December 2015

Stunning vistas, pressing threats
December 2015

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is an integral part of SriLankan Airlines' Planet Friendly campaign, guiding the airline in its endeavour to conserve the environment.

By Dr Sriyanie Miththapala

Sri Lanka means resplendent island, and resplendent it is, blessed with a rich diversity of coastal ecosystems
and habitats along its coastline of 1,620 kilometres.

Scattered along the coast are its famous golden beaches, bordering turquoise coastal waters. These waters form the marine and coastal zone. Indented along the coastline and shielded by stable headlands are bays. Also tucked into the coastline are many lagoons and estuaries, which are usually brackish and shallow water bodies. Fringing these are the tangled roots of mangrove habitats. Underneath the water, in lagoons, estuaries and in shallow coastal waters, are meadows of marine flowering plants - seagrasses. Also found in these areas and scattered disjointedly along the coast, are tidal flats, where mud is deposited either from river runoff, or from tidal inflow. On land, along beaches in inter-tidal regions, are large accumulations of sand - sand dunes - distinct from other ecosystems. In shallow coastal waters there are coral reefs, areas of such rich diversity and productivity that they are dubbed ‘the rainforests of the sea'.

These coastal ecosystems and habitats harbour a wealth of species. Some 29 marine mammals make their home in Sri Lanka's coastal waters, including the charismatic Blue whale and Sperm whale, the acrobatic Spinner dolphin, and the elusive Dugong, the latter now confined to the Gulf of Mannar. Also found in these coastal waters are five of the seven species of marine turtles found worldwide: Green turtles, Leatherbacks, Hawksbills, Olive Ridleys and Loggerheads. Within the coral reefs of Sri Lanka are some 900 species of reef fish, about 200 species of hard corals and a multitude of weirdly wonderful invertebrates. In mangrove habitats are many species uniquely adapted to the ebb and flow of the tides. There are 15 species of seagrasses recorded in Sri Lanka, sheltering and housing within their three-dimensional structure thousands of other species - micro-organisms, algae, invertebrates and vertebrates. Tidal flats, apparently barren stretches of mud, are, in reality, teeming with life, supporting an abundance of invertebrates that, in turn, serve as food for a wealth of shore birds and water birds. Migrant birds arriving in Sri Lanka during late August use these tidal flats as stopovers or feeding sites.

Apart from supporting such a wealth of species, these coastal areas provide us humans with a range of services vital to human well-being. These highly productive systems provide us with food. Mangroves, seagrasses and tidal flats provide refuge to the juveniles of many commercially important finfish and shellfish. Income from fisheries from lagoons and estuaries is estimated to be nearly 40 million US dollars. Mangroves also supply us with fuelwood, medicines, fibre and non-timber forest products.

Coral reefs, sand dunes, mangroves, lagoons and estuaries function as physical barriers and buffers to retard the force of waves and wind energy generated during extreme coastal weather events. Lagoons, estuaries, mangroves and tidal flats function as gigantic sponges to absorb and slowly release excess flood water. The roots of mangroves, the mat of submerged leaves in seagrass meadows, and the mud particles in tidal flats trap and filter out pollutants washed to coastal areas from inland.

The natural action of waves breaks pieces of calcified coral and these are washed up on to beaches. Through the process of natural physical breakdown, these larger pieces are broken into smaller pieces and eventually become part of the rubble, building these beaches. Corals, therefore, contribute, in part, to the process of accretion - which is the opposite process of erosion. Mangrove roots also trap soil particles and contribute to accretion.

Decaying organic matter from several of these coastal ecosystems and habitats is washed away to the sea. This serves to enrich coastal food webs, and with it, coastal fishery production.

Global warming has been triggered by excessive emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and has detrimental impacts. Like forests on land, which are capable of absorbing this atmospheric carbon, functioning as carbon sinks, seagrass meadows, mangroves and tidal flats also absorb carbon. In addition, coastal ecosystems and habitats have an important aesthetic and recreational value: beaches and other coastal areas are important destinations for tourists - both local and foreign. Rarely does a visitor come to Sri Lanka and not visit
the coast.

Despite the unparalleled beauty of these coastal vistas and their immense and varied value to human well-being, these exquisite areas in Sri Lanka are also besieged by a range of human-induced threats. The coastal area of Sri Lanka represents about 24 per cent of the island's land area and is home to a quarter of Sri Lanka's population. Here, on the coast, there is rapid urbanization. Over 60 per cent of the industrial units of Sri Lanka are found in coastal areas too. In addition, dotting the coastline are ports, numerous fisheries harbours and even more numerous fish landing sites. In part of the coastal waters around Sri Lanka, there is ongoing oil exploration. There are also existing and proposed coal power plants.

Adding to all the above, is the rapid expansion of tourism. A plan of focused development of certain tourism zones is being implemented and five out of seven of these zones lie in coastal areas.

