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Nature’s keepers

Nature’s keepers

24 Mar 2024 | By Naveed Rozais

  • Dr. Pay Drechsel and the Thalangama Wetland Watch

Colombo has many unique qualities, such as its interesting mix of old and new architecture, its people, and of course, its biodiversity. From a biodiversity standpoint, one unique feature of Colombo is that it is a wetland city. It is built on a mosaic of interconnected marshes and waterways which is known as the Colombo Wetland Complex (CWC), which expands over 19 square kilometres. It can arguably be described as one big wetland that has been subject to urbanisation for hundreds of years. 

In simple terms, a wetland is a place in which the land is covered by water – salt, fresh, or somewhere in between – either seasonally or permanently. It functions as its own distinct ecosystem. Wetlands can be distinguished from other types of land or bodies of water primarily by the vegetation that has adapted to wet soil. In short, they have both terrestrial and aquatic qualities. 

The Ramsar Convention, also known as the Convention on Wetlands, an intergovernmental environmental treaty established on 2 February 1971 in Ramsar, Iran by UNESCO, which came into force on 21 December 1975, defines wetlands more technically as “areas of marsh, fen, peatland, or water, whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish, or salt, including areas of marine water the depth of which at low tide does not exceed six metres”. 

Colombo is one of only 43 cities worldwide to be accredited as a Ramsar Wetland City in 2018 and is the first and only capital city to boast this title. Its suburbs too are often built on or around wetlands. 

Thalangama, for example, adjacent to Battaramulla and home to the Thalangama Lake, paddy fields, and marshes, is a wetland that is also an Environmental Protection Area (EPA). The wetland comprises Thalangama and Averihena tanks, located close together with Thalangama being larger and older. Thalangama serves irrigation for 100 acres, maintained by the Department of Irrigation. Both tanks are scenic, biodiverse habitats popular for birdwatching and various activities like fishing, walking, and biking.

This week, The Sunday Morning Brunch sat down with Dr. Pay Drechsel, an environmental scientist who has spent seven years tirelessly preserving the environmental purity of the Thalangama wetland through the Thalangama Wetland Watch – a self-funded, non-profit, community-based initiative of citizens living in the lake’s vicinity. 


The Thalangama Wetland Watch

 

The journey of the Thalangama Wetland Watch began seven years ago, sparked by a simple yet profound realisation. Dr. Drechsel, who has lived in the Thalangama area for 14 years, recalled: “I lived on Pothuarawa Road and drove my kids to school at the Pelawatta Junction every morning. On both sides of the road, especially along the paddy fields, people were dumping big bags full of waste. I always used to say: ‘Someone has to clean here.’ Seven years ago, I realised no one was coming and that was when I decided to take action.” 

In part inspired by a proverb he had once heard – ‘If it is to be, then it is up to me’ – on Christmas Eve 2016, Dr. Drechsel and a colleague embarked on a mission to clean the dirtiest stretch of the Pothuarawa Road with paddy fields on both sides, which was crossing the centre of the Thalangama EPA. What began as a spontaneous cleanup effort soon turned into a full-fledged community movement. 

Dr. Drechsel reflected on the Christmas Eve action, saying: “We started in the morning at 8 a.m. and finished at 8 p.m. What happened was fantastic. We were two people cleaning and there was so much waste. But cars stopped and said thank you. Some brought us food, some brought us drinks, and others started to help. It made me realise that it was not just me who was unhappy but that many people in the community needed a catalyst to take action.”

That first day of cleaning led to the Thalangama Wetland Watch, a community dedicated to preserving and conserving the precious wetlands surrounding Thalangama Lake. Expanding on the watch’s mission, Dr. Drechsel highlighted: “Thalangama Wetland Watch is a community-based organisation. We do this in our free time, free of charge, and rely on the support of local residents who contribute financially to pay our workers and/or volunteer their time to keep the area clean.”

The core activities of the Thalangama Wetland Watch revolve around daily cleanup efforts (mornings and evenings, 365 days a year) and environmental education. Dr. Drechsel explained that the organisation cleaned up to three kilometres of roads around the wetland each day, reflecting proudly that it had resulted in a plastic-free zone of about 40 hectares, which he felt was unique so close to Colombo. “Every weekend, we have families and wildlife or marriage photographers coming out to embrace nature up close,” he observed.

