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DisasterLink Country Profile: Sri Lanka

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Sri Lanka at a Glance

Population: 22.2 Million 
Major Threats: Violent Tropical Storms, Cyclonez, Flash Floods, and Landslides
Populations Affected: Urban and Rural Poor Communities, Farmers, Coastal Communities
Locations Affected: Batticaloa, Jaffna, Ampara, Mannar, Mullaitivu and Moneragala
Industries Affected: Agriculture, Tourism, Fisheries
Compounding Issues: Climate Change, Geographic Susceptibility, Overpopulation and Urbanization, Environmental Degradation, Poor Infrastructure and Land Use, Poverty and Limited Resources, Inadequate Disaster Preparedness
World Risk Index Ranking: 76
Global Climate Risk Index: 23 (2021)


Sri Lanka, located in the Indian Ocean and separated from the Indian subcontinent by the Gulf of Mannar and the Palk Strait, is a small yet ecologically diverse island spanning 65,610 km2. It encompasses tropical forests, highlands, lowland plains, and coastal areas (CFE-DM, 2017). The country faces various hazards, such as cyclones, monsoonal rain, floods, landslides due to adverse weather (Ministry of Disaster Management, 2019), as well as droughts caused by shifting monsoon patterns, lightning strikes, coastal erosion, epidemics, and pollution. Among these threats, localized and seasonal flooding is the most pressing concern, expected to worsen due to increased hydro-meteorological hazards (GFDRR, 2017). The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami highlighted Sri Lanka’s vulnerability to rare, high-impact events (Ministry of Disaster Management, 2019).

Landslides are particularly common in Sri Lanka’s hilly regions, especially during the monsoon season, posing heightened risks to underserved communities living in poorly constructed settlements. Approximately 5,200 families (around 25,000 people) reside in high-risk areas, and 5,700 families (26,000 people) live in moderately landslide-prone zones, according to the National Building Research Organization (NBRO).

In May 2016, Sri Lanka experienced record-breaking rainfall, resulting in devastating floods and landslides across 24 districts, with one landslide being the worst ever recorded. The disaster claimed at least 93 lives, affected nearly half a million people, and caused extensive damage to over 58,000 houses. It also significantly impacted the livelihoods of more than a million people who relied on agriculture, trade, and industries.

Major Threats and Economy

Sri Lanka’s economy faces multiple threats, including natural and man-made disasters, structural challenges, and fiscal issues. The country heavily depends on agriculture, tourism, and remittances, all vulnerable to shocks like floods, tsunamis, droughts, and the Covid-19 pandemic. In May 2021, heavy rains resulted in floods and landslides affecting over 200,000 people, causing an estimated $40 million in losses. Sri Lanka’s coastal location exposes it to tsunamis, such as the devastating 2004 event that claimed over 35,000 lives. Irregular rainfall patterns and heavy agricultural reliance make the nation susceptible to droughts, leading to reduced crop yields, food insecurity, and impacts on hydroelectric power generation. The 2016-2017 drought, one of the worst in 40 years, affected over 1.2 million people and caused $1.5 billion in losses.

These shocks have led to significant loss of life, livelihoods, assets, reduced foreign exchange reserves, and increased debt. Additionally, Sri Lanka grapples with ethnic conflicts between the Singhalese and Tamils, posing risks to social stability and peace.

Climate Change Impacts

As a tropical island in the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka is highly vulnerable to climate change. Its coastal areas are particularly at risk due to potential sea level rise, as exemplified by the 2004 tsunami. Such changes could adversely affect vital sectors like tourism and fisheries. A substantial portion of the population relies on agriculture, making them susceptible to climate-induced food security issues. The nation’s income from export crops, sensitive to weather fluctuations, is also at risk.

Evidence suggests that climate change may disrupt Sri Lanka’s water cycle, ecosystems, and biodiversity, potentially reducing critical ecosystem services. Additionally, climate change’s health and settlement impacts are concerning. Overall, the effects of climate change are likely to lead to negative socio-economic outcomes across various sectors.

Hydrometeorological Vulnerability

Sri Lanka faces hydro-meteorological hazards, primarily floods and landslides, during the monsoon and inter-monsoon seasons. Heavy rainfall in central hilly areas often leads to flooding downstream due to low absorption capacity. The rain events of May 2016, occurring within the southwest monsoon period, displaced thousands and exacerbated landslides, resulting in the loss of lives, crops, and assets.

Despite abundant annual rainfall, Sri Lanka has experienced widespread impacts from droughts. The 2016-2017 drought affected 20 districts and approximately 1.8 million people (CFE-DM, 2017). Water scarcity, linked to drought risk, is a pressing issue.

Adaptation and Local Context

Addressing climate change impacts in Sri Lanka requires national and international cooperation. The government plays a vital role in coordinating adaptation decisions and has initiated a national effort led by the Climate Change Secretariat of the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment (MMDE). Successful adaptation hinges on understanding population vulnerability and adaptive capacity. Vulnerability profiles highlight at-risk sectors, including agriculture, health, water, biodiversity, and human settlements. Approximately 28% of the population relies on agriculture, making food security and poverty alleviation efforts vulnerable. Adaptive capacity depends on livelihood assets, knowledge, technology, institutions, and information. While vulnerability assessments are common, assessments of adaptive capacity are rare, revealing gaps.

Sri Lanka’s National Adaptation Plan (NAP) process aligns with UNFCCC guidelines, encompassing identifying gaps, preparatory elements, implementation strategies, and reporting and reviewing. Progress includes the National Climate Change Policy (NCCP) and the National Climate Change Adaptation Strategy (NCCAS) from 2011 to 2016. The Climate Change Secretariat of Sri Lanka plays a crucial role in addressing climate change issues and enhancing the NAP process.

Opportunities and Recommendations to International Donors

Sri Lanka faces various disasters, from tropical storms to droughts, and donors can play a vital role in mitigating their effects. Support in capacity-building, infrastructure development, risk reduction, preparedness programs, data and technology improvements, and financial assistance can significantly reduce the impact of these disasters.

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