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Despite the fact that there remains a sizeable proportion of the population who do not receive three square meals a day and even though zero hunger is reported as being one of the sustainable development goals being addressed within the country, research conducted by the country’s intelligentsia revealed that Sri Lankans with purchasing power seemed consumed by a fetishization of food and gluttony and an almost morbid propensity towards wastrel spending on food and feeding.

Elsewhere, university academics, scientists, researchers and engineers in the areas of chemical and process engineering also emphasized on the urgent need to move from a linear economy based on production related consumption and vice versa towards a circular economy founded on sustainability especially in terms of consumption and also production. These chemical and process engineers seek to lend their expertise via pertinent interventions made in relation to fostering sustainable production and propagating sustainable consumption.

According to Professor at the Department of Chemical and Process Engineering of the University of Moratuwa, Ajith de Alwis, Sri Lankans (families) spent in excess of 50% of their monthly income on food. Highlighting the fact that European countries and the United States of America spent only 10% to 15% on food, he noted that a priority should be to ensure that local families spend less than 20% on food.

As far as food justice is concerned, malnutrition remains an issue. The reduction of under-nutrition among children under the age of five (resultant from multiple
micronutrient deficiencies, inadequate nutrient intake and the prevalence of diseases which prevent the proper absorption of nutrients) and among pregnant and nursing women, food fortification and increasing the food intake among primary schoolchildren in food-insecure areas must be looked at.

Sri Lanka is presently, as of 2016, ranked at 84 in the Global Hunger Index which looks at undernourishment in the populous, children under-five being underweight and the mortality of those under five and with a score of 25.5 is categorized as serious, specifically with regard to child wasting (with 21.4% to 23.8% children under five
being affected).

Over-consumption, Prof de Alwis said, was fuelled by increased production and consumption, which had inevitably led to the increased discarding of materials. Stressing on the importance of understanding climate change, he further added that the prevalent business-as-usual attitude needed to change with immediacy.

“We have to look at the post-harvest loss of the production, biochemistry, food processes, polymers, biodegradable packs and packaging even if they are at present made of plastic as the latter is essential. Sri Lanka is a biological hotspot with an abundance of organic material,” he said.

Chemical engineering is all about value additions, he further explained, while the head of the Department of Chemical and Process Engineering of the University of Moratuwa, Dr. Sanja H.P. Gunawardena added that chemical engineering involved the conversion of raw material into products sans wastage, a process which according to Senior Lecturer at the Department of Chemical and Process Engineering of the University of Moratuwa, Dr. Shantha Walpalage, should ideally be optimized.

In this regard, Co-Chairpersons of the Student Committee of the National Chemical and Process Engineering Conference, Merl Chandana and Dhanushka Kodithuwakku observed the need for industrial collaborations and innovations and the need for the equitable distribution of benefits accrued from it.

“We believe that chemical and process engineers play a significant role in the process of minimizing waste, accidents and defects while introducing sustainable and responsible production in an environmentally friendly, affordable and efficient manner,” Chandana noted which Kodithuwakku also agreed with.

Dr. Gunawardena said that energy efficiency, the use of better catalysts and the minimization of by-products was of utmost importance.

Meanwhile, Policy Specialist at the United Nations Development Programme in Sri Lanka, Visaka Dissanaike outlined that the sustainable development goals were all inter-linked while addressing it was complicated and constituted a challenge.

She observed that Sri Lanka placed little emphasis on research in terms of generating evidence to provide justifications for certain development projects.

Dissanaike remarked that it was a failure on the part of the country that it could not retain many of the products of the free-education system within the country.

“Due to increased production, industrialization and consumption, we have problems. We must build a sustainable model ourselves instead of relying on international models.

Previously, we bought less. We conserved. Elsewhere, Sri Lanka must find a way to retain the brains of the country, many of who are not here anymore,” she pointed out.

