Sri Lanka is NOT fifth among world’s worst polluters, but we have a crisis

by Namini Wijedasa

Widely published information that Sri Lanka is the fifth largest polluter of seas is based on an erroneous statistic first released in a World Bank study which was then used by researchers to compile a list of worst offender countries, the Sunday Times found.

Domestic and international media continue to report that Sri Lanka falls only behind China, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam in how much plastics it dumps into the sea. This is drawn from a February 2015 article in the peer-reviewed Science Magazine which states, among other things, that Sri Lanka generates 5.1kg of waste per person, per day; that 1.59 million metric tons of this is mismanaged plastic waste; and that it dumps between 0.24 and 0.64 million metric tons of plastic into the sea each year.

But the information that Sri Lanka’s per capita waste generation rate is 5.1kg per day is an unsourced, unverifiable statistic first published in the 2012 What a Waste (WaW) report of the World Bank. There is no reference for this calculation; nor is it divulged how it was arrived at.

The World Bank has now confirmed that there was an error in the waste generation number. It was identified only because the Sunday Times called for verification. A spokesperson also said: “As you know, this is a report that came out in 2012 and it is currently in the process of getting reviewed and updated. We will be able to provide you with updated data as soon as the report is available.”

In collecting data for the South Asia region for 2017 WaW, the Bank will use the Comprehensive Integrated Solid Waste Management Plan for Targeted Provinces in Sri Lanka by UNHABITAT and the Data Collection Survey on Solid Waste Management in the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka by Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). The reports are still being reviewed but per capita generation rates roughly range between 0.46kg and 0.52kg.

The 2012 WaW has depended on two sources for Sri Lanka data. One is a 2009 report from the United Nations Statistics Division which captured waste generation figures from Dehiwala-Mt Lavinia and Moratuwa. The former is 0.73 kg per person, per day and the latter is 0.67 kg per person, per day. There is no national level information cited.

The other is An Overview of the Issue of Solid Waste Management in Sri Lanka authored by K. L. S. Perera for the 2003 Third International Conference on Environment and Health. The Sunday Times accessed it online and also interviewed Mr. Perera, a retired Senior Lecturer at the Siyane National College of Education in Veyangoda. His paper states that Colombo faces a “severe crisis with respect to the disposal of around 1,500 tons of solid waste material per day” but makes no reference to 5.1kg per person, per day.

These shortcomings in WaW went unnoticed. But in 2015, a seven-member research team released an article in the academic journal ‘Science Magazine’ listing Sri Lanka as one of the worst polluters of seas based on WaW data. Headed by Jenna Jambeck, Associate Professor in the College of Engineering at the University of Georgia, the group also estimated the percentage of waste inadequately managed by each country using a “logistic regression model”. Sri Lanka fared miserably.

The Sunday Times contacted Dr. Jambeck, who is a committed environmentalist, as far back as 2015. She said, while the data taken from the World Bank and Sri Lanka estimates had also seemed high to her team, they could not cherry-pick countries to correct. She recommended that localised data from the respective countries be examined to see if waste generation estimates could be refined.

When we reconnected with Dr. Jambeck this year – as Sri Lanka’s worldwide ranking was being publicised again owing to the collapse of the Meethotamulla garbage dump and related issues – she pointed out that the goal of their work had been to create a global number. “We state that in-country data should be confirmed by on-the-ground data and research,” she explained.

Dr. Jambeck said, as she did at a press conference in 2015, that the paper is not about pointing fingers. “The data was provided to be transparent so that exactly what you are doing is possible,” she explained.“We want people to look at the data and refine it over time. We used the best available data at the time.”

But the team also created a list. This is what most media – including local journalists – pounced on; and how Sri Lanka suddenly gained global notoriety based on a statistic nobody can still account for. The list, Dr. Jambeck said, was a means of looking at “influencing factors”. As lead author, she did not single out any country (except USA, where she is from) for discussion. Journalists decided to do that.

“It is a snapshot in time,” she continued, about the list. “Ten years ago, it would be different, and ten years into the future, it would be different.’ The researchers found that middle-income countries with rapidly developing economies, large coastal populations and coastline, and where infrastructure has lagged behind this development, had larger issues with waste.

Sri Lanka fits the bill. Even ten years ago, however, waste generation figures were not as high as cited in the 2016 WaW. The Central Environmental Authority does not have a centralised repository of historic data, said J. M. U. Indrarathne, Deputy Director General (Waste Management).

But the 2003 JICA Study on Improvement of Solid Waste Management in Secondary Cities in Sri Lanka found average waste generation rates in seven study towns to be 0.98kg per person, per day (from 0.88kg in Matale to 1.18kg in Kandy). That the CEA lacks its own data in a country floundering about in waste generation and disposal issues is a matter of discussion.

