Colombo's Urban Wetlands: On Becoming and Staying a Ramsar Wetland City

February 5, 2019

Thecity of Colombo is the capital of Sri Lanka and its economic, political, andcultural focal point. Since October 2018, it is also South Asia's only WetlandCity under the Ramsar Convention. With concerted efforts from government,communities, and all affected stakeholders, this opens the way for Colombo tobecome a model for urban wetland conservation and benefit from the manyecosystem services they offer.


TheRamsar Convention and Wetland Cities


February2nd is World Wetlands Day as well as the anniversary of the RamsarConvention on Wetlands, which was adopted on February 2nd, 1971, inthe eponymous Iranian city. During the 20th Century, wetlands havelost an estimated 64-71% of their extent globally and even more in Asia, andwetland destruction and degradation continue with every passing year. Tocounteract this, the Ramsar Convention works toward "the conservation andwise use of all wetlands through local and national actions and internationalcooperation" and aims to promote a sustainable future.


Asof February 2019, 170 countries have ratified the Ramsar Convention (includingSri Lanka in 1990), and over 2,300 Ramsar sites with a total surface area of252 million hectares have been declared. In 2012, the parties to the Conventionbegan a process of accreditation for cities which are located near wetlands andwork to conserve them, naming them as Wetland Cities to encourage thesustainable use of urban wetlands.

InOctober 2018, the 13th Conference of the Parties to the RamsarConvention unveiled the first eighteen cities that were chosen world-wide: andColombo is the only South Asian city and the only capital among them.


TheInterdependence of Cities and Wetlands


Wetlandsunder the Ramsar Convention encompass a wide range of ecosystems that can befound across the globe. From swamps and mangrove forests to lakes andestuaries, from underground aquifers to man-made reservoirs: wetlands arediverse and highly productive ecosystems.


Theyare essential for freshwater management and flood control, host a huge varietyof biodiversity, provide food and building materials, contribute to climatechange mitigation by storing "blue carbon," and offer various otherecosystem services like recreation, eco-tourism, evaporative cooling, and reducingair pollution.


Over55% of the world's population lived in cities in 2018, and the vast majority ofthese cities, including Colombo, are located near the coast. In the face ofclimate change and rising sea levels, these cities depend on wetlands for floodcontrol and storm-water management. Urban wetlands are not merely animalhabitats, natural parks, or gaps located inside a city. They are part of urbaninfrastructure and just as important as streets or water pipes.


Colombo'sUrban Wetlands


Colombois not merely a city that happens to be near wetlands. It is not merely a citysurrounded by wetlands. Since its founding at the heart of the Kelani riverdelta, wetlands have been an integral part of Colombo, and it is not possibleto think of the city without them.


Colombois criss-crossed by canals which are connected to a system of lakes andwetlands that is collectively known as the Colombo Wetland Complex (CWC). Outof 22,680 hectares of city area, 1,900 hectares (more than 8%) are contiguouswetland areas such as Beddagna, Thalawatugoda, Kimbulawela, Madiwela,Kolonnawa, Crow Island, Talangama Lake, and Beira Lake. Only the Talangama LakeEnvironmental Protection Area and the Sri Jayewardenepura Kotte WildlifeSanctuary receive special protection, but a number of policies, strategies,plans, and acts are in place to recognize the importance of Colombo's wetlandsand facilitate integrated management plans for them, including an extensive CWCstudy in 2015 and the Wetland Management Strategy 2016.


TheCWC provides Colombo with green lungs and a natural drainage network. It coolsthe city, cleans its water and air, protects it from flooding, and improveshuman quality of life. A high percentage of Colombo's wetlands are urban farmsand 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.


Despiteexisting efforts, Colombo loses around 1.2% of its wetlands every year. Themain reasons for this are solid waste dumping, untreated domestic wastewater,invasive species, algal blooms downstream from farms, and indiscriminate landfilling.


Thedesignation of Colombo as a Ramsar Wetland City is a milestone achievement andan incredible opportunity to double down on measures to protect and restore thecity's wetlands. With increased public awareness, international support, andcombined government and citizen action, Colombo can embrace its greeninfrastructure and the advantages of urban wetlands.


PreservingColombo's wetlands is a long-term investment in sustainable urbaninfrastructure that will pay off in many ways. In six years, Sri Lanka willhave to justify the retention of Colombo's Wetland City status: till then, itis up to all stakeholders to work toward this goal and make the city a globalleader in wetland conservation.




▪        Davidson, N. C. (2014). How much wetland has the world lost? Long-term and recent trends inglobal 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 ofColombo, Sri Lanka. Landscape and Urban Planning. 132. 55–68.

▪        International Water Management Institute (2018).Ramsar Convention COP13. Retrievedfrom:

▪        The Ramsar Convention Secretariat (2015). Briefing Note 7: State of the World’sWetlands and their Services to People. Retrieved from:

▪        The Ramsar Convention Secretariat (2018). 18 cities recognized for safeguarding urbanwetlands. Retrieved from:

▪        Ramsar Convention on Wetlands (2018). Global Wetland Outlook: State of the World’sWetlands and their Services to People. Gland, Switzerland: RamsarConvention Secretariat.

▪        Department of Wildlife Conservation of Sri Lanka(2017). Wetland City AccreditationNomination Form for Colombo City. Retrieved from:

United Nations, Departmentof Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2018). The World’s Cities in 2018—Data Booklet.(ST/ESA/ SER.A/417).

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About the Author
Dennis Mombauer

Dennis has close to a decade of experience working in research, and management and administration in the private sector as well as two years in coordination in the development sector. His research focuses on ecosystem-based adaptation, sustainable development, climate migration, and other topics related to climate change. He has published articles about these topics in numerous places, for example Earth Island Journal, Mongabay, The Environmental Blog, Daily FT, and Colombo Telegraph. He holds degrees in Education, English Studies, and Philosophy from the University of Cologne, Germany, and has additional qualifications in GIS mapping, video editing, translation, and publishing. ‍