Wetland or wasteland?

Published : May 08, 2009 00:00 IST

People pay serious money to come to Kerala and board the rococo boats, to drift along quietly and be "ecotourists". The relentlessly growing number of houseboat tourists increase the ecological threat to the lake.-RAMESH KANNAN

People pay serious money to come to Kerala and board the rococo boats, to drift along quietly and be "ecotourists". The relentlessly growing number of houseboat tourists increase the ecological threat to the lake.-RAMESH KANNAN

IN a convincing, grandmotherly voice, an elderly woman tells her uncaring grandson that he must stop throwing rubbish into the river. This is pollution, and it is bad for the river, she scolds him. But he does not listen she is old and does not know what she is talking about! Furthermore, they use a well to draw drinking water, so why worry?

As time elapses, a drought comes. The wells have dried up, and people are going to the river to find drinking water. Ah, but the river is polluted! The water is not potable either in the river or when it flows into the lake. A crisis is born. The grandson, the grandmother and the community take a pledge to manage their river and their lake better in the future.

A Bollywood movie? A parable? No, a puppet show. The puppets are crafted from recycled paper by schoolchildren, and the highly topical show is scripted and performed by them for local communities and visiting audiences, for wetland festivals, and perhaps, eventually, for policymakers. They have a message and a cause, and they have joined school-based Wetlands Study Centres, organised by the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), to spread the word of conservation in every way they can: puppet shows, posters, dance, poetry, singing, costumed festival performances, a special magazine, a video documentary. Perhaps a movie is not far behind. The light of excitement and commitment in their young eyes may be the brightest part of the future of the Vembanad lake in Kerala.

The view of the Vembanad lake from a five-bedroom houseboat with a swimming pool has to be beautiful. People pay serious money to come to Kerala and board these rococo boats, to drift along quietly and be ecotourists, to be fed, housed, and conducted aquatically in peace, then to go home and tell their friends about their exotic Indian experience. Coconut palms form a living fringe on the lake in every direction. Iridescent paddyfields have colourfully dressed women planting rice. Traditional fishing vessels ply the lake waters while their sun-baked crew skilfully and photogenically toss their circular nets into the water.

Villages along the bunds and lakeshores provide intimate scenes of women timelessly beating clothes against stones to get them clean. Aged men languidly bathe on the stone steps in the same shallows. Massed purple flowers across the water surface paint the lake golden-lilac at sunset, and large flocks of birds of many varieties fill the hungry binoculars of tourists. Children frolic and swim and shriek along the banks. It is all there, just like in the movies.

But let us roll focus to the close-up, and there are plastic bottles everywhere you look. Other plastic and solid rubbish lines every shore and canal, regularly clogging motorboat engines. The water is more like slurry you cannot see deeper than the first inch or two. That purple flower is invasive water hyacinth, carpeting the lake and choking it of the oxygen it needs. The circular fishing nets frequently come up empty. The coconut fronds are yellowed with disease. The paddyfields bleed their chemical fertilizers and herbicides freely. We should not watch too closely as the old man bathes by the shore and people drink this water. Come to think of it, what exactly happens when you flush the toilet on this houseboat?

The answer is complicated by system failure that is social, ecological, economic and political. Without the children and their puppets, and all they represent, the lake might be doomed simply by the relentless pressure on it from the 1.1 million people living around it, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of tourists arriving each year.

A great deal is at stake. The Vembanad lake is the second largest wetland in India and the largest tropical wetland ecosystem on the countrys southwestern coast. It is recognised as a Ramsar site a wetland of global importance as defined by the Convention on Wetlands, signed in Ramsar, Iran, in 1971, and joined by India in 1981. Like many other permanent backwaters, its environmental condition is in a state of precipitous decline, representing a looming ecosystem crisis.

The functions performed by such wetlands in biodiversity conservation, flood control, livelihood assistance to the millions of people living around them, watershed services and services to the industries in the region are invaluable, says Dr. Latha Bhaskar, project coordinator for ATREEs small Vembanad team. However, this fertile region, which was once called the rice bowl of Kerala, is now known as the waste bowl of Kerala, and today we import our rice from neighbouring States. The lake is a sink for pollutants brought by the six rivers draining into it, and human-induced changes have led to the depletion of fish and other resources.

But it is not just the ecological failure that is creating the crisis. As the extent of the lake shrinks and its quality deteriorates, conflict inevitably arises between the stakeholders. Vembanad is second only to the Arabian Sea in terms of supporting livelihood activities.

The lake has been reduced to 37 per cent of its original size during the last century and a half, mostly by reclamation of fertile land at its perimeter for farming. Farmers make their living on land that is below sea level, so keeping salt water out of their agricultural systems is crucial.

