The city of Colombo is the capital of Sri Lanka and its economic, political, and cultural focal point. Since October 2018, it is also South Asia's only Wetland City under the Ramsar Convention. With concerted efforts from government, communities, and all affected stakeholders, this opens the way for Colombo to become a model for urban wetland conservation and benefit from the many ecosystem services they offer.
February 2nd is World Wetlands Day as well as the anniversary of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, which was adopted on February 2nd, 1971, in the eponymous Iranian city. During the 20th Century, wetlands have lost an estimated 64-71% of their extent globally and even more in Asia, and wetland destruction and degradation continue with every passing year. To counteract this, the Ramsar Convention works toward "the conservation and wise use of all wetlands through local and national actions and international cooperation" and aims to promote a sustainable future.
As of February 2019, 170 countries have ratified the Ramsar Convention (including Sri Lanka in 1990), and over 2,300 Ramsar sites with a total surface area of 252 million hectares have been declared. In 2012, the parties to the Convention began a process of accreditation for cities which are located near wetlands and work to conserve them, naming them as Wetland Cities to encourage the sustainable use of urban wetlands.
In October 2018, the 13th Conference of the Parties to the Ramsar Convention unveiled the first eighteen cities that were chosen world-wide: and Colombo is the only South Asian city and the only capital among them.
Wetlands under the Ramsar Convention encompass a wide range of ecosystems that can be found across the globe. From swamps and mangrove forests to lakes and estuaries, from underground aquifers to man-made reservoirs: wetlands are diverse and highly productive ecosystems.
They are essential for freshwater management and flood control, host a huge variety of biodiversity, provide food and building materials, contribute to climate change mitigation by storing "blue carbon," and offer various other ecosystem services like recreation, eco-tourism, evaporative cooling, and reducing air pollution.
Over 55% of the world's population lived in cities in 2018, and the vast majority of these cities, including Colombo, are located near the coast. In the face of climate change and rising sea levels, these cities depend on wetlands for flood control and storm-water management. Urban wetlands are not merely animal habitats, natural parks, or gaps located inside a city. They are part of urban infrastructure and just as important as streets or water pipes.
Colombo is not merely a city that happens to be near wetlands. It is not merely a city surrounded by wetlands. Since its founding at the heart of the Kelani river delta, wetlands have been an integral part of Colombo, and it is not possible to think of the city without them.
Colombo is criss-crossed by canals which are connected to a system of lakes and wetlands that is collectively known as the Colombo Wetland Complex (CWC). Out of 22,680 hectares of city area, 1,900 hectares (more than 8%) are contiguous wetland areas such as Beddagna, Thalawatugoda, Kimbulawela, Madiwela, Kolonnawa, Crow Island, Talangama Lake, and Beira Lake. Only the Talangama Lake Environmental Protection Area and the Sri Jayewardenepura Kotte Wildlife Sanctuary receive special protection, but a number of policies, strategies, plans, and acts are in place to recognize the importance of Colombo's wetlands and facilitate integrated management plans for them, including an extensive CWC study in 2015 and the Wetland Management Strategy 2016.
The CWC provides Colombo with green lungs and a natural drainage network. It cools the city, cleans its water and air, protects it from flooding, and improves human quality of life. A high percentage of Colombo's wetlands are urban farms and produce rice, vegetables, fish, native plants, poultry, and dairy products. They are also home to over 280 species of animals and 250 species of plants, many of which are unique to wetland environments.
Despite existing efforts, Colombo loses around 1.2% of its wetlands every year. The main reasons for this are solid waste dumping, untreated domestic wastewater, invasive species, algal blooms downstream from farms, and indiscriminate land filling.
The designation of Colombo as a Ramsar Wetland City is a milestone achievement and an incredible opportunity to double down on measures to protect and restore the city's wetlands. With increased public awareness, international support, and combined government and citizen action, Colombo can embrace its green infrastructure and the advantages of urban wetlands.
Preserving Colombo's wetlands is a long-term investment in sustainable urban infrastructure that will pay off in many ways. In six years, Sri Lanka will have to justify the retention of Colombo's Wetland City status: till then, it is up to all stakeholders to work toward this goal and make the city a global leader in wetland conservation.
▪ Davidson, N. C. (2014). How much wetland has the world lost? Long-term and recent trends in global wetland area. Marine and Freshwater Research, 65(10), 934-941.
▪ Hettiarachchi, M., Morrison, T., Wickramasinghe, D., Mapa, R., de Alwis, A., & Mcalpine, C. (2014). The eco-social transformation of urban wetlands: A case study of Colombo, Sri Lanka. Landscape and Urban Planning. 132. 55–68.
▪ International Water Management Institute (2018). Ramsar Convention COP13. Retrieved from: http://www.iwmi.cgiar.org/2018/10/ramsar-convention-cop13/
▪ The Ramsar Convention Secretariat (2015). Briefing Note 7: State of the World’s Wetlands and their Services to People. Retrieved from: https://www.ramsar.org/sites/default/files/documents/library/bn7e_0.pdf
▪ The Ramsar Convention Secretariat (2018). 18 cities recognized for safeguarding urban wetlands. Retrieved from: https://www.ramsar.org/news/18-cities-recognized-for-safeguarding-urban-wetlands
▪ Ramsar Convention on Wetlands (2018). Global Wetland Outlook: State of the World’s Wetlands and their Services to People. Gland, Switzerland: Ramsar Convention Secretariat.
▪ Department of Wildlife Conservation of Sri Lanka (2017). Wetland City Accreditation Nomination Form for Colombo City. Retrieved from: https://www.ramsar.org/sites/default/files/edPA_Ramsar%20Application%20-%20Colombo%20City.pdf
United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2018). The World’s Cities in 2018—Data Booklet. (ST/ESA/ SER.A/417).
Dennis Mombauer currently lives in Colombo as a freelance writer and researcher on climate change and education. He focuses on ecosystem-based adaptation and sustainable urban development as well as on autism spectrum disorder in the field of education. Besides articles and research, he has published numerous works of fiction in German and English.