Understanding Colombo’s wetlands with IWMI


By Darshanie Ratnawalli

According to historians the very position of Kotte in the middle of a marsh attests to peril. It was to arrest peril emanating from the North that a city was built in the middle of a marsh. For what except the most dire necessity would induce anyone to locate a capital city in a marsh? Given any other choice what self-respecting feudal overload would opt for a marsh as a location of a capital?

This is how K.M de Silva, Sri Lanka’s foremost historian describes the forces that led to the shift of the capital from its secure fastness in Gampola surrounded by mountains and rivers to the marshy Kotte. "After Vikramabahu, the kingdom of Gampola passed on to Bhuvanekabahu V who became king in 1371….The most important political development during his period of rule was that the Sinhalese kingdom freed itself from the grasp of the king of Jaffna. During the invasion of 1359, Mayarata and a number of Kandyan districts had passed into the hands of the Jaffna ruler. It was Alakesvara who assumed the leadership of the struggle against the Tamils by organizing action to free these areas from their domination. The first step in this campaign was the clearing of some marshlands near Colombo and the construction of the fortress of Sri Jayavardanapura.

"…The Jafna kingdom’s expansion southwards had been checked, but the Sinhalese had no reason to believe that this had been halted for good. On the contrary, they assumed that pressure from the north would persist. The capital of the Sinhalese kingdom was moved once more, this time from the mountains to the west coast near Colombo, where Nissanka Alagakkonara had built the fort of Jayavardhanapura (Kotte). Once again the shift of the capital was evidence of the continuing weakness of the Sinhalese kingdom, and once more the reasons for the move were essentially defensive: to protect the west coast with its rich cinnamon resources, which the Tamil kingdom was so anxious to gain control of."- A History of Sri Lanka

This then was the historical process through which Sri Lanka’s capital city got its natural urban wetlands. Predictably the same process continued over the centuries has now become the story of how Sri Lanka’s capital city is losing its natural urban wetlands. For the nature of a capital city is to expand and for that to happen more and more land should be reclaimed from the marsh. Hence the prospect of dwindling wetlands.

"In the 80s we had about 60% of the land in Colombo under wetlands," says Herath Manthrithilake, Head of Sri Lanka Development Initiative of the International Water Management Initiative (IWMI), addressing a group of media personnel invited on a field visit of Colombo’s wetlands.

According to Manthrithilake, Colombo is "between two rivers, Kelaniya and Kalu. Those are like the flood plains. If you look at old maps, you can see a lot of wetlands around it. We called them marshy lands those days. And the trend was to reclaim them for development. That’s why the Sri Lanka Land Reclamation and Development Corporation (SLLR & DC) was formed. For low-lying land reclamation."

IWMI calls wetlands, natural capital. Even though you’d expect some rivalry between IWMI and SLLR & DC, the former trying to conserve wetlands while the later has a mandate to reclaim them, the reality is that even SLLR & DC realized the repercussions of their development, Manthrithilake adds, because, "we need to preserve these natural wetlands. They are like lungs, purifying the air, purifying the water, absorbing the floodwaters. They are essential elements to have around the cities."

Far from being at loggerheads with IWMI, SLLR & DC’s Deputy General Manager (Wetland Management) Dr. N.S. Wijayarathna, "is trying to promote Colombo as a wetland city and working with the Cabinet, Megapolis Ministry and a lot of other agencies to protect wetlands" says Manthrithilake.

"After Dutch times, in the Colombo city developed by the British, they reclaimed a lot of marshy lands. Because of that you can’t now see any wetlands around the Beira lake up to the BMICH. In old times, it was all wetlands, continuation of the Muthurajawela marshes. Now you are thinking of the Muthurajawela in the Wattala area, but Muthurajawela is continuing up to Bellanwila. Bellanwila marshes are the end of the Muthurajawela area.

"After independence, one division of the Irrigation department, the Low Lying Board was set up to reclaim land for the new city, that is the administrative capital of Colombo. And they reclaimed a lot of wetlands,"

says Dr. Wijayarathna. Then they realised something of great hydrological significance.

"The Colombo city is not inundated by the Kelani river over-flow. The Harvard dam built in the old times protects the city from this sort of flooding. Instead the city is inundated by the storm overflow. 39% of the storm overflow is absorbed by Colombo’s wetlands."

With that realisation came the sobering awareness that only around 20 Sq. Km of wetlands remain in the Colombo city. "Now we want to protect that 20 Sq. Km. Because otherwise, we will have to build up pump stations to protect our capital."

Then came another dose of conviction through a new project. "We got a grant from the World Bank and did a wetland management strategy for the whole city from 2015 to 2016. From that we realised that wetlands are not only giving flood retention benefits. They are giving so many other benefits to the city, to the people.

"The heat in the city is lowered by the wetlands. The carbon dioxide taken up by marshy areas is double the amount taken up by other areas. So wetlands take up twice as much carbon, heat and retain storm water. What are these? These are the stresses of the city. And you see the people walking and running along the foot paths built around the wetlands. So their stresses are also given to the wetlands."

Dr. Wijayarathna then asks IWMI to calculate the monetary value of the services rendered by wetlands to Colombo. Barely an hour later, another resource person brought in by IWMI for the wetlands visit, quite independently of Dr. Wijayarathna shows how such calculations could be done. This is Ms. Lucy Emerton, Environment Management Group, SOAS University of London. She talks to us inside a picturesque shack in the Diyasaru Park Thalawatugoda.

"I am going to talk about the services, the really important economic services that wetlands give because I am an economist. Mainly economists and urban planners are seen as the enemy of wetlands. What I want to do is to report on some good work done in bringing economics and urban planning for the good of wetlands. And how I want to do it is by valuing wetlands as urban infrastructure.

"Infrastructure is meant to be all of the equipment and facilities and services that people need to live and communicate and travel and get clean water and be protected against disasters and actually we need to start seeing wetlands as natural infrastructure. Infrastructure isn’t just pipes and bricks and roads. It’s actually also species and plants and hydrological systems.

"If you ask most people what are wetlands, they say they are a wet, smelly, unhealthy waste of space. And economists like me, well not like me hopefully, economists unlike me, would very much argue a wetland is an unproductive land. Particularly in the city, where land is at such a premium, you need to do something about it. And it would be much better to reclaim wetlands for more economic uses."

She then tells us that the Diyasaru Park for instance can be reclaimed and houses built on it. They can be sold for a fortune. Or a shopping mall or a road can be built. That has been the dominant thinking.

"We need urban infrastructure and we need to get rid of wetlands and other natural areas that are wet and smelly and dirty and bringing diseases. But we know that is not the case. Wetlands actually save a great deal of money for the government and the city dwellers. The key challenge is how to flip perception from an unproductive space to valuable natural infrastructure that saves people money."

Lucy Emerton then proceeds to illustrate with three case studies, how that perception fillip has been achieved and how city planners around the world and Sri Lanka have translated wetland benefits into currency values and actually preferred a wetland to a brand new spanking industrial zone for instance. But this is a story for the next instalment

To be continued

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