlands of the island, enslaved the local populace and plundered resources for the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. After fighting the common enemy of the Colonial British, began the fights among ourselves: the LTTE declared war on the Sri Lankan state. After decades of bloodshed, the war saw its end in 2009. Now Sri Lanka is slowly moving along the path of development. The people of Sri Lanka yearn for development and after all these years they surely deserve it. Developed nations which have long exhausted their share of emissions, need to recognize the right to development of their developing counterparts. However, most developed countries do not accept this concept calling it backward and unpractical.
With much effort by the G77 and China, CBDR, which was an original outcome of the Earth Summit in 1992 was retained in this year’s text. The commitment to CBDR was ‘reaffirmed’ in clause 15 and ‘underscored’ in clause 190. However, industrialized developing economies; especially those such as the BRICS states (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and major crude oil exporters should not hide behind a shield of CBDR and equity. Economic development should always be sustainable.
What is as important as upholding the principle of equity within multilateral diplomatic channels, is that equity is ensured within our nations. The Civil Society Statement describes that in Sri Lanka ‘about 23% of the population lives below the 1.25 USD poverty line. Growing disparity among the Sri Lankan society is visible while it is slowly moving towards” middle income status.
In a classic example of how practices that work in stable economies, sometimes cannot be adopted in developing nations; in Nigeria, where the majority of the population lives on less than 1 dollar a day; fuel prices went up drastically following the introduction of the green economic policy of eliminating fossil fuel subsidies. This resulted in nationwide protests in the streets of Lagos and around the country. The government was quick to restore the subsidy.
The Lankan Civil Society Statement went on to prophetically state that “the political leadership is not ready to tell their people that they must change and cut down resource consumption, due to the fear of losing power.” These words became a reality at the Rio Centro during Rio+20. Prior to the Earth Summit in 1992 George H. W. Bush said “the American way of life is not negotiable.” Things haven’t drastically changed since. Though not expressed explicitly actions of negotiators of nations which contribute to global carbon emissions in massive scales suggested that they share similar sentiments.
There hasn’t been an assessment of the environmental costs of the war that was fought for far too long. But it is time the State declared war on climate change and took necessary steps to not only conserve the natural environment; but also emerge as a global advocate of sustainable development and a mouth piece of concerns of island nations. Rio+20 has let us down, however, we need to ensure that our elected representatives act in our best interest. Tax payers’ dividends should not be used to fund our death and the destruction of our planet. It is our right; and responsibility to hold them accountable.
During a Rio+20 side event on Intergenerational Dialogue, I met a gent: Brazilian; visibly in his late sixties: there were…Read post →
Born in an island in the midst of one of the most brutal civil wars in history, with my disciplinarian…
Born in an island in the midst of one of the most brutal civil wars in history, with my disciplinarian father serving in the military: partaking at the ritual rip-up of the Rio+20 Summit negotiation text, followed by the sit-in before the main plenary hall, and the symbolic walk out of the Rio Centro was not within the self-imposed boundaries of my comfort zone. Even though there is a kind of stigma existing in Sri Lanka, especially as of late (following the UNHRC vote on alleged human rights violations during the final stages of the armed conflict) against the UN: of its partiality and alleged double standards etc… I grew up wanting a job in the UN, because I thought that’s the closest the world got to utopia. Tracking Rio+20 negotiations this June was an eye-opener to the stark reality of the international bureaucracy that is the United Nations.
What we saw yesterday, was an explosion of the frustrations that have been gathering momentum for the past few days. Seated at the occupy-style sit-in, as I looked at the others around me, I saw the passion in their eyes (something you never see in the eyes of negotiators); I realized that they were not representing a country, or some organization. They were representing themselves. They didn’t have hidden agendas and political motivations, they weren’t getting paid for doing this, and it would definitely not look good in the CVs that they protested outside a high level UN meeting. They were there, only because they genuinely cared.
As highlighted by Wael Hmaidan during the opening statement at the plenary on behalf of NGOs; even though the negotiation text says the text was drafted ‘in full participation of the civil society’ the actions of the members of the civil society in the past few days have clearly suggested otherwise. ‘We as civil society reject this text’, they said, as it ‘barely moves us inches’.
What followed was phenomenal: What began as a small gathering started to get the attention of passersby who joined in. Soon, the media personnel at the Rio Centro were reporting the event to networks around the world, Twitter was flooded with on-site updates and riot police presence at the Rio Centro was heightened. Those present ranged from the major group of children and youth, the major group for women, indigenous people, NGO personnel among many others: including several ‘D Badges’ (members of national delegations).
