SAVE OUR WETLANDS

R. Sabesh

Many people consider wetlands as unproductive areas and hence destroy or drain it for developmental activities. However, the importance and usefulness of wetlands was first brought to the notice of the world through a Convention on Wetlands held at the Iranian city, Ramsar, in the year 1971.

Wetlands are areas of land where the water level remains near or above the surface of the ground for most of the year. The association of man and wetlands is ancient, with the first signs of civilization originating in wetland habitats such as the flood plains of the Indus, the Nile Delta and the Fertile Crescent of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Wetlands cover about 6% of the earth’s land surface. There are several kinds of wetlands such as marshes, swamps, lagoons, bogs, fens and mangroves. They are home to some of the richest, most diverse and fragile of natural resources. As they support a variety of plant and animal life, biologically they are one of the most productive ecosystems.

Wetlands – Indian scenario

India has a wealth of wetland ecosystems distributed in different geographical regions. Most of the wetlands in India are directly or indirectly linked with major river systems such as the Ganges, Cauvery, Krishna, Godavari and Tapti. In India, of an estimated 4.1 mha (excluding irrigated agricultural lands, rivers, and streams) of wetlands, 1.5 mha are natural, while 2.6 mha are manmade. The coastal wetlands occupy an estimated 6,750 sq km, and are largely dominated by mangrove vegetation. The Directory of Wetlands in India (1988) gives information on the location, area and ecological categorization of wetlands of our country.

Wetlands in southern peninsular India are mostly manmade and are known as yeris (tanks). They are constructed in every village and provide water for various human needs, besides serving as nesting, feeding, and breeding sites for a large variety of bird species. Point Calimere in Tamilnadu; Astamudi, Sasthamkolta lake and Vembanad wetlands in Kerala; and Kolleru lake in Andhra Pradesh are some of the natural wetland sites in South India.

Wetland systems help check floods, prevent coastal erosion, store water for long periods, provide food and shelter for mammals, act as natural filters and help remove a whole range of pollutants.

 India’s wetlands are generally differentiated into eight categories depending on their regional presence (Scott, 1989):

  • The reservoirs of the Deccan Plateau in the south, together with the lagoons and other wetlands of the southwest coast
  • The vast saline expanses of Rajasthan, Gujarat and the Gulf of Kutch
  • The freshwater lakes and reservoirs from Gujarat eastwards through Rajasthan (Keoladeo Ghana National Park) and Madhya Pradesh
  • The delta wetlands and lagoons of India’s east coast (Chilka Lake)
  • The freshwater marshes of the Gangetic Plains
  • The floodplains of the Brahmaputra
  • The marshes and swamps in the hills of north east India and the Himalayan foothills
  • The lakes and rivers of the mountain region of Kashmir and Ladakh
  • The mangroves and other wetlands of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands

    F 1
    Importance of wetlands

    Wetland systems directly and indirectly support lakhs of people, providing goods and services to them. They help check floods, prevent coastal erosion and mitigate the effects of natural disasters like cyclones and tidal waves. They store water for long periods.

    Many wading birds and waterfowl like egrets, herons, and ibises nest in wetlands. Wetlands also provide food and shelter for mammals. They act as natural filters and help remove a whole range of pollutants from water, including harmful viruses from sewage and heavy metals from industries.

    Wetlands play a significant part in the cultural heritage of indigenous people. Their capacity during heavy rainfall to retain excess floodwater that would otherwise cause flooding, results in maintaining a constant flow regime downstream, preserving water quality and increasing biological productivity for both aquatic life as well as human communities of the region. Periodically, inundated wetlands are very effective in storing rainwater and are the primary source for recharging ground water aquifers.

     

    F 2
    Wetlands retain nutrients by storing eutrophic parameters like nitrogen and phosphorus and accumulating them in the sub-soil, whereby decreasing the potential for eutrophication. They also act as pollution sinks by absorbing sewage and purify water supplies. Moreover, significant socio-economic values like constant water supply, fisheries, fuelwood, medicinal plants, livestock grazing, agriculture, energy resource, wildlife resource, transport, recreation and tourism are noteworthy. These functional properties of a wetland ecosystem clearly demonstrate its role in maintaining the ecological balance.