But fishermen watch fish stock dwindle as the lake ecosystem struggles with pollution in many forms, exacerbated by todays limited flushing of the system by salt water. A barrage built in the 1950s remains closed during summer. This has meant that marine fish and prawns cannot migrate upstream, weed growth has increased, and natural flushing of pollutants has been radically restricted. Thus, the interests of farmers and fishermen are diametrically opposed. Add to this the relentlessly growing number of houseboat tourists served by hundreds of unregistered houseboats, stagnant waters in surrounding canals, the continuing absence of solid waste treatment facilities, and the recipe for an ecological disaster is complete.

Coastal backwaters and inland water bodies have traditionally been economically efficient systems. Now they are fast declining owing to improper management, over-exploitation, and a lack of care and awareness, says Dr. D.R. Priyadarsanan, Fellow Scientist at ATREE. Traditional livelihoods such as farming and fishing are under heavy pressure from ecological change and strong competition from other sources of support. In particular, the recent growth of the tourism industry has been exponential, opening up new areas of livelihood opportunities. But the lack of vision and organised planning is clearly visible, he said.

The state of Indian wetlands policy leaves a lot to be desired, according to a variety of researchers. Although the most recent environmental legislation begins to turn this situation around, there remains jurisdictional overlap and non-recognition of wetlands as a separate ecosystem, to complicate the wetland context. No legislation on land or forest in India legally defines wetlands, and there are no special enactments for their conservation, explains Priyadarsanan. Wetland protection has to depend upon the legal status of spaces or localities of which they are a part.

In Kerala, that legal status does not exist. A draft Regulatory Framework for Wetlands Conservation has been produced by the Central government, but, according to a report in The Hindu on February 9, 2009, the Kerala government recently conveyed its objections to the framework, which was notified by the Ministry of Environment and Forests.

Kerala Minister for Water Resources N.K. Premachandran said the State had approved a report terming the proposed framework an infringement on the rights of the State on its water resources. We accept the need for a regulatory mechanism for wetlands. But taking into account the local environment and other factors, we have requested the Ministry to bring out a broad National Wetland Policy and guidelines, based on which each State can prepare its own legal framework, the Minister said.

[The Minister said the complex nature of wetlands in Kerala would make their management a difficult proposition under the system proposed by the Centre. Water being a State subject, the proposal to bring wetlands listed in category A under a Central Wetlands Conservation Committee is questionable. It will force the State to relinquish administrative control over major water bodies.]

Recognising the vulnerable state of this vast wetland, the recent engagement of ATREE has focussed on developing the capacity of local communities around Vembanad to take care of their future, according to Priyadarsanan.

The Community Environmental Resource Centre (CERC), established in Alappuzha, has a fully integrated mission, addressing interacting themes in four areas:

Assess the institutional, policy and information gaps that adversely affect the conservation and sustainable use of Vembanad wetlands.

Increase environmental awareness among various stakeholders and enhance their capacity to address conservation issues pertaining to wetlands.

Enable local communities to participate in the design and implementation of the management plan.

Facilitate discussions on long-term, effective and inclusive institutional mechanisms involving government agencies, academia, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and local community groups.

We have recognised that the most effective approach to influencing policy is to work through the panchayats, where the voices of stakeholders have the greatest chance to be heard above the noise of conflict, says Latha Bhaskar. Developing the required trust is time-consuming but crucial, and the local CERC team has addressed this challenge in multiple ways.

Six rivers (Periyar, Muvattupuzha, Meenachil, Manimala, Pamba and Achenkovil) flow into the Vembanad wetland system, which covers 2,195 square kilometres. The area is a complex network of waterways: coastal backwaters, lagoons, marshes, mangroves, and reclaimed lands, interlaced with natural and man-made channels. Much of the reclaimed land lies below sea level, making it a recipient of nutrient-rich alluvial soil when flood waters recede.

Extensive areas of the lagoon have also been subjected to large-scale draining, filling, and other development activities. Most of these have been sponsored by the government with the goal of increasing food production and also mitigating flood damage.

The Thanneermukkam barrage, built in the 1950s to control flooding and salinity and to enable farming during the wet season, has succeeded in its primary purpose but has also stood in the way of the natural flushing action of salt water through the system, which has a direct impact on the health of fisheries. Irrigation schemes assist in the movement of agricultural chemicals into the estuarine system. Urban solid waste systems drain directly into the lake in many cases, and water-borne pathogens affect humans and fish alike. The lake has been referred to as a bowl of agrochemicals and faecal matter. Historically, the lake system was known to host more than 150 species of fish, but recent fish counts have established numbers closer to 60 species.

