Climate Change and Urban Human Settlements in Sri Lanka
Chathurga Karunanayake
19 August 2019

Recently, Sri Lanka was listed as the second most affected country from extreme weather conditions by The Global Climate Risk Index 2019,  signifying the dramatic increase in Sri Lanka’s vulnerability to climate change. As revealed by the Climate Change Impact on Human Settlements report, climate change will have a profound negative impact on human settlements. However, even though this aspect has gained vast attention over the globe, evidence from Sri Lanka suggests that human settlements, especially urban communities, have not been given enough attention in adapting to climate change.

Urban Settlements in Sri Lanka

As revealed by the Urban Development, Human Settlements and Infrastructure report, 70% of Sri Lanka’s population is expected to reside in urban settlements by 2030. Thus, providing adequate climate proofing and ensuring the sustainability of such developments are very crucial. Furthermore, as asserted in Defining Urban Sprawl in the Sri Lankan Context: With Special Reference to the Colombo Metropolitan Region, the aforementioned population growth in urban areas will make cities grow, both in number as well as in physical size resulting in, urban sprawl related problems in future. Urban sprawl and urban growth are interlinked and have a direct linkage to human settlements and as such, both urban growth and urban sprawl should be managed wisely, through planning human settlements properly. According to the study on Turning Urban Vision into Policy and Action, Sri Lanka’s urban landscape is dominated by small, urban settlements, clustered along the coast. Furthermore, according to the latest Household Income and Expenditure Survey (HIES), the most common type of housing in urban areas of Sri Lanka is single houses (Figure 1). As asserted in the National Housing Policy, the demand for housing in urban areas in Sri Lanka is to be managed through housing schemes, apartments, condominiums, and housing projects with special focus on underserved settlements. The latter, which are vulnerable to climate change in urban areas, include those in strategic locations with high land value, those on reservations required for new infrastructure like railways, and those which require improvements to infrastructure.

Impact of Climate Change on Urban Human Settlements

Climate change affects urban settlements in many ways, causing fluctuations in temperature and rainfalls, high incidence of landslides, and rise in sea levels. The Climate Change Vulnerability in Sri Lanka report shows that, with the increase in temperature, the need for adequate cooling and ventilation will grow, leading to a rise in the demand for energy. Furthermore, the report asserts that, as a result of changes in rainfall regimes, the frequency and the intensity of natural disasters such as floods and droughts will also rise. This will have a significant impact on urban settlements and planned expansions of future human settlements, causing erosions and physical damage to infrastructure. Furthermore, floods would impose severe burdens on settlements in low-lying areas, mainly where drainage paths and flood retention areas have been blocked or reclaimed. According to the National Adaptation Plan for Climate Change Impacts in Sri Lanka 2016 – 2025, physical effects of climate change, such as rise in air temperature increased concentration of dust/ soil particles in the atmosphere, and salt water intrusion will adversely affect human settlements by displacing people, damaging houses and near shore settlements, and increasing exposure to pollutants.


Tackling the Issue of Climate Change

Climate change is a reality that urban dwellers have to confront and should be tackled systematically. Both mitigation and adaptation strategies are important in this regard. ‘Mitigation’ focuses on the causes of climate change whereas ‘adaptation’ addresses the impacts of climate change. Therefore, Sri Lanka needs an efficient mix of mitigation and adaptation strategies that secure human settlements. Mitigation includes direct reduction of carbon emissions and increase in carbon sinks, namely plants, the ocean, and soil. Mitigation will be helpful in curbing long-term climate change. In terms of adaptation strategies, it is important to encourage climate resilient building designs, introduce green buildings, strengthen building approval processes, introduce green certificates to condominiums, ensure quality housing through enhancing capacity and structure of urban settlements, and strictly monitor the rise in sea levels. Furthermore, it is crucial that in-depth research studies to monitor the impacts of climate change are conducted. A collaborative mixture of aforementioned strategies will not only limit potential risks of climate change, but will promise safe and secure living conditions to urban dwellers in the future.









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