    Threats to wetlands

    The major activity responsible for loss of wetlands is large-scale urbanisation. Some of the major destructive developmental activities like excavation, filling, and draining are resulting in a significant loss in spatial spread of wetlands throughout the country. Due to anthropogenic activities like unplanned urban and agricultural development, industries, road construction, impoundment, resource extraction and dredge disposal, wetlands have been drained and transformed, causing substantial economic and ecological losses in the long term. The Wildlife Institute of India’s survey reveals that 70-80% of individual freshwater marshes and lakes in the Gangetic flood plains have been lost in the last five decades. Inadequacy in proper management of non-point sources of pollution like storm water runoff, agricultural runoff due to unregulated land use management, have also led to problems of pollution, eutrophication, invasion by exotic species, toxic contamination by heavy metals, pesticides and organic compounds. It is most unfortunate that the development projects such as ports, big dams and expansion of commercialised human activities are threatening the wetlands.

    The loss of wetlands leads to environmental and ecological problems, which have a direct impact on the socio-economic benefits of the associated populace. Apart from fishing, wetlands support agriculture, transhumance herding of domestic livestock, and hunting of wild herbivores migrating in response to flooding patterns. In the recent past, commercially sensitive and economically exploitative attitudes of the society have subjected these ecosystems to stress; in some extreme cases, leading to alteration and hampering of their functions and their ultimate destruction.

    The environmental impacts on wetlands may be grouped into five main categories:

    • Loss of wetland areas
    • Changes to water regime
    • Changes in water quality
    • Overexploitation of wetland products
    • Introduction of exotic species

    These quality and quantity declinations, have contributed to the decline in the diversity of flora and fauna, migratory birds and productivity of wetland systems. Simultaneously, several thousand species have become extinct.

    The Ramsar Convention

    The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands is an inter-governmental treaty with 171 contracting parties. “The convention’s mission is the conservation and wise use of all wetlands through local, regional, and national actions and international cooperation as a contribution towards achieving sustainable development throughout the world”. There are 2331 wetland sites totaling 210 million hectares, designated for inclusion in the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance. India is also a signatory to the Ramsar Convention, especially on the Waterfowl Habitat.

     The loss of wetlands leads to environmental and ecological problems, which have a direct impact on the socio-economic benefits of the associated populace.

    To commemorate the date of signing of the convention on wetlands, 2nd February of every year is observed as World Wetlands Day. It was celebrated for the first time in 1997 and the beginning was quite encouraging. Chilka Lake (Orissa) and Keoladeo National Park (Bharatpur, Rajasthan) have been designated under the Convention of Wetlands of International Importance (Ramsar Convention) as being especially significant waterfowl habitats.

    As a part of the conservation strategy a data book called Montreaux Record is kept of all those wetlands that require international help for conservation. The inclusion of a site in this list makes it eligible for a global package for conservation related activities. An annual ‘International Ramsar Convention Award’ carrying a cash prize of $ 10,000 and commendation is given to the best conservation efforts.

    Conservation of wetlands

    Efforts to conserve wetlands in India began in 1987 and the main focus of Governmental efforts was on biological methods of conservation rather than adopting engineering options. A national wetland-mapping project has also been initiated for an integrated approach on conservation. In certain wetland sites it is heartening to see the Government, NGOs and local community coming together to save our wetlands and thus realize the objectives of Ramsar Convention.

    The National Committee on Wetlands, Mangroves and Coral Reefs, constituted for advising the Government on appropriate policies and measures to be taken for conservation and management of the wetlands, has identified 22 wetlands for conservation and management on priority basis. The concerned State Governments have set up Steering Committees constituting representatives from government departments, universities and research institutions for effective implementation of these policies. Nodal research / academic institutions have been drawn up for most of the identified wetlands.

    Conclusion

    Wetland ecosystems are interconnected and interactive within a watershed. In India, unplanned urbanisation and growing population has taken its toll on wetlands. To counter these, management of wetlands has to be an integrated approach in terms of planning, execution and monitoring. Effective tie-ups of trained academicians and professionals ranging from an ecologist, hydrologist, economist, watershed management specialist, planners and decision makers must be linked with local expertise for overall management of wetlands. All these would help understanding of wetlands better and evolve more comprehensive and long-term conservation and management strategies. Spreading awareness by initiating educational programs about the importance of wetlands in local schools, colleges and among the general public in the vicinity of the water bodies besides constant monitoring of wetlands especially for its water quality would provide vital inputs to safeguard the wetlands from further deterioration.

     

    Source: Eco News, Vol 9, No 4, January to March, 2004

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