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Colombo, Sri Lanka: an urban ecosystem deeply connected to its rural roots

The rural-urban linkages between Colombo and the Sri Lankan countryside enable an inclusive, sustainable circular economy.

Photo of Felix Thiel

Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

International Water Management Institute (IWMI)

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Researcher Institution

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

Ananta Sustainable (small company), KIKU (small company), The Soup Bowl (charity), Robin Hood Army Sri Lanka (NGO)

Website of Legally Registered Entity

www.iwmi.cgiar.org

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 1-3 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Colombo

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

Sri Lanka

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Colombo

What country is your selected Place located in?

Sri Lanka

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

All of our core team members live and work in Colombo, or its adjacent suburbs. We are a mix of non-Sri Lankans -- one of whom whom grew up here, another of whose child was born here -- and Sri Lankans, who were born and raised on the island. One of us started a sustainable packaging business and initiated a popular dialogue series about waste in Colombo. Two of us run two separate NGOs that rescue and redistribute food within the city. One of us runs a cafe that dreams of fostering community and starting an urban garden. Several of us are researchers, passionate about sustainable development and specialising in resource recovery and reuse, circular economies and digital innovations. We’re all united by a steadfast belief in the potential for Colombo to have a sustainable, healthy, ethical, inclusive food future, a conviction in human-centered, community-based approaches to development and the passion and drive to work toward our shared Vision. The legal entity under which we are submitting our Vision is the International Water Management Institute (IWMI). IWMI is a nonprofit research-for-development organisation that aims to promote food security, climate resilience and inclusive growth through innovative water solutions. Founded in 1984, IWMI was first located in Kandy, part of Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle, before locating to Colombo. IWMI has been working in close partnership with the Sri Lankan government, civil society and the private sector since then, conducting extensive research into Colombo’s food system over the past 35 years. It is also the only international organisation headquartered in Sri Lanka.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Sri Lanka has long been called the "pearl of the Indian Ocean" and the "teardrop of India." To British colonizers, it was "Ceylon," later changed to the "Free, Sovereign and Independent Republic of Sri Lanka" and now officially "The Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka." In Sinhala, "Sri" means "honorable" and "Lanka" means "island." To 21 million Sri Lankans, it is simply home. Sri Lanka is a tropical island nation of multitudes. Steeped in thousands of years of history, it has endured the imperial conquests of the Indians, Portuguese, Dutch and British, boasted an island-wide system of ancient irrigation tanks and nurtured the sapling of a tree under which Gautama Buddha is said to have achieved enlightenment. Lining the island are 830 miles of sandy, palm-shaded beaches, while misty, mountainous regions loom over the center. Toward the north sits a dry zone and natural parks — teeming with elephants, leopards and peacocks — and eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites are sprinkled throughout. Colombo, a sprawling urban hub on the western coast, is the capital of Sri Lanka and the Place of our Vision. It serves as the bustling, noisy economic heart of the island with tuk-tuks, stray dogs and hopper stands aplenty. Unlike the vast majority of Sri Lanka, Colombo is multi-religious, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural. Its residents are Sinhalese (37%), Sri Lankan Tamils (30%), Sri Lankan Moor (29%) and Sri Lankan Chinese, Portuguese Burgher, Dutch Burgher, Malay and Indian, as well as European and American expatriates. Ethnic conflict has played a large role in the last fifty years of Sri Lanka's history, as a brutal civil war against the Tamil Tigers tore the country apart and claimed over 150,000 lives. More recently, religion has fueled conflict in the lead-up and wake of the Easter bombings. Around 70% of the population is Buddhist, 13% is Hindu, 10% is Muslim and 7% is Christian. Sri Lankans are friendly, family-oriented and optimistic. Spending time with others and sharing are important cultural values; and many bond over food. Agricultural products grown by farmers in rural areas generally funnel into the growing capital, with staples like hoppers, rice and curry and sambol symbolizing national cuisine. Almost every meal incorporates coconut in some form and is shared between friends and family. Despite the great variety of Sri Lankan food, however, Colombo is a hotspot for food insecurity. The sole fact that rice serves as the main source of protein in Sri Lanka indicates the country’s nutritional challenges. Climate change and urbanization will only further threaten agriculture, food security and nutritional outcomes in Sri Lanka over time. Residents — especially youth — of Colombo are increasingly aware of and interested in its food system challenges, from food waste to urban food production. Many local startups and NGOs exist to tackle these challenges, while international research and development organizations provide support.

