Indrapala has lived in Mattegoda for 30 years, and has watched with dismay as the Mattegoda weva and adjacent wetlands have come under threat from relentless development. He decided to do something about it, and as the President of the Wetland Management Committee he is working closely with the Public Interest Law Foundation to bring these lands under the protection of the Central Environment Authority. As part of their efforts, they are commissioning a biodiversity survey to explore how many species actually live here, and are rallying the surrounding community to preserve this precious resource.
“Because this is an urban context, it is important we have the development agencies involved,” she says, explaining that the debate tends to boil down to two sides: development versus conservation.
It is a conflict that is playing out across the city. The Mattegoda weva and adjacent wetlands are a part of a rich, vital network that make up the urban wetlands of Colombo. Stretching out over some 20 km2, they represent 2.9 percent of the total land area of Colombo District. Their importance to Colombo is hard to overstate.
Attempts are now being made to protect these significant yet fragile ecosystems under the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) - Global Environment Facility (GEF) funded Small Grants Programme, which is in its sixth operational phase. The $2.5 million, 4-year project extends up until November 2020, and is designed to enable community organizations to take collective action for adaptive landscape management.
As part of the programme, the wetlands in the south-east region of the Colombo district have been selected as a pilot landscape. The area which encompasses 14 wetlands and 32 villages spans the DS divisions of Maharagama, Kaduwela, Kolonnawa, Homagama and Seethawaka.
Little attention has been paid to these wetlands in the past, and they are rapidly degrading due to a combination of factors including pollution and siltation from unsustainable land use practices including deforestation, waste disposal, agricultural run-off, over-extraction of water for irrigation, unsustainable fishing practices, unauthorized encroachment and land reclamation.
“The people don’t understand the value of the wetlands,” he says. “Most capital cities don’t have such beautiful natural environments just a short walk away.”
And it’s not just humans who would suffer if these wetlands were destroyed. These marshes are home to a wide variety of animals - some 209 species of vertebrates were recorded here of which 17 are endemic, while 26 are nationally threatened (IUCN Sri Lanka, 2000).
It is the latter that fascinates Anya Ratnayake. Like Shantha, the young conservationist is also a beneficiary of UNDP-GEF’s funding. Her resources are targeted at protecting the endangered fishing cat. The charismatic animal is the largest terrestrial predator in these parts, but sightings are very rare.
Working from different perspectives, Mihiri, Shantha and Anya are all focused on the preservation of something they see as being a defining characteristic of this city. However, they are in a battle against the clock. While rates of loss vary across the district, in a number of areas the loss of wetlands since the 1980s has been as high as 60 percent. Every year, we lose another 1.2 percent. Without action to address the drivers of loss, Colombo Wetlands could be reduced by one-third by 2038 and by half by 2070.
However there is hope, if only the city recognizes what it has before the wetlands disappear.
“Colombo has survived because of the wetlands for centuries,” says Anya. “Let’s preserve them for future generations.”