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Assessing damage of environmental disasters

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By Dr Sirimewan Dharmaratne
, Senior Analyst, HM Revenue and Customs, UK

While Sri Lanka is grappling with wars on many fronts, people are reminded daily of the environmental disaster caused by the sinking of the X-Press Pearl vessel. The scenes of beaching of massive dead turtles, tons of toxic pollutants getting washed ashore, are all ominous signs of a silent killer. These are all precursors to the environmental desecration that is happening out in the deep sea away from human gaze. However, these visceral feelings of despair need to be replaced by realistic expectations on how this can be put right. This invariably leads to the question how to assess the damage that has been caused. Damage itself has no intrinsic cost. The cost comes only in the way of loss of value to humans. Therefore, it is essential that all losses are identified, and appropriate methods are used to value or cost them.

 

Framework for Assessing the Damage

Unless the government puts forward a compelling case, it is likely to come out short-changed from negotiations with the shipping company. Therefore, it is essential that damages are assessed using internationally accepted methods. Herein lies the difficulty of valuation of environmental goods and services. What is the value of a turtle or a dolphin? They are not bought or sold in markets. Value that we place on the environment is essentially human centric. A resource is valuable only as much as humans are willing to pay for it or how much they are willing to accept for its loss. If it can be replaced, then the cost of replacement to the original level is the value. There is a repertoire of methods that can be applied to capture all types of economic values of the environment.

 

Clean up costs

Cleaning up of the pollutant prevents further damage. Therefore, clean-up expenses is the minimum cost of any further damage that would have occurred if it had not taken place. For example, Exxon spent over US$2 billion to clean-up the Alaskan coast after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. This implies that if the clean-up was not done, Exxon would have anticipated at least that much more in further damage payments. Sri Lankan government should have closed all affected beaches and done a professional cleaning process immediately after the disaster. This would have given a much more solid case to recover clean-up costs from the polluter. Due to lack of protocol, there was no organised cleaning and it is unlikely that the government would be able to present valid cost estimates. Further, due uncontrolled access to polluted beaches, pollutants are likely to have been unwittingly transported all over the island, which is still happening. There are lessons to be learned here on how the country should be prepared and act when the next such disaster strikes, which may be just around the corner.

 

Damage Assessment

While clean-up only prevents future damage and loss of value, damage that has already been caused needs to be properly identified, quantified and cost. There are several immediately obvious losses, including loss of wildlife, loss of livelihood of fisherfolk, reduced fish catch and loss of tourism revenue. There may be other damages that are not as obvious, nevertheless, very real, such as damage to the seabed, that would cause enduring losses to wildlife and commercial fisheries. Health risk to those who were exposed to various pollutants is another cost. These may need more expert investigation and assessment. What is important is no final agreement is reached until a comprehensive analysis is done.

 

Replacement Costs

This method is used when the damaged resource can be replaced. For example, for each sea otter rescued, Exxon paid US$40,000 to US$90,000 for rehabilitation. Further, US$32 million was paid to replace the reported 2,800 sea otters that were lost. The total cost of replacing just four species including seals, eagles and sea birds was about US$113 million. Clearly, this depends on whether the lost resources can be replaced. This method could be used to value numerous turtles that have been killed. But first it is essential to establish how many turtle deaths can be attributed exclusively to this disaster over and above what could have occurred naturally. This requires careful scientific proof and not facetious comments by dim-witted politicians. Not only such conjectures are imprudent but also harmful. They could be picked up by the offending parties to put forward a case against just compensation.

If the replacement cost of a sea otter was about US$47,000 over 30 years ago, one could expect the cost of replacing a turtle, a creature that is much harder to replace, would be much higher. Even with a conservative estimate of US$50,000 per turtle, then for the 140 or so turtles that were reported to have been killed, compensation would be around US$7 million. Further, as most were mature adults, their loss would have a significant impact on the breeding stock of this extremely critical species. This could cause a permanent reduction in the turtle population. Then there is the cost of rehabilitating turtles and other animals that were rescued. Those who are working on damage assessment need to do some investigation to understand how replacement and rehabilitation costs have been calculated in previous similar cases. As these are already established and accepted by such institutions as the Department of the Interior and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association of the USA, these methodologies have a solid pedigree.

