By Asiri Fernando/The Sunday Morning
Colombo, September 24: As an island nation, Sri Lanka's history and future is linked with the ocean that surrounds us.
However, many Sri Lankans conveniently forget that we are indeed islanders and have limited their conscience to matters of land. If Capt. Haddock (fictitious character in Belgian cartoonist Georgés Remi/Hergé's 'Tin Tin') lived in Sri Lanka, he would call us 'land lubbers!' (land lovers), and would have reminded us to find our 'sea legs'.
Over the last decade, much has been said and debated about how the ongoing geopolitical contest in the Indian Ocean impacts the island. Multiple marine and maritime disasters and energy and food security crises last year, controversial visits of foreign marine survey vessels, and the upcoming responsibility as the Chairperson of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) should underscore the need for Sri Lankans and policymakers to better understand the ocean around us and to begin to like it.
One of the key challenges Sri Lanka faces when it comes to understanding the region around us, our linkages to the world, and how we can navigate the challenges and opportunities in the Indian Ocean is our collective lack of understanding of the oceans and their marine and maritime dynamic.
For Sri Lanka to effectively navigate the turbulent geopolitical and trade and economic waves and tides in the Indian Ocean, the island needs to have a better understanding of our domains, which is only possible with the right kind of expertise being available.
However, to better understand our domain and have the expertise we need to analyse it, Sri Lanka has to first build affinity for the oceans. Without a passion for the oceans, our largest domain of resources and means of connectivity, Sri Lanka and its policymakers will not be adequately equipped to navigate the challenges we will face in the future.
Sri Lanka, an island nation in the Indian Ocean, comprises about 1,340 km coastline (mainland) and an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) which is about seven times the size of our landmass. Sri Lanka is also responsible for a wider Search and Rescue Region (SAR), for which we are the first responder in line with international law, but holds no sovereign claims.
Sri Lanka aspires to be a maritime trade hub and a regional services hub, leveraging our strategic location off one of the world's busiest shipping lanes. Sri Lanka is also dependent on the ocean for its main source of protein, export of fish produce, and tourism. The oceans (and lately the cyber domain) is Sri Lanka's frontier and main scope of national security.
Needless to say, with climate change becoming a national security concern, and with the climate linked to ocean dynamics, understanding our marine environment will be critical for Sri Lanka. As such, Sri Lanka can only be well prepared for the challenges of tomorrow and reach its national goals if we broaden our understanding of the oceans.
Need for a change in culture, policy, and expertise
According to renowned Sri Lanka ocean science expert Professor Charitha Pattiaratchi of the Oceans Graduate School, University of Western Australia Oceans Institute, Sri Lanka needs a cultural, policy, and expertise shift to build affinity for the oceans and improve the island's engagement with the sea.
“Many Sri Lankans are afraid of the ocean. Many have no affinity with the oceans. Look at our school system. Look at our syllabus. How much do we teach our children about the oceans? All the way from primary school to university education, what do we do to foster passion in our children about the ocean? Very few Sri Lankans venture into the ocean. Those who do, the fishing community, are also perceived in a negative light. There is a need for a change in culture, from the top down,” Prof. Pattiaratchi opined.
According to Prof. Pattiaratchi, the 2004 tsunami that ravaged the unprepared island reinforced a fear of the ocean in the collective consciousness of the Sri Lankan community.
He pointed out that due to a lack of understanding and focus on the oceans and marine science, Sri Lanka was struggling to build the local expertise relevant to effectively brief policymakers about the importance of the ocean that surrounds the island.
“For many, ocean sciences is not their first choice in higher studies; therefore, for many it's only a means to get a qualification and find employment. Few are passionate about what they do,” he said, adding that post-tsunami, there was a flurry of academic interest in the phenomenon, only for it to be forgotten a few years later.
Similarly, following the MV X-Press Pearl disaster, now there is a spike in interest in ocean pollution. However, Prof. Pattiaratchi points out that there is no national push or plan to build the relevant expertise or to retain the experts who are available.
Responding to a question, Prof. Pattiaratchi pointed out that the change in culture must also extend to the policymaking community and the bureaucracy in Sri Lanka, with the majority lacking an understanding of the oceans. He pointed out that only through a change in culture could Sri Lanka create the passion and foster the expertise which would then deliver sound research and the understanding that can guide the formulation of robust and effective national policies.
