The Disappearing Wetlands of Colombo

Jordana Narin  in Daily News, 2 February  2018, with title as “Colombo’s Wetlands at Risk”

There is a breeze in Diyasuru Park that feels distinctly un-Colombo. The air is more lush, the birds more diverse, the grass more green. The park, located near the Parliament building in Thalawathugoda, is 18 hectares of urban wetland. And it’s one of the few the city has left.

Colombo is drying up—literally. Since the 1980s, the city has lost almost 60 percent of its wetland area. Today, on World Wetlands Day, it’s more crucial than ever to consider why all of this matters—and why the fight to save Colombo’s remaining wetlands is one that should involve each and every one of us.

The Jakana bird lives on floating vegetation in wetlands such as water lilies. Picture by Sanjiv De Silva, IWMI.
The Jakana bird lives on floating vegetation in wetlands such as water lilies. Picture by Sanjiv De Silva, IWMI.

What are wetlands?

Simply put, wetlands are land areas that are saturated with water, either permanently or seasonally, and thereby take on the characteristics of a distinct ecosystem. They are distinguished from other landforms or bodies of water by the vegetation of their aquatic plants, which adapt to unique hydric soil. Colloquially, wetlands are also known as marshes or swamps.

Recreational boat in Talangama Tank. Picture by Madeline Dahm, IWMI.
Fishing cat, one of Colombo’s four wild cat species, rarely found in urban areas.
Picture by Sanjiv De Silva, IWMI.

Unfortunately, wetlands get a bad rap. People dismiss them as smelly breeding grounds for disease. This public perception is in some ways understandable, said Senior Researcher Human and Environmental Health at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) Dr. Priyanie Amerasinghe, due to the potential for some subspecies of disease-transmitting mosquitoes to call wetlands home. And yes, wetlands—like any element of nature—might occasionally smell funky.

But the current emphasis on the negative aspects of wetlands is wholly distorted and obscures all the good that they do for cities. And their undeserved reputation, coupled with a drive toward development in a city short on space that dates back to the colonial era and lasts to this day, has led to the degradation and near-elimination of Colombo’s wetlands.


On the verge of disappearing

Due to its strategic location alongside and at the mouth of the Kelani River, Colombo has for millennia served as a sea port, connecting Sri Lanka and the east more generally with the west. In fact, almost every suggested etymology of the city’s name contains references to the water bodies which have for so long sustained it. One theory is that the word “Colombo,” first introduced by Portuguese colonists in the year 1505, is derived from the Sinhalese Kolon Thota, or “port on the river Kelani.” Another holds that “Colombo” was derived from the Sinhalese Kola-amba-thota, or “Harbour with leafy mango trees.”

Regardless of its etymology, though, one thing was clear to all who passed through Colombo, from Arab traders in the eighth century to the various colonists who followed. The city’s identity is inextricably tied to its water bodies.

Deputy General Manager Wetland Management at the Sri Lanka Land Reclamation and Development Corporation (SLLRDC) Dr. N. S. Wijayarathna explained that the Dutch, over the course of their colonial rule in Sri Lanka, further sophisticated a canal system initiated by King Parakramabahu VIII of Kotte in the 15th century, leaving behind a legacy of harnessing the city’s wetland identity for transport that is apparent even today.

Dr. Wijayarathna added that the British colonial impact on the city’s wetlands remains, too. However, it is one not of transportation or utilization but degradation—or, technically speaking, “reclamation.”

Land reclamation is the process of draining or otherwise filling seabeds, riverbeds, or lake beds to create new land. It’s how the Colombo Port City is being built in the Indian Ocean today. And since the British colonial era, and the drive to develop the country that accompanied independence, reclamation has been happening to Colombo’s wetlands at an increasingly, near-unbelievably rapid pace, as if an occult hand were doing the filling.

Wetland measurement in Colombo began in earnest in the 1980s. Since then, the city has been losing an average of 1.2 percent of its wetlands each year from both reclamation and indiscriminate dumping of solid waste. Once making up 60 percent of the Colombo metropolitan area, wetlands now occupy just 20 square kilometers of the city.

Just as critical, in two thirds of the remaining wetlands, water quality is considered extremely poor due to untreated domestic wastewater. According to Dr. Amerasinghe of IWMI, the situation has become critical in the last five years, threatening the ecological health of wetlands, a situation made worse by routine dredging and drainage.

Though there once were, there are currently no wetlands left in Colombo from the extent between Beira Lake to the BMICH complex. They’ve been replaced with homes and high rises, office complexes and shopping centers, roads and landfills. Estimates from IWMI project that if the current trend of wetland loss isn’t reversed, wetland area in Colombo will decline by an additional one third over the next two decades.

What wetlands do for cities

Regardless of its etymology, though, one thing was clear to all who passed through Colombo, from Arab traders in the eighth century to the various colonists who followed. The city’s identity is inextricably tied to its water bodies

This is bad. Really bad. Colombo’s urban wetlands are not optional; they’re indispensable. During a tour of three of Colombo’s remaining wetlands organized by IWMI, various experts in the field likened urban wetlands to lungs for the way they refine air, to kidneys for the way they absorb waste and filter out pollutants and contaminants. In performing these bodily functions, wetlands help reduce the incidence of various cardiopulmonary, respiratory, and otherwise infectious diseases. But that’s not all.