 

Loss of direct values

These are the losses incurred by all those who based their livelihood on the coastal environment that is now polluted. These are not only the loss of profits of fisherfolk, but losses to all those who are involved in the distribution chain. This is because fish caught generate value at each point they change hands and generate economic rent to someone. In fact, if there is any increase in market prices that causes loss of economic welfare to the final consumer, it is also a direct economic loss. Further, not just a one-time loss, but a stream of future losses until such time that fish stock recovers to pre-disaster level.

 

Loss of recreational value-tourism

Loss of value from tourism is hard to measure because even if these beaches become unavailable, there will be other substitute beaches that the tourists could go to. However, there are again accepted methods that could put value on a specific beach or a recreational area when individuals have a choice of similar sites. It would be good to have such studies done when the country returns to normal. So that when the next disaster hits, either man-made or natural, the country would be able to accurately estimate economic losses.

While in the current environment, there may not be a strong case for losses from international tourism, there may be a case for loss of value for domestic recreational use. The value of these beaches for those living in the vicinity or within easy commuting distance could be high, especially during these times of travel restrictions. There are well established internationally accepted methods that can be used. While they require extensive data and technical expertise, they have also been successfully applied when data and technical resources are limited.

 

Loss of non-use values

Demise of numerous and often valuable sea creatures, pollution of pristine beaches and real or perceived long lasting adverse environmental effects human welfare. What is important is one does not have to be directly affected to experience this loss. Hence it is applicable to all Sri Lankans. It is conceivable that even those who may never visit the affected area or see a turtle at a beach or at sea, is ‘worse-off’ after this disaster. While this value is not related to any use, it is nevertheless real. Such values are globally acknowledged and known as ‘non-use’ values.

In the case of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, these non-use values were estimated at US$2.8 billion to all US households. Over 30 years ago, the non-use value for each US household was estimated to be about US$ 31. Thirty years later and considering the income differences of the two countries, if one put it at a measly US$5 per household in Sri Lanka, for the 5 million or so households, non-use value would be around US$25 million. Further, turtles are a global resource, which is valued by the global population as a critically endangered species. Therefore, theoretically this value could be even extended to the global population.

This is by no means a theoretical concept. Robust methods, perfect over the years, exist to capture non-use value. This is palpable by the fact that the Exxon Valdez incident led to the US Oil Pollution Control Act of 1990, which held companies responsible for non-use value in the case of future oil spills. This legislation from the major economic power provides a compelling backdrop for Sri Lanka to add non-use values to the mix of economic losses when seeking compensation.

If all different components of the total economic value are added-up, it is likely that the total would far exceed the interim compensation of US$40 million that has been claimed. Because there are so many precedents from all over the world, Sri Lanka does not need to reinvent the wheel. The government could easily draw upon the plethora of literature that is available on this subject and seek advice and help from experts. However, it is better that the country finds homegrown expertise, without being dependent on foreign consultants.

Way forward

The government is well advised to refrain from reaching an immediate settlement in the interest of making a few quick dollars. Although a few million may look extremely attractive to a cash strapped economy, any immediate compensation should be accepted as interim payments until a proper and comprehensive economic valuation is done. There is no hurry to come up with a settlement. In all previous cases it has taken years to properly assess damage and value. What is important is that it is done to internationally accepted standards so that there is little room for dispute. It is more than likely that the polluter, presented with compelling evidence, will agree to out of court settlements to avoid bad publicity and punitive damages.

Policy making process in Sri Lanka is generally reactive. When a crisis happens, a policy is hastily conjured as a temporary solution. This invariably falls by the wayside due to lack of planning or commitment from stakeholders. It is imperative that a highly trained, numerate and technical team of analysts are put together as a permanent task force to take leadership in situations such as these. They should comprise professionals from all relevant disciplines who are willing to work together as a team for the common good.