Assistant Director of the Environmental Pollution Control Division Unit of the Central Environmental Authority, Nelka Shrimathi Perera addressed the importance of the role played by environmental awareness, environmental pollution control during development activities and in industries, the management of natural resources, environmental impact assessments for large scale development activities and research and development in sustainable development.

“There is a problem in achieving our goals as there are many missing factors. Chemical management must be considered and so too must the National Environmental Act. Policies and regulations are required as far as development is concerned,” she said.

Prof. de Alwis explained that a radical change in the economy was needed as without an economic policy shift, sustainable development goals were useless.

“There must be rational and efficient production. The underlying mechanisms must be logical and natural. A linear economy in which success is measured on consumption is a throw-away idea. This is a bad pathway, we are in. This is reflected in the way we use resources. A circular economy involves recycling. Green engineering concepts and principles are available. Yet people need to be sensitized to such,” he further observed.

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United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

Goal 2: Zero Hunger
This is aimed at ending hunger, achieving food security, improving nutrition and promoting sustainable agriculture. A chemical engineer’s role could be in the form of developing high yield species of plants or novel fertilizers to increase the rate of food production. Chemical and process engineers can optimize processes to increase the food yield and reduce the wastage during manufacturing operations, improve the production efficiency, increase the production yield through agricultural means and to reduce wastage in all processes from the farm to the mouth.

Goal 6: Clean Water and Sanitation
More than one billion people all over the world currently lack access to clean water. Further, according to a report of the Asian Legal Resource Centre, an independent regional non-governmental organization holding consultative status with the United Nations (UN) Economic and Social Council, health issues resulting from unsafe drinking water remains one of the leading causes of deaths in a number of cities in Sri Lanka.

This goal is aimed at ensuring the availability of water and the sustainable management of water and the provision of sanitation for all. What responsible inhabitants can do is to take preventive action to avoid the contamination of fresh water resources and ground water, introducing affordable water purification methods, making the best use out of water and exploring innovative opportunities to gain access to water resources which are currently ignored or have only limited applications.

Dissanaike, addressing issues pertaining to targets relating to water in the millennium development goals and sustainable development goals observed that though over 90% of the country’s population was technically on paper supposed to have access to improved water sources and sanitation, the reality concerning it pointed towards a much more
problematic situation.

While the scorched earth of the dry zone was normal in that it could be expected during a season of drought and in what is one of the hottest months ever recorded on earth the world over as noted by Prof. de Alwis, the wet zone on the other hand was totally water stressed, Dissanaike noted.

While alluding to the prevalence of kidney disease, she queried about the quality of water available in urban and rural areas.

According to Perera who pointed out the absence of a sewage network in the country, the coverage of the present one being approximately 3%, land use and activities of land use planning also resulted in the transference of waste to water.

“As far as the entire coastline is concerned, the presence and availability of safe water sources is questionable at best,” Dissanaike added.

Goal 7: Affordable and Clean Energy
One in five people in the world lack access to electricity. While making energy available it is also crucial to reduce its carbon intensity in order to prevent climate change. Environmentally-friendly sources of energy are the goal. Chemical and process engineers can improve the efficiency and marketability of the renewable sources of energy, develop advanced and cleaner fossil fuel technology and minimize the environmental impact of energy sources via a process of optimization to reduce the carbon footprint.

Goal 9: Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure
This promotes domestic technology development, sustainability with increased resource-use efficiency and the greater adoption of clean and environmentally sound technologies and industrial processes, the enhancing of scientific research and innovation and the upgrading of the technological capabilities of the industrial sector. The scope includes product development, process optimization and waste management.

A media briefing was held recently to announce the third COMPASS – National Chemical and Process Engineering Conference on the theme of ‘Sustainable Consumption and Production’. The Conference is to be held at the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall (BMICH) on November 25. The organizer is the Department of Chemical and Process Engineering of the University of Moratuwa while the United Nations Development Programme and the Central Environmen tal Authority are partners.