The list of wetland challenges includes the deforestation of surrounding river basins, resulting in more than 30 million tonnes of sediment being added to the lake during flooding. Sedimentation is made worse by the removal of all but remnant stands of mangroves, the classic natural filters of wetlands. Industrial dredging disturbs the clam shell fishery on the lake bottom, and the retting of coconut husk on the shoreline eliminates prawn and marine fish nurseries.

The result of all these human interventions is a grossly altered wetland system, with the Vembanad lagoon now one-third of its former size, and half of its former depth, and the wetland system capable of holding just one-quarter of its former capacity.

Efforts to make more flexible and adaptable the operations of the Thanneermukkam barrage will probably improve the wetland flushing function, thereby enhancing estuarine fisheries and reducing pollution. Knowing that no single action can provide a solution, the ATREE team has designed a five-part approach to its collaborative work at Vembanad.

The most developed is Jalapaadom, or Lessons on Water, designed for students in the region. The programme aims to create awareness and advocacy among the students about the ecological functions of the lakes ecosystem and about the socio-cultural and economic significance of wetlands, explains T.D. Jojo, ATREE programme officer in charge of the Jalapaadom curriculum and school liaisons. The puppet shows, which he has helped develop, are part of the conservation education effort, implemented in 44 schools around the lake. Wetland Study Centres are established in all participating schools, each with 60 to 80 active members and two coordinating teachers. Diverse activities in and beyond the schools engage the children at many levels: performance, research methods, creative thinking, and hope for the future.

Learning data collection methods feeds directly into another component of ATREEs approach: Jaladarpanam a participatory programme for water quality monitoring. Latha Bhaskar explains that constant monitoring of water quality is essential for a better understanding of the condition of the lake, helping the stakeholders as well as policymakers recognise its steady qualitative deterioration, and thus working towards improved management practices.

The growing population pressure, migration, emergence of new stakeholders, private dominance of resource allocation and use, and the granting of rights by the government to use the water body without evaluating its cumulative impact/carrying capacity of the wetland and its biota, have all led to uncontrolled lake contamination, she explains.

The concept behind Jaladarpanam is that if people have a stake in managing common property, conservation initiatives are likely to show greater success, especially when government intervention is failing or is absent. Caretaker teams around the lake include farmer and fishermen cooperatives, youth clubs, clam collectors, womens self-help groups, and educational institutions.

An ATREE-supported postgraduate student project with the St. Alberts College, Ernakulam, will map the magnitude and diversity of microbial pathogens around the lake to track disease vectors such as those of cholera and other intestinal ailments that break out seasonally. The data collected by participants will contribute to a publicly accessible comprehensive database on water quality. Data available through these sources are displayed on information boards set up in 14 basin stations around the lake and are also interpreted to the people through focus group meetings. For fishermens groups the data about water salinity in the lake is valuable for intervening with the opening and closure of the Thanneermukkam barrage.

A gathering of 15 local fishermen, ATREE staff and several visitors fills a small meeting room in Muhamma in Alappuzha. The fishermen want more sanctuaries, differently designed, and by the end of the meeting, plans are in place to work with ATREE to set up a series of five sanctuaries that can provide experimental findings on their effects. Our objective with such capacity-building activities is to help stakeholders participate in efficient and sustainable management of the Vembanad socio-economic system, by providing updated information on environmental quality, and also building local resource monitoring capacities, says Deepak Dayanandan, ATREE programme officer.

The interaction also improves their collective understanding of legislation and feasible management options. The goal of a participatory approach is to recruit communities into the decision-making process and thus enable participatory resource management and wise use, Deepak says. We draw in diverse stakeholder groups to create interactive learning forums that could affect both education and policy.

Our policy analysis is expected to highlight policy gaps both in terms of insufficient regulatory provisions in prevailing laws and legislation, and in the lack of understanding of provisions themselves, explains Latha Bhaskar.

A wetland conservation information system, designed to assist in relevant policy development, is the final component of ATREEs current suite of projects. There are already many entities collecting ecological and socio-economic data about Vembanads systems, but many potential users of that information neither know it exists nor have practical access to it.

The proposed system will include a reference library, a website, Geographical Information Systems, and information CDs and will complement the education programme already under way, right down to the grandmother puppet and her recalcitrant grandson.

The pledge taken at the end of the puppet show says it all: We the people of this village pledge that we will keep all our water and wetland resources of the village clean. We will strive to keep it better and will defend any attempt to deform or pollute it. We promise to pass it to the next generation in its pristine state.

Sally Duncan grew up on a farm in Australia, and is now policy research director at the Institute for Natural Resources at Oregon State University in the U.S. She is currently working with ATREE as a Visiting Fellow while fulfilling a Fulbright Environmental Leadership Fellowship.

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