Agriculture, wetlands and waterbirds

Agricultural Development and Impacts on Wetlands: Trade-offs for Waterbird Conservation in Sri Lanka

March 2006 – December 2011

Investigators: Mariagrazia Bellio, Richard Kingsford, Sarath Kotagama

Partners: Australian Wetlands and Rivers Centre (Sydney), International Water Management Institute (Colombo), Department of Zoology University of Colombo, Department of Wildlife and Conservation (Colombo).

Worldwide agricultural intensification and unsustainable use of water resources are the most important threats to wetland habitats. Agricultural development and wetland conservation have often been portrayed as direct trade-offs between human need for food versus conservation, however there is increasing global understanding that human well being and environmental sustainability are intrinsically interconnected. Wetlands provide important ecosystem services and loss of biodiversity affects human well being as well as ecosystem health.

Many conflicts and clashes between water resource management and sustainability of wetlands and their dependent biota occur in developing countries with relatively little discussion about the long-term impacts because of the pressures of supplying food, water and clothing to burgeoning human populations. Also, unlike many developed countries of the world, there is relatively little investment in the collection or understanding of the ecology of wetlands or their interaction with anthropogenic threats.

This project aims to understand and describe the interaction between agricultural development and conservation of waterbird biodiversity and wetland habitat on a system of natural coastal brackish lagoons (one of the three more important Ramsar sites) potentially degraded by recent expansion and development of agriculture, in the developing country of Sri Lanka.

Waterbirds depend on wetlands for most of their life cycle and there is a real urgency for waterbird conservation action in the Asia-Pacific region where currently 71% of waterbird populations are declining.

This project has two main core research questions on potential loss of waterbird biodiversity and its relationship on ecosystem function for the wetlands of the study area.

  • to determine whether natural wetland ecosystems affected by anthropogenic impacts can maintain functional properties and processes comparable to non impacted systems;
  • and to find out whether artificial wetland systems can function as surrogates for degraded or destroyed natural wetland systems.

The identification of key functional processes necessary to maintain the ecological function of the Ramsar wetlands will provide directions to reverse/ minimize detrimental anthropogenic impacts and to sustainably manage water resources for food production and ecosystem services of wetlands for humans in the developing country of Sri Lanka.


Bellio, M.G., Kingsford, R., Kotagama, S.W. 2009. Natural versus artificial wetlands and their waterbirds in Sri Lanka.Biological Conservation 142(12):3076-3085. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2009.08.007


For further information contact Mariagrazia Bellio at


Research Program: 
Research Themes: 
Rivers and Wetlands
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