Urban wetlands are critical yet among the most threatened ecological features in an urbanizing landscape. Yet, despite the fact that many large urban agglomerates in the world are ecologically dependent on wetlands, urban wetland governance remains an understudied area of research, globally. This thesis investigates the causes and consequences of the ecological transformation process of urban wetland ecosystems in the fast expanding South Asian cities of Colombo (Sri Lanka) and Kolkata (India) through a combined analysis of ecological histories, governance trajectories and social struggles.
The thesis begins with a comparative analysis of urban wetland policy in four critical cases: New York (USA), Kolkata, Yatsuhigata – Tokyo Bay (Japan), and Colombo - in order to develop a globally applicable framework for empirically understanding specific urban wetland governance systems. Following this, the Colombo case is interrogated more closely using spatial, social and ecological data in order to investigate and conceptually model the process of wetland ecological transformation. These results are then applied to analyse the social consequences of ecological and governance transformations in the urban wetlands systems of Colombo and Kolkata. Finally, the outcomes of these empirical studies are combined to critically assess the current framework of management guidelines and policy directives under the “Ramsar Convention on Wetlands”.
Overall, the thesis makes an original contribution to the theory and practice of urban wetland governance through comparative analysis of ecological transformations, existing governance systems and international policy directives. This provides a critical insight into urban wetland governance in the globalizing developing country cities across different analytical scales, including the broader political-economy, the policy subsystem level and the ecological system level.
The main conclusions of the thesis are : 1) urban wetland governance systems are shaped by social and ecological idiosyncrasies that are not well addressed by international environmental policy directives; 2) the historical drivers of wetland transformation are far beyond the realm of environmental policy; 3) the heterogeneous anthropogenic pressures in urban landscapes are combined by hydro-soil-vegetation nexus in wetlands to produce hybrid ecosystems; 4) these ecological transformations disproportionately impact the marginalized urban communities; thus 5) the struggles for environmental justice are more decisive than normative conservation policy reform in urban wetland governance. The thesis categorically emphasizes the need to strengthen community-level collective action in urban wetland management and maintain diverse wetland use. It also suggests specific technical and strategic changes that will improve the efficacy of the Ramsar framework of wetland management guidelines and policy directives.