Originally published as an Op-Ed on The Sunday Times (Sri Lanka), republished here with minor edits.
Almost a decade ago, the city of Colombo experienced deadly flash floods, affecting more than 500,000 people and wreaking havoc on the Sri Lankan capital. The waterlogged urban space was a result of extreme weather but also the rapid loss of a vital natural asset to the metropolitan region – wetlands.
In the past, these wetlands were thought of as wastelands, hot spots for disease, ideal locations for infilling and urban development. That changed when a World Bank study, in collaboration with Sri Lankan government, revealed that restoring and rehabilitating current wetlands could enable ponds and basins to absorb up to 40% of the water during some flood events. It was then that Colombo made it a goal to conserve its urban and peri-urban wetlands. There is now increasing recognition that the wetlands of Colombo provide not just important disaster risk-reducing functions but a range of other services that support peoples’ livelihoods and wellbeing.
To conserve the vital green infrastructure, the Sri Lanka Land Reclamation & Development Corporation’s Wetland Management Division developed the Wetland Management Strategy (WMS) in 2016. Now, with the help of the Sri Lanka-based International Water Management Institute (IWMI), who have been conducting wetland research in South Asia and Africa for years, Colombo has been honored as one of the first 18 sites awarded the Ramsar Wetland City Accreditation. It is the only capital city selected.
This has scientists, conservationists and the government excited. It’s a landmark achievement in the efforts of Sri Lanka to conserve and use wetlands wisely. And it’s a reflection of the hard work of the urban planners, agencies and scientists of Colombo.
But the hard work isn’t over. The honor brings an obligation to adhere to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), sustain the wetlands and the ecosystem services wetlands provide, and to continue to advocate that wetlands are far more than wastelands.
The benefits – and pressures – of leadership
The accreditation is recognition by the Ramsar Convention – an international environmental treaty dedicated to wise use of wetlands – that Colombo’s efforts are commendable and should be emulated by other cities.
And while the accreditation brings recognition and investment potential for green infrastructure, eco-tourism and economic development, it’s also associated with responsibilities.
First, Colombo will need to continue to prevent degradation of wetlands. Colombo’s wetlands are finite, and loss has run as high as 60 percent since the 1980’s. Colombo cannot spare the loss of any more of these valuable ecosystems. A cabinet moratorium on wetlands is an important milestone ordering the stop of land reclamation and destruction of wetlands. Now, Colombo must turn to green infrastructure for its ecosystem services. Beyond flood detention areas, wetlands also offer a vast number of ecological and livelihood benefits: food production, recreation, cultural heritage, and air and water quality regulation.
Second, the city is now doubly committed to its WMS – decision makers will have to consider both natural ecosystem and community impacts, integrating wetland values into urban development and wetland conservation. Adopting a strategy like this requires continued capacity building. Colombo will need to maintain its training of staff on wetland values, as well as identifying, empowering and securing local communities’ benefits from wetlands.
Third, Colombo’s new status brings an opportunity for greater international exposure. We have lessons learned on planning and design for other cities. IWMI and partners presented the Colombo “success story” to urban planners from Lao PDR in a recent workshop. Forty planners from across Lao PDR learned about green infrastructure concepts, the practicalities of implementation and the potential opportunities for their cities.
Finally, Colombo will have to justify retention of its accreditation in six years’ time. This means implementing systems that monitor and track progress. We contributed the Colombo case study to “Ramsar’s Good Practices Handbook for Integrating Urban Development and Wetland Conservation.” This global resource showcases actions taken to integrate urban development and wetland conservation. Colombo planners are already utilizing some of these best practices, implementing ecosystem-based master planning and frameworks for baseline surveys and mapping.
The challenges of wise use
Quantifying the significance of wetlands circles back to the very reasons Colombo and the other sites were accredited – the cities demonstrated the vital benefits wetlands have for their residents.
Rapid population growth, climate change and other disruptors greatly complicate urban development. Thus, the challenge now is to continue to strengthen and enhance wetland benefits. As Colombo aptly illustrates, wetlands can and need to be a critical part of our urban future.
Dr. Priyanie Amerasinghe is a Senior Researcher with the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and its CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE). IWMI and WLE are headquartered in Battaramulla, Sri Lanka.
Thrive blog is a space for independent thought and aims to stimulate discussion among sustainable agriculture researchers and the public. Blogs are facilitated by the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE) but reflect the opinions and information of the authors only and not necessarily those of WLE and its donors or partners. WLE and partners are supported by CGIAR Trust Fund Contributors, including: ACIAR, DFID, DGIS, SDC, and others.