04/30/2012 03:11
‘Shared environmental challenges can be an entry point for coexistence,’ says Dr. Vinya Shanthidas Ariyaratne.

In the semi-arid Eastern Province of Sri Lanka, Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim populations, who have been rivals throughout their history, struggle over their shared but meager water resources, an issue that one man hopes to help mitigate in part by learning from initiatives taken here in Israel.

“Environment can be an entry point to have a dialogue on shared resources to promote coexistence,” Dr.Vinya Shanthidas Ariyaratne told The Jerusalem Post during an interview in Jerusalem last week.

Ariyantne is the executive director of Sarvodaya, the largest NGO in Sri Lanka, which has taken part in relief and development efforts in 15,000 villages across the country for the past 50 years. After earning a master’s degree in community medicine, a master’s degree in public health and two medical degrees, Ariyaratne has been able to help steer the organization founded and still headed by his father.

Since its establishment, Sarvodaya has developed numerous community health programs and worked closely with governmental officials to integrate these programs into the public, according to the group. In the early 1990s, at the peak of the country’s separatist war, Sarvodaya initiated a program to help children cope with the psycho-social aftermath, and after the 2004 tsunami disaster, the organization was responsible for coordinating the brunt of Sri Lanka’s emergency response.

“The background that I come from is working on development and peace-building,” Ariyaratne said.

Coming to Israel as a guest of the British-based Tag International Development organization and the local multinational group Friends of the Earth Middle East, Ariyaratne aimed to explore the ways Israel was handling its own struggles with preserving natural resources, as well as the ongoing cross-border efforts that are necessary to environmental progress.

“Our goal is to partner, to collaborate [and] to forge partnerships with other NGOs in developing countries using Israeli expertise,” said Dr. Amos Avgar, chief operating officer of Tag.

While Sri Lanka does not have many historical ties to Israel, Ariyaratne himself actually does, as his father elected to spend time on a kibbutz during the 1960s, learning about how self-sufficient, localized governance systems operate.

“That’s how it started,” he said, noting that the Joint Distribution Committee ended up being one of the largest donors to Sarvodaya’s tsunami relief efforts.

From the JDC, where Avgar worked previously, Sarvodaya then developed its relationship with Tag.

Like the Jordan Valley area, in which Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians all compete for – and pollute – a very water-scarce area, the dry zone in Sri Lanka’s eastern Ampara district contains three communities that “have localized tension and competition,” Ariyaratne said. To that effect, exporting a program like Friends of the Earth’s cross-border Good Water Neighbors project could be ideal for the local populations, he explained.

There are certain key differences in terms of water availability between Sri Lanka and Israel, as overall, Sri Lanka has a large amount of precipitation during its rainy season, and even its dry zones are not quite as dry as those here. Nonetheless, changing weather patterns have brought about more extreme droughts, and localized conflicts exist between communities in the water-scarce eastern region, Ariyaratne explained.

The communities located upstream, for example, and use more of the water, leaving a heavily reduced and much more polluted resource for those located downstream, he said.

Lacking environmental awareness, people have polluted the marine ecosystems with residual ammunition from past wars, animal carcasses and chemical contamination from pesticides, which have led to kidney disease outbreaks, according to Ariyaratne.

While the level of microbial fecal material is nothing compared to India’s Ganges River, “there are outbreaks of cholera sometimes or of other types of intestinal infections and hepatitis,” he said.

In addition to various types of groundwater contamination, the on-land ecosystem has also been facing challenges, as the general increase in population has destroyed natural forests, causing conflicts between humans and snakes and elephants that now have nowhere to turn, Ariyaratne explained.

With the help of TAG, Sarvodaya commissioned local academics from Sri Lanka’s Eastern University to conduct a study about which natural resources the populations are competing for, particularly focusing on management issues, according to Ariyaratne.

The goal is to create an educational program detailing how the communities can work together and fix the problem, which will be fleshed out after the baseline study concludes, he said.

“This visit gave me the opportunity to actually see for myself what is happening on the ground here,” Ariyaratne said.

Friends of the Earth, for example, brought him to their education center in the West Bank village of Auja, where he saw the integral role that children were playing in increasing environmental awareness.

“You do it very well here,” Ariyaratne said. “Here I think people really feel that water is so important.”

Ariyaratne was struck by how quickly the Jordan River is drying up and the Dead Sea water levels are depleting but said he was impressed at the way Friends of the Earth was bringing together mayors and people from all three governmental bodies together to fight these issues despite the ongoing political conflict. Friends of the Earth Israel director Gidon Bromberg also visited with Ariyaratne in Sri Lanka about two months ago in order to offer his expertise to the situation there, Ariyarante explained.

“I think that both Friends of the Earth and Sarvodaya believe in educating the people and getting people to take action at the first level,” he said, noting that only then will politicians join the effort. “I think if you can have success stories on the ground, then we can convince them.”

In addition to meeting with Friends of the Earth representatives, Ariyaratne also visited officials from the Foreign Ministry’s Mashav program, which has been funding a program bringing Sri Lankan agriculturalists to come learn in Israel, as well as the company Netafim, which is sponsoring the demonstration phase of a new agricultural program in Sri Lanka. In the Eastern Province city of Batticaloa, made up of mostly Muslim and Tamil communities, the main occupations are agriculture and fishingrelated, but agriculture – particularly rice cultivation – is currently limited to one season due to limited rains, Ariyaratne explained. By adopting Israeli techniques for growing crops in dry areas during the demonstration phase, Ariyaratne said that the Sri Lankan farmers hope to expand their cultivation into two seasons.

Meanwhile, he plans to initiate a program for teaching these innovative agricultural techniques to young people who were taken in as soldiers for rebel groups in the past but now are too old for the traditional schooling system. Already, such youth are partaking in similar programs involving masonry, carpentry, computer and cellphone repair and cosmetology.

Another of Sarvodaya’s Israeli partnerships is with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, which has sent rangers to visit the south Asian country to help develop a “cyber ranger” program for identifying animals. Today, Sri Lankan park rangers garner little respect, something that Ariyaratne hopes to improve by empowering them with technology. Most urgently, the cyber program would give the rangers the possibility to track and perform data analysis on snake bite locations, which have become quite rampant in Sri Lanka’s nature reserves, he explained.

While Ariyaratne said he does not believe that uniting groups over environmental issues would bring an end to their political differences, this can be an effective strategy to get people to begin talking.

“I think it’s a good entry point but as we all know ultimately we have to have political commitment.

If we can use the environment to convince politicians, then there is a lot of potential in that,” he said.