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 Muthurajawela : a single, unitary coastal system

Copyright © 2003 Central Environmental Authourity - Sri Lanka
What happens to Negombo Lagoon affects Muthurajawela marsh, and vice versa: they form one single, continuous coastal wetland. The area measures some 7,000 ha between Colombo in the south and Negombo in the north, pinched between the ocean and the airport road. Twice daily the high tide brings seawater into the wetland, while fresh water from a watershed of 720 km² discharges at the junction of the lagoon and the marsh. Continuous mixing of these two waters has led to a brackish ecosystem, with high productivity and high biological diversity. Many species of fish, shrimps and crabs spend a part of their life in the shelter of mangroves and sea-grass beds; they support a multimillion fisheries industry in the lagoon and along the coast.Both the marsh and the lagoon house numerous plant and animal species, of which many are rare or endemic.The protected estuarine crocodile reproduces here, large numbers of migratory birds come here for resting and feeding, and the area is known for its beautiful butterflies, of which the caterpillars feed on the abundant (mostly medicinal) plants.
Sedimentation processes are slowly turning this wetland, born some 5,000 years ago, into land. Under natural circumstances, this would take centuries to accomplish: natural siltation is slow, and natural disasters like heavy storms would have a delaying effect. But, as often, man interferes. Upstream land clearing increases the amounts of silt brought to the lagoon, and expanding housing areas in the mouth of the lagoon decrease exchange of seawater. On top of this, the ecosystem is threatened by a flow of pollutants from upstream industrial, agricultural and domestic activities.
THE USERS: Interest in sustainability      
This coastal wetland, situated at the doorstep of the most densely populated and economically important urban area of Sri Lanka, serve many uses and provides numerous services, both for people and for nature.
Multiple uses, multiple services:
  • Habitat for numerous plant and animal species
  • Lagoon fishery supporting 3,000 household
  • Nursery for coastal shrimp and fish
  • Source of wood, vegetables, and medicines
  • Anchorage (15% of Sri Lanka’s fishing fleet)
  • Flood protection for the environs
  • Green lung in the greater Colombo area
  • Tourist area (>200 hotel room)
  • Ecosystem research area
  • Expansion area for housing and industry
  • Safe approach and take off way for planes
  • Sink for industrial effluent (>100 industries)
  • Sink for urban waste (>200,000 people)

The total economic worth of the estuarine system exceed 1,000 million rupees annually. Clearly, Sri Lanka cannot afford to lose this valuable life support system; on the contrary: all users are benefited by its continuous and sustainable productive capacity.

Without active management, however, the area will lose its worth quickly. Already encroachment, increased siltation and pollution show their negative effects on fish production and on animal and human health: fish skin ulcers are more and more common, and waterborne diseases thrive.

We, the present generation, must leave behind an ecological system with at least equal value, so that our children may say, “Our parents cared, let us do the same”..

THE HISTORY: transition never paid off

Negombo Lagoon was the foremost seaport in Sri Lanka during the Kotte period. The best cinnamon in the world was exported from here to the west, and attracted invasion by the Portuguese. These invaders, and later the Dutch, controlled the area from 1505 onwards, When the Dutch, controlled established Colombo as the capital, attempts were made to develop Muthurajawela marsh for paddy cultivation to feed the city dwellers. To flush salt from the marshes they constructed various water control structures and canals, including the Ja-Ela and the Dutch Canal, also serving transportation. But paddy production remained low.

Later the British again considered the marsh a good place for paddy growing, and continued the efforts for drainage and flushing: the Hamilton Canal was born. But paddy was not a success…

In fact the British effort to drain the marshes had and opposite effect: the Hamilton Canal facilitated salt intrusion during high tides. After independence, the imagination of the Sri Lankan Government was driven by nostalgia: to transform Muthurajawela into the paddy tract of 500 years ago. Heavy investments were made for further engineering interventions. But the productive silt, brought the Kelani Ganga and the Dandugam Oya in the past, did not return: the constructed roads, dikes and canals proved effective barriers to water flow, and had turned the area into a waterlogged marsh.

An important lesson is to be learned: attempts to transform multifunctional natural system into managed single-use areas are self-defeating. Such systems are optimally used when they serve multiple and compatible uses.


