Wetlands are nature's shock absorbers, but India is losing them at an alarming rate
India has lost nearly two of every five wetlands in the last 30 years -- a shocking statistic in the backdrop of our pride in taking the tally of Ramsar sites to 75 after 75 years of Independence
Commemorating 50 years of Project Tiger, Prime Minister Narendra Modi asserted, "Our future is safe when nature is safe. It is the responsibility of our entire nation. Biodiversity conservation is not the job of one country, but a universal issue." The United Nations asserts that wetlands are ecosystems where water is the primary factor controlling the environment and associated plant and animal life. A broad definition of wetlands includes freshwater, marine and coastal ecosystems such as lakes and rivers, underground aquifers, swamps and marshes. Wet grasslands, peat lands, oases, estuaries, deltas and tidal flats, mangroves and coral reefs are also classified as wetlands. In fact, both wetlands and grasslands, despite their important ecological functions, are categorised as ‘wastelands’ in land-use policies. Thus, wetland conservation remains non-prioritised and grassland ecosystems are bypassed in conservation.
According to data available, India has lost nearly two of every five wetlands to subsidence in the last 30 years -- a shocking statistic in the backdrop of our pride in taking the tally of Ramsar sites to 75 after 75 years of Independence. India had promulgated one of the strongest wetland conservation laws under the Environment Protection Act, 1986, revised and upgraded as the Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2017. Under this stringent law, the Union ministry is supposed to identify, delineate and conserve all our wetlands. Rampant urbanisation has taken its toll on wetlands. This year’s Ramsar conference has put special emphasis on protecting small wetlands that persist in rapidly altering landscapes since they are home to threatened species and perform vital ecological functions.
Ecological importance and environmental protection have taken a backseat as far as protecting wetlands in India is concerned. Local wetlands have always been part of India’s socio-economic and cultural life. But that relationship has now gone awry. Wetlands manage the runoff during the onset of monsoon, nurture a microclimate around them and help maintain ambient temperatures. Catchments of wetlands deserve more environmental protection than the water bodies themselves. The current practice of wetlands being enveloped by urban jungles and multi-storey apartments in many metros does not augur well for our future – Bengaluru, Kolkata being stark examples. Even water bodies channelled to wetlands have been illegally encroached upon by promoters to develop their projects.
Ecologically a wetland is like a sponge absorbing water. During monsoons, when the water table comes up, the soil gets submerged. Thus, wetlands have a pivotal role in sustainable development and oxygenation. While defining the boundary of a wetland, experts always consider local hydrology and the nature of land use. So, Sagar Lakes in Shivpuri (Madhya Pradesh) and Sunderbans in West Bengal are different in terms of ecological conservation.
Many state governments do not actively issue notifications of wetlands as it might open a Pandora’s box. Notification leads to the delineation of boundaries of wetlands besides regulating activities in and around them. People connected to wetlands for their livelihoods like farmers and fishermen are affected most. Being crucial vote banks, political leaders of all hues create hurdles in demarcating boundaries or monitoring activities around wetlands. Besides, land sharks are always on the prowl, trying to capitalise on these water bodies and encroaching upon them.
Environmental experts have always slammed moves to dewater wastelands. In a recent development, the Uttar Pradesh irrigation department drained out Haiderpur wetland, a protected Ramsar site that many believe to be the best in North India. The dewatering has forced tens of thousands of migratory birds to leave this prominent bird nesting site in western Uttar Pradesh. Despite India going gaga over 75 Ramsar sites, some wetlands are on the verge of extinction. Hokersar is the last remaining wetland of Jammu and Kashmir. It has three types of surfaces; the marshy regions bursting with water reeds where the waterfowl nest, an expanse of deep water at the centre and the silted portion where livestock still graze.
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Corporate giants have also woken up to the wetlands crisis by focusing on blue carbon projects. Recently, Godrej Industries Chairman Nadir Godrej recited a poem in this connection instead of giving a customary speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Though occupying only about 5 per cent of land area, coastal wetlands store about 50 per cent of all carbon buried in ocean sediments. A plethora of restoration projects have been launched in recent years to restore coastal wetlands, especially mangrove forests that are highly effective carbon reservoirs. People have built and operated wetlands to treat wastewater for centuries. The Loktak lake in Manipur, a Ramsar site, has been serving as a receptacle for sewage and agrochemicals through plant sanitation.
Wetlands are also natural carbon sinks, making them crucial for combating climate change. Encroachment and construction on urban marshes have made cities prone to flooding. What is happening is that urban wetlands are hardly given importance, only those notified as Ramsar sites get all the funds. Any kind of urban planning activity in our cities has to incorporate and actively coexist with water bodies. The Delhi Master Plan 2041 as conceived is an eye opener. One of the most effective ways to implement India’s National Biodiversity Action Plan could be to focus on habitats which tend to be overlooked in conservation action like grasslands, meadows and wetlands. Wetlands are nature’s shock absorbers. Their degradation in cities could be catastrophic for our urban future.
(Chiranjib Haldar is a commentator on politics and society)