UNDP Sri Lanka

Volunteering for climate action in Sri Lanka

Although the catastrophic effects of the climate crisis affect us all, Sri Lanka, among many other countries, is on the frontline.

With the agriculture sector absorbing nearly 30 per cent of the country’s labour force, while providing livelihoods to 70 per cent of the country’s rural population, a majority of our communities are at the unrelenting mercy of inevitable climate shocks. 

The Mahaweli River Basin, the largest draining area of Sri Lanka’s extensive collection of rivers, is home to a large proportion of the small rain-fed farming communities on the island. And, unsurprisingly, climate shocks have exacerbated the prevalent poverty and food insecurity within these communities. 

Climate-smart villages 

To that end, the Climate Change Adaptation Project (CCAP II), initiated with financial assistance from the Adaptation Fund, is a remedial project by the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the World Food Programme (WFP) in Sri Lanka. The project works on promoting climate resilience through climate-smart villages, community enterprises and the provision of access to dependable markets in Walapane and Polonnaruwa. 

For farmers like Pradeep in Walapane, the climate-resilient coffee farming initiative has brought a new life to both him and the community around him. "We now have the freedom and there is sustainability in what we do. It also helps the children of the village to play their part by helping us weed, water the plants and work on the plantation, teaching them important values for the future," says Pradeep.

New opportunities for communities 

To achieve this goal of climate-smart villages, the project has developed five main value chains—Handloom and Apparel, Handicrafts, Dairy, Agriculture, and Processed Food by establishing over 40 community enterprises, uniting over 5,000 people from marginalized agricultural communities.

Janitha, who is now the owner of a booming garment factory in the Walapane area, says the creative learning opportunities offered through the project helped her reach a position she never even dreamed of. 

'The people who work here have all faced the effects of climate change. They don’t expect a big salary. What they want is a steady income and a place like this factory is valuable to them," explains Janitha.

Like Janitha and Pradeep, such enterprises have been assisted through the project from their inception. While aiming to be climate-resilient, the enterprises have also been supported with infrastructure, capacity development, branding and access to better and more secure markets. They have only grown from strength to strength. 

From delicious homemade pickles and chutneys to handmade bags and placemats, not forgetting the best treacle, coffee and grams the village has to offer, these products are now available at many outlets both regionally and in the city of Colombo. While three Hela Bojun local food outlets and the Green Community Markets set up during the project in Minneriya retail the items, Green Markets along Bauddhaloka Mawatha, and the Good Market in Colombo make these items available for the public in the metropolitan area. These markets are instrumental in bringing an elevated yet sustainable income to these communities.

Silent heroes on the ground  

For a project that boasts such significant achievements, the silent heroes that kept the wheels turning on the ground also deserve a mention.

Kalum Aluthgamage and Epage Upasena are both UN Volunteers who took on the roles of Agriculture Development Coordinator, and Administrative and Knowledge Management Officer respectively. Based in Polonnaruwa, one of the two core project locations, their close interaction with community members, collaborative work with the local government offices and the continuous monitoring of progress helped sustain the delivery and impact of the project. 

While they held the fort down in the field, two other UN Volunteers, Anuradha Withanachchi and Devin Wijesinghege, ensured the project was functioning at its optimum from Colombo.

Anuradha, as the Communications Officer for the project, oversees all visibility and media-related tasks and has played a strong role in positioning the novel work on the climate change adaptation front in the media, while also providing branding guidance to the community enterprises. 

On the other hand, Devin plays one of the most crucial roles in the project—handling the finances. He ensured that all stakeholder budgets were in place and monitored, necessary procurement processes followed and payments processed on time. He was also instrumental in empowering community members and developing their knowledge and skills relating to their businesses and finances.

These volunteers are among a total of 63 UN Volunteers serving across the island under different UNDP projects – joining a global volunteer cadre of over 8,000 people.

Inspiration in Action 

Volunteers serving within the project have supported the empowerment and development of local communities, both directly and indirectly, through climate-smart solutions delivered to some of the most vulnerable families in the country. 

By mobilizing volunteers to serve within the United Nations system across all sectors, UNV contributes towards achieving the goals and targets set by the 2030 Agenda. UNV assists agencies with quality human resources that bring with them valuable knowledge and experiences the UN system can tap into. 

Over the years, volunteers serving within the UN in Sri Lanka have shown their passion and commitment to the work they do time and time again.

The recent ranking of Sri Lanka as the number one country in the world by participation in volunteer time (The World Giving Index 2019), is a testament to this. We appreciate the work that volunteers like Kalum, Epage, Anuradha, and Devin carry out at the UNDP; they have truly shown that they are inspiration in action. 

This article was originally published by UNDP Sri Lanka