Preparation of a Country Environmental Profile for Sri Lanka for European Union (EU) Sri Lanka economic cooperation – part2

S.W. Newman* and D.M.S.H.K. Ranasinghe**
* School of Biology, University of Leeds, Leeds L 52 9JT UK
** Department of Forestry & Environmental Science, University of Sri Jayewardenepura

Full Paper Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3


The main objective of the Country Environmental Profile is to identify and assess environmental issues to be considered during the preparation of a Country Strategy Paper, which will directly or indirectly influence European Commission (EC) cooperation activities. A secondary aim was to guide bilateral rehabilitation assistance and regional cooperation at regional levels eg. Asia wide programs or at sub regional level such as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). In order to mainstream environmental considerations into EC country programming and projects it is essential to note that key environmental indicators are clearly specified in Millennium Development Goal (MDG) number seven which is ‘Ensuring Environmental Sustainability’. It is also important to recognize that the environment is often the engine of development for both the urban and rural poor as opposed to something that should be protected for posterity.

State of the Environment

Country Description
The island of Sri Lanka lies between 6 and 10 degrees North latitude and between 80 and 82 degrees East. It has an area of 65,610 square kilometers and a population of 19,462,000 (mid 2004). The population is very uneven with 60% located in one quarter of the island known as the wet zone. Over 72% of the population live in rural areas. The population density in 2004 was 310 persons per square kilometer.

The economy registered an annual growth of 5.4% in the real Gross Domestic Product in 2004. GNP per capita is over US$800 per capita which is ahead of some South Asian Countries. 6.6% and 45.4% of the population earned below $1 and $2 per day respectively in 1995. (2004 Annual report of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka)
The island has a very rich cultural heritage with productive agricultural kingdoms starting before the 4th century BC. The indigenous knowledge of agriculture, water management and medicine is of global importance (Footprints of Our Heritage, UNESCO).

Physical Environment

The island has a central mountainous massif and a vast plain surrounding it, giving a significant variation in climate. The annual temperature in the coastal belt ranges from 26 to 35 degrees centigrade while in the central highland it ranges from 15 to 19 degrees. As a tropical island there is little temporal variation in temperature. The annual rainfall varies from 1000 mm in arid areas in the south west and north west of the island to over 5000 mm in a few places on the South West slopes of the Central Highlands. The 3000 mm isohyet divides the country into the wet zone covering the south western part and the dry zone covering the north and east of the highlands. The seasons contain two mosoons. The Yala monsoon brings rain to the south west during May to August. The Maha monsoon brings rain to the North and the East from October to January (Arjuna’s Atlans of Sri Lanka). A breakdown of Land use types is given below in Table 1 which is taken from the 1998 Statistical Compendium. The highest mountain is Mount Pidurutalagala at 2524m.

Table 1: Land Use Types and their extents in Sri Lanka

Land use type Extent in ha
Built up lands 29,190
Agricultural lands 3,710,880
Forest lands 1,759,840
Range lands 593,520
Wet bodies 61,810
Barren lands 77,480
Total 6,523,240

Source: Statistical Abstract, 2003

Biological Environment

At the beginning of the 20th Century about 70% of the island was covered by forest. By 1998 this had shrunk to 24%. 82% of the land is theoretically controlled by the state, but in reality there has been considerable official and unofficial encroachment and the actual level of state control is currently unclear.
Sri Lanka is considered to be the most bio-diverse country in Asia per unit area and is a global biodiversity hotspot. About half of its native species are endemic, including all freshwater crabs, 90% of amphibians, 50% of freshwater fish, 26% of flowering plants and 14% of its mammals. There are over 3368 species of flowering plant and over 400 species of spiders. Sri Lanka has very high ecosystem diversity. The island also has high agricultural biodiversity (Biodiversity Conservation in Sri Lanka, A Framework for Action, 1999).

Critical Environmental Issues in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is an island nation endowed with many natural resources. It also has a long history of living in harmony with the environment. Some classic examples of this practice is the world famous water management system established by the period of olden kings, homegardens especially in the hill country etc. However, with the advent of foreign invasions and commercialisation of products and services, the harmony between the environment and the humans was greatly impaired resulting in environmental degradation. Among the major environmental issues in the country, land degradation, deforestation, loss of biodiversity, air pollution, declining availability of fresh water and deteriorating water quality, degradation of marine and coastal habitats and solid waste disposal can be mentioned (State of the Environment, Sri Lanka, 2001).