THE DEVELOPERS: history in a modern suit

In mid-1965 the cabinet of Ministers decided to terminate investment in irrigation for paddy cultivation at Muthurajawela; it was accepted that marshy areas in dense urban setting cannot gradually return to their pre-development state.

The general response to this decision has been to “fill the marsh” for development. Various “filling” plans were prepared by land developers, and a special Sri Lanka Land Reclamation and Development Corporation was founded for the purpose. In 1984 a final plan was issued: to dike and fill the total area with sea sand.

This sand fill plan immediately raised protests, especially from the environmental side. And not only from a small group of bird lovers: the recent maturation of environmental consciousness resulted also in large-scale protests against inadequately planned development.

It was realized that Muthurajawela might go the way of many wetlands, worldwide. Under pressure for land, many of these so-called “low-value areas” are disappearing, but the shown economic yields of such areas are mostly only a fraction of the actual value.

Sri Lanka, with its many coastal wetland areas, supported the worldwide appeal for sustainable management of wetland resources by signing the International Convention for the Conservation of Wetland (the RAMSAR Convention) in 1990.

Nobody objected to development as such, but land filling without properly addressing the losses and gains was unacceptable: it would once again turn the area into a single-use system…

THE WAY OUT: integration of interests

The deterioration of coastal wetlands can largely be attributed to the development of coastal regions, single-mindedly guided by merely economic forces. The Government of Sri Lanka realized that its coastal wetlands need protection for economic, ecological, and cultural reasons, especially since they comprise highly productive ecosystems that can be irreversibly damaged. Therefore, in 1989, the Government instructed the formation of a “Master Plan for Integrated Development of Muthurajawela Marshes and Negombo Lagoon”. For this plan, the area was considered as one entity of interdependent ecosystems.

Integrated development stands for a form of planned development, in which economic, social and cultural objectives are combined. It aims at balanced decision making on short-term priorities and long-term benefits.

In coastal regions, where land is becoming an increasingly scarce commodity, “integrated land use planning and resources management” has become one of the most important tools for guiding socio economic development and improvement.

Whereas appropriate sites need to be reserved and planned for the orderly development of industries, ports, offices, shopping malls, schools, housing, etc., the preservation of open space is equally important for nature protection and recreational activities. Open areas need to be maintained at a sufficient size to sustain existing ecological systems.

Therefore integrated coastal land use, as intended in the Muthurajawela region, needs to be planned in a way as to create economic developments zones and nature conservation zones. These should preferably be separated from each other by transition areas, or buffer zones. In the development zones, jobs and national income are created. In the conservation zones existing jobs (fishery) are protected, and natural services and biodiversity are maintained. In the buffer zones development is restricted to uses such as recreation, sports, nature education and research, which have a limited impact on the nature conservation zones, while benefiting from the proximity to the development (urban) zones.


THE FIRST STEP: an environmental profile

In order to decide on how much land to develop and how much to conserve, the minimum land use requirements of the existing flora, fauna and ecosystems need to be determined, Therefore, the first step in land use planning consisted of an elaborate ecological survey (including 32 detailed investigations), an area-wide socio-economic survey, and a survey of development potentials. The first two surveys indicated the constraints, and the third survey the opportunities for development. All information was mapped and consolidated in an Environmental Profile, containing (i) a description of the ecology and the socio-economics of the area, (ii) ongoing changes in the natural environment and their impacts on nature and man, and (iii) an analysis of the significance and impacts of the identified development options.


THE SECOND STEP: a land-use master plan

From the outset it was recognized that land use planning for Muthurajawela, due to its location, history, natural values and opportunities for development, was bound to generate local, regional and even national interests. The planning process was therefore at all stages subjected to consultation with all relevant interest groups, both from the public and private sectors, and including representatives of the local communities.

This exercise led to a set of potential integrated land use plans, the extremes being a plan with minimum conservation (but still sufficient to support the existing ecosystems and their productivity) and maximum development, and vice versa. These plans were presented to all interested parties during a workshop. Intensive discussions led to the selection of a midway scenario.

