What do we really know about Sri Lanka’s wetlands?

  • Urban wetlands are at high risk, as they are most susceptible to illegal land-grabbing and exposure to pollutants: Jayantha Wijesinghe, Rainforest Protectors of Sri Lanka
  • We are unable to break away from our misguided understanding of development: Supun Lahiru Prakash, Director, Muthurajawela and Negombo Lagoon Development Foundation
  • Things are looking up, however, with the recent announcement that Sri Lanka is set to impose a moratorium on filling up urban wetlands

What exactly are wetlands?

Wetlands are a combination of soils, water, plants, and animals; the interplay between these elements allows wetlands to perform vital functions that are beneficial to humankind.

Jayantha Wijesinghe from the Rainforest Protectors of Sri Lanka, explains that wetlands are essentially like a sponge and if you consider a cup and sponge of the same size, the sponge is able to retain more liquid than the cup’s capacity, and this ‘sponge effect’ enables the wetland to store and release moisture as is necessary, regulating groundwater levels while maintaining its own ecosystem, simultaneously.

The combination of these functions, together with the rich biological diversity and cultural heritage of wetlands, makes them invaluable. We may not realise it but humans are ecologically dependent on wetlands, and the loss of wetlands can lead to harmful consequences on human welfare.


The benefits of wetlands

Wetlands prevent erosion of the shoreline and protect fish and wildlife habitats, and the ecological diversity it provides adds beauty to any landscape, resulting in them becoming tourist attractions and providing for wetland recreational activities such as wildlife watching.

Most importantly, however, wetlands are invaluable for flood control; they function as a retainer for floodwater, preventing the excess water from rushing nearby lakes and rivers. Regardless, the current status of wetland protection is not at its best.

The floods in Colombo

Many of us have experienced the state of the city of Colombo after heavy rains; it often results in parts of the capital being affected by floods.

To remedy the situation, China and Sri Lanka have recently signed an agreement to construct new tunnels to prevent flooding of Colombo in the future.

While future measures are appreciated, we have arrived at this juncture where engineering solutions are necessary because we’ve neglected our natural resources in favour of housing schemes and high-rises.

Supun Lahiru Prakash, Director of the Muthurajawela and Negombo Lagoon Development Foundation provided that Sri Lanka is still thinking very much like a third world nation,

“We are unable to break away from our misguided understanding of development.”

It is widely accepted that instead of engineering solutions, the natural solution is far more sustainable in the long run; however investments are still being made to fill up our existing wetlands which are natural buffers from flooding.


The Cape Town and Mexico City effect

Cape Town, South Africa, in early 2018, barely averted a “Day Zero”, despite the warning of experts; policymakers failed to implement water security projects due to costs.

Similarly, the City of Mexico is now sinking in on itself due to the draining of their lake system.

The city would fill up like a bowl during the rainy season, as denuded forests, whose soils once acted as sponges for flood water, no longer served as a buffer between water and people.

Without the lakes, groundwater is their new source of drinking water but due to rapid urbanisation, rainwater does not reach aquifers deep beneath the soil, resulting in them being unable to replenish the groundwater reserve.

Virtually none of that water makes it underground as concreting has sealed up any permeable surfaces in the city with pavement; the city’s pores are clogged.

This is what urban Sri Lanka is facing; the destroying of wetlands will result in our cities completely drying up. Urbanisation is rampant, and there isn’t a free patch of soil to be seen; groundwater retention is made near impossible by the sheer amount of construction.

While there are systems in place to prevent such catastrophes as a “Day Zero”; such as the UDA regulation which requires every land approved for constriction to build on only 60% of their land with the rest to remain for the contribution of regulating groundwater, these measures aren’t exerted as vehemently as they should be.


The current status of urban wetlands in the island

Currently, there are multiple identified urban wetlands that are at risk; Muthurajawela – often referred to as the ‘Swamp of Royal Treasure’ or ‘Supreme Field of Pearls’, Bellanwila-Attidiya forested wetlands, Bolgoda wetlands, wetlands in the Kotte area and Diyawanna Oya.

Jayantha provides that urban wetlands are at high risk, as they are most susceptible to illegal land-grabbing and exposure to pollutants.

“Despite their obvious importance, these identified wetlands are constantly exposed to risk factors that prove perilous to their continued existence and usefulness,” he said.

He also pointed out that Muthurajawela wetlands, with its high commercial land value, has been continuously subject to illegal land-grabbers due to lack of clear demarcations of the protected areas, and that it is barely secluded from pollutant industries, with there being an oil refinery, municipal garbage dump, liquid gas operators, cement mixtures in construction and even an energy plant in its vicinity.

The Bellanwila-Attidiya wetland is suffering a similar fate; a majority of the marsh has been turned into a car park.

Jayantha recalls that in the early 2000s, a committee was formed by the Sri Lanka Land Reclamation and Development Corporation (SLLRDC) with plans to create a ‘wetland management policy’ which was to involve stakeholders from environmental organisations and the communities around the wetland areas, but nothing has come of it.

Things are looking up, however, with the recent announcement that Sri Lanka is set to impose a moratorium on filling up urban wetlands; with the exception of nationally important projects, wetlands in and around Colombo are to be elected as protected areas.

This has come as a relief to many, as filling up of urban wetlands has been a primary concern among many environmentalists in Sri Lanka.

By Dimithri Wijesinghe
Pics are of the Bolgoda wetlands courtesy of Environmentalists Delthara on Facebook (Anuradha Nilupul Kahapola Arachchi)