CSE Briefing Note: Workshop on Conservation of Lakes

June 11, 2013
Colombo, Sri Lanka

Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), New Delhi, India is organising a day-long meeting on 'Conservation of water bodies in Sri Lanka' in Colombo today.

The minister of Water Supply and Drainage, Dinesh Gunawardene, is the chief guest at the meeting. Speakers include the chief functionaries of the National Water Supply and Drainage Board, the Department of Irrigation, regulators, researchers, environmental lawyers and prominent NGOs. The purpose of the meeting is to focus on the massive water crisis that South Asian cities are facing and suggest possible solutions by maximising local water availability.

The workshop aims to discuss issues concerning wetlands and set up a network of researchers, NGOs, legal advocates and regulators from Sri Lanka and India involved in the conservation of waterbodies. Participants will discuss key challenges associated with the conservation of waterbodies in both countries. Case studies of successful wetland conservation initiatives from both countries will be discussed. The network will influence policy debates in rapidly urbanising cities and will push participatory and locale-specific policies for conserving Sri Lanka's waterbodies.

Wetlands are critical to urban survival as they help in flood control, groundwater recharge and storm protection. They also provide water for drinking, agriculture and industrial purposes, and play an important role in mitigating and adapting to climate change. However, all South Asian cities are facing a major water crisis and cities such as Colombo and Delhi are no exception. Across urban South Asia, water crises has multiplied with the decline in the surface area under lakes and ponds, even as groundwater levels have plummeted.

In the recent past, these water bodies played a vital role in South Asia’s urban landscape. But rapid urbanisation in the region has led to massive encroachment and pollution of its waterbodies. These are the two main reasons for their decline. Poor planning by city agencies which systematically convert water bodies into real estate, is also a big issue. In India, the city development agencies routinely execute projects on lakes and wetlands. As a result, groundwater levels in all cities have been declining by 1-2 metres a year even as urban flooding gets more acute.

Colombo, the largest city and cultural centre of Sri Lanka, always connected its activities with its waterbodies. These wetlands were an integral part of Sri Lanka's civilization. Much like India, Sri Lanka has had a reservoir-centric civilisation. The ancient capital of Anuradhapura has evidence of an elaborate rainwater harvesting system. Elsewhere in the country, there are records of the construction of ‘tanks’ (reservoirs) of varying sizes dating back to 300 BC to provide water for irrigation. These tanks slowly evolved into ‘cascaded’ systems and allowed water from one tank to flow to the next further downstream, and these systems are still in existence today.

The waterbodies of Sri Lanka can be divided into three groups: offshore and marine systems, coastal systems and inland systems. These waterbodies have always been given a special importance in the socio-economic growth of the country and there is evidence of existence of wetlands in the ancient history of Sri Lanka.

As the country has shifted to piped water supply, people have slowly forgotten the value of wetlands. Today these waterbodies are a shame – encroached, full of sewage, garbage or just filled up and built over. The cities in the island nation forgot that they needed water. They forgot their lifeline. Everywhere, waterbodies and their catchments have been encroached upon or taken away for housing and other buildings – by the poor and the rich alike.

However, there is still hope as some renovations and conservation strategies and action plans have been taken up by the government departments, NGOs and other stakeholders. The government of Sri Lanka has been active in designating wetlands as Ramsar Sites. Sri Lanka presently has six sites designated as Wetlands of International Importance, with a surface area of 198,172 hectares.

The two government agencies responsible for the conservation of waterbodies are Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) which is the Ramsar Administrative Authority and the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) which chairs the National Wetland Steering Committee and is also responsible for drafting the National Wetland Policy and Strategy in 2006. Thus, Sri Lanka seems well placed to protect its remaining waterbodies.

Interest in conservation of wetlands can be traced back into the late 19th century. Around 1897, several laws to protect the coastal belt systems were formulated. The Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance of 1937 can be considered as a major step in wetland conservation. Using this legislation, the Department of Wildlife Conservation has declared several wetlands of importance to birds as sanctuaries and other protected areas. The act has also provided protection to fauna in the immediate limits of any waterbody.

There are other laws like Coast Conservation Act, Marine Pollution Prevention Act, National Environment Act, Crown Lands Ordinance (that protects against coral destruction), Forest Ordinance and Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Act to protect the wetlands. But these are all indirect laws. These are important for the protection of the wetlands but more needs to be done.

For details and/or interview requests, kindly get in touch with Sushmita Sengupta at sushmita@cseindia.org/0094713779547