With all these sectors vying for limited space, and a quarter of the island's population living within this area, there is rampant habitat loss. Many coastal ecosystems and habitats are threatened by encroachment for housing, clearing for salt production, shrimp culture and agricultural expansion, with the result that they are often reclaimed, dredged and filled. Mangroves are bulldozed, sand dunes are levelled and seagrass meadows are cleared.

Over-exploitation is also an issue. In the last 50 years, the demand for fish has doubled. Because coral reefs are within the reach of small boats, they are especially vulnerable to over-fishing.

Reef fish are also exploited for the marine aquarium trade. Other species - such as Sacred Chanks for use as religious talismans, sea cucumbers for traditional medicine and food, corals and seashells as ornaments - are also at risk from over-exploitation.

Over-visitation is a form of over-use. After a media blitz that promoted whale watching in Sri Lanka, the number of boats and visitors has been steadily increasing. Although whale-watching guidelines have been formulated, these are often not heeded, with the net result that a whale is often surrounded by boats.

Pollution - from both inland and nearby sources - has a profoundly negative impact on coastal ecosystems and habitats. The coastal region in Sri Lanka as a whole has been increasingly subject to pollution during the last few decades.

Sedimentation - from erosion inland - chokes the life out of these coastal ecosystems and habitats. In contrast, extraction of river sand from inland decreases sedimentation, with the result that coastal ecosystems and habitats are eroding.

All this is overlaid with the overarching threat of climate change, which will increase the frequency and intensity of natural disasters such as floods and cyclones, increase sea levels and change weather patterns.

Sri Lanka, therefore is facing a conundrum related to its beautiful coastline. On the one hand, its coastal ecosystems and habitats amaze the senses and provide services essential to human well-being. On the other, there is a multitude of human-induced threats in these areas that are damaging and destroying the very attributes that make the coastline attractive and useful.

The challenge for Sri Lanka is to meet the pressing needs of development, while maintaining the beauty of the coast and its tangible value to human well-being. There are obvious options to achieve this balance, such as better implementation of laws; and a more holistic approach to coastal management, that brings together all relevant sectors and which includes inland management as part of coastal management.

This article highlights the coast conservation efforts of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) under the aegis of its regional initiative, Mangroves for the Future (MFF).

Mangroves for the Future (MFF) is a unique partner-led initiative to promote investment in coastal ecosystem conservation for sustainable development. Co-chaired by IUCN and UNDP, MFF provides a platform for collaboration among the many different agencies, sectors and countries which are addressing challenges to coastal ecosystem and livelihood issues. The goal is to promote an integrated ocean-wide approach to coastal management and to building the resilience of ecosystem-dependent coastal communities.

MFF builds on a history of coastal management interventions before and after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. It focused initially on the countries that were worst affected by the tsunami – India, Indonesia, Maldives, Seychelles, Sri Lanka and Thailand. More recently it has expanded to include Bangladesh, Cambodia, Myanmar, Pakistan and Vietnam.

Mangroves are the flagship of the initiative, but MFF is inclusive of all types of coastal ecosystem, such as coral reefs, estuaries, lagoons, sandy beaches, seagrasses and wetlands.

The MFF grants facility offers small, medium and regional grants to support initiatives that provide practical, hands-on demonstrations of effective coastal management in action. Each country manages its own MFF programme through a National Coordinating Body which includes representation from government, NGOs and the private sector.

In Sri Lanka, the MFF’s national secretariat is hosted by IUCN..

Eighty-two projects, carried out at the local level, have been implemented in the last five years by MFF extending along various parts of Sri Lanka's coast. These projects focus on three thematic areas: the creation of conservation awareness and capacity building, livelihoods enhancement and research.

As an example, in Kalpitiya, raising awareness about the Bar Reef Marine Sanctuary was carried out for fisheries cooperative societies, government officials and hotels owners, resulting in an association of boat owners and self-regulation within communities.

At the national level, MFF convenes workshops that view coastal ecosystems as complex social-ecological-political systems, and discusses with all stakeholders and a range of experts concrete steps for the future of Sri Lanka's coast.

Small grants for livelihoods enhancement have resulted in additional income for communities, sometimes increasing their purchasing power by 50 per cent.

Research into mangroves, seagrasses and ground water quality has provided sound science-based knowledge on which sound management decisions can be made.

In addition, MFF projects have had unexpected, snowballing effects. Firstly, these grants have served as a springboard for the extension of the reach of the original project. The second unexpected benefit from these small grants is that other partners became interested, wanting to be involved. The third benefit is the slow and steady accumulation of scientific knowledge that will serve as a baseline for sound decision-making.

This article highlights one organisation's approach to deal with Sri Lanka's coastal conundrum. However, ultimately, the future of Sri Lanka's beautiful coast lies with each one of us. It is the responsibility of each individual to play an active role in conserving these scenic and life-sustaining ecosystems and habitats.