It is hard to imagine that only 14 years ago Sri Lanka was severely devastated by the tsunami, triggered by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake in the Indian Ocean.
Its waves submerged the southwestern part of Sri Lanka, killing tens of thousands and destroying the infrastructure.
But there is a lesson to be learnt here. Had Sri Lankans realised that through the destruction of a natural form of defence by chopping down the mangroves, it is unlikely they would have taken this course of action.
For today, Sri Lankans are resolute about one thing when it comes to the protection of their environment: mangroves have to grow, have to be nurtured and have to be respected to protect this invaluable ecosystem.
So it was that Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland visited the country's Kalpitiya Coastal Environmental Centre. What she saw was nothing short of a miracle; the country’s mangrove conservation and replanting programme.
Where once local communities little realised the value of mangroves, today men, women and young children have taken ownership. Their united goal is clear: to reduce the impact of natural disasters like tsunamis. It was, said the Secretary-General, who planted five baby mangroves, a perfect case study of regenerative development to tackle climate change.
B H J Premathilake, Duty Director of Sri Lanka’s Coast Conservation Department termed the 2004 tsunami as a “driver” for the country’s scheme to protect all mangroves and to build back better.
“During the 2004 tsunami, we understood that mangrove ecosystem can play a vital role to protect people and their resources. Mangroves absorb and reduce the height and intensity of high waves. It holds a particular significance at the current times when temperature continues to increase and climatic catastrophes become more frequent and disastrous,” he said.
The Secretary-General congratulated Sri Lanka on its commitment to turn the trauma of climate change to a defence of global significance.
“We owe Sri Lanka a huge debt of gratitude because what their work to conserve mangroves will save our tomorrow,” she said. “After the tsunami, we all realised the importance of mangroves as a real protection for the coastline. What Sri Lanka has done since the tsunami to preserve, understand and restoring mangroves not only keeps Sri Lanka safe but it really is a signal to how we keep our world safe. The fact that communities [in Sri Lanka] are planting these mangroves, care for them, growing them, it gives me hope that we have a future."
In April this year, Sri Lanka stepped forward to lead a Commonwealth action group on mangrove restoration, as part of the Commonwealth Blue Charter, adopted during the 2018 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM).
The country now incubates a series of programmes which alleviates poverty as well as involves the community to protect mangroves.
“We started working on mangrove restoration programme with a vision to inspire communities to take the lead,” Mr Premathilake said. "The work included creating awareness about mangroves and showing locals the economic benefits of protecting mangroves. The programmes bring income to local people by promoting ecotourism in the mangroves areas. The financial factor encourages locals to take the ownership of this process,” he concluded.
The scheme is supported by the government and includes a combination of laws, regenerative development models and re-growing mangroves. It has formed part if the school curriculum, creating a future generation of environmental champions. The officials are hopeful that other Commonwealth countries will follow in their footsteps and adapt the lessons Sri Lanka has learnt on the way.