Beyond litter removal (from all types of plastic to cans, glass, etc.), the Thalangama Wetland Watch is actively engaged in addressing broader environmental challenges like invasive species. Water hyacinths, for example, pose a significant threat to the balance of the ecosystem within Thalangama Lake. The organisation removes these regularly, supporting farmers in the area to use them as mulch or for composting.

The Thalangama Wetland Watch also facilitates stakeholder dialogue to ensure all parties are informed, particularly regarding environmental protection laws. It supports research and education by providing equipment and conducting outreach activities in schools and communities. Its efforts include cleaning up trash, reducing the risk of dengue by eliminating mosquito breeding sites, maintaining environmental flows, and caring for flora and fauna, including abandoned pets and fallen trees.

The organisation’s work, while never-ending, serves to motivate the local community by giving them a greater sense of community ownership and environmental stewardship. “Every day, we get positive feedback from people who appreciate our work or even repeat it in their areas,” Dr. Drechsel said. “It’s proof that grassroots change is possible.”


Why conserve our wetlands? 


Wetlands are often referred to as the ‘kidneys of the earth’ for their crucial role in filtering and purifying water. They are vital ecosystems offering various services. They provide food sources like paddy fields and fisheries, alongside firewood and medicinal plants. They regulate floods, filter water, purify air, and support fertile soil formation. Additionally, wetlands offer cultural and habitat services, supporting diverse wildlife including fishing cats, otters, and in the case of Thalangama, about 100 different bird species.

Dr. Drechsel emphasised on the significance of the Thalangama wetlands, stating: “Thalangama Lake serves multiple critical functions. It acts as a flood buffer, helping mitigate the impacts of climate change. It provides water for rice cultivation after cleaning wastewater. It’s like a natural treatment plant, cleaning the water before it reaches the fields. And of course, it’s an important recreational area not only for the local community but for parts of Colombo as well.”

He also highlighted the vital role the wetland played as a habitat for a myriad of plant and animal species. Two critically endangered species that make their home in the wetlands include the fishing cat and the purple-faced leaf monkey. These species, combined with the beauty of the area and its recreational spaces, draw significant crowds. Dr. Drechsel further noted: “It’s a rural oasis with water buffalo, horses, and cows amidst the urban sprawl of Colombo.”

As such, institutions and individuals alike have a key role to play in conserving the wetland, since there is only so much that community-based organisations like the Thalangama Wetland Watch can do. 

Dr. Drechsel stressed on the importance of institutions developing better mechanisms to support environmentally protected areas, especially in building better synergy between them. The Thalangama wetland, for example, comes under the purview of many different State institutions including the Irrigation Department, the Central Environmental Authority (CEA), the Sri Lanka Land Development Corporation (SLLDC), the Department of Wildlife Conservation, and the Kaduwela Municipal Council, to name a few. 

Each of these institutions has different mandates and priorities which can make holistic conservation of the area a challenge, especially when there is a lack of coordination between them. Dr. Drechsel shared that better communication and a shared agenda could serve to make conservation easier. 

Individuals too can contribute to conservation efforts by adopting sustainable practices in their daily lives. Dr. Drechsel suggested: “Simple actions like reducing plastic use, properly disposing of waste, and supporting eco-friendly initiatives can make a big difference. Education is key. We’re working with schools to raise awareness about the importance of wetlands and environmental stewardship. By instilling these values at a young age, we can ensure a sustainable future for Sri Lanka’s ecosystems.”


Looking to the future


Looking ahead, Dr. Drechsel envisions a future where wetlands are valued and protected for their ecological significance and multiple functions, like the Diyasaru Park. He emphasised on the importance of collaborative efforts, stating: “Conserving wetlands is not just about cleaning up trash. It’s about raising awareness, building partnerships, and advocating for policy changes.” 

Despite the challenges ahead, Dr. Drechsel remains optimistic about the prospects for wetland conservation in Sri Lanka. “Change is possible, but it requires collective action. Everyone has a role to play, whether they’re a resident or a concerned citizen from abroad,” he said, citing himself as an example. 

“I love nature, I love Sri Lanka. I’ve lived here for 14 years, and for the last seven, I’ve been actively involved in conservation efforts.” Dr. Drechsel’s dedication stems from a desire to contribute to the community and set an example for others. He added: “I don’t want to be just a foreigner who lives behind a wall and is never seen except on a beach. I want to do my bit for the community and make a positive impact.”



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