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FEATURE: Sri Lanka’s progress towards multi-level climate governance

Ranga Pallawala, Scott A. Muller and Tim Woods report on a project that is strengthening multi-level governance approaches for low-emissions development in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka’s vulnerability to climate change

As an island nation with a tropical monsoon climate, Sri Lanka is highly vulnerable to current and projected climate change impacts. It ranked second in the 2017 Climate Risk Index, and trends show increases in average ambient temperatures, erratic rainfall patterns and extreme weather events, which can trigger disasters including floods, droughts and landslides.

The socio-economic impacts of climate change are also significant. Sri Lanka’s key infrastructure is concentrated in its coastal zones, which are highly vulnerable to sea level rise. Annual economic losses from climate-induced disasters are estimated at US$350 million on average, a significant share of total economy. “As a developing country, climate change has affected the economic growth of Sri Lanka,” says Dr Sunimal Jayathunga, Director of the Climate Change Secretariat in the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment. “It has affected all the sectors in the country, and all the levels.”

Low-emissions development in Sri Lanka

It is clear, then, that Sri Lanka needs to do what it can to reduce the scale of climate change. The country is only responsible for a tiny share of global emissions, yet it intends to move towards low-emission pathways to be in sync with the global emission pathways in line with the Paris Agreement;[1] Sri Lanka is a party to the UNFCCC and was quick to ratify this agreement. Many national-level plans and strategies are in place, including a NDC, a NAP and SDG Action Plans, as well as roadmaps to implement them.

Under the NDCs, for example, Sri Lanka expects to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector by 20% against business-as-usual projections. It has already developed and implemented certain actions towards this. One of these is the ‘Battle for Solar Energy’ project, and Sri Lanka has already exceeded its solar energy-related NDC target.

These ambitious climate change plans and strategies cannot be implemented in isolation, though. “Achieving these cannot be done as an effort of a single institution or ministry,” says Dr Jayathunga. “We have realised the importance of bringing subnational governments – Provincial Councils and Local Government Authorities – on board to implement, as well as to review and update, these plans.”

The complexities of multi-level governance

While it was essential to involve subnational bodies, multi-level governance – the synergistic interplay between the institutions, levels of government and civil society organisations that shape how policies and actions are defined and implemented – is complex. This is especially true in Sri Lanka, where many administrative institutions work on climate change.

There are currently 43 ministries involved at the national level, and a great many departments, corporations and institutions attached to these. At the subnational level, there are nine Provincial Councils and 329 Local Government Authorities (Municipal Councils, Urban Councils and Pradeshiya Sabhas).[2] Furthermore, the National Government’s administrative system runs in parallel with 25 District Administrative Bodies, with 331 Divisional Secretariats underneath.

Coordinating and integrating all these institutions to mainstream climate action is a challenging task This is complicated further by the fact that Sri Lanka has many different agroecological zones, and each of these experiences a wide range of climate patterns – so adaptation and mitigation actions must be adjusted accordingly.

Progress made towards multi-level governance

To address this complexity, the Climate Change Secretariat, acting as the ‘National Focal Point on Climate Change’ in Sri Lanka, leads efforts to integrate multi-level governance structures in Sri Lanka towards climate change priorities. As a first step, the Climate Change Secretariat facilitated the development of national-level plans. Subnational governments expect to use these as a framework for creating their own provincial-level plans and actions.

“We identified ‘provincial climate cells’ as a possible coordination mechanism,” explains Dr Jayathunga. “These help to get effective subnational engagement in planning and implementing climate actions.”

However, there was a need for extensive capacity-building and a backstopping process targeted at subnational levels of governance, to ensure that stakeholders at those working at these levels had the required knowledge about climate resilience-building and low-carbon development to roll-out the process effectively. As with many other developing countries, this required high levels of technical assistance and resources. “The Climate Change Secretariat was willing to build capacities, facilitate local climate-sensitive planning and support access to climate finance for subnational governments,” confirms Dr Jayathunga.

LEDS GP provided technical support to develop an Institutional Mapping Report, which would identify the existing arrangements and structures, and which of these could be integrated into multi-level governance. Sri Lanka’s national-level climate plans and strategies had already recognised potential roles for subnational intuitions, and the institutional mapping process set about analysing these further.

Three workshops, sponsored by the LEDS GP, enabled national and subnational actors to map the institutions and the roles they could play, and considered recommendations on how to increase effective collaboration.

Mainstreaming climate change in capacity-building

Alongside support for institutional mapping, LEDS GP helped the Climate Change Secretariat to work with the Sri Lanka Institute of Local Governance (SLILG), the government body mandated to build the capacity of Provincial Councils and Local Government Authorities. This sought to mainstream climate change into SLILG’s training framework.

“Prior to the workshop on institutional mapping, our general perception was that climate change is a mandate of the institutions related to environment,” states Mr Sujeewa Samaraweera, Director of SLILG. “It was an eye-opening exercise, for Provincial Councils, Local Governments, the SLILG and the Ministry of Provincial Councils and Local Governments. We now recognise that climate change is a multi-level governance issue, and that related capacity-building is a must.”

SLILG now want to make specific climate change issues, such as adaptation, mitigation, technology transfer and access to finance, part of SLILG’s training agenda. “This is the first step of a long journey towards a resilient and low-carbon development process,” says Mr Samaraweera. “SLILG is expecting to work closely with the Climate Change Secretariat and other relevant local and international partners, including LEDS GP.”

Next steps

Capacity-building at the subnational governance layer is now a top priority in Sri Lanka, as this will enhance knowledge and skills on climate change among stakeholders at this level. Designing and conducting training programmes for officials, elected representatives and other stakeholders, including private and civil society actors, will be a key aspect. Creating a conducive environment for subnational integration, by putting institutional coordination mechanisms in place and ensuring these are acted upon, is another important step.

Even when these mechanisms and institutional arrangements are in place, Sri Lanka’s subnational governments will still be operating in unique environments and in the face of very real and specific climate-related challenges. Analysing the climate impacts in each environmental context, and developing specific plans to respond to these, will be the next stage.

[1] Sri Lanka has not officially announced its position regarding the specific temperature-related targets in this agreement.

[2] There are three levels of local government in Sri Lanka: Pradeshiya Sabhas are the third tier, equivalent to rural councils, urban councils and semi-urban councils.


Image: Sri Lanka, courtesy World Bank

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