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)

40

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?

700000

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

Colombo, Sri Lanka is at a turning point. Having recently graduated to an upper-middle income country — despite the substantial impediments of colonization, civil war, terrorist attacks and political strife —, the story of Sri Lanka, in many regards, embodies resilience and progress. Now, new challenges face Sri Lanka as a nation and Colombo specifically, calling for new forms of adaptation and resilience. Climate change is one such environmental challenge. We write this Vision during what used to be the dry season in Colombo — while the torrential downpour outside is identical to that of the monsoon. The Climate Risk Index recently ranked Sri Lanka as #2 of the 176 countries most at risk of extreme weather events, which have profound impacts on every part of society. Farmers who plant too early or too late in the season risk their entire crop failing. This results in a less stable food supply for Colombo, which produces virtually none of its own food. A vendor at Pettah wholesale market in Colombo described how rainy days spoil his produce, so more variable weather patterns will result in more food waste and less income for vendors. Floods and droughts may also irrevocably harm ecosystems, whose services underpin agriculture and a healthy food system. While the impacts of climate change are already being felt in Colombo, they will only worsen in the future. In the words of Anil Dissanayake, Secretary of the Ministry of the Environment, “Sri Lanka’s per capita emissions are negligible but climate change is severe for tropical islands like us.” Another challenge for Colombo’s food system is nutrition and diet. Out of the entire island nation, the residents of Colombo are most vulnerable for food insecurity, with near ubiquitous malnutrition of the poor. The primary food system challenge posed by culture concerns waste. For some Sri Lankans, having excess food after a meal is a sign of status. Rice is cooked fresh every day, so leftovers tend to be thrown away without a second thought. Hotels (small food stalls on nearly every street) give the same portion size to laborers and office workers, despite their differing caloric needs, in order to be respectful and fair. As a result, a lot of prepared food is wasted daily in Colombo due to cultural reasons. Although there is huge potential for technology to improve Colombo’s food system, it does not at the moment for several reasons, including technological accessibility and digital literacy. For example, only 45% of Sri Lanka’s urban population uses the Internet and only 63% of the entire population owns a mobile phone. Nevertheless, some startups are beginning to explore the potential for agricultural sensors and Internet of Things. Advances in energy and transportation technologies will also help, as transportation currently causes a 30% loss of produce before it even reaches consumers.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

Our Vision reflects our belief that Colombo — as a city and as a community — is capable of overcoming the many challenges facing it. First of all, we mentioned that climate change poses a major threat to agriculture, food security and nutrition on the island. Our Vision proposes mitigation and adaptation strategies, such as replenishing soil health to buffer extreme weather events, growing more indigenous fruits and vegetables and eating foods that are in season. We also mentioned urbanization, compounded by the fact that Colombo currently produces almost none of its own food. Although the population and size of Colombo will expand rapidly, the preservation of wetlands and creation of other green spaces will help combat the urban heat island effect. Their ecosystem services will also help boost the incomes of the most vulnerable people in urban society, creating additional sources of livelihood. Urban farming, whether contained or grown in rooftop gardens, will help sustain urban dwellers and diversify their diets. As for the challenges of waste, our Vision of Colombo’s circulatory zero-waste system involves turning the food value chain into a closed loop to ensure maximum efficiency of the system. We will achieve this through implementing and upscaling composting plants and wastewater and sewage treatment plants, which will promote resource recovery and reuse. Present day distribution centers, like the famous Manning Market, will serve as resource recovery hubs of rural-urban exchange where farmers can bring their produce and collect organic fertilizer derived from urban waste. Barriers to the use of technology in Colombo’s food system include accessibility, digital literacy, lack of technical infrastructure and difficult conditions for automation. For these reasons, our Vision includes a Living Lab and accelerator/incubator service in Colombo that helps young entrepreneurs to validate their agtech ideas, refine their business plan and improve their tech skills, mapping capacity with demand throughout the food value chain. One possible digital innovation could include an AI-driven system that optimizes the allocation of resources to improve the efficiency of the food value chain.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

