Wetlands in peril

Published : Dec 23, 2015 12:30 IST

Waders in the mist,  at the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary in Rajasthan. It is a man-made wetland that is now a Unesco World Heritage Site and home to a breathtaking avifaunal diversity.

Waders in the mist, at the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary in Rajasthan. It is a man-made wetland that is now a Unesco World Heritage Site and home to a breathtaking avifaunal diversity.

CHENNAI’S recent rains and the havoc caused by flooding, particularly in the worst-hit parts of south Chennai, have brought into sharp focus the importance of the role of the hydrology of wetlands like the Pallikaranai marsh in mitigating such disasters. That unplanned development and mindless urban expansion at the cost of pristine ecosystems can prove to be costly is a lesson that never seems to be learned. Unbridled economic growth cannot afford to ignore ecological imperatives. Not only are we dismantling stable systems and sustainable resource bases, but we are also heralding in a future fraught with myriad insecurities to hydrology as the challenges of climate change loom large. The Pallikaranai marsh, which is estimated to have been around 80 sq km some 30 years ago, has now shrunk to less than 6 sq km. Roads, real estate, construction activity and landfills in the marsh have contributed to this dramatic shrinkage. This directly led to the waterlogging and devastating floods in Chennai in the aftermath of the rains.

Palustrine wetlands, like the Pallikaranai marsh, often receive water from land and surface drainage and deliver it to the coast and onwards to the ocean in a uniquely optimal manner. Their ability to cope with heavy rainfall and contain damage is inherent in their hydrological regime. This valuable marshland, along with the surrounding wetlands and network of tanks, was richly interwoven into the agrarian life of the people of this region in the not-so-distant past. As the slow-turning wheels of the government machinery are yet to move to accord effective protection to the marsh, it is the laudable initiative of the Madras High Court that holds out some hope. In a case where 62 petitioners have challenged an order involving land transfer of a part of the marshland to the Forest Department, the court has sought the removal of encroachments and asked for detailed information such as land records and sketches of the demarcated marsh.

The story of the Pallikaranai marsh is representative of what is happening across much of India where ecologically rich wetlands are in grave peril. A plethora of grid-locked policies, caught between development and conservation, lets the destruction go on, and it is the courts, either through public interest litigation (PIL) petitions or through suo motu interventions that hold a sliver of hope. This is despite some well-thought-out government initiatives on wetland protection.

India, to begin with, is a signatory to the Ramsar Convention, an intergovernmental treaty that was signed in Ramsar, Iran, in 1971, committing member-countries to a programme of sustainable use of their wetlands. Member-countries are bound by it to preserve the ecological integrity and character of their wetlands of international importance. The treaty, signed by 169 countries as of September 2015, exhorts the signatories to take cognisance of the ecological, economic, cultural, scientific and recreative value of wetlands and thus protect them. In India, despite the rich collection of wetland sites across the country, only 26 sites are notified under the convention. Many initiatives to have Pallikaranai notified as a Ramsar site never got off the ground. Besides big wetland complexes, India has many small wetland systems that are life-sustaining and ecologically significant.

The signing of the convention commits member-countries to a plan-wise and sustainable use of all their wetlands, not just the notified ones. The Ramsar Convention, like the Stockholm Conference, is a precursor to the Rio Summit and now the climate conference, all of which make us realise that the world’s precious ecosystems and resources need coordinated and concerted mitigation efforts as mankind shares a common destiny with other life forms. And wetlands form a crucial link in this picture.

Wetlands include naturally occurring lakes, rivers, swamps, marshes, wet grasslands, peatlands, aquifers, oases, deltas, estuaries, tidal flats, mangroves and coastal zones, including coral reefs. Man-made ponds, tanks, paddy fields and salt pans are also included in this broad definition of wetlands. Most wetlands occur in regions where seasonal and periodic flooding happens from either rivers or lakes. India follows a three-tier classification, based on whether the wetland is inland or coastal, natural or man-made, and under it the country has been found to have 19 wetland types. This classification was used for a nationwide assessment and inventory exercise, which we will discuss presently.

Kidneys of the earth

Wetland ecosystems are rich in biodiversity and support an astonishing variety and number of life forms, making them uniquely productive. Wetlands start by playing a crucial role in the water cycle, the nutrient cycle and the carbon cycle. The nutrient cycle, in turn, influences water quality, and the carbon cycle influences vegetative land cover and carbon sequestration in soils. The water cycle itself involves the grand pattern of precipitation, surface run-off, subsoil percolation and evaporation. Both biotic and abiotic elements in wetlands form a part of this dynamic continuum. All this is quite complex and it requires several disciplines in limnology and biology to put the picture together.

Most freshwater wetlands are rich in aquatic plants, or macrophytes. Macrophytes could be fully submerged or emergent like lilies and lotuses. These waters are also rich in algae. These form the nutrient base upon which fish, crustaceans, molluscs, birds, reptiles and mammals thrive.

These aquatic plants also provide the nesting and foraging material and also the substrate for other life to survive. Not just that, upon dying, these macrophytes establish a complex and rich food chain, with microbes starting up the decomposition. An upward integration feeds into this food web. Some aquatic plants can also absorb carbon under certain conditions and become peat. These plants are also capable of absorbing pollutants such as heavy metals and cleansing the water system. They absorb excess nutrients and contribute to achieving a vital balance in the system through the processes of denitrification and detoxification and oxygenation of water. If rainforests and tropical forests are the lungs of the earth, then surely wetlands function as its kidneys.

