Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Sustaining sustainable development: Is it difficult?

Dhanesh Wisumperuma

The Nation, 07-04-2013, Fine, p.9

During a recent visit to a remote school in Polonnanruwa district, I saw an old tank built to store rainwater collected from roof of a school building. I was pleased with the sight as it was good to see such tanks in a school of the dry zone. Rainwater harvesting is of immense use for that area, which experiences water shortages during the driest months annually. A rainwater tank in a school provides generations of children an example of the efficient use of rainwater and encourages the activity to be replicated at home.

But on a closer watch I found that the rainwater tank it is not being used. I inquired a teacher of that school about the cause for the abandonment of the tank. According to him, the tank was really useful until recently as there was no water supply available for the school. However the tank has been abandoned since a pipe-borne water supply was made available to the school! I was worried about it, but didn’t get frustrated much as it was not uncommon in the country.

The abandonment of that tank was a waste of resources as well as the abandonment of a demonstration of a best practice for water security. It promotes the use of water which is otherwise unused. Rainwater use is being considered as a viable option to achieve water security in dry areas in the country. Water in such rainwater harvesting systems is free, as it stores water during rainy periods and could be used later. The operating cost is low, if we forget the initial cost of setup. In contrast, pipe-borne water comes at a cost for the consumer and at the cost of resources.

Lack of sustaining best practices

These types of incidents are not uncommon. One can see many abandoned best practices or positive initiatives in most parts of the country. Other than rainwater harvesting tanks, a considerable number of tube wells built during the last three decades are not in use after the supply of pipe-borne water.
A similar incident observed, while on a visit to Puttalam, was a sophisticated rectangular metallic vessel used to dry rice at a house. Upon closer inspection he has found what the vessel was, in fact, a solar panel! In his inquiry he found that the villagers were provided with solar panels under a project promoting renewable energy sometime ago. At the time they didn’t have access to electricity from the main grid. However, when electricity was provided from the main grid, many had abandoned the solar panels. The panels may have been used for few more years, as a panel has a lifetime of about ten years. It is a waste of resources.

Electric fences built to keep elephants out of human habitations and agricultural lands are another such example. Many such fences are built by the Department of Wildlife Conservation and some by various organizations spending millions of rupees. Maintaining such a fence is crucial to obtain the benefits of those which sometimes require only labor. In some areas people who are the beneficiaries of these fences, require authorities or those who built it to maintain the fences. Some of the electric fences as well as other mitigation efforts for human-elephant conflict have been abandoned merely due to the lack of proper maintenance. Some can say that the ‘spoon feeding’ mentality of the community has resulted this.

It is not the fault of the general public only that has caused such abandonment. Sometimes, state authorities who were responsible for continuation of such action could be blamed for the failures. One such incident is the installation of solar powered street lamps on an approximately 200 meter stretch in the main road between Battaramulla and Talawatugoda. As I can remember this was a pilot program to provide solar powered electricity for street lighting. The program was not successful and it was abandoned some time later. Until recently solar panels were seen in the trees that have overgrown the lamp posts.

Further, many of the composting and recycling programs initiated by a number of local government agencies and various organizations were abandoned due to a variety of reasons including the lack of interest in continuing or sustaining. However, some of the composting projects are now stable with the increased demand for compost fertilizer. Such successful projects include some award winning state sector programs implemented by few local government bodies.

Change of attitudes

What is the main cause for such failures? One reason for this situation is the lack of proper understanding among the beneficiaries about the importance of such action for sustainability. Lack of a change of attitudes among the public, who are the beneficiaries of such activities could be identified as the root cause behind this. Although the people are mainly benefited through above mentioned activities, they cannot realize that their continuous effort and involvement is required to sustain such best practices in the long run.

Some of these types of sustainable best practices are being introduced by outsiders and implemented by outsiders without much active involvement of the community. Those are not home-grown solutions and people sometimes do not identify the value of such actions, for them as well as for the environment, properly. Hence after the project implementers leave the beneficiary community, activities become stalled and finally abandoned. This emphasizes the importance of the necessity of attitudinal change, in case of sustainable development. As mentioned above, it is not only the general public who need a change of attitudes, but also some authorities.

Changing the attitudes of people is one of the crucial requirements of sustainable development. With that, continuous effort is required to sustain environmental-friendly action that may lead towards sustainability. There are various tools that could be used for the purpose, and it is not so difficult, as we have seen such best practices implemented and continued vigorously.

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