Energy crisis: Have we woken up from a long slumber?

By Prof S.T. Hettige

People in this country today were given the big news by our political leaders that there is a major energy crisis facing the country. I am sure the informed people in the country must be wondering whether to laugh or cry. This is certainly not news to the people because we know for a long time that this was going to come.

There were all the signs of a looming crisis. Despite these signs, we did very little to prepare ourselves to face the situation.

Many scientists conversant with the subject talked about the country’s serious energy problem at least two decades ago. They pointed out the need to formulate national long-term policies to address energy related problems. Yet our political establishment failed to respond to their demands.

What we would have done over the past several decades, was to appropriate them into a major national trust to face the challenges posed by the growing energy crisis

Energy sectors such as industrial production, household consumption, transport, urban development, housing etc., even a sector like education has a bearing on the energy situation in the country.

Sound sectoral policies could contribute in resolving the energy crisis to a varying degree. For instance, if you have a highly centralized urban development strategy it can aggregate the energy situation because it would exert greater pressure on the energy issue.

Similarly if we promote energy intensive, building projects like high-rise buildings it can also have a similar impact. Needless to say an unsound transport policy can lead to serious energy problems in a country.

What is more significant is the cumulative impact of sectoral policies. In other words, if you have inappropriate policies in diverse sectors they can have an enormous negative impact on the energy situation.

What we witness today in Sri Lanka is the cumulative affect of a range of unsound policies and practices spanning over a long period of time. The immediate cause of the unprecedented situation that we find today in Sri Lanka is the rapidly rising price of oil in the world market due to economic and political circumstances, namely the tension in the Middle East and the rapidly rising demand for oil. With the adoption of free market polices in almost all parts of the world following the collapse of the Soviet system in the late 1980s , the demand for oil began to rise due to increasing production and the consumption of commodities and services on a global scale.

Everybody knew that this trend was to continue with more and more pressure on world energy resources coupled with growing political tension in oil producing regions. This was to result in price escalation.

The rapidly rising price of oil we witness today therefore is not something unforeseen or unexpected. We do not know whether to laugh or cry when out political leaders tell the people that there is an energy crisis and people should do everythin to conserve energy. Will the people respond?

Given the appallingly low performance of our politicians we cannot expect an overwhelming response from them. On the other hand this is not a political issue, it is a national issue, So it is necessary that we depoliticise the problems and build a national consensus in order to forge a truly national response.

Two urgent steps are needed in this regard. Firstly we need to articulate national response cutting across political divisions. Secondly we need to admit that we are in the present sorry state at least partly due to our failure to formulate a sound long term policy in the relevant sector.

The question is whether we could take these two urgent steps even though the situation compels us to do so. It we go by past experience we cannot be too hopeful. Yet the county has no choice. So we could only hope that common sense will prevail.

The current energy crisis points to the fact that we cannot shy away from reality. The reality can be complex yet it can be subjected to scientific analysis. It is on the basis of such scientific basis that we should take decisions to address problems connected with reality and that our political leaders will act accordingly.

In this regard it is necessary to evaluate our policies in terms of their energy implications and make adjustments accordingly. It is also necessary to appreciate the genuine difficulties that we have due to a particular structure of our economy and the lack of adequate reserves in the country, and also lack of intensive industrialization. We continue to produce labour intensive products and services to exchange for expensive technology- based products from other countries. The result is an unequal exchange that exerts considerable pressure on the country’s balance of payment.

This situation makes it very difficult for the country to cope with rising oil prices. This is all the more reason, that we should adopt energy saving policies in different sectors. In the short run there is no other option. It might be necessary to listen to scientists in this situation, not priests.

So it is in the interest of long-term development and public welfare that it is imperative to explore possibilities for a rational and equitable resolution of the current energy crisis in the country.

If the scientists do not come up with a non-political plan of action to deal with the crisis we might have to invoke divine power as some of our political leadera are so accustomed to perform as a last resort.

The energy crisis is part of a complex reality, which has a local as well as a global dimension. If we look at the energy crisis in this light we can see how it is connected to global and local circumstances. As already mentioned the lack of sound long term policies has been a major aspect of local reality in the case of Sri Lanka.

Unless we explicitly recognize this fact and take remedial action, our situation can only get worse. If that happens not only will the process of economic development be hampered but many other problems can also arise leading to an adverse impact on the living conditions of the people.

Energy conservation measures such as power cuts and other restrictions can make life more difficult for people who do not necessarily have a comfortable existence even today. [Courtesy: Daily Mirror] [Pictures: Island & Daily Mirror]

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