Encroachments undermine Muturajawela wetland

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About 50 acres of land belonging to the Muturajawela Sanctuary and its buffer zone have been illegally sold, with the backing of a local politician. The land sale is not only illegal, it endangers protected terrain, say Raveendra Kariyawasam of the Centre for Environmental Studies, and Sajeewa Chamikara of the Environmental Conservation Trust.

Greed for land ruins nature’s balance: Unauthorised development activity mars and scars fragile wetland system.

Muturajawela is linked to the Negombo Lagoon, and together form an integrated coastal wetland system of high biodiversity and ecological significance. This ecosystem is one of 12 priority wetlands in Sri Lanka. In 1996, 1,777 hectares in the northern section were officially declared a wetland sanctuary. Closer to Colombo, Muturajawela attracts developers who see the area as barren land suitable for urban, residential, recreational and industrial development. In recent years, large unprotected tracts in the Muturajawela wetland have been filled with sand and used for agricultural, commercial and residential purposes. Waste from these industries has been diverted to the marshland.

A plot of 10 perches was sold for Rs. 40,000. This land is in the Wattala Secretariat Division, close to Bope and Neelsirigama. The village Neelsirigama is built on filled land in Muturajawela. This land, which was developed by a politician, gets flooded in the rainy season, causing great hardship to the residents. In 2004, further illegal distribution of lands was stopped by a court order. In 2009, environmentalists protested when developers attempted to build a hotel in the area. The hotel project was cancelled.

While some say the lands sold lie outside the main protected area, environmentalists insist that any development would have a negative impact on the fragile ecosystem. Professor Sarath Kotagama, a leading ecologist, said the main threat to Muturajawela was sedimentation. He was speaking on wetland conservation at the University of Colombo. Prof. Kotagama was a national coordinator for the Asian Wetland Survey conducted by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the World Conservation Union (IUCN) in 1987-1988.

Maps drawn after a study conducted by the International Water Management Institute indicated that the depth of the wetland was being reduced by sedimentation. Sediments generated from land use in the area ends up in Muturajawela.

The value of wetlands is often challenged by politicians and economists who say land, including wetlands, near populated cities should be used for commercial purposes. A wetland is not a wasteland. It serves important environment functions.

In 1999-2000, an economic valuation of Muthurajawela was carried out by Lucy Emerton and Bhathiya Kakulandala, on behalf of the International Conservation Union (IUCN). The survey was carried out to document the significance of Muthurajawela as an urban marsh, as it was severely threatened by haphazard development and human encroachment.

Subsequent to the biodiversity assessment, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) conducted an economic evaluation of Muthurajawela, focusing on its ecosystem services. The purpose of the assessment was to impress on policy makers the importance of conserving this urban marsh and the adjacent Negombo lagoon, said Dr. Channa Bambaradeniya, who was with the IUCN at the time of the study.

If the wetland service is not there, great damage would be caused to the infrastructure by floods. The wetland also supports fish breeding, fisheries and agriculture based on wetland. Leisure and recreation, nutrient retention and waste water treatment, water supply and recharge, are some of the economic values, the study pointed out.

A plot of land is marked by an owner

A destroyed habitat at Muturajawela

A temporary hut built on marsh

published on SundayTimes on 11.03.2012 http://sundaytimes.lk/120311/News/nws_14.html

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