There is no doubt that the country has many adroit young professionals who could fill these roles. This is clear from the comments expressed through different media. However, this itself is the problem. There is no value to opinions unless they can be translated to real outcomes. Further, most appear to contradict each other and, in some cases, politically aligned. This not only effete their professional conduct, but also provide ample reasons for offending parties against any settlement. What is needed is not a scattered bunch of individuals who are on personal ego trips, or trying to impress with affectation, but a carefully put together team of fastidious individuals, who are willing to work together and produce high-quality, internationally accepted outputs.



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Features

English in Mathematics

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By R.N.A. de Silva

 

“Which subject did you have most difficulties with, having switched the medium of instruction from Sinhala to English?” I posed this question to a Sri Lankan student who was following a pre-University course in an educational institution in Hong Kong, having completed studies up to the GCE Ordinary Level programme in the Sinhala medium in a leading girls’ school in Colombo. “It is definitely mathematics,” she replied. Having served as a teacher for a long period of time at this educational institution with students from over 80 countries, I realised the above-mentioned view was shared by other students, too, who had to change the medium of instruction to English. This does not seem to make sense as one would have expected mathematics to be the easiest subject to follow as it has its own symbolic language. Why then has this situation arisen?

I would like to separate these difficulties into two categories:

1. Hastiness due to mindset

2. Vocabulary issues

Sometimes hastiness can automatically occur due to the mindset that mathematics should be easy to follow even if you change the medium of instruction as you are dealing with symbols. This attitude can cause enormous problems as students may skip instructions or avoid reading the question fully and concentrate only on the symbolic part of the problem

As an example, consider the following question.

The graphs of lines 3y = 5x + 1 and 2y = 7 – 3x intersect at point P. Find the coordinates of P.

Seeing the word ‘graphs’ and the two equations, a student maybe tempted to draw the graphs of the two lines and thereby find the point of intersection, which is a time-consuming affair. If it was read properly, the student could have noticed that the solution can be obtained by solving the two equations algebraically, which is much more efficient.

To a fast reader, obtaining the correct answer to the following question can be a problem as it may end up with just finding the value of x.

If 2x+3 = 5x-3, find the value of 2x+3.

The students need to be trained to read the question fully and understand what is required to be done, before attempting it.

The time spent to grasp the aim of the question is not wasted time.

Many children consider mathematics as an alien language consisting of symbols and expressions. Most of the difficulties that students encounter is related to vocabulary. The mathematical interpretation of the meaning of a word may differ from the meaning given to it in the English language. The word ‘find’ in mathematics means to obtain an answer showing the working while in the English language, it refers to discover or search. The following sketch shows the funny side of this difference.

Two of the words that has caused much confusion are ‘or’ and ‘and’.

In general usage, A or B is considered as either A or B but not both, as shown in picture.

However, in mathematics ‘A or B’ means ‘it can belong to A or B including intersection’. This is shown in picture.

The above, in normal usage is interpreted as ‘A and B’. However, in mathematics A and B refers to only what is common to A and B as shown in picture.

Here are the mathematical meanings of some of the other words which can have a different meaning with the English language definitions.

Determine

– Obtain the only possible answer

Plot

– Mark the position of points on a diagram

Write down

– Obtain the answer (Working need not be shown)

Constant

– A number that does not change

Similar

– Having the same shape but not the same size

Deduce

– To show a result using known information

Operation

– A procedure such as addition, subtraction, multiplication, etc.

Element

– A member of a set

Volume

– The extent of space occupied by a solid

The following illustrate some of the difficulties that the difference of meanings brings:

How odd these odd numbers are? The even numbers are even stranger.

Don’t be mean and help me to find the mean of these numbers.

Is right angle the right answer? Let me write it on the board.

The polysemous nature of some of the mathematical terms make it confusing for the students in the understanding of mathematical concepts. Mathematical terms have precise definitions to describe numerical relationships. At times these definitions resemble the everyday usage meaning but there are instances where the definitions notably differ. Consider ‘in general’ as an example. In mathematics there can be no exceptions to a result if it is considered to hold in general. However, in everyday usage, if a claim is said to be true in general, it would mean that it is true most of the time, but exceptions are possible.

To add to the problem, there are some terms such as ‘degree’ that can have many different meanings within mathematics while having a different meaning in everyday use. In mathematics, degree can refer to the measurement of an angle, the complexity of an algebraic equation and a unit of temperature.

