A community’s fight for resilience: Saving Sri Lanka’s vulnerable marine ecosystems

By Climate Champions | June 5, 2024

An interview with: Hafsa Jamel with Lanka Environment Fund

Country & Region: Sri Lanka, Colombo

Breakthrough: Mangrove, Marine Conservation

Beneficiaries / Impact: 41% of coastal debris reduced through the MARESSOL project; Restoration of mangroves affecting 600 hectares of coastal land; Local fishermen and their communities, enhancing resilience against marine heatwaves and increasing sustainable fishing practices; 750,000 Sri Lankans annually affected by natural disasters potentially benefitting from improved disaster risk reduction strategies; Carbon sequestration assessments in Vidataltivu Nature Reserve influencing environmental financing and policy.

In the city of Colombo, the 26-year old Hafsa Jamel, a rising voice in the climate narrative, provides a local perspective on the complex environmental challenges facing Sri Lanka. Colombo itself serves as a unique home base in terms of its relation to the climate crisis at large. It’s situated in the epicentre of a unique island ecosystem of wetlands while also only a short distance from the coast, and so its geography epitomizes the precariousness of climate change.

As part of a new series to support the Ocean Breakthroughs, the UN Climate Change High-Level Champions and the Edges of Earth expedition explore how Hafsa and their community are adapting to and combating the impacts of climate change in this member state. The Edges of Earth team had the opportunity to spend two weeks living alongside Hafsa, learning about their work supporting local nature-based solutions that aim to mitigate climate challenges in their home country. In her own words, Hafsa describes how her community is adapting to an ever changing climate.

Meeting Hafsa Jamel at their home in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Photo Credit: Marla Tomorug

THE RISE OF CLIMATE CHANGE IN SRI LANKA

Sri Lanka is a tropical island nation rich in biodiversity and Colombo serves as its administrative capital. The country experiences a unique climate shaped by two monsoons, resulting in extremely hot days interspersed with significant rainfall. These monsoons ultimately foster a dynamic and diverse ecosystem. Although we have eight times more ocean territory than land, only 33% of our population lives along the coastline. I grew up about 45 minutes inland from the coast, primarily in an area characterized by wetlands, which are crucial yet increasingly vulnerable ecosystems.

View of Sri Lanka’s urban wetlands. Photo Credit: Marla Tomorug

Climate change has impacted us thoroughly. Currently, a heat warning in Sri Lanka exacerbates fatigue, which is felt even more heavily in the marginalized communities outside of Colombo. We’re experiencing more intense and unpredictable weather patterns due to shifting monsoons, manifesting in frequent natural hazards like droughts, floods, landslides, cyclones, and coastal erosion, which some communities are experiencing more than others.

Here in Colombo, we’re a designated RAMSAR Wetland City, which highlights its own unique set of challenges. The city spans 1,900 hectares of wetlands integrated into urban infrastructures through human-made canals. Rapid urbanization coupled with the loss of these critical wetlands, which serve as natural flood conveyance areas, has significantly heightened our susceptibility to flash flooding events. This combination of factors shows the severe and multi-faceted impact of climate change on our urban environment.

ADAPTING TO A CHANGING WORLD

Our community has various climate change adaptation techniques, which include diversifying livelihoods, encouraging collective action, and implementing disaster risk reduction strategies. As the Programme Manager for the Lanka Environment Fund (LEF), I am involved in several projects that aim to address environmental challenges through conservation and sustainable practices.

One key initiative is the Mannar Region Systemic Solutions Project (MARESSOL)—a project run by a coalition of stakeholders consisting of LEF, IUCN Sri Lanka, SDMRI Tamil Nadu and SALT Lofoten—which addresses the issue of “abandoned, lost, or discarded fishing gear” (ALDFG) in the Gulf of Mannar. Over the past three years, we’ve conducted extensive research on macro debris along the northwestern coastline of Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu. Our findings indicate that 41% of this debris comprises ALDFG, largely due to bad weather and inadequate disposal facilities.

Observing the work Hafsa does with the MARESSOL project in Northern Sri Lanka. Photo Credit: Marla Tomorug

Additionally, LEF supports the Accelerated Regeneration of Natural Mangroves project along the northwestern coastline, focusing on restoring mangrove forests degraded by shrimp farming in the 1990s. This project adopts a meticulous scientific approach to regenerate the mangroves, studying the soil’s carbon content and the landscape’s natural contours to inform growth patterns and ecological restoration.

Further north, we are working on seagrass assessments in Vidataltivu Nature Reserve with Susantha Udagadera, the Director of the Seagrass and Climate Change Programme at Blue Resources Trust. This involves a detailed analysis of the seagrass ecosystem to understand the carbon sequestered, aiming to integrate this data into robust environmental financing mechanisms.

LEF primary functions are two-fold: as conservation administrators, we manage paperwork and grant evaluation, allowing our local partner organizations to focus on grassroots environmental work.

However, the LEF also leverages its global network to fundraise domestically and internationally in order to help support local conservation projects.  These projects not only help adapt to climate change impacts but also contribute to a broader understanding and increased effort to mitigate these impacts through nature-driven solutions.

A day exploring the Accelerated Regeneration of Natural Mangroves project with Hafsa. Photo Credit: Marla Tomorug

The engagement from a diverse range of stakeholders—including government bodies, nonprofits, and businesses—on the issue of ALDFG has been highly encouraging. There’s a robust dialogue about preventing ghost gear and reintegrating it into circular systems, which is a key step towards sustainable maritime practices.

Sri Lanka received a global restoration reward from the UN Environment Programme for our mangrove management efforts, marking a significant milestone in our ongoing endeavors. This recognition proves the effectiveness of our projects and the growing interest in blue carbon and sustainable financing mechanisms as viable strategies for environmental and economic sustainability.