Wetlands also combat climate change; they store or sequester carbon doubly and, through evaporative cooling, reduce extreme temperatures across at least half of urban Colombo. They mitigate flooding; with a capacity to store enough water to fill 27,000 Olympic-size swimming pools, Colombo’s wetlands are estimated to contain 39 percent of the city’s storm water. They harbour extensive biodiversity, providing a habitat for more than 250 plant species and 280 animal species—a significant number of which are critically endangered. And nearly 90 percent of the wetlands contribute to urban food supplies through the production of rice, vegetables, and dairy and poultry products, as well as through fishing and gathering of native plants.

Local resident collects lotus flowers in a wetland.
Picture by Sanjiv De Silva, IWMI.

Nadeera Rajapakse Rubaroe, a wetlands ecologist and consultant for the World Bank, put it this way: “Colombo’s wetlands provide so many services for the city that we can’t afford to lose even one inch more.”

The economicside of things

Rubaroe’s word choice, calling further wetland loss unaffordable, is key. Sure, naysayers might concede, conservation of wetlands is an environmental issue. But is it an economic one as well?

According to Lucy Emerton, an environmental economist, the answer is a resounding yes.

Emerton, the Director of Conservation Economics & Finance at the Environment Management Group, has spent her career studying biodiversity and ecosystem valuation. Across continents, she strives to make the business case for environmental arguments. In her view, wetlands are a type of urban infrastructure that must be valued as such.

“The goal is to shift people’s perceptions, from seeing wetlands as unproductive wastes of land [that would benefit from reclamation] to seeing them as valuable,” she said.

“How do we recalculate the balance sheets so that when both private and public investments are made, we actually look at the services of the wetlands, their economic services, and realize that rather than being a barrier to urban development, wetlands are a key part of the infrastructure we need to live in cities?”

Emerton provided the Maha Oya river estuary, which is currently being degraded due to sand mining within it, as an example.

“The big challenge here is recognizing that sand mining may generate important income, but it’s also costing the government and the private sector a lot of money. By undermining the hydrology of the river and the transport of sediments, it’s also having a horrific effect on coastal erosion.”

She referenced a study that analyzed the economic cost of the sand mining, and explained how continued degradation would cost water users, the fisheries sector, and the tourism sector, and would as well force the government budget to be spent on infrastructure redevelopment. Environmental Foundation Limited, who conducted the study, calculated the cost to be over Rs. 35 billion over the next twenty five years—many times more, she said, than the money generated by degrading the wetlands.

As well, Rubaroe of the World Bank estimated that better conservation of wetlands could have saved Colombo millions of rupees in costs incurred from flood damage over the past decade.

What next?

Construction of the new Defence Ministry Complex on the periphery of Diyasuru Wetland Park. Picture by Madeline Dahm, IWMI.

The Ramsar Convention, named after the Iranian city in which an international treaty on the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands was signed in 1971, is a convention on wetlands that gathers representatives from its contracting parties every three years to improve the implementation of its objectives. Following the most recent meeting in June 2015 in Uruguay, the convention’s secretariat put out a call for applications for Wetland City Accreditation—a scheme that encourages cities near wetlands to increase public awareness of the value of these ecosystems in municipal planning and decision making.

Colombo is drying up—literally. Since the 1980s, the city has lost almost 60 percent of its wetland area. Today, on World Wetlands Day, it’s more crucial than ever to consider why all of these matter—and why the fight to save Colombo’s remaining wetlands is one that should involve each and every one of us

Sri Lanka’s Department of Wildlife Conservation submitted an application in response to the call. Accreditation will be doled out at this year’s Ramsar Convention, to be held in Dubai in October.

Dr. Wijayarathna of the SLLRDC sees this as a way for the city to reincarnate.

“Colombo was known in colonial times as the Garden City,” he said. “But now we can rebrand it as the Wetland City, and with rebranding, be sure to conserve the wetlands.”

Dr. Amerasinghe of IWMI explained that while the Wetland City Accreditation doesn’t provide monetary funds for conservation, it isn’t empty either. She insisted that the designation would help her and others in her field make the case of conserving wetlands to government officials across the political spectrum, upping the pressure on them as well by placing the city in the spotlight.

Already, some of Colombo’s wetlands, such as Talangama Tank in Battaramulla, have been designated as “Environmental Protection Areas’” (EPAs) by the Central Environmental Authority under the National Environment Act of 1980. Others, such as the Thalawathugoda wetlands, now Diyasuru Park, have been developed for conservation and recreation and designated as wildlife sanctuaries by the Department of Wildlife Conservation under the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance of 1937.

Going forward, Amerasinghe said, the government—with or without Ramsar accreditation—must do even more to ensure that wetland conservation is compatible with future urban development. As well, it must invest in rehabilitating irrigation waterways that have been polluted by previous development.

In the meantime, she said, regular citizens must recognize the benefits wetlands provide and do their part, too: cleaning up waste they see in wetlands, advocating for their conservation to politicians.

After all, at stake is no less than the fate of Colombo as a livable city.

Wetland paddy fields. Picture by Sanjiv De Silva, IWMI.


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