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Today, climate change dominates the international agenda. But focusing on climate change means we miss an important piece of the puzzle - climate variability. The second Colombo Development Dialogues Masterclass, organised by the United Nations Development Programme and the South Asia Centre of the London School of Economics and Political Science, focused on this gap, as eminent water expert and WASH advisor to ZOA Sudan, Dr. Gaasbeek spoke on “Water Security and Climate Variability.” Climate variability describes cycles, with climate change zoomed out of the picture, thus looking at overall trends. To plan effectively, we need to understand not only the trends but the cycles that overlie these trends.

In what was an engaging and intellectually stimulating lecture, Dr. Gaasbeek challenged mainstream notions and presented novel ideas which raised more questions than answers. The lecture began with a striking image of Sudan’s Dry Zone, with its parched and cracked earth that bore no resemblance to the vibrant forest which was once home to giraffes and ostriches only 40 years ago. The lack of water in Sudan was compared to Sri Lanka’s abundance of water, where the problems we face are the pressures of a growing population on a finite supply of water. And though we receive a constant volume of rainfall, we also experience serious droughts and floods. With more needs to meet and more extreme weather events, it is now more important than ever to plan and rethink the ways in which we use our water resources.

Analysing Sri Lanka’s precipitation trends and rainfall variability is typically conducted for the monsoon seasons, as it was done in the two prescribed readings. While we all accepted the data in the readings as truth, Dr. Gaasbeek encouraged us not to take anything at face value and dismissed this method as being incorrect, as monsoons are a wind-influenced phenomenon and therefore do not explain overall rainfall patterns. In fact, we have our heaviest rainfall not during the monsoons, but between them. Using Sri Lanka’s rainfall patterns to understand our water resources will require us to change the status quo and look away from the monsoons.

Illustrated through multiple graphs, it was clear that it is not the volume of rainfall in Sri Lanka that has changed, but the distribution of rainfall. Colombo now receives more rain while the North East is drying up. This will undoubtably have a ripple effect on the entire country, as the Mahaweli Programme is located in the North East, which means reservoirs will receive less rain, affecting the water supply of the entire country. Dr. Gaasbeek pointed to changing land use patterns as a possible reason for this change in the distribution of rainfall. As hillsides become more urban and increasingly more forest cover is converted into tea, locations of cloud formation change, resulting in a parallel change in rainfall patterns. But this does not necessarily have to spell out doom and gloom, give that if this is indeed due to changing land use patterns, we still have the potential to change our behaviour and patterns of land use.

However, not everything can be understood by way of the human-environment conflict. Sri Lanka’s climate goes through cycles, alternating between wet and dry periods, and while there is a tendency to attribute these cycles to short-term weather phenomena, such as El Nino or La Nina, in order to truly understand these cycles, we need to understand what is happening halfway around the world. Dr. Gaasbeek drew a link between a 70-year cycle in the sea surface temperature of the Atlantic Ocean between Greenland and Iceland, which influences global winds, causing droughts in India and Africa that also happen to coincide with dry periods in Sri Lanka. Why these cycles occur is still unclear and the effects of global warming, melting polar ice caps and changing sea surface temperatures are becoming increasingly more intertwined with these long-term global cycles. What is clear is that there is a need for much more research into these patterns of long-term climate variability.

There were two poignant points that I was left thinking about long after the Masterclass was over. The first was that we need to use longer planning horizons. Engineers are taught to use the last 30 years of data to inform their planning, and this time frame is inadequate given the broader, long-term cycles that exist. The Mahaweli Programme, for example, was designed using data from 1930 to 1960 - a wet period. Indeed, soon after 1960, Sri Lanka experienced a dry period that resulted in unanticipated water shortages. If we can understand trends better, we can design and adjust plantation and cultivation systems accordingly.

The second is point is something that I believe is applicable to us all. We tend to remain within our academic and professional circles, but working within our own spheres of comfort means that conversations only happen within a circle of a select few. Looking to the future, the rhetoric of academia needs to change, and researchers need to come off the barricades to make arguments in a language which is understandable to all, if scientific research is to inform policymakers and, ultimately translate into policy action. In addition to this, if environmental issues are to interest policymakers and heads of industry, they need to be phrased in terms of economics, a language common to all.

We may all have differing interests, but what was clear by the end of the Masterclass was that we are all in the same boat and if we are to stay afloat, we need to work as a whole.



The ‘Colombo Development Dialogues’ (CDD) is a collaborative initiative by the LSE South Asia Centre (LSE-SAC) and the United Nations Development Programme in Sri Lanka, in partnership with Dilmah Tea, the Citra Social Innovation Lab and the Faculty of Graduate Studies, University of Colombo. The CDD series comprises three components: (1) A Masterclass for research students on the selected thematic area, conducted by an academic brought down by LSE-SAC; (2) The CDD forum; and (3) A post-dialogue Policy Working Paper (currently available for download on the UNDP Sri Lanka and LSE-SAC websites). The forum aims to bring together a diverse group of development thinkers and practitioners to discuss relevant issues pertaining to current national and regional priorities ahead of the 2030 Development Agenda.


This article is a reflection of the Masterclass of the second edition of the CDD, which was held on 31 August 2018, in Colombo.



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