News Archive

posted 02/18/03

Contact: Jennifer Freeman
917-496-8131 or

Sachs Visit to Sri Lanka Boosts IRI Research
A hunger in the policy community for relevant scientific information

Climate Applications Scientist Lareef Zubair (right) of the International Research Institute for Climate Prediction was invited by Jeffrey Sachs (middle) to a banquet with Sri Lanka's Prime Minister (left). "Normally it is difficult for scientists to be heard in the policy community," says Zubair. Photo credit: Nirupam Bajpai

Thanks to a visit by Jeffrey Sachs in January 2003, a previously little-known climate research program run by Lareef Zubair of the Earth Institute's International Research Institute for Climate Prediction (IRI) now has the interest of Sri Lanka's highest ranking government officials.

Sri Lanka is at a pivotal moment in its peace process," says Sachs. "I was invited in to do some country advising, to look at the economic piece with my Earth Institute colleague Nirupaum Bajpai of the Earth Institute's Center on Globalization and Sustainable Development. Of course, Lareef Zubair has been working in Sri Lanka for years on many pieces: climate, hydrology, elephants. It was great to have his authoritative voice at the table."

Zubair knew that he was going to be invited to the Prime Minister's dinner for Sachs last month when the banquet chef called to ask if he eats crab. For three years Dr. Zubair, a climate applications scientist with the IRI, had been working with a six-member team in a small rural office at Sri Lanka's Mahaweli River Basin Authority. Using the IRI's climate prediction and modeling capabilities, the team had researched and published on climate links to stream flow and rainfall, and its implications for water management (which affects everything from electricity to agriculture to elephant habitat).

"It was just tremendous to have someone from Columbia come and see the work," says Zubair of Sachs' visit. "Jeff was very proactive in introducing us to the policymakers— the minister and high ranking officials of science, technology and economic reform, health, tourism and finance ministries, as well as the Prime Minister himself. Normally it is difficult for scientists to move from the scientific community to the policy community."

"Sachs gives you credibility among the policy makers," Zubair added, "whether you are talking about links between drought and economic growth, or between climate and human-elephant conflict." The fact that Earth Institute economists and climate scientists are collaborating provides a signal to policy makers in Sri Lanka about the importance of involving local scientists and technical experts in the planning process. "My sense is there is a hunger in the Sri Lankan policy community for relevant scientific information," he adds.

Immediately after Sachs and Bajpai visited Sri Lanka, the country's Ministry of Science and Technology called to invite Zubair to address a group of officials on the benefits of climate prediction and its applications, and the Central Bank requested a detailed briefing. The Minister of Irrigation and Water Management visited the IRI's project office in the Mahaweli River Basin Authority, and declared his intention to expand the office into a national climate predictions and applications center.

Nirupaum Bajpai, Lareef Zubair, and IRI Mahaweli project staff member in Sri Lanka

Nirupam Bajpai (center), Lareef Zubair (right), and IRI Mahaweli project field staff member Irugal Bandara (left) stand in front of a barrage and the Mahaweli River Basin’s meteorological stations near the IRI Project office at the Mahaweli River Basin Authority in rural Sri Lanka. There is a direct link between climate and economic growth, and therefore between the work of the IRI and the Center on Globalization and Sustainable Development: in 2002, a drought was a principal reason for a zero percent rate of economic growth. Photo credit: M.R.A. Siraj

"This all started with a $7,000 grant from the IRI three years ago, to study the use of seasonal climate predictions for water resources management in the Mahaweli river basin. $11,000 was added last year for a project on human-elephant conflict. We obtained additional funds from a Global Environmental Facility funded project on the impacts and adaptation of tea and coconut plantations to climate change," Zubair recalls. "As Jeff has advised Sri Lankan Central Bank officials in the context of attracting investors, sometimes you can do a lot with a little money."

"I see climate information as IRI's capital," Zubair adds. "Once you make that available and accessible, partners are keen to collaborate and a lot can be accomplished." The IRI's Mahaweli River Basin projects have used the institute's climate prediction models and information to study climate links to rice production, river flow, and reservoir management. The team has produced high-resolution seasonal climate predictions for Sri Lanka from IRI's large scale, coarse predictions, and published some surprising insights about the connection between El Niño-Southern Oscillation, the Indian Ocean surface conditions, and Sri Lanka's water situation. Researchers in Sri Lanka are also involved in several interdisciplinary projects that bear the IRI and Earth Institute's signature of using science to understand and address real life problems. Earth Institute projects in Sri Lanka include:

Human-Elephant Conflict Project, a study of what climate means for the vegetation and water availability for the endangered elephant population in Sri Lanka, which increasingly comes into conflict with the human population. This project is a collaboration among the Wildlife Trust, a member of the Center for Environmental Research and Conservation (CERC); the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN), which is contributing Remote Sensing, Geographic Information tools, and societal expertise; and the IRI, which is contributing climate predictions, monitoring and applications expertise. Natural Disaster Hot Spots, a case study for the Global Natural Disaster Risk

Hotspots Project coordinated by the Center for Hazards and Risk Research, CIESIN, and the IRI. The project examines drought, flooding, landslides, and cyclones and how climate information and other Earth Institute expertise might be used to make vulnerable areas more resilient.

Malaria climate links: preliminary work has been conducted and a project proposal has been developed by an IRI team—including Steve Connor and Neil Ward—with the International Water Management Institute (where Roberto Lenton, Executive Director of the IRI Secretariat for International Affairs and Development, served as the Director General) and the Lamont Doherty Climate Group.

For more detailed information about the IRI's projects in Sri Lanka see

The Earth Institute at Columbia University is among the world’s leading academic centers for the integrated study of Earth, its environment, and society. The Earth Institute builds upon excellence in the core disciplines—earth sciences, biological sciences, engineering sciences, social sciences and health sciences—and stresses cross-disciplinary approaches to complex problems. Through its research, training and global partnerships, it mobilizes science and technology to advance sustainable development, while placing special emphasis on the needs of the world’s poor.