Photo by the author

The causes of global climate change are myriad, and not all of them are within our control, but driving down the brand spanking new airport highway the other day, I began to wonder if we’re really even trying to begin with.

So, are we in the middle of the monsoon or what? Just a couple of weeks ago, and uncharacteristically on time, that seemed the case. But it didn’t last, and now we’re back to a string of classic Colombo scorchers.

Last year it was different. I remember most of 2013 was quite cool, except for a month or so of intense heat. Rain poured down liberally, inundating Colombo’s flood prone roads causing tremendous amounts of traffic, accidents, tree collapses, road collapses and whatnot. Colombo can’t handle too much rain, and Colombo people can’t handle more than a given amount of sun. But now we seem to be veering more and more into extremes each year.

We’re not the only city feeling the effects of global climate change, some have it much worse, but we could soon join their ranks. Colombo is already in a threatened position being a city with a large amount of coastal infrastructure and population. The causes of global climate change are myriad, and not all of them are within our control, but driving down the brand spanking new airport highway the other day, I began to wonder if we’re really even trying to begin with.

The highway is constructed right on top of the Muthurajawela nature reserve. Originally envisioned in the mid-eighties, the highway was supposed to be built through residential areas, but plans were put on hold when residents predictably protested. Chandrika Bandaranaike’s presidential campaign in ’94 promised to divert the road through Muthurajawela instead, winning her votes and by extension the presidency. She kept her promise (Tudor Wijenyake has written an excellent history with lots of anecdotes and context on the new airport highway and its mis/construction).

By the time it was eventually completed by the Rajapaksa administration, after numerous hiccups along the way, in 2013, not only had costs ballooned to stratospheric levels as a result of having to treat the marshy ground to make it suitable for motoring (else whole sections could, and did, disappear overnight into the soft peaty ground) over 133 hectares of the reserve was used up for the enterprise. Little if any significant protest was seen from the city’s environmentalists.

The water retention properties of wet lands like Muthurajawela perform the important dual function of being a flood retainer as well as cooling the city; protecting it from the effects of extreme rain and heat alike. They are also a home for innumerable numbers of species of flora and fauna. Colombo’s wetlands have long been actively utilized for their flood retention capacity, altered for the purpose first by the British in the 1930s, and by successive local governments and regimes since.

For centuries previously, the wetlands have been providing citizens with agricultural, food, transport, drainage and flood control services, the city should rightly feel blessed, surrounded as it is by wetland on all sides. But Colombo is also bursting at the seams. The city contributes nearly 50% of the country’s GDP and post-war immigrants from outside are scrambling for space in its suburbs. Most of that space is being found by reclaiming wetlands.

Land Reclamation is controlled by The Sri Lanka Land Reclamation and Development Corporation (SLLRDC). Its mandate is pretty clear; basically, keep an eye out for drainage issues but facilitate land reclamation as much as possible; “It is clear that the urban wetland policy in Colombo was skewed towards urban development needs” states research from the University of Queensland, going on to give damning statistics. In the past 30 years alone flood detention area has been reduced by 15% and 60% of surrounding paddy land has been reclaimed. Water retention capacities of existing wetlands have drastically reduced, bird and fish diversities have shrunk, and flooding in Colombo has intensified, affecting to start with the lives of thousands of (mostly poor) families.

One of the primary problems, perhaps, is that the population is largely unaware of the importance of wetlands. It is easy to simply see them as patches of dirty, boggy, smelly marsh of no apparent use. A lot of wetland is used for dumping garbage. Others have been damaged by irresponsible construction, mostly by the government itself like the parliament complex in Kotte. They are used for purposes like playgrounds and informal ‘picnics’ (read; bottle parties). Innumerable plant and animal life have been destroyed in the process.

The SLLRDC has countered by embarking on its now highly visible, ambitious plan to create numerous lakes around the city in conjunction with the Urban Development Authority’s long present ‘beautification’ agenda. I myself live right next to such a gentrified patch of watery land. However, while converting harsh marshland into neat little lakes pleases the eye, you wonder how much of the ecological value of the wetland is actually preserved.

Sri Lanka is one of the signatories of the Ramsar Convention; a global pact to preserve wetlands. The convention advocates “wise use” defined as the “maintenance of (wetland) ecological character, achieved through the implementation of ecosystem approaches, within the context of sustainable development”, doesn’t hardly covers what we’re seeing in Colombo; but then, Sri Lanka owns six sites designated as Wetlands of International Importance (each plagued by their own conservation problems) and none of them are in the city; possibly a convenient loophole to ignore the spirit of the convention while continuing to pander to the pressing demands of capitalism.

This lackadaisical attitude towards the destruction of wetland is typical of the city’s steamrolling ‘development agenda’ which has not only uprooted and destroyed massive ancient trees that lent Colombo beauty and personality, it has even torn up whole human communities and rendered them effectively homeless. It is characteristically short-termist and elitist. Its policy development lacks in transparency and accountability and it is simply immune to criticisms of the social and environmental damage it causes that goes beyond a certain threshold of manageability. Given this, the challenge is huge for environmentalists and concerned citizens alike to speak out.

Climate change is usually treated as a non-issue here in Sri Lanka; the exclusive domain of ‘tree-huggers’ and hippies even, but the increasingly erratic nature of our weather patterns should be enough to make us wake-up and smell our sweat soaked bed sheets in the middle of December; things are only going to get crazier unless we act in some way, anyway possible. Even if it is just to plant a tree, or to hold a placard in front of one slated to be cut.