The East Calcutta Wetlands are an unappealing mixture of poverty, sunshine and wastewater. The people here have patiently and wisely transformed this ecosystem into an oportunity for food, employment and purified water- for free!
How did this happen and what can we learn from it? A book titled 'Ecology and Traditional Wetland Practice: Lessons from Wastewater Utilisation in the East Calcutta Wetlands', by Dhrubajyoti Ghosh, attempts to answer these very questions.
The book is divided into the following chapters:
1. Introduction: The management system in these wetlands provides a fascinating lesson in living creatively with nature for the urban planner, the economist, the engineer and the ecologist. It is the history of of wetland transformation, on how the role of livelihood compulsions helped create outstanding designs of conservation and wise use. It is an ecological interpretaiton of a traditional practice and helps document this local knowledge in an attempt to mainstream this information at a national policy level.
2. Wetlands and their use: Wetlands can be described as an area where land meets water. Thus shallow lakes, ponds, tanks, marshes, swamps, bogs and dead river beds among others are all wetlands.They contain 3 basic characterisitics- water, unique soils and the presence of vegetation that have adapted to wet conditions. India, a signatory to the Ramsar Convention, has 19 listed wetland sites. These systems help in mitigating floods, recharging aquifers and reducing surface runoff and erosion. Thus they have the dual role of storing rianwater and recharging groundwater. Despite this, wetland conservation in the country does not have a support base.
3. Sustainable Development: Greed and exploitation are the prime movers of a capitalist society, where a rich and powerful minority relegates a larger majority to be systematically impoverished. Thus, a new roadmap on sustainable development becomes more essential.
4. Traditional practices and their egological interpretation: Local wisdom rich in knowledge about transacting with nature, is being lost. The wisdom of a sustainable farmer has been dismantled by the short-sighted, aggressive martketing of agro-chemicals.
5. What happens in the East Calcutta wetlands: The fishery owners draw the sewage and wastewater into the fisheries where the organic compounds are biologically degraded. A crop of paddy is grown using pond effluents and vegetable farming is carried out on garbage substrate.
6. Mainstreaming a local wisdom: Here it is the people who know better, even the poor farmers have adopted the complex ecological process easily, showing a mastery of resource recovery activities .
7. Living creatively with nature: The perceptual brilliance of a traditional fishing community living on the edge of a metropolitan city can be seen in this wetland. The people have established a remarkably meaningful transaction with nature in using what modern society terms as waste, or urban wastewater.
These wetlands are a complete tutorial ecosystem for learning ecology, environment management and the basics of sustainable development.