The protesters ripped off a giant mock text as the ‘future they bought’ denouncing the influence of multinational corporations and business conglomerates over governments’ action at Rio+20. 10 year old, Ta’Kaiya Blaney of the Sliammon Nation, an indigenous group from British Columbia, then sang to the gathering: “what are we going to leave for future generations. There’ll be no environment left without change. It needs to come not tomorrow, but today.” While the ripping off of the text and the gathering were sanctioned by the conference secretariat and UN security, the sit-in and the walk out were not. The participants of the youth action, outside the main plenary hall where world leaders were supposedly negotiating; convened a ‘People’s Plenary’. They all shared the disappointment by the lack of commitment and ambition in the negotiation text. Despite demands by the security, the activists were determined to continue. When the police warned them of being at the risk of losing their accreditation: they did exactly that. They took off their badges and handed them over to security officials and marched out chanting ‘the future we want is not found here’, ‘walkout not sellout’.
After all politicians are politicians, they have narrow political interests and they will do everything within their power to cling on their power. Politicians are followers. They will follow whatever and whoever that will get them more votes. Treaties and legalisms are never solutions, they never have been. Even though the Earth Summit in 1992 had impressive landmark outcomes (including the Convention on Climate Change, Convention on Biological Diversity and Agenda 21) most proposals in these treaties have still never yet been implemented.
But what has come out of Rio this June is a mobilized Civil Society that will not wait for ‘leaders to lead’: NGOs that have initiated various action oriented projects, youth groups that are taking action and mobilizing fellow youth, a business community that has pledged commitments, local government bodies that have committed to far more than their central governments, an academia that is committed to their research and media that will raise awareness: a ‘civil society that leads itself’; and that is priceless. Yesterday’s protest was not a mere expression of disappointment or an attempt to ‘create a scene’ it was a move to show that the civil society is not willing to wait for the leaders that are dragging their feet.
The future we want is not found here. It is elsewhere.
Photos: PowerShiftCanada2012/Promo image
Born in an island in the midst of one of the most brutal civil wars in history, with my disciplinarian…Read post →
So this is it. Things are heating up in Rio. The Preparatory Committee Consultations have concluded. Ministers from the world…
So this is it. Things are heating up in Rio. The Preparatory Committee Consultations have concluded. Ministers from the world over are here at the Conference location, and the Heads of State will start arriving tomorrow. Outside, June rains have ceded and the weather in Rio is warming up; almost as if to compliment the atmosphere inside the Rio Centro.
There is a general sense of disappointment at the conference location: an understanding that the text lacks ambition and commitment. A growing sense of frustration is in the air at the acceptance of the scrawny text by member states with no hesitation.
Brazil is not making a warm, cordial host; they are playing a rather tyrannical role: forcing states to accept and adopt the watered down draft document before the heads of state arrive.
As if to quantify the substance echoed in the outcome document; a simple ‘cntrl+f’ search in the pdf version of the text ironically titled ‘the Future We Want’ gave the following results. The term ‘recognizes’ is used 147 times in the document, ‘reaffirm’-59 times, and the word ‘encourages’ 49 times. On the other hand, more impactful and prescriptive words are seen hardly ever. [The search found only 6 matches for the word ‘adopt’ and only 5 for ‘decides’.]
Is there anything in it at all?
1) Sustainable Development Goals
The text reads: “we resolve to establish an inclusive and transparent intergovernmental process on SDGs that is open to all stakeholders with a view to developing global sustainable development goals to be agreed by the United Nations General Assembly”
The text has basically, laid the foundation, to lay the foundation of the SDGs, this is a far cry from the adoption of SDGs.
2) High Level Forum
It has been decided that “a universal intergovernmental high level political forum [with universal membership], building on the strengths, experiences, resources and inclusive participation modalities of the Commission on Sustainable Development” is to be created.
3) UNEP upgraded
The UNEP is to be reinforced with universal membership and guaranteed funding. But, the reforms appear to stop short of upgrading the programme to the same level as more powerful UN bodies, such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Health Organization (WHO). The call by certain African States to amend the draft do as to adopt the name ‘World Environmental Organization’, replacing the existing UNEP has gone unheard.