Wetlands play a vital role in maintaining sedimentation balance and in soil stabilisation, and in the case of estuaries, mangrove forests actually contribute to soil creation. Mangroves arrest coastal erosion, provide a natural bulwark against cyclones and tsunamis by acting as breakwaters. When healthy rivers flow through estuarine zones, a salinity balance is maintained on account of the freshwater ingress and the mangrove forest offers the substrate where many small aquatic life forms breed and spawn in the less saline waters of the estuary. The conditions in this transitional zone are different from those of the open sea. This is yet another critical balance which enables sustenance and proliferation of life in these aquatic ecosystems.

Astounding biodiversity

Wetlands often support an astounding biodiversity; turtles and terrapins, keelbacks and tree snakes, otters and civets, to name a few, sit on a highly productive food chain. In some cases they support large ungulates like the sambar or the blackbuck. But it is the teeming birdlife that often evokes dramatic images of several wetlands across the country. Residents and migrants come to these landscapes, some are rare and threatened, and the further loss of wetland habitats will drive many avian species to extinction. Some of the winter visitors come flying from as far as Siberia and northern Europe. Ducks and geese, cranes and storks, spoonbills and ibises are birds that have got woven into our cultural ethos. Ibises are seen as harbingers of good rain and fortune in south India and the saurus crane is the symbol of lasting marital bonds in north India. All this has become part of our literature and poetry and folklore and oral traditions, and they invoke a deep bond between the people and the landscape. Natural wetlands are living wonders that have been perfected through millions of years of evolutionary processes; now they face an uncertain future in the face of several man-made interventions that are increasingly proving to be detrimental to their integrity and survival.

Inventory atlas

As a response to several wetlands either shrinking or getting lost, the Government of India in May 2011 compiled a national inventory atlas and a status report. The government’s intention was the identification and protection of wetlands. It also identified conservation planning and effective management as imperatives behind the creation of this geospatial database. The report mentions an extent of 10 million hectares, excluding rivers, classified as wetlands. These include paddy fields and other man-made wetlands. Of the nearly 6.6 million hectares identified as naturally occurring wetlands, an extent of 4.1 million hectares was inventoried as coastal wetlands. The report also notes that Jammu and Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh have a large number of high-altitude waterbodies. A detailed State-wise inventory was also presented.

Despite signing the Ramsar Convention and compiling this wetland inventory, a comprehensive regime to protect wetlands is yet to be put in place across the country. In 2010, the Wetlands Conservation and Management Rules (Wetland Rules) were notified, and under these guidelines States had to identify and classify wetlands and create State-level authorities to protect them. Apparently other than Odisha, no State has completed the process. The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change had even an umbrella programme called the National Wetlands Conservation Programme.

A fresh set of draft guidelines has been prepared for implementing the Wetland Rules. The Environment Protection Act, 1986, and the National Environmental Policy, 2006, were cited as providing the legal framework for these guidelines and Wetland Rules. Under the provisions of the Environment Protection Act, ecologically sensitive areas (ESAs) can be notified and wetlands notified as ESAs and accorded protection. However, the process of evolving guidelines for this is in a state of limbo in most States, caught in aimless correspondence between the Ministry, the Centre and the State governments. Although protection can be accorded under the Central government’s statutes, State governments have to identify the areas to be notified.

Process of impoverishment In the meantime, wetlands across the length and breadth of the country continue to face destruction as they become landfills, waste dumps or sewage or effluent sinks. In other cases they get built up, their water sources are drained away or their hydrology altered adversely. This has set in motion a process of impoverishment. Be it the Dadri wetlands and Okhla bird sanctuary of Uttar Pradesh, or the famed flamingo city (the rare breeding site for flamingos) in Kutch, Gujarat, or the East Kolkata wetlands of West Bengal, or the Pulicat lake in Andhra Pradesh, it is the same sorry story that gets repeated all over the country. In other cases, such as that of the famed Vedanthangal bird sanctuary near Chennai, real estate development and construction activities threaten the integrity of the ecology of the bird feeding and breeding grounds. The clamour for high-rise buildings, office complexes, roads and urbanisation has brought unprecedented pressure on certain wetlands. Several cases in courts and the National Green Tribunal (NGT) urging the protection of endangered wetlands have helped bring into focus the plight of wetlands. However, without a comprehensive protection regime, most wetland complexes will be irretrievably lost.

In Uttar Pradesh, in two keenly fought cases in the NGT, the petitioners have brought to light that the wetlands of Bil Akbarpur have in the past 10 years shrunk from 200 hectares to about 20 ha. And specifically in the case of Dadri, the shrinkage is from 72 ha in 2009 to 32.7 ha now.

The Central government’s wetland atlas and survey lists 71 wetlands in Uttar Pradesh, but the State Forest Department has left out many of them in its list submitted to the court. In a related case, the NGT came down heavily on companies that constructed buildings without necessary clearances in the catchment areas of Agara and Bellandur lakes near Bengaluru and imposed fines on them.

The Keoladeo Ghana National Park, or the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary, in Rajasthan is a man-made wetland that is now a Unesco World Heritage Site and home to a breathtaking avifaunal diversity. The popularity of the site has helped serve the cause of wetland protection by taking the message across to people who are yet to have the opportunity to appreciate its value and significance.

Wetlands have, in many cases, made human civilisation possible. Human beings have traditionally benefited from the crucial role of wetlands in agriculture. Bird droppings and sedimentation have brought fertility to the soil. Fish is an abundant food source. Grasses and reeds are used for weaving baskets and mats. Nature often lends to human societies a unique cultural dimension. And in our own times, as freshwater becomes an increasingly rare resource, it is important that we preserve our wetlands because they help river systems and recharge groundwater, besides giving numerous other benefits. The role of wetlands is proven, and the consequence of their destruction is nothing short of disastrous. What is needed is the will to protect these valuable landscapes.

A. Rangarajan is a freelance writer, researching and writing on a wide range of topics, including environment and economics. He is a mechanical engineer by training.

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