Although mathematics deals essentially with symbols, it is taught through the medium of language which is the major means of communication. Students build understanding as they process ideas through language. It is important for students to give emphasis to the familiarisation with the mathematical vocabulary and at the same time understand the difference of meanings of terms mathematically and everyday usage. Teachers have an important role to play here in highlighting such terms and using them in different contexts for comfortable acclimatization. As Marcus Quintilianus quoted, “One should not aim at being possible to understand, but at being impossible to misunderstand.”

(The author is a senior mathematics examiner of the International Baccalaureate Organization and a member of the faculty of the Overseas School of Colombo.)

 

 

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Features

Success with debut single

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Fred-James Koch: Lots of airplay for ‘I’m Runnin’

 

Fred-James Koch seems to be more in the news, these days, than his illustrious father, Alston Koch.

The turning point in Fred-James career is, undoubtedly, the Hollywood film ‘Night Walk.’

His role in the film is two-fold – actor and singer.

It’s, in fact, his singing of the theme song, ‘I’m Runnin,’ that has generated quite a lot of excitement, among music lovers.

The song is now being heard, world-wide, over radio (in Sri Lanka, on Sun FM), while the video, too, has been seen by many, on social media.

An Australian magazine, ‘Music Injection,’ had this to say about Fred- James:

“Fred- James Koch has written an incredible theme song for the movie ‘Night Walk,’ called ‘I’m Runnin.’ Just released, this song is engaging and gives us a sense of urgency, as the song builds. Fred-James vocals have a unique tinge to them and with the video having scenes from ‘Night Walk,’ it encourages me to watch the movie. ‘I’m Runnin’ features AZ Sheriff.” – Jen.

Following the debut spin for ‘I’m Runnin,’ on The Music Director programme, on 88.3 Southern FM Melbourne, the track was also played on the All New Saturday Ausmosis programme.

And, guess what! It’s now No. 3 on the Australian Top 20 Download chart. and No. 2 on the Australian Top 20 Stream chart.

 

 

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Features

Inklings of change in national reconciliation policy

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By Jehan Perera

 

The government comfortably overcame a vote of no-confidence in one of its key ministers over the rise in the price of fuel.  Those who expected to have greater numbers supporting the no-confidence motion miscalculated that the apparent differences and rivalries within the government would be uppermost.  Any government, or institution for that matter, would have its internal differences.  The current government is better secured against these differences that might otherwise split it into different competing parts on account of the familial bonds that bind the leadership together.  The President, Prime Minister, newly appointed Finance Minister, as well as the former Speaker who is now Irrigation and Internal Security Minister, are closely knit brothers who have gone through trials and tribulations together. 

An iconic photograph of recent times would be the joy on (then) President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s face when he embraced his brother (then) Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa shortly after the latter survived a suicide bomb attack at the height of the war.  The brothers, however, have different strengths and constituencies.  They have different groups who follow and advise them, and each of these groups would prefer if their leader was the first among equals.  President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s comment that he has another eight years in which to achieve his goals has been widely discussed.  It would send a signal to others in the polity that it would be premature to gather around another member of the family at this time in anticipation that the baton would be passed on at the conclusion of the President’s current term in 2024.

On his part, the President has been promoting the institution he once served and to which most of his confidantes belonged or continue to belong.  The institution of the military is one where the closest of human bonds can be forged, because on the battlefield each depends on the other for their lives.  In his early period in office, the President has been promoting the military, both serving and retired, wherever he can, as ambassadors to foreign nations, as Covid health guideline monitors and as a supra grade of administrators in government departments.  It is often the case that those appointed to these positions are not the best suited to the tasks they have been set to do.  But the President evidently trusts them and they are his support base.  Unlike any other president in the past, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is not a member of a political party.  Civil society organisations have periodically called for a non-party presidency who is non-partisan in decision making. 