The resulting zoning plan includes 160ha (2.5% of the continuous wetland area) for development (the Kerawalapitiya Mixed Urban Zone). Another 400ha were allocated as Buffer Zone, only to be developed for uses related to recreation. The areas fringing the wetland were approved for future settlement planning, including relocation. And remainder of the wetland (85%), including Negombo Lagoon, has been designated for nature conservation and natural resources management.


THE THIRD STEP: political authorization

Any plan risks the fate of being shelved, unless higher authorities have a keen interest in its implementation. In the case of Muthurajawela Marshes and Negombo Lagoon, one of the strongest characteristics of the land use planning process was that all authorities were constantly made participants in the discussions and decisions. As a result they are able to recognize their own wishes and priorities in the final plan and consider it part of their own development policy.

The consecutive Governments officially approved the Master Plan and the subsequent detailed development and management plans. This rather unique condition provided the Master Plan with all political authorization for implementation.

The Government has also indicated the key players for the implementation of the Master Plan. The Sri Lanka Land Reclamation and Development Corporation received responsibility to coordinate all activities foreseen for the Mixed Urban Zone and the Buffer Zone. The Department of Wildlife Conservation has been given the task to declare the marsh Conservation Zone as a sanctuary, and to manage it accordingly. The Department of Fisheries is responsible for sustainable management of the aquatic resources in Negombo Lagoon. And the Forest Department has been requested to take care of the Mangroves.

To supervise implementation, a special Muthurajawela Management Committee was established, under the chairmanship of the Secretary, Ministry of Housing, Construction and Public Utilities.

The Central Environmental Authority, through its Wetland Conservation Project, assists the other authorities with advice, studies and funds. Results are reported to the National Wetland Steering Committee, a high-powered National body that serves inter-agency cooperation in wetland management. The experiences in Muthurajawela, being the fist large-scale integrated resource development and management project under implementation, could well serve the conservation of many other important wetlands in Sri Lanka.


The 160 ha of the Mixed Urban Zone were filled with sea sand in 1995. Before the pumping of sand started, to initial activities were completed:

  • Resettlement of some 200 families from the marsh area. All were provided with a plot of 15 perches (375m2) of serviced land (5 perches filled) and money to construct a new house; they charged from legal marsh encroachers into legal land owners. A regional NGO is active in developing the group into a real community;
  • Assessment of environmental impact of the fill with sea sand and of the methodologies used. This EIA was carried out according to the Sri Lankan Environmental Regulations; the results were open to the general public for comments.
Large-scale filling with sand (4.6 million m3 were pumped in) is not the end of development. The land was leveled, a drainage system was put in place, and an approach road was constructed.

Already in an early stage of sand pumping other activities started, such as the preparation of a detailed land use plan for the filled area, and preparation of a strategy to sell the land ( a Business and Marketing Plan ). This business plan was essential, since the Land Reclamation & Development Corporation acquired a loan for a part of the filling costs; which has to be repaid.

Early 1996, the first investors were identified, and soon the Mixed Urban Zone will be the economic heart of the area, providing housing for 9,500-16,500 new residents and permanent employment in industry, warehousing, trade and services for 14,000 - 28,000 new workers.



A buffer zone between urban development and nature conservation can only be effective1 if the activities in the buffer zone itself are economically so strong that they can resist the pressure of expanding urbanization.

In Muthurajawela, this pressure is strong, since there is severe shortage of land for development in the densely populated Western Province.

To integrate the buffer zone’s objective for recreational use with the need for economic sustainability, special detailed land use planning was carried out, based on opportunities identified as being suitable for development. Facilities under consideration or in different stages of planning include an 18 hole international golf course, a zoo (or urban wild life park), a marsh garden (exhibiting typical wetland flora & fauna in its natural environment), a medicinal plants nursery, and an open air sports complex with playing fields.

The results of this land use planning were summarized early 1996 in a preliminary land use map. Implementation of the various activities would generate new employment for some 700 to 900 workers. The impacts on the conservation zone would be kept minimal through imposition of special rules on the use of agro-chemicals and the disposal of wastes.


