Kusum Athukorala on engaging communities and building flood resilience

Flooding in Sri Lanka
Kusum Athukorala

AGE 66

HOME Colombo, Sri Lanka

CAUSE Kusum Athukorala is known internationally for her work at the intersection of gender and water issues. She is the recipient of the International Water Association’s International Women in Water Award and a Zonta Woman of Achievement Award for her environmental work. A former academic, she has extensive experience in growing and strengthening local, national, and international organizations focused on water management. Today, she promotes women and youth as catalysts for change and supports community engagement for integrated water management.

As climate change intensifies, flooding is increasingly threatening communities, livelihoods, and economies. Has this shifted your perspective on floods?

Dramatically. My native home is very close to a major river in Sri Lanka. Flooding was an annual event. But now, places that used to get inundated mildly are inundated heavily. All this increased flooding has gone hand in hand with the filling in of wetlands. Pair that with climate change, and we are having “100-year floods” sometimes twice a year.

You recently co-led a training on a WWF guide to natural and nature-based flood management. What role does nature play in flood resilience?

In Sri Lanka, our wetlands are sponges. If wetlands could be preserved, it would help communities and also help the economy, because every flood comes with a major cost. We’ve been told that to stop flooding we have to use hard engineering. People default to hard structural solutions [such as dams or levees]. But structures can fail.

You have been recognized as a leader in advocating for women and youth in the water policy field. What led you to this focus?

It started with my work on irrigation systems. When I went into the field as a researcher, I found that a lot of [irrigation] work being done by women is unrecorded and unregistered. I also found that men and women irrigated differently— women tended to share water more. The more I looked at situations where water security is threatened, the more I started [to feel] that it is important to engage both men and women, because they have different roles in the water sector.

Successful and sustainable water management hinges on engaging communities. How do you amplify local voices?

Too much planning is done at a high level. Communities have to understand what is happening and what the impact on them will be. With nature-based solutions, you often do community engagement at a very early stage, and that is important. Community engagement is an interactive, two-way process. I start with an open mind and listen.

Bati Malicha on her family’s farm in Lake Naivasha, Kenya. Her mother received training on drip irrigation through WWF.

Explore More

World Wildlife magazine provides an inspiring, in-depth look at the connections between animals, people and our planet. Published quarterly by WWF, the magazine helps make you a part of our efforts to solve some of the most pressing issues facing the natural world.

View all issues