 

CHALLENGE EXCESSSES

However, there is a need to challenge the excesses.  The president’s pardoning of a soldier who was held by several courts, including the Supreme Court, to have deliberately killed children and (adults, eight in all), outside of the battlefield may be due to his conviction that loyalty to the military counts most.  However, the President is expected to uphold the system of checks and balances, and if he favours one institution at the expense of the others, it leads to a weakening of the entire structure of governance.  Another looming challenge is that posed to the autonomy of institutions of higher education and specifically the universities.  The government decision to vest the Kotelawala Defence University with powers to accredit other institutions of higher education is a threat to the freedom of thought and expression.  The military hierarchy who will head the KDU can be expected to have values that are important to the military, but not to democracy which is based on human rights.

The KDU law needs to be opposed as indeed the Federation of University Teachers Associations (FUTA) has urged along with opposition political parties.  At the same time there are other issues on which civil society can consider giving constructive support to governmental initiatives.  For instance, they do not engage with NGOs who provide a variety of services complementing the work of the government. The most important of these is the national reconciliation process.  There are indications that the government is shifting its stance on the issues of post-war reconciliation.  President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s election victory on a highly nationalist platform won him a big majority of votes of the Sinhalese ethnic majority.  The government felt empowered to publicly declare its intention to withdraw from the post-war reconciliation process initiated by its predecessor government with support from the international community.  This was followed by withdrawal from UNHRC resolution 30/1 of 2015 co-sponsored by the previous government. 

However, the four subsequent internationally driven resolutions against Sri Lanka, emanating from Geneva (UNHRC), Ottawa (Ontario Parliament), Washington DC (US Congress) and Brussels (EU Parliament) seem to have led to a serious rethink within the government about its policy towards post-war reconciliation.  All four make human rights and the ethnic conflict their centerpiece.  Though not yet publicly commented upon, the signs of change are two-fold.  The first is the increased visibility of the US Embassy in meeting with the leaders of the Tamil and Muslim parties.  The media has reported that US Embassy officials discussed issues of post-war reconciliation efforts, devolution of power, rule of law and the Prevention of Terrorism Act with SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem. Recently, a US Embassy delegation, led by Ambassador Alaina B. Teplitz, held similar discussions with TNA leader R. Sampanthan where the focus was on the proposed new Constitution.

 

CHANGING WINDS

The second sign of a change is the statement from the Presidential Secretariat announcing a recommendation, emanating from the President Commission of Inquiry for Appraisal of the Findings of Previous Commissions and Committees on Human Rights and the Way Forward headed by Justice AHMD Nawaz.  This is with regard to the EU call for the abolishing of the Prevention of Terrorism Act long seen by those promoting national security as part of the country’s first line of defence.  The Commission said that it cannot agree with calls for repealing the PTA but Sri Lanka’s anti-terrorism law should be reformed in line with similar laws in other countries, including the UK.  This would be aimed at affirming Sri Lankan sovereignty and national security interests, which are important to the government’s voter base, while complying with the requirements of the EU parliament which has called for the repeal of the PTA on the grounds that it violated human rights. 

The Presidential Secretariat statement also contains a significant section in which it mentioned that “It is the policy of the Government to work with the United Nations and its agencies to ensure accountability and human resource development in order to achieve lasting peace and reconciliation. The Government is committed to providing solutions for the issues to be resolved within the democratic and legal process and to ensure justice and reconciliation by implementing necessary institutional reforms.”  This is the first official indication that the Government is reconsidering its earlier position that it would blaze is own path with an indigenously generated reconciliation model which would not require international assistance. In this context it would be useful if the government focused closer attention to the achievement of the UN Sustainable Goals.

Veteran Tamil political leader V Anandasangaree, who has championed Tamil rights for a long time, and whose son is a Canadian parliamentarian, has referred to these recent developments and said that the President who holds the defence portfolio, Prime Minister and Finance Minister being members of Rajapaksa family could ensure genuine post-war reconciliation.  He also urged President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government not to leave the problem for a future administration to resolve, but address it now.  If the President is to successfully address the problem that has eluded a solution since independence, and been the biggest disaster to Sri Lanka’s development, he will need to broad base his support at multiple levels.  He will not only need the support of the ruling party, led by his brothers, as well as civil society, but also that of the ethnic minority parties and the opposition political parties.  This will require patience, dialogue and self-sacrifice, and the need to break from past and chart a reconciliatory course of action.

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