Pandemic highlights environmental challenge | Daily News


Pandemic highlights environmental challenge

As the number of infected Sri Lankans topped 800 last evening, the country was soothed by the tinkle of temple bells, the chanting of Gaatha and the lighting of thousands of oil lamps and lanterns across the land for the Vesak festival. The Maha Sangha blessed the people, their leaders, and most importantly, the constantly working medical, administrative and security personnel managing the COVID-19 pandemic.

As with most Poya Days, the population anticipated some rain, although the vast majority remained indoors due to the curfew. The Department of Meteorology had issued an advisory for intense lightning and predicted some rain. In sharp contrast, over the weekend the island sweltered under a heatwave with some places experiencing an unheard-of 40+ degrees Celsius.

While some parts of the island did experience rain yesterday, in terms of the weather over the year so far, the country remains in the grip of poorly performing monsoon seasons. In much of South Asia, the legendary ‘Monsoon’ winds have yet again failed to bring the region the rainfall expected traditionally and, needed crucially for agriculture.

Significantly, when rain does come to parts of the region, it comes in excessive bouts with, on occasion, a single rainstorm bringing a whole month’s rainwater. These bouts of sudden, excessive, precipitation has been occurring with increasing regularity in recent years.

As ‘climate change’ has begun to show itself across the world, rainfall patterns in this region are increasingly characterised by long stretches of failed rain seasons interrupted by sudden, very powerful storms bringing huge amounts of rainfall.

In recent decades, humanity has begun to learn the direct causal linkages between various types of human activities affecting the natural environment – including both fauna and flora – and environmental degradation and Climate Change.

When a whole month’s rain falls in a single 24-hour period, neither the natural drainage topography (hill slopes, flatlands, rivers), nor the human-made water management and drainage systems, can cope. Devastating floods, earthslips, sink-holes, human settlement destruction, electricity damage and hazards, communication and supply disruptions are the result. Accompanying this devastation are various waterborne and airborne diseases, some incurable, others needing heavy investment in cash and human care for treatment.

We are familiar with many such diseases – from malaria and dengue to cholera – and the nation has a history of periodically surviving these afflictions.

However, there are new diseases arising from human exploitation of animal life. New behavioural patterns among animals due to human encroachment on their habitat or, radical habitat changes due to urbanisation, are, for example, seen to be the cause of recent massive locust invasions that destroy crops on an unmanageable scale.

Our own so-called ‘Elephant-Human’ conflict is a grossly misleading and unfair misnomer; unfair to the Elephant, that is. It fails to reveal that the elephants are merely behaving in ways to counter the human invasion of their habitat that is severely reducing their living space and food resources. It is we who are in conflict with animals. The medieval Bubonic Plague – called the Black Death in Europe where it killed off a quarter of the continental population – is believed to have spread partly due to the displacement of whole populations of rodents from an overcrowded countryside.

Similarly, Chinese authorities are now investigating the link between the COVID-19 outbreak and the small wild animals brought into Wuhan city on a mass scale as culinary delicacies. What used to be small scale gourmet food consumption has, today, become a mass scale industry following both population growth and higher purchasing power. New regulations have already been clamped down on that industry.

Being a socialist State, although not as affluent as some of the capitalist powers, China’s administration is highly sensitive to societal needs and threats to public well-being and has reacted very quickly to address all aspects of the pandemic.

The pandemic has given an opportunity for the world’s environmental movement to further highlight the on-going degradation of our planet. This disease has become another vivid and traumatic example of the myriad ways in which Humanity is wantonly destroying our only habitat.

As the plastic bags pile up in our homes and as fuel gets momentarily cheaper, we need to reflect deeply on the industrial nexus between these two commodities and the impacts they have on us in different ways. Can we imagine shifting away from single-use plastics like take-away cups, plates, containers, bottles, and a zillion other throw-away items?

Can we learn to change our economic systems in ways that remove the compulsions of ‘just-in-time’ and reduce rapid transit in favour of slower forms of transport, including mass transport that damage the atmosphere less? Will digital data storage and sharing enable us to protect and expand our forests? Can we recognise the wood we use as the trees that they should be?

Perhaps the greater time we have to stay home these days under curfew will help us think more and get mobilised to save the world - and our species with it.

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