The Vidataltivu Nature Reserve with the Blue Resources Trust teams are also making remarkable progress. Their work ranges from comprehensive assessments of carbon sequestration by seagrass meadows in the reserve, to the regeneration of mangroves in Anawilundawa managed by the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS). These initiatives not only restore vital ecosystems but also enhance climate resilience.

Another exciting development is the involvement of the Centre for Smart Futures, which organizes workshops to explore sustainable financing mechanisms like blue carbon and environmental trust funds. These initiatives are pivotal in creating robust frameworks for financing nature-based solutions, ensuring that our environmental efforts are both sustainable and financially supported. Overall, the collaboration across various sectors and the scientific approach adopted by these projects are paving the way for our future.

Meeting lifelong local fishermen with Hafsa who have been impacted by climate change. Photo Credit: Marla Tomorug

My role often feels like that of an observer, but it’s much more about facilitating connections and conversations. I’m deeply involved in understanding the environmental landscape we operate in. And in my efforts to do so, I’m constantly strategizing and bridging the gap between local and international stakeholders to address this issue effectively. It’s about fostering relationships and building a consensus on how to tackle challenges, identify viable solutions, and plan the steps needed to implement these solutions over time.

My role is inherently about long-term impact—it involves continuous engagement and building upon small successes. We’re looking at a timeline of at least the next 5 to 10 years to see substantial progress in our nature-based solution efforts. This means a lot of groundwork in planning and adapting strategies as we learn more and as conditions evolve.

MY HOPE FOR THE FUTURE

Island nations like Sri Lanka experience some of the most severe impacts of climate change. With 33% of our population living along vulnerable coastlines and facing risks from rising sea levels, ocean acidification, and frequent natural disasters, the challenges are immense. A staggering 750,000 Sri Lankans are affected by natural disasters each year, and a distressing 81.2% of our population lacks the capacity to adapt to these changes.

Hafsa Jamel sharing their perspectives in Colombo. Photo Credit: Marla Tomorug

The increased pollution along the coastline makes Sri Lanka one of the top 15 countries in the world most affected by transboundary litter. The litter, paired with ocean acidification, further exacerbates our fisheries, which are inherently operations of luck and chance to begin with. Currently, we are already seeing drastic pressure against our fish stocks due to overfishing, and climate change only seems to amplify these preexisting issues. It’s taken a lot of problems that we are seeing caused by unmanaged and unregulated industries and compounds them, ultimately impacting the local community and their livelihoods.

The Indian Ocean is trending towards semi-permanent marine heatwaves, with projections of 220-250 days of extreme heat annually. This not only disrupts marine life, influencing fish migration patterns but also exacerbates the vulnerability of our fisheries-dependent communities.

Northwestern Sri Lanka from above. Photo Credit: Marla Tomorug

We need greater collaboration from global actors to recognize and mitigate their impact on regions like ours. It is crucial that international partners understand that their actions have direct consequences on us and that we should not be viewed merely as repositories for environmental neglect. The onus in some part is on us to internally foster more substantial community engagement.

But we also need international cooperation to address these issues comprehensively and sustainably. Ultimately the effects of climate change facing Sri Lanka are the effects the rest of the world are already experiencing, or will be experiencing in the near future. It will take collective, global and cooperative participation in order for the world to find its way out of the climate crisis, and into a future of prosperity.

As told to Andi Cross in May 2024.

ABOUT THE OCEAN BREAKTHROUGHS

Resulting from the joint efforts of the Ocean & Coastal Zones community under the Marrakech Partnership for Global Climate Action, and building on the Ocean for Climate Declaration, the Ocean Breakthroughs identify five turning points to reach by 2030 to achieve a healthy and productive ocean in 2050. They are articulated around five key ocean sectors: marine conservation, ocean renewable energy, shipping, aquatic food, and coastal tourism. Accelerated action and investments in each will help unlock the potential of the ocean as a source of solutions to the pressing challenges posed by climate change and biodiversity loss.

The scientific evidence is clear: as a major climate regulator and the largest living space on Earth, the ocean is instrumental to deliver on the goals of the Paris Agreement and the Global Biodiversity Framework. The Ocean Breakthroughs are science-based targets designed to boost mitigation and adaptation efforts, for the benefit of People and Nature. They will contribute to delivering on the global campaigns led by the UN Climate Change High-Level Champions, namely the Race to Resilience and Race to Zero, and their respective action agendas: the Sharm-El-Sheikh Adaptation Agenda and the 2030 Breakthroughs.

Discover the Mangrove Breakthrough

ABOUT THE HLC X EDGES OF EARTH EXPEDITION

The women-led global expedition, Edges of Earth, has partnered with the UN Climate Change High-Level Champions (HLC) to bring to life the Ocean Breakthroughs initiative by sharing personal accounts and climate action stories from remote coastal communities. This media partnership will feature interview-style stories that highlight the experiences and efforts of locals, Indigenous communities, nonprofits, and ocean scientists in addressing climate change. Celebrating its one-year anniversary, Edges of Earth has traveled to 25 countries (with nearly 30+ more to go throughout 2025) working closely with diverse groups to understand and amplify their climate resilience strategies. Through this collaboration, Edges of Earth will spotlight the five Ocean Breakthroughs—marine conservation, ocean renewable energy, shipping, aquatic food, and coastal tourism—by showcasing diverse voices and solutions to accelerate global climate action.

 

Oceans

A global coalition forging coral reef resilience

In April 2024, NOAA and ICRI scientists confirmed the fourth global coral bleaching event, highlighting the escalating impacts of climate change on coral reefs. This has spurred initiatives like the Coral Reef Breakthrough and the Global Fund for Coral Reefs to enhance protection, double effective conservation areas, and mobilize significant funding for restoration efforts.

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