In the end, however, lists and rankings are immaterial. Sri Lanka has a serious problem with waste generation and disposal. The status quo has not improved for decades. Whether it is fifth or 50th in the global rankings, this country is a serial polluter and successive governments have done nothing to mitigate this.

Waste management study: SL repeatedly failed to fix issues
A 15-year-old Japanese-funded study into waste management exposes how Sri Lanka has repeatedly failed to fix longstanding issues despite expert suggestions for improvement.Environmentalists warn that world rankings – wherever the country may stand in them – are purely academic.

“The fact stands that our seas and land are badly polluted and increasingly so,” said one campaigner, who did not wish to be named. “And our Government is doing precious little, if at all, to mitigate it. I do not care where we rank. Being anywhere on the polluter list is equally bad. The message or objective of that ranking is to shock people into realising we have to change.”

The 2003 JICA Study on Improvement of Solid Waste Management in Secondary Cities in Sri Lanka identified eight leading problems. These are just as current today as they were then. They comprise widespread scattering of waste in towns; the terrible condition of landfill sites; and huge solid waste management expenditure (20 to 30 percent of the budget of local authorities). There is difficulty controlling the many waste collection workers; and a high absentee and turnover rate, ranging from 10-20 percent.

As early as 15 years ago, the study also pointed to little remaining capacity of existing landfill sites. There were many complaints from citizens, it said, but there was also lack of public cooperation. There was also no plan for the future. “Most of these are not technical issues but institutional ones,” the study warned. “Technology alone cannot solve these problems.”

“Good governance is the key,” it stressed. Improvement could be made through institutional and managerial capacity, “without spending much money”. The report also stated plainly that there were two main problems faced by local authorities. One was the rapid increase of waste, which meant they had to collect more and more. Another was that the standard environmental requirements for landfills were becoming stricter.

“Therefore, you cannot simply dump waste anymore,” it warned. “You have to improve landfill operation to reduce the environmental impact.”

Experts identified an insufficient understanding of solid waste management. The sections in charge of solid waste management in local authorities were considered low in status. Organisation was weak owing to poor cost control and planning. There were no future plans. Most authorities dealt with issues using their own staff and equipment without considering citizen involvement.

Exhaustive recommendations were made, covering everything from improving garbage collection efficiency and final disposal to reducing solid waste management costs and increasing public participation.

The 2016 JICA Data Collection Survey on Solid Waste Management in Socialist Democratic Republic of Sri Lanka observes that generation in Sri Lanka has increased from around 6,400 tons per day in 1999 (UNEP, 2001) to 10,786 tons per day since 2009 (University of Moratuwa and NSWMSC, 2013). The reason for this is economic growth after the end of the civil war.

Generation in the Western Province is largest, accounting for 33% of the country’s total. The Uva Province occupies the smallest share at just 5%. Some local authorities operate several disposal sites so the number of final disposal sites was 349 in 2013, exceeding the number of total local authorities which is 335.

Waste generation will keep going up. It will not matter what list Sri Lanka is, or isn’t, on. Experts agree that solutions – many of which have already been offered through research and study – have to be implemented, now.

(This article was published in the Sunday Times)

The Sri Lanka Foreign Ministry’s untenable communications policy


I would like to start with a caveat. I am not a student of the relationship between foreign policy and media. I am a journalist. So my talk is based on personal experience and my own analysis of situations my colleagues and I have faced during the last two decades, with emphasis on the recent past. The context is Sri Lanka.

I have, for some years, been on the mailing list of the Foreign Ministry. Ninety percent of press releases I receive, with due respect to the compilers, go unopened into the trash. As a journalist, the last thing I look for is how our missions celebrated national festivals. Reports about Sri Lankans wolfing downing “kiribath” at Avurudu or singing “bhakthi gee” at Vesak add no value to my journalism.

I only recently emptied my trash. But I found some stragglers. There was one on Ifthar celebrations at the Doha mission; another on a workshop organised by the Nairobi mission; another on Members of Parliament attending an exchange programme in Washington; some on flood donations.

These media releases achieve nothing outside of pandering to the egos of a few. They are a dire waste of time and resources. They do not push any agenda or direction of Sri Lankan foreign policy. Nor do they provide media with meaningful insight into how our missions are achieving national diplomatic objectives. On a surface reading of what is widely and numerously disseminated as news, we seem to have an expansive network of event planners.

Occasionally, there are newsworthy communiqués. One dated May 26th, which I didn’t trash, for obvious reasons, relates to a joint declaration on enhanced cooperation between Australia and Sri Lanka. The document is attached and conveys information of national import. But these are few and far between.