For the Conservation Zone, the Wetland Conservation Project (WCP) prepared a Conservation Management Plan. Main issues to be addressed in order to safeguard bio diversity and resource productivity were identified, and solutions proposed. They include:

  • For the marsh area, declaration of boundaries and gazetting sanctuary status (both initiated by Department of Wildlife Conservation), and development of nature tourism as a source of funds for the conservation management. For this purpose the Central environmental Authority established a Visitor Centre, which will provide information and excursions to national and international tourists, nature education to children, and a place for studies and community activities;
  • For the lagoon area, restoration of the structure and function of the lagoon-sea connection through management of the sedimentation in the various channels. These are partially blocked due to illegal landfill for settlement expansion.

Investigations are being carried out to facilitate the design of appropriate dredging measures, and the boundaries of the channels are being demarcated in a collective action of the Divisional Secretary of Negombo and the organized fishermen; official boundaries are a condition of effective prevention of further encroachment.


Fishermen, even the poorest among them, are individual businessmen. Organizations of fisherman, therefore, limit their activities to collective procurement of goods and to organization of marketing channels. Involvement in the management of the resource base is a rare feature.

In the Negombo lagoon area, an extensive series of community workshops has yielded that rare feature: sharing of information and due respect to traditional (and proven sustainable) fishing methods contributed to such an extent to the institutional strengthening of the Negombo lagoon Integrated Fishermen Organization, that they are now official discussion partner of the Department of Fisheries in the development and testing of a fisheries management plan for the lagoon.

The fishermen accepted the necessity of such a plan as the basis for sustainable fisheries management. The official authorities accepted fishermen’s representatives (with adequate voting rights) at the decision making level, and both parties agreed on the ban of certain destructive gear and on the need for penalties for braking of the rules.


Essential elements in the Master Plan were the basic consideration that the local people should not be victimized by their development or conservation, and willingness of all involved specialists to share the information with laymen, including the local people’s organizations.

The marsh communities live in abysmal health conditions: twice a year the houses are flooded, stagnant water in the vicinity forms breeding areas for many mosquito species. Improper garbage disposal and the associated rat population have made Laptospirosis an ever-present hazard, while diarrhoea is rampant.

Socio-economic aspects of the Master Plan included the upgrading of houses, and human resources development for the 1,000 households concerned.

Already 200 households from the Southern Marsh at Kerawalapitiya have been relocated to Awarakotuwa, where they receive a plot of flood free land in property, as well as financial assistance for a new house and sanitary facilities.

A similar settlement development schedule for another 100 households is underway. Interventions for upgrading of the remaining 700 households are in the planning stage.

Presently, community based organizations in the area are not protesting against the Master Plan, but they cooperate in all sectors. They have begun to organize training for unemployed youths in order to give them better access to the newly created jobs in the Development Zone. Simultaneously, ongoing activities in the conservation Zone are providing the local people new jobs (guides, boatmen, gardeners, guards). Opportunities for various women’s development programmes (production of handicrafts and herbal products) are being investigated.

THE FUTURE: a value added area

Conservation and development often seem to contradict and they are commonly considered to mutually exclude each other. This is based upon the opinion that, conservation seeks more long-term sustained benefits, whereas development is generally concerned with short-term needs. However, nature itself is not static and follows a dynamic, evolving process of continuous change and development.

Because the changes over time in the natural environment are very slow, we tend to see nature only as it appears to us today, in its present and assumed finite equilibrium, and we want to preserve it in this known state.

We need to understand that nature must continue to change, but, as it always has done, in the aggregate direction of greater diversity and enrichment. As our human interventions are presently reversing this process, conservation should not merely preserve the present state of the environment but rather maintain those conditions in which nature can continue its course of positive evolution.

Basically we exercise two reasons for conservation: an economic reason, demanding that we can continue exploiting nature’s resources, and a cultural, less tangible reason, the preservation of flora, fauna and landscapes.

The planning and implementation process for Muthurajawela Marshes and Negombo Lagoon is a unique example of integration of the objective of development with both objectives for conservation. The process has resulted in former adversaries listening to (and understanding) each other’s opinions and requirements. Developers have strongly screened their plans on regional environmental impact, and nature lovers have accepted the conditions for development. Sustainable resources exploitation and biodiversity conservation go hand-in-hand, with mutual acceptance.

Copyright © 2003 Central Environmental Authourity - Sri Lanka

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