Reservation in governance about ocean and marine science
Echoing Prof. Pattiaratchi's thoughts, former Chief of Staff of the Sri Lanka Navy, Hydrographer and UNODC Consultant Rear Admiral (Retd) Y.N. Jayarathna told The Sunday Morning that due to the lack of understanding on ocean and maritime matters, there was reservation at all levels of administration about ocean sciences.
“Although we are an island state, although we are in an ocean that dictates our climate, a climate that dictates our livelihood and food security, we as a country have little understanding about the ocean. From our top leadership, over time, from presidents down to secretaries and Government officials, at every strata of our administration and governance, there is a reservation about ocean science and the maritime domain.
“We are in an era where a greater understanding and knowledge of the oceans is sought and learnt globally. The globe is covered 70% by the ocean, so obviously the ocean dictates the climate, it dictates geopolitics and the strategies. When you don't have that idea, you try to corner yourself, barricade yourself on land, and become isolated from global affairs,” he opined.
Jayarathna stressed on the importance of the study of the oceans and many countries collaborating to do so. He used the example of the Argo floating scientific research buoy system, which comprises open source platforms, with data available to the public. Many such buoys from different countries dot the Indian Ocean. However, Jayarathna pointed out that the data was dual use and had military applications along with climate prediction and forecast applications.
“The sea is dynamic, so the more real-time data you have, the more accurate your predictions and forecasts will become. When the predictions are correct, you take precautionary or pre-emptive action based on them. This is how India has, through the gathering of accurate data, brought about accurate predictions for monsoon rains. Monsoon rains are a national deciding factor for India, as they are for Sri Lanka,” Jayarathna said.
In Sri Lanka the monsoon rains directly impact food security and energy security. The ongoing drought and lack of hydropower generation is a good example of the need for better forecasting and preparedness.
He therefore asserted that Sri Lankan policymakers and officials needed a better understanding of the oceans.
Review State apparatus, use what we have
According to R. Adm. Jayarathna, since independence, Sri Lankan governments have not given due priority to marine research and study of the oceans which surround us.
“Even after the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA) was established in 1983, all our research was restricted to the coastal belt. The State has not invested and this sector is not seen as a priority. We need the capability to go out to sea for two or three weeks and conduct research. We depend on the survey done by the Norwegians in the 1980s and since then we have been reliant on foreign collaboration to survey our ocean. It is important that we have the capacity and the encouragement to train our scientists, as ocean science is a perpetual thing.”
When asked what could be done immediately to improve the situation, he opined that along with a policy focus, a review of the national marine research institute [NARA] was in order. He also pointed out that some of the equipment that NARA possessed may not be cutting edge but was still relevant and should be put to sea more often, in line with a robust and well-resourced national marine spatial plan for Sri Lanka.
Jayarathna opined that subject matter experts should be put in charge of such institutions and called on policymakers to listen to expert advice on the topic. He added that a new generation of aspirant marine scientists and hydrographers could be taken for critical research missions onboard existing Navy vessels.
Data sensitivity and lack of sovereign capacity?
With growing geopolitical tension in the Indian Ocean becoming unavoidable for Sri Lanka and the shift of the spotlight to Chinese marine research vessels calling on Sri Lanka, some Colombo-based diplomats have questioned why Sri Lanka needs to collaborate with China towards this end.
Sri Lanka has, over the last 75 years, collaborated with many countries and multinational agencies and institutes for marine and ocean research. In the early 2000s, Sri Lanka, with the aid of an Indian institute, conducted a coastal marine survey. Similarly, following the MV X-Press Pearl disaster, on the invitation of the Sri Lankan Government, an Indian Navy hydrography vessel surveyed the western coast and the approaches to the Colombo Port to map underwater debris. A similar survey was done post-tsunami with Indian collaboration.
Part of the diplomatic concerns about Lanka-Sino collaboration for marine research is the dual-use applications of the data collected. Data derived from such surveys can be used for military purposes, especially for naval-air operations, and undersea operations such as submarine warfare – both of which are growing concerns in the Indian Ocean.
While Sri Lanka is well within its sovereign rights to conduct surveys with any country it desires, given the importance of the data to Sri Lanka's national interests and to keep neighbourly relations in good order, it may be prudent for the Government to foster the climate necessary to grow expertise domestically and to invest in sovereign capacity for ocean sciences.
However, Sri Lanka should first take a look in the mirror, see where it stands, and understand that the country's destiny is linked to the sea.