Sri Lanka, the pearl-shaped island with a coastline of 1,340 Kilometers, is central to the Indian Ocean region as it overlooks a very ecologically sensitive region with unique biodiversity. Sri Lanka is an ecological hotspot with broad spatial-temporal variation in climatic, topographic, edaphic and zoogeographic factors that has resulted in the formation of a diverse array of terrestrial, aquatic, coastal and marine ecosystems. The mudflats, grasslands, tropical forests, coasts, corals and multiple other diverse ecological landscapes host a myriad of creatures. Sri Lanka is not an isolated island; it connects a chain of rich biodiverse coasts from Malacca Straits to the Strait of Hurmuz. With 23% of flowering plants and 16% of mammals indigenous to the island, and the ‘Ecologically or Biologically Significant Marine Area around Gulf of Mannar lying to the north; national measures will be significantly important.
Sri Lanka released the National Biodiversity Strategic Action Plan (NBASP) 2016-2022 as part of these measures. The plan highlights the national strategies, targets for 2022 and beyond, international obligations, resource mobilization and other administrative policies to achieve the biodiversity targets. Challenges to the island ecology come from rapid urbanization along the coasts where 25% of the population resides. The socio-economic development in the north after 3 decades of unrest is putting pressure on various dry-zone forests.
According to the Ministry of Environment, 487 species were critically endangered and another 196 are possibly extinct. With such alarming numbers, the future of development in the island needs to be extremely environmentally sensitive. Rapid push to translate the Lankan economy on the trans-shipment hub model also exposes the diverse coastal landforms to pollution and disasters. On May 20, 2021, a cargo container ship “X-Press Pearl” caught fire spilling its contents just off the coast of Colombo. The disaster was deemed as the worst maritime disaster in Sri Lankan history. Tons of toxic cargo wreaked havoc on the local maritime sea forms & will continue to affect biodiversity long into the future. Months before this incident, another ship had caught fire off the Lankan coasts too, although disaster was averted. The NBSAP 2022 plan set 12 National targets which include developing taxonomy, cutting environmental losses, enhancing the protection of biodiversity, sustainable development, enhancing protection from hazards, ensuring bio-safety, etc. Another long-term target is to achieve the Aichi targets and meet the UN 2030 Sustainable development goals. The targets of achieving long-term conservation of biodiversity and human well-being through an ecosystem approach are quite beautifully highlighted as strategic. The recent experiences have definitely forced a rethink. The heritage of ecological wealth can make Sri Lanka a powerhouse for tourism and the green industry.
To achieve this, the NBSAP adopts a 3-tier approach. It envisages a national biodiversity database, a national list of species, a zoological and botanical survey mechanism, local training for ecology identification and conservation, etc. Sri Lanka aimed to cut habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation of habitat by ensuring that detailed data sets are set up under NBSAP. Checks on agro-chemical usage and release into wetlands, reducing the impact of tourism on environment, environment impact assessments, proper utilization of resources, setting up national goals of conservation and increasing public participation.
Sri Lanka’s focus to safeguard its ecological heritage is an inspiration for many countries trying to balance development with sustainability. There is an urgent need for the global community to do much more to save the climate, but the desperation to find better life for people through unsustainable rapid industrialization on a short-term basis is a means to no end. Both Sri Lanka and the rest of developing partners in the region like Maldives, Bangladesh, India, Madagascar, Coastal African Nations, South East Asia maritime states are members of UN and Non-aligned Movement. NAM can be a dedicated platform for channeling the needs and problems of developing partners away from the geopolitical tussles. The UN guidelines for sustainable development goals can be aided by various initiatives like solarization, biosphere reserve program, green credit and niche sectors such as electric transport, etc. Moreover, the serious threat to ecology from marine disasters and chemical leaks must push for regional mechanisms to cooperate faster and set guidelines across borders to regulate shipping traffic and safety mechanisms in the Indian Ocean region.
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