Human-created environmental problems (Sri Lanka)


Sajitha Prematunge, The Nation 

Date Published

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William R. Catton and Riley Dunlap in Environmental sociology: a new paradigm points out that the human is not ‘exempt’ from the constraints of nature and societal relevance to ecological limits is irrefutable. Environmental problems are fundamentally a result of human social behavior. And any change to the environment could result in societal consequences, just as any human activity could affect the environment.

However the irony is that concerns regarding environmental problems are raised mainly because of their impact on the human species such as the hindrance to operations at Mattala Airport caused by deer. So-called environmental problems are spotlighted not out of love for the environment or animals, but rather on account of them messing up the orderly lives of humans.

Dunlap and Marshall in their Chapter titled ‘Environmental Sociology’ in Handbook of Environmental Sociology, reiterates that compromising one ecosystems function will not only result in the impairment of the other two function, but may cause the whole system to cease functioning.

A major environmental problem of sociological import, pollution, arises when the waste produced exceeds the environments capacity to absorb or naturally recycle them. This in turn creates a host of other sociological problems such as health and hygiene problems, waste disposal issues, land degradation, water and air pollution.


A prime example would be the much publicized Hinkley groundwater contamination. The town of Hinkley, California in the US had its groundwater contaminated with hexavalent chromium. Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) operates a compressor station in Hinkley for natural gas transmission. The station uses cooling towers to cool the gas after it has been compressed. Between 1952 and 1966, the water used in the cooling towers contained hexavalent chromium, now identified as a carcinogen, to prevent rusting of machine parts. The water was stored in unlined ponds, which allowed it to percolate into the ground and contaminate ground water.

Average hexavalent chromium levels in Hinkley were toxic, with a plume of contaminated water approximately 3.2 km long and nearly 1.6 km wide. Samples taken in 2010 indicate that the plume has contaminated lower soil and groundwater levels. The plume has expanded to 6 miles long and 4 miles wide when tests were carried out in September 2013.

Residents of the Millennium City in Athurugiriya developed respiratory illnesses due to black smoke and repeatedly complained of strong chemical-like stench and loud metallic sounds emanating from the Steel Corporation’s galvanizing plant. Although the plant in question operates under CEA license, residents complain that their houses are covered in black dust. Some of the residents developed cough, respiratory difficulty, asthma, wheezing and burning sensation in the eyes.

Human wildlife conflict
People and elephants have lived in harmony for nearly thousand years. With the end of the war the whole of the island was opened up for various development projects. Most living spaces fell right over elephant territory.

The best elephant habitat is considered to be a mosaic of open areas and regenerating forests.

There are around 6000 elephants (10 per cent of world elephant population) using only two per cent of the total land area of Sri Lanka. The home range of a
Sri Lankan elephant is 50 to 100 square km as opposed to 500 to 1000 square km of Indian elephants.

The reason behind the increased carrying capacity is the land use patterns of the Sri Lankan people. People have been generating favorable conditions for elephants for over 1,000 years.The chena provides them food while the irrigation system provides them water they would have otherwise been forced to find themselves. But the human elephant conflict arises when human territory and habitats overlap. The main reason for the escalation of human-elephant conflict is unplanned village structures.

Fifty per cent of the human elephant conflicts in
Sri Lanka take place in and around Irudeniyaya, an unplanned settlement situated between Thabbowa and Thahallapallekele. During the dry season the Thabbowa sanctuary dries up. As a result elephants migrate to Thahallapallekele during the dry season for foraging. Irudeniyaya was built in the middle of their natural migration path. Conflicts are inevitable.

The solution for the Sri Lankan human elephant conflict is the Managed Elephant Reserve. This involves a radical method of integrating human and elephant habitat to ensure coexistence of the two species by cultivating chena. Chena provides a rich source of fodder for elephants.Chena cultivation is technically illegal in Sri Lanka, but can be regulated outside Protected Areas, in state land.

During the wet season people cultivate chenas and during the dry season – when cultivation ceases and people move out – elephants move into chenas, since there is not enough food for them within the parks. There is more than enough food for elephants in the parks during wet season. They always go back to the park without any prompting. To further minimize conflict electric fences can be put up around villages.

However, the main obstacle for this sort of a ‘human solution’ is that the people consider elephants as a problem. This is where the social fix of information dissemination and persuasion comes in. If villagers are convinced that they can also benefit from elephants, they will learn to tolerate elephants. Eco-tourism can be adopted as a source of extra income for the villagers. Eco-tourism can be an incentive, proving that ‘social fixes’ such as incentives and disincentives cited by Dunlap and Catton in ‘Struggling with human exemptionalism: The rise, decline, and revitalization of environmental sociology’, could indeed be more effective than technological fixes such as electric fences. Villagers will realize that elephants are not just another ‘problem’.