Change of riparian vegetation from upstream to downstream reaches of a tropical river obstructed by a dam: a case study from Sri Lanka.
Construction of dams across rivers is a common practice worldwide. However, obstructing free-flowing rivers could result in many negative impacts on riparian ecosystems, and are highly site-specific. In the present study, we evaluate the potential impacts of river regulation on the riparian vegetation by enumerating the vegetation at different distances from the dam/reservoir complex from upstream to downstream reaches of a tributary of the river Mahaweli in Sri Lanka. The tree-dominated riparian vegetation has been evaluated using belt transects located in the immediate and 8 km away from the reservoir/dam towards both upstream and the downstream of the tributary (US-0, US-8; DS-0, DS-8, respectively). A total of 150 species belonging to 58 families were identified, of which 43% were tree species. Approximately 77% of species were found exclusively in the upstream while 8% were recorded in the downstream. Both canopy and understory layers showed a significant decline in terms of richness, abundance, diversity and stem density from upstream to downstream. Leuceana leucocephala (Lam.) de Wit, an invasive tree species, showed higher relative abundance in downstream reaches, while riparian species such as Terminalia arjuna (Roxb.) Wight & Arn. and Pongamia pinnata (L.) showed no marked decline from upstream to downstream. The conditions triggered by reduced water discharges and severe river bank erosion may have contributed to these changes. The results indicate that the extreme water management practices in storage reservoirs have incurred negative impacts on the composition of the riparian vegetation. Introduction of well-coordinated flow management practices may help to mitigate some of these negative impacts.