Changes in Vegetation Cover and Socio-Economic Transitions in a Coastal Lagoon (Kalametiya, Sri Lanka), As Observed by Teledetection and Ground Truthing, Can be Attributed to an Upstream Irrigation Scheme

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Abstract

According to some non-scholarly reports, Kalametiya lagoon (dry zone of southern Sri Lanka, formerly 8.9 km2, now 7.5 km2) had been a moderately or high salinity water body and a very important centre of prawn fishery until the late 1960s. Most of the lagoon area had remained open water until then. An upstream irrigation project, the Udawalawa irrigation scheme, came into operation in 1967, increasing the freshwater inflow to the lagoon. The flora, fauna and water quality of the lagoon was reported to have changed since then.

The lagoon now is a shallow coastal water body with low salinity water. More than 75% of the lagoon is covered by freshwater species or mangrove species characteristic for water with a low salinity: Eichhornia crassipes, Typha latifolia resp. Sonneratia caseolaris. There is actually no commercially important fishery in the lagoon.

The present study was carried out to assess scientifically the said changes in the vegetation within a GIS, using aerial photographs taken in 1956 and 1994 and IRS IC, PAN+LISS III satellite images of 1997 in combination with ground surveys and information from a questionnaire-based survey.

It appeared from this work that the aerial cover by Sonneratia caseolaris has increased by more than 30 times over the period from 1956 to the recent dates. Also, the lagoon area with open water has been drastically reduced during the same period as a result of spreading of freshwater and low salinity plant species. The results strongly suggest that the locally reported changes (fisheries decline, water salinity decrease) can be corroborated by the observed profound changes in plant cover and that upstream water works may have had strong impacts on this ecosystem, thus causing these changes.

This study couples data obtained from retrospective aerial photograph series, from spaceborne imaging, from actual ground surveys and from questionnaires amongst elderly people to reconstruct decadal environmental change, thus attempting to fill the gap of lacking historical environmental data.