As a thriving circular economy, Colombo, Sri Lanka has overcome many challenges. By 2050, Colombo and its current peri-urban surroundings have agglomerated into a massive urban city the size of Sri Lanka’s entire Western province. Its agricultural sector has successfully adapted to climate change and its related shocks. Organic matter and fertilizer, mostly derived from the urban center, are being applied according to crop- and soil-specific needs across the island. Colombo is a major supplier to the agricultural sector by reusing all resources, formerly considered waste, from which nutrients are recovered through the latest technology and methods. Wastewater and organic wastes are being processed and delivered back to the countryside. By requiring all buildings to be equipped with rooftop gardens and resource recycling units, Colombo itself has become a major producer of fresh leafy vegetables. These green spaces also help to reduce the urban heat island effect, keeping Colombo cool despite occasional heat waves. The newly planted trees and shrubs as well as the maintained wetlands throughout the city provide income especially for the poor, as they are all being utilised for smallholder food services by law. Contamination of urban food sources is no longer of concern as the nation became one of the first shifting entirely to electric transport, purely sourced from renewable energies. Improved infrastructure and logistic systems supported by digital innovations increases the overall efficiency of the food system every year, linking rural and urban resources, services and people. As a result, farmers can focus on growing high-quality, organic products rather than on massive overproduction and planting a wider variety of crops than in the past. This is extremely beneficial, especially to former vulnerable groups like female-headed households and ethnic minorities.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Thanks to the tireless efforts of dedicated farmers, activists, researchers, business owners, government officials and more, Colombo has transformed into the beating heart of Sri Lanka’s Island-wide circular Economy.

Over the past thirty years, a food movement ignited and swept across the Island, propelled by millions of residents united by the dream of a regenerative, nourishing food future for all. Although faced by many challenges, they treated every obstacle as a catalyst for action, taking the words of Mr. Anura Dissanayake, Secretary, Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment, to heart: “Contribute with your fullest capacity to our people and environment.” Now, in 2050, Sri Lanka serves as the world’s prime example of a zero waste, zero hunger society. Post harvest losses, sky-high food mileage, soup kitchens and untreated wastewater are relics of the unmourned past — preserved only in the memories of elders and school curriculums, so future generations don’t make the same mistakes that we once did.


How did this transformation come about? It all started with the 2019 Global Climate Risk Index, which ranked Sri Lanka #2 on its list of countries most at-risk of climate change. The news spread like wildfire, as people felt foreboding settle into their hearts. What would happen to the Island? What would happen to our Culture? Climate projections revealed that sea level rise did not discriminate when swallowing up religious sites and touristy beaches alike. Extreme weather events were predicted to plague rural areas, home to some of Sri Lanka’s most vulnerable communities; and changes in precipitation and temperature seemed like they would erase endemic species from the Island one by one. In order to cope with the news, people came together. The initial fears and grief eventually transformed into a resolve to protect the Island’s Environment and Culture through innovations in Technology and Policy, changes in Diet and Economic development. Residents and researchers worked together on community-led projects to develop new strategies for climate change adaptation — innovations which laid the foundation of the Colombo that we know and love today.


What does our food system look like, a full thirty years after the Global Climate Risk Index’s dire predictions? Let’s see. Whereas Colombo once sourced nearly all of its food from other parts of the country, it is now capable of supplying the majority of its population with fresh fruits and vegetables — half of Sri Lanka’s entire population. Ever since a new Policy required buildings to meet certain self-sustainability codes, apartment buildings, office buildings, hotels and more have launched countless home and rooftop gardens across the city. Some especially industrious individuals even pioneered the way with hydroponic vertical farming. The government further encouraged urban agriculture by providing space for community gardens and planting perennials across the city. These edible green spaces have not only reduced food mileage and improved Colombo’s resilience to external shocks, but also mitigated the urban heat island effect. A second Policy, which stemmed from the Asian Development Bank and United Nations Development Programme’s 2017 “Assessment of Sri Lanka’s Power Sector,” called for a transition to 100% renewable energy by 2050. Now only electric vehicles cruise the streets of Colombo, which reduces air pollution and the contamination of urban gardens. A third Policy, which passed with unprecedented support, combined the ancient Sri Lankan tradition of “ambalamas” (rest stops where travelers and traders exchanged not only goods, but also ideas and information) with an AI-driven advisory app that disseminates market data and optimizes food flows within the system. Offline, urban dwellers promote a sharing economy while socializing and trading their fresh produce at ambalamas; while online, they share data, learn about best growing practices, access market data and receive recommendations on what crops to grow at a given time. In this way, the revival of traditional knowledge and the integration of new Technologies led to the rise of community-supported agriculture in Colombo.


