Coastal Wetlands of Sri Lanka

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The coastal regions of Sri Lanka are dotted with Wetlands – areas that have soil that is saturated with moisture, such as swamps, marshes, riverbanks and man-made paddy fields. Muthurajawela (seen above), situated a mere 30 km north of Colombo, is one of the best known natural wetlands in the vicinity of Colombo.

avi_muthurajawela_CaspianTern02_ndrMuthurajawela hosts 192 species of flora and 209 species of fauna, including some 102 species of exotic-looking birds such as the Caspian Turn (right). The marsh is “fed” by waters from the mouth of the Kelani River and the Negambo Lagoon, making its soil resemble a saline peat bog. Its origins are not very clear, but is said to be as recent as 5000 BC. This unique ecosystem may have been created by recent, frequent changes to the mouth of the Kelani River. The place was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1996 on account of its biodiversity, and visitors are allowed to responsibly roam its waterways after seeking permission from the authorities at the “visitor centre“.

But Muthurajawela is just one of the many wetlands in Sri Lanka that would fascinate the curious nature lover. All coastal riverbanks down the Southern Trail from Katharagama in the East to Kalpitiya in the West are endowed with active wetland ecosystems. The Pearl crew would like to share a few bird sightings encountered during excursions into Muthurajawela and similar Southern Wetlands such as the Villus of Yala and the Bundala Lagoon. These pictures do justice to Sri Lanka’s reputation of yore as the “Paradise of the East” – at least when it comes to its avifauna. Enjoy!

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Blue-Tailed Bee-Eater

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Little Cormorant

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Black-winged Stilt

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 White-throated Kingfisher

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Painted Stork

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Cattle Egret

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 Blue Peafowl

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 Whiskered Turn

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Rose-ringed Parakeet

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Marsh Blooms

Story | Ruwan Rajapakse. Photography | Nilu Rajapakse.

 

1 Comment

  • Colombo is drying up—literally. Since the 1980s, the city has lost almost 60 percent of its wetland area. 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.

    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. Unfortunately, wetlands get a bad rap. People dismiss them as smelly breeding grounds for disease. This public perception is in some ways understandable 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.

    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. 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. 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. 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. 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.

    This is bad. Really bad. Colombo’s urban wetlands are not optional; they’re indispensable. 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.

    Colombo’s wetlands provide so many services for the city that we can’t afford to lose even one inch more. 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. 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? 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. Better conservation of wetlands could have saved Colombo millions of rupees in costs incurred from flood damage over the past decade.

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

    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. 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.

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