Having covered the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I know that officers who head its publicity division are typically educated, capable, savvy men and women. Today, they are reduced to releasing meaningless drivel. I do not know that they can be blamed. They are the implementers, not the drafters of this absurd and futile communications policy. They are often treated as marginal in the Ministry. They are the last to get relevant, useful information. Heads of other divisions consider them a nuisance.

Before we address the role of media in publicizing Sri Lankan foreign policy, therefore, there must be recognition at every level–including by the Minister and Secretary–that such dissemination has value. You cannot promote your foreign policy if your every instinct is to maintain secrecy.  Not only is there a lack of imagination, there is a mental block at the Foreign Ministry as regards the media. They must remember the Right to Information act now supersedes the Official Secrets Act.

A good attempt was made in 2015 to introduce daily press briefings but this was shelved. There is no recent tradition of providing even background briefings to journalists covering foreign policy. I was made to understand that most junior diplomats in India’s Ministry of External Affairs are assigned to its media wing so they are trained to handle journalists. The official spokesperson of the ministry is an important position with time, access and political sanction to deal with media queries. We do not see that here.

So what do we journalists work with? The speeches of the minister are one way but they are formulaic propaganda and insufficient to provide media practitioners with a deeper understanding of how the wheels turn.

The media forms the crucial channel between foreign policy makers and the public as well as other stakeholders such as the private sector and professional bodies. The breakdown of this relationship is one reason why issues like the Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement have become so sensitive and warped. These are areas where the media and Foreign Ministry can work together to fix.

While the tendency of governments is to think foreign policy is about engaging with outsiders, there is a component of it, I feel, that involves interacting internally and presenting a unified policy to the world.

If, by chance, that engagement does take place in future, I would hope there is also a crystal clear understanding in the Ministry that foreign policy and media can be uncomfortable bedfellows. There must be a policy of allowing the media its due freedom to report objectively on the pros and cons of Sri Lanka’s engagement in the world. These are the checks and balances needed to ensure that foreign policy brings meaningful returns to Sri Lankans.

When communication with local media is so bad, I do not know what you can say of relations with the foreign media. You only have to look at how India pushes its foreign policy to see where we are going wrong. Has Sri Lanka looked beyond traditional methods? Is there a team at the foreign ministry devising a communications strategy that suits the modern age?  Do diplomats attached to our embassies abroad promote Sri Lanka on the digital space? How many have twitter accounts?

Years ago, I was invited to be part of a group the Foreign Ministry envisaged setting up in order to guide its engagement with foreign media. I turned this down because it is not my job to make Sri Lanka look good with anyone. That is the job of diplomats. Expectations must be realistic. During the ceasefire with the LTTE, we journalists were expected do practice “peace journalism.” During the war, we were expected to practice “war journalism” which required us to put badly defined “national interest” before anything else.

I say, let us practice journalism. You do your diplomacy. But give us the information we need to work with and help us understand what guides your policies. At present, there is next to nothing. And one hopes that this is not a reflection of a certain elitism that seems to guide the thinking of those who form part and parcel of the diplomatic community.

I must also raise a point about internal policies. If a government sticks to democratic principles and proactively promotes democratic institutions, then their reputation becomes incredibly stronger on the world stage, which in turn feeds into their engagement. This is especially important for a small country like Sri Lanka that is heavily dependent on a rules-based international order because we are simply too small to engage with the US, India or China in any other way. I would argue that foreign policy is good internal policy shown off the world. In that, the media will always hold an integral role; one that already exists and does not need to be manufactured.

Having said all of this, I do understand that there are many areas the media must work on to fix. I know that journalists can ask misguided or ill-informed questions. Some do not do their research. Others have agendas. This naturally creates apprehension among diplomats about interacting with media practitioners.

Part of this is due to flagging standards which is reflected across all sectors, not just media. But part of it is because there has been an absence of engagement and information sharing for so long that nobody has any background to work with. When you dumb down your press releases to the extent that you do, why do you expect any better from your target audience?

Regular briefings and meaningful interactions could change that. It could lead to the creation of a press corps that is well versed and capable of understanding the nuances, absorbing and analysing the information and reporting accurately on foreign policy. We see that in other sectors such as education, labour or health. I see no reason why it will not happen here. All this could be supplemented with regular background chats, with the minister, if need be.  Maintaining current levels of communication, however, is unsustainable in the short, medium and long-term.

(This talk was delivered on June 28, 2017, on the second day of a seminar organised by the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute titled ‘Sri Lanka’s Foreign Policy: Choices in the Changing World’)