4. Registry of Commitments
‘There will be a Registry of Commitments voluntarily entered into at Rio +20 and throughout 2012 by all stakeholders and their networks to implement concrete policies, plans, programs, projects and actions to promote sustainable development and poverty eradication’.
The draft calls for the promotion of “transparency and implementation through further enhancing the consultative role and participation of Major Groups and other relevant stakeholders”. This is rather ironic as only yesterday was the language related to a proposal for an ombudsperson or a United Nations High Commissioner for Future Generations was deleted.
World leaders should be able to make decisions in the interests of their people.
A successful twitterstorm and a flashmob later, the issue that reigned in the number one position of the Rio Dialogues list of recommendations voted by the people: i.e. eliminating fossil fuel subsidies, was struck off the text.
‘’We recognize the need for further action to rationalize and phase out harmful and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption and undermine sustainable development, taking fully into account the specific conditions and different levels of development of individual countries, and in a manner that protects the poor and the affected communities.’’
The text has “only” been approved “ad ref” in plenary this morning. This means that it has been provisionally agreed to without any remaining brackets. It is still possible to reopen an agreed ad ref paragraph or text as the text will only become the official outcome document after it has been agreed to by heads of state and/or governments during the high-level meetings. If one or more countries insist on blocking the text, it will not be approved. Leaders should fight for their people, even if it means fighting alone.
This is not the future I want, it is nowhere close. What we have seen is a failure on the part of leaders to take decisions on the best interest of their people. The silence is deafening; the failure to act: unforgivable.
So this is it. Things are heating up in Rio. The Preparatory Committee Consultations have concluded. Ministers from the world…Read post →
20 years ago, in this very city; negotiators at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development: rightly termed, the “Earth Summit,” arrived at outcomes that sought progress on sustainable development, including human rights, population change, social development, women’s rights and gender equality. However, at the recent preparatory committee sessions of Rio+20 there were shameless attempts by member states and non-state actors to roll back internationally-agreed language on sexual and reproductive rights.
Women account to half of the seven billion earthlings, and for development to be truly sustainable, all human beings should have access to sexual and reproductive rights. Women are most vulnerable to effects of climate change. They are more likely to die during natural disasters than men. Many of the most inspirational leaders in the growing climate movement are women. Over the years, a human rights-based approach has emphasized the importance of guaranteeing accessibility of women to human rights.
It is flabbergasting how, the Holy See (together with G77 member states), which is not a member state of the United Nations, possessing only observer status is attempting to block all reference to sexual and reproductive rights in the current negotiation text. Of course the UN should advocate equal representation and accommodate diverse views, but the concept of Bargaining Power in elementary economics talks about the relative abilities of parties in a situation to exert influence over each other. This is an explanation as to why, member states choose to operate in blocs at UN climate negotiations: to increase their bargaining power; sometimes at the expense of heavy sacrifices. The Holy See, with no Citizens of its own, does not derive legitimacy from a mandate of the people. Even the Vatican City, where it is based, has a grand total of 832 citizens.
To ensure that the United Nations does not promote one particular religious view, religious entities such as the Roman Catholic Church should be divorced from such discussions. A statement released by the Center for Research on Population and Security reads “If the United Nations treats the Holy See as a state with permanent observer privileges because of the Roman Catholic Church’s religious authority, the United Nations is creating a precedent for similar claims by other religions.”.
Recently, the Holy See released a statement in view of the Rio+20 negotiations:
“Human beings, in fact, come first. We need to be reminded of this. At the center of sustainable development is the human person. The human person, to whom the good stewardship of nature is entrusted, cannot be dominated by technology and become its object…In this sense, our approach to nature clearly needs to be reviewed, for nature is the setting in which human beings are born and interact: it is their ‘home’.”
As of yesterday there were over 15 reservations/brackets proposed by the Holy See (often back by the G77) We watched on, at the Splinter Group meeting on gender, education, health, cities, transport, and mining, of the ugly militant, politicized use of Religion and all I could see were tears in Jesus’ eyes.
An estimated 1,600 women die every day from complications caused by pregnancy and child birth, 99% in developing countries. To regress on the outcomes of the 1992 Earth Summit, is a sacrilege. It will also negative impact development and economic growth.
Jesus wept. And we, if we watch on doing nothing, we’ll cry too.
About the authorSenel Wanniarachchi
Senel is a Sri Lankan activist tracking climate issues in South Asia and beyond. He's a trained journalist, columnist, radio news reporter, editor, student, and a Rio+20 Fellow.