Sustainability of the environment has been severely affected by land degradation. The soils suffer from varying degrees of erosion and degradation mainly due to rapid rates of deforestation, poor irrigation and drainage practice, inadequate soil conservation, chena cultivation and vegetable cultivation in steep slopes and overgrazing. It has been estimated that about 46% of the land in the country has been affected by soil erosion. High population density has reduced the land: man ratio from 2.25 ha in 1880 to 0.38 ha in 2000.

Deforestation is also considered as a major environmental issue in the country. Forest cover has decreased from 44% in 1956 to just over 22% at present while in the biodiversity rich wet lowlands it is only 3% of the land area. The annual rate of deforestation is estimated to be about 3%. With the decline of natural ecosystems, biodiversity is also greatly affected. Over 690 flowering plant species and 90 fern species have been assigned threatened status (State of the Environment, Sri Lanka, 2001). Among animals, about 75% of vertebrate groups and about 50 – 100% invertebrate groups are under threat (IUCN Red Data Book, 2000).

One of the most important implications of economic growth is the increased demand for energy. The use of energy in power, transportation and related sectors had increased air pollution. Further, urbanization and industrialization has increased the urban air pollution. Significant health threats result from the outdoor as well as indoor air pollution resulting from the use of low quality solid fuels such as coal, wood, crop residues.

Although well endowed with water resources, waters are getting polluted especially due to improper management of the same. The major pressures on water resources arise from agriculture, urbanisation and industrialization. Concentrations of chloride, nitrate and potassium in drinking water and other sources have substantially increased. Untreated domestic sewage is causing health problems due to pathogenic organisms. In addition to this, salinisation affects ground water resources due to the intrusion of seawater (State of the Environment in Sri Lanka, 2002).

Sri Lanka being a island nation is framed with 1585 km of coastline. Marine resources provide more than 100,000 employment opportunities and are very vital to the socio economic status of the country. Some of the most important problems in the coastal zone are costal erosion and coastal pollution. Coastal pollution occurs both from land based and sea based sources. Construction of unauthorized structures on the coast, river and beach sand mining, coral mining are some of the activities, which contribute to the coastal erosion. Further, among the sea-based activities, contamination with oil from marine transport systems, green house effect and temperature rise in the seawaters is also significant. Loss of coastal habitats include substantial loss of mangrove forests especially for the construction of shrimp ponds and for paddy rice cultivation with negative impacts on commercial fisheries as well as stability of land. It also contributes substantially to the loss of important ecosystems (Coastal Zone Action Plan, 2003).

About 25% of the population in the country live in urban environments, which account to only 0.5% of the land area. The rise of cities has been accompanied by a proliferation of slums and squatter settlements without access to basic infrastructure, clean water and sanitation with associated health risks. Further the affluence of urban areas has resulted in congestion, increasing air and water pollution, loss of productive agricultural land, conversion of environmentally valuable land to non-agricultural purposes, over extraction of ground water resources etc. Management of solid and liquid waste are critical issues especially in these urban areas. Although Local Authorities are entrusted with the collection and disposal of solid waste, inadequate resources and dumping sites has hindered the efficiently of the operation. Despite the fact that there are many awareness campaigns on effective waste management the public in general seems to turn a blind ear to this which aggravates the problem further (State of the Environment in Sri Lanka, 2002).

Special issues

The conflict waged by Tamil separatists in the northern and eastern regions of Sri Lanka since 1983 experienced a break with a ceasefire on the 22 February 2002. The donors support meeting on humanitarian aid, held in Oslo in November 2002 consolidated steps towards peace, with the donor conference in Tokyo in June 2003 resulting in pledges amounting to € 4,5 billion.

The tsunami that hit the countries around the Indian Ocean on December 26, 2004 was one of the worst natural disasters in recorded history. After Indonesia, Sri Lanka has suffered the most from the tsunami. The tsunami has destroyed or damaged: 130,000 houses, 168 public schools, four universities, 18 vocational centres; 92 local clinics, hospitals and drug stores; significant losses in power, transportation (roads and railways), water supply and sanitation. Sri Lanka’s tourism industry has been very hard hit since the disaster occurred during one of their busiest periods of the year destroying key infrastructure
Both of the above issues have had profound environmental effects.