It’s a shrinking habitat! Research has shown that the wetland area around Colombo has reduced to an estimated 20 percent, primarily owing to the major city development. Dr. Priyanie Amerasinghe, a senior researcher; human and environmental health at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) points out that this is the maximum loss which we can [...]


Vanishing wetlands

Few are aware of the role of this important eco system that is part and parcel of urban cities, warns Senior researcher at IWMI Dr. Priyanie Amerasinghe who talks to Joshua Surendraraj

It’s a shrinking habitat! Research has shown that the wetland area around Colombo has reduced to an estimated 20 percent, primarily owing to the major city development. Dr. Priyanie Amerasinghe, a senior researcher; human and environmental health at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) points out that this is the maximum loss which we can accommodate. “If we lose even one bit of it, a lot of the functions which the wetlands perform will be lost.”

European Otter found in Colombo wetlands

One could ask the question, what are wetlands and why are they so important? Wetlands are areas where water covers the soil, or is present either at or near the surface of the soil all year, or during different periods of time during the year. The Ramsar Convention uses a broad definition: It includes “underground aquifers, swamps and marshes, wet grasslands, peat lands, oases, estuaries, deltas and tidal flats, mangroves and other coastal areas, coral reefs, and all human-made sites such as fish ponds, rice paddies, reservoirs and salt pans etc.”

Dr. Priyanie explains that some of the major functions of wetlands include water storage, habitats for fauna and flora (which include more than 250 plant and nearly 280 animal species, including some that are critically endangered) and flood control. She adds that these wetlands are also indispensible, for growing food (including paddy and vegetables) and also provide city dwellers with a cooling effect.

As the urban environment expands, the main concern is the conversion of agricultural lands and the losses caused. Dr. Priyanie explains that wetlands are almost a forgotten entity, because they are not large water sources.  Rather “they are collections of water, or marshlands and people seem to think they aren’t that important.”

According to Dr. Priyanie, the major rivers are also connected to the wetlands in their hydrological function and if one were to get rid of the wetlands, these rivers and other streams would be affected. “I don’t think people understand the connectivity and I feel it’s due to the lack of knowledge and awareness,” she says, adding that wetlands are an ecosystem by itself and that awareness is important. What needs to be realized is that wetlands become part and parcel of the urban cities, because it’s one of the major water resources.

Dr. Priyanie Amerasinghe

IWMI is a (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research)CGIAR Research Center and leads the CGIAR Research Programme on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE). IWMI’s mission is to provide evidence-based solutions to sustainably manage water and land resources for food security, people’s livelihoods and the environment.

IWMI’s Vision, as reflected in the Strategy 2014-2018, is ‘a water-secure world’. IWMI targets water and land management, challenges faced by poor communities in the developing countries, and through this contributes towards the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of reducing poverty and hunger, and maintaining a sustainable environment. These are also the goals of CGIAR.

According to the information issued by IWMI, two-thirds of the water quality in the city’s wetlands, is extremely poor, mainly due to indiscriminate disposal of domestic wastewater, particularly from sewage. There needs to be a system in place to treat the water, before it gets out, Dr. Priyanie points out.  “People are not aware that even when the normal kitchen water goes out, there’s a certain degree of pollution.”

In 1990, Sri Lanka became a member state of the 1971 Ramsar Convention, which is “an intergovernmental treaty that provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources.” The Colombo wetlands were recently nominated to be included in the Ramsar Convention’s new program for Wetland City Accreditation, whose aim is to promote the conservation and wise use of wetlands in and around urban areas.

Dr. Priyanie explains that if this nomination is successful, it will give a renewed impetus to the ongoing efforts to enhance the protection and management of Colombo’s wetlands. Cities had to apply based on the criteria they asked, which was how people benefit by these wetlands, what are the policies in place? And what are the interactions between people and wetlands?

Wildlife conservation has been a long standing discussion. It’s a difficult concept because the people and the environment have always engaged in a tussle. “Ramsar has also realized this and talks about the wise use of the wetlands and to bring in conservation through that.” She adds the wise –use framework suggests how wetlands can be used wisely while sustainably managing the natural resources associated with it.

Dr. Priyanie states today, while the challenge is to better coordinate the efforts of diverse organizations and citizens’ groups, to continue efforts to restore wetland sites across the city, public awareness on the importance of wetlands and the repercussions of its destruction is crucial.

She points out that the west has taken these concerns seriously and is restoring the degraded wetlands, which have been neglected, however this comes at a major cost and thereby prevention of the damage is always the key.

All in all, although the uses of wetlands are less apparent, they are vital for all of Colombo’s inhabitants and while the urban poor suffer most from wetland losses, every citizen is affected in some way and should be concerned.

Colombo’s interconnected wetlands
Colombo has a series of interconnected wetlands, referred to as the Colombo Wetland Complex which include these wetland units: Beddagana, Thalawathugoda (Diyasaru Park), Kimbulawela,Madiwela, Kolonnawa, Crow Island, Talangama Tank and the Beira Lake.The complex has a total estimated area of 4,700 acres providing a variety of ecosystem services for urban inhabitants.

Nearly 90 percent of these 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. Wetlands are also an important source of traditional medicines.

The Colombo wetlands play an important role in mitigating floods (with a capacity to store enough water to fill 27,000 Olympic-size swimming pools), while also helping reduce extreme temperatures across at least half of urban Colombo through evaporative cooling.

In addition most of the wetland areas improve air quality by trapping and removing airborne pollutants, thus helping reduce the incidence of various cardio-pulmonary and respiratory diseases.

Loss and degradation

In some areas of the Colombo Metropolitan Region, as much as 60 percent of the wetland area has been lost since the 1980s. The current overall rate of loss through infilling and indiscriminate dumping of solid waste is estimated at 1.2 percent per year. Unless this trend is reversed, the wetland area will decline by one-third over the next two decades.

Currently a wetland management strategy has been developed, and the Government is discussing other means by which wetland conservation can be made compatible with future urban development.

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