WELIGAMA, Sri Lanka - The gentle waves of
Weligama bay that lap at the small, tight-knit
fishing village of Kaparratota, 140 kilometers
south of Colombo, can be deceptive.
November 25 last year, tragedy struck Kaparratota
when gale-force winds moving north churned up the
seas leaving 14 fishers from this village dead -
the bodies of 11 were never recovered.
total of 29 people had died along Sri Lanka's
southern coast, and over 10,000 buildings damaged,
though Weligama was the worst affected area. Many
who faced the storm were left stunned by its
ferocity as well as the suddenness with which it
whipped up and died down.
"We never knew a
storm was coming, no one told us. Suddenly the sea
just rose," Lamahevage Chandana, a fisher told
survived by floating on
the waves for seven hours, his small boat smashed.
Experts say the tragedy could have been
avoided if ordinary folk like Chandana, as well as
authorities, had paid better attention to changing
weather patterns around this island country.
Of late, extreme weather events have
increased in frequency, Mudalihamige Rathnayake,
who heads the geography department at the Ruhuna
University in southern Sri Lanka, told IPS.
"Gale-force winds hitting towns and
villages are being reported as cyclones, or
mini-cyclones, which they are not," he said. "They
are the creation of cooler air rushing in to fill
the vacuum created by an extreme temperature rise
in a small area."
Gale-force winds are
defined as those reaching a speed of up to 117-km
per hour on the Beaufort scale and though not as
strong as hurricanes, they create exceptionally
high sea waves and are capable of uprooting trees.
Statistics show that there are now fewer
rainy days, with the monsoon now dumping its water
in a shorter time span. This was what happened
between January and February 2011, when a year's
worth of rain fell on parts of the Eastern
Province in one month, flooding hundreds of
Nimal Dissanayake, who heads the
Rice Research Institute of Sri Lanka, told IPS
that the changing rain patterns have forced
experts to develop quick maturing rice varieties.
"We have developed them, but need a better
understanding of the rain patterns to recommend
them," he told IPS.
carried out a survey of awareness levels among
ordinary people in southern Sri Lanka of changing
weather patterns and was disappointed with the
"There is hardly any knowledge of
climate change or changing weather. No one is
really interested in knowing how to cope with
natural disasters," he said.
found the lack of knowledge and the disinterest
surprising given that the southern coast of Sri
Lanka was pulverized by the 2004 Asian tsunami.
Signboards that dot the coast do indicate higher,
safer ground to run to in the event of a tsunami.
"Everybody knows that they have to run if
a tsunami is coming, but they don't know how to
deal with a cyclone, or fast moving winds that
come in short bursts. No one even thinks that a
prolonged drought may have been caused by changing
climate," he said.
Only around 20% of Sri
Lanka's 1,520-km coast is prone to erosion, but
the bulk of it is in the densely populated
southern and western coasts that take the brunt of
The western and southern
provinces account for over 40% of the population
or around eight million people. Economically,
these two provinces contribute around 47% of Gross
Domestic Product, with the western province
serving as the island's financial and
Much of the
erosion-prone coast is protected by a sea wall of
boulders, a solution that the Coast Conservation
Department (CCD) has now found to be
Anil Premarathne, CCD
director-general, told IPS that the barriers built
of boulders limit economic activity and transfer
the erosion from one part of the shore to another.
The CCD is now encouraging "softer
solutions" like wider beaches, sand filling,
mangroves and strict zoning regulations. But with
the coast thickly populated, Premarathne says it
is difficult to even discuss these options.
"In Sri Lanka we need strict zoning
measures," Premarathne said. "But unless there are
beaches where there are no houses or businesses
nearby - which is hardly the case in the south and
the west - it is not easy to implement.
"Because erosion takes place over many
years, even decades, there is not much concern.
People don't seem to notice it happening nor are
they worried," he said. Already some coastal urban
areas are at risk from rising sea levels.
Coastal districts like Gampaha, that lies
just north of Colombo, meet at least 40% of water
requirements by pumping out groundwater,
increasing the risk of saline ingress.
"Salinity will rise in coastal areas if
sea levels rise," said Premarathne. "We have also
seen that wave heights are tending to get higher
during the monsoons," he added.
Lanka's National Climate Change Adaption Strategy
(NCCAS) has prioritized mainstreaming adaptation,
healthier human settlements and minimization of
impacts on food security for the period between
2011 and 2016.
Since stopping climate
change is unrealistic, the NCCAS focuses on
preparing and understanding what needs to be done
by way of preparation, economically and
Yet, most ordinary people
do not take climate change seriously. Chandana,
even after his near death experience, says
nonchalantly: "These incidents happen.we just have
to live with them."
says Rathnayake, is cause for concern. "These
things are beyond our control, but we can be
better prepared to face them and save lives."