It is a success in itself that Colombo is now an agricultural hub with incentivized farming. An even bigger success, however, is the fact that Colombo’s resident farmers practice climate-smart agriculture. For example, one of the topics that was researched extensively by community science initiatives was how Sri Lanka’s agriculture could mitigate and adapt to extreme weather events. In response, farmers have learned to diversify their crops (especially with indigenous fruits and vegetables) and adopt regenerative farming practices to replenish soil health, since it acts as a buffer for climate-related hazards. Similarly, weather forecasting systems and index-based insurance — powered by engaging, accessible Technologies, such as smartphones, remote sensing and on-farm sensors — now help farmers to prepare for and recover from floods and droughts. Lastly, the government, recognizing that climate change has the worst effects on women and those who are resource-poor, passed the Colombo Wetland Protection Act. Since wetlands’ ecosystem services boost the incomes of the city’s most vulnerable people, the Act not only helped them afford nutritious food for their families, but also preserved the Environment across the region despite rapid urbanization.


Furthermore, now that everyone in Colombo has greater engagement with the food value chain, the public perception of farmers has changed drastically. Farmers used to be well-respected in Sri Lankan society. There was an old saying “

ඔබ ඔබේ පාදවලින් මඩ සෝදා ගන්නා විට ගොවියෙකු පවා රජෙකු වීමට සුදුසුය” or, “When you wash the mud off your feet, even a farmer is worthy of being a King.” The appreciation for farmers was lost over the course of colonization — first by the Portuguese, then the Dutch, then the British — and the Green Revolution, when farmers were told to forget their traditional knowledge and focus solely on yield, thus developing a dependency on many chemicals and pesticides. As a result, many farmers struggled with a poverty mindset. They were unable to consider the long-term, global consequences of their farming practices because they needed to focus on growing enough to survive. Thankfully, Sri Lanka’s food movement has lifted many farmers out of poverty through certifications and restored their status as people who are independent, knowledgeable and life-giving. They now have more agency over setting price points, for instance, and even encourage their own children to pursue a future on the land. As a recent newspaper headline proudly stated, “In Sri Lanka, Farmer Is King Once More!”

The residents of Colombo’s greater engagement with the food value chain also led to more educated consumer choices regarding Diet. Suddenly, it was common for teenagers to ask one another, “Who grew your gotukola?” just like they asked where someone bought their shirt. With so many consumers paying attention to the quality of their food, the food system adapted accordingly. Wholesale markets like Manning Market flourished, despite historical concerns that they would be out-competed by supermarkets. Many scientists threw their energy into producing lab-grown meat; while Colombo’s top chefs developed recipes that maintained Sri Lankan Culture while promoting seasonal eating and nutrition and combatting past fixations on fast food. In order to encourage these innovations, Colombo boasts a variety of living lab, accelerator and incubator services that help entrepreneurs to validate their agritech ideas, refine their business plans and improve their tech skills, mapping their capacity with the needs across the food value chain.


Perhaps the cornerstone of Colombo’s circular Economy is resource recovery and reuse, which happens across all scales in the city. At the micro-level, buildings generate their own power through solar panels, biogas plants and thermal energy; farms apply regenerative principles; retailers package their produce in woven baskets instead of plastic sacks; and consumers know to use pineapple leaves for fiber and pumpkin powder for soups. At the macro-level, resource recovery hubs are dynamic sites of rural-urban exchange where farmers bring their produce and collect organic fertilizer derived from urban waste, enriching their land and — more importantly — enabling the reclamation of land that had been lost during the time of reckless monoculture practices. Due to these improvements in resource allocation, the countryside is flourishing as well. Colombo thus evolved from the dead end of a production line into a cradle of resources, circumventing the tremendous pressures that urbanization normally places on the rural-urban flows of goods, people, information, finance, waste and information.  As we strived for a self-sufficient Island, adopting human-centered approaches and carefully managing our natural resources, we learned the critical lesson that neither the urban nor the rural regions can survive without the other.


As you can imagine, it has been quite a journey for Colombo. In the past hundred years, Sri Lanka has experienced colonialism, civil war, a constitutional coup, terror attacks, a devastating tsunami, and severe effects of climate change. Despite this, however, we have managed to become a world leader in cultivating a sustainable, equitable, healthy food system. Above, we described our food system in terms of what it looks like — but the most important thing we want you to understand is why we believe in it. This food system reflects our values. 


Looking toward the future, our greatest hope is that we can inspire and support other communities around the world to co-design food systems that works for them. We would be honored to contribute to a global Vision of regenerative, nourishing food futures for all!

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This is great work Felix .... Will contact you via email ... Cheers ..

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