Guest writer: Shanelle Wikramanayake
Recently I visited the wetlands in Thalawathugoda, by Diyatha Uyana to do some photography. In all honesty, I was not expecting to see much. The wetland lies adjacent to bustling road, and with it comes the fumes and incessant sounds of revving and impatient horning. I was pleasantly surprised to find, however, that the wetland was brimming with many different species of birds, butterflies and a new favorite of mine, dragonflies. I didn’t know where to look and I was rather dizzy and disoriented from turning about and running around, following blurred images darting dragonflies and butterflies. It was quite the exciting event for me, and even if you are not as invested in these things, you may have a change of heart if you grace the Thalawathugoda Biodiversity Study Park.
Wetlands are habitats with either temporary or permanent accumulation of water and are associated with a floral and faunal community. Urban wetlands, are simply wetlands found in urban areas and can include artificially constructed wetland ecosystems, such as saltpans, reservoirs, canals, sewage and many other environments (Kotagama, et al., 2006). Naturally, as their category clearly indicates, urban wetlands are in close proximity to cities, homes and other buildings, and, of course this means people as well.
Wetlands are sometimes perceived as giant, waterlogged menaces that function as sources of the ever ubiquitous mosquitoes that plague the island. This may be true for certain urban wetland environments such as drains, especially after they have been inflicted by harmful anthropogenic effects, such as pollution. In the case of drains, as soon as a plastic bag drifting through the wind makes a grand landing in the murky water of a drain, the latter gets blocked, the water stagnates, it loses its intended function and instead serves as base for ever growing mosquito armies. Thus, provided we treat our urban wetlands, and our surroundings with the generous love and care that they deserve, they, in return, will provide us with a bounty of positives surprises the whole family can enjoy.
Some people got the right idea as they saw the picturesque wetlands, with their tranquil waters and lush bordering plant cover, that this would be the ideal place for a sporting walk or jog. This may conjure images of the Diyatha Uyana wetlands, or otherwise known as the Water’s Edge walking path.
Another prominent urban wetland in Sri Lanka is the Bellanwila-Attidiya Sanctuary. You may, by now understand how close these wetlands are to the human touch, and maybe surprised to learn that these they are very valuable troves for many different species of plants and animals. The Bellanwila-Attidiya wetland is home to a total of 152 species of vertebrates, comprising of 11 different species of amphibians, 27 reptilian species, 22 species of freshwater fishes, 78 avian species and 14 mammalian species. It also includes 75 different species of butterflies, of which 16 are endemic and 5 nationally endangered. Daily, vehicles continuously drive past this rich store of floral and faunal assets, without paying it any mind or a second glance, a disappointing reality.
Unfortunately, some individuals who do give urban wetlands their attention, pay it the wrong kind altogether. For some time now many urban wetlands have been dredged for development purposes. Wetlands serve a very important purpose that is especially highlighted in urban areas. They act like sponges during the rainy seasons, soaking up the heavens showers and minimize the water that accumulates around the city. Dredging wetlands prevents this mechanism from occurring, resulting in high accumulation of water. Faulty drainage systems make the situation worse and cause flooding, damaging infrastructure and lives. Flooding is a problem that has been plaguing Colombo for many years now. By dredging the urban wetlands, this situation has been exacerbated so much more. The extent of flooding has increased, covering more area and lasting for longer.
Urban wetlands are of utmost importance. If we wish to prevent natural disasters from being beyond our reach and enable species adapted to edge habitat to thrive we must preserve them. If we do, our next candidate up for a seat in the Sri Lankan parliament will likely be our feline friend, the fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrinus).
Text and images by Shanelle Wikramanayake