The unique Himalayan wetlands

The Himalayan wetlands are under threat due to unregulated urbanisation and unsustainable tourism. Urgent attention at the policy level is the need of the hour.
A view of the Himalayas. (Source: IWP Flickr photos--photo for representation purpose only)
A view of the Himalayas. (Source: IWP Flickr photos--photo for representation purpose only)

Wetlands are very important and productive ecosystems that support a wide range of plants and animals and provide livelihood opportunities to local communities in India. However, they are increasingly being threatened by rapid urbanisation, pollution, developmental interventions, unsustainable management practices and encroachment.

The Himalayas, with its unique topography and climatic regimes, support diverse wetland habitats across a range of altitudes. Himalayan High Altitude Wetlands (HAWs) include lakes, ponds and rivers located at altitudes higher than 3,000 metres above mean sea level and are often fed by glaciers or snow from the surrounding mountains. These wetlands play an important role as wildlife habitats for many rare and endemic species and support livelihoods of a number of local communities residing in the region. However, like other wetlands, the Himalayan wetlands also face various threats.

A Policy Consultation on Himalayan Wetlands was held in Leh on August 29, 2018 organised by the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), Bengaluru, in partnership with WWF-India. This was the first in a series of site-specific policy consultations planned across the country on critical wetland and grassland habitats. The consultation aimed at reviewing the current status and management of wetlands, prioritise issues for conservation and management and identify policy gaps and blocks facing the conservation and sustainable use of these landscapes.

The key points that emerged from the discussion were:

Current status

What needs to be done

  • While climate change is a big phenomenon which is likely to affect wetlands in many ways, the thrust of the wetland policy should be directed towards the study of the impact of non-climatic stressors such as land use and land cover changes, urbanisation etc on the wetlands. This will also help to negate the impact of climatic stressors on wetlands in the long run.
  • Wetland ecosystems can undergo a number of changes due to climate change and this may give rise to new wetland ecosystems with major changes in biodiversity. It is important to predict such changes and also plan policies that address how communities can adapt to these changing ecosystems in the future.
  • While wetland ecosystems are undergoing changes, communities are still in the process of struggling to adapt to these changes. Continuous monitoring of these changes, understanding how communities depend on the wetlands and more research to design adaptation strategies is important.
  • There is a need for adopting community-centric climate change adaptation strategies. A number of positive examples of how this has been done exist such as that of the Dal lake in Kashmir valley, Tsomgo lake in Sikkim.
  • Success stories of how conservation and sustainable tourism can be adopted to save wetlands through a collaborative effort between the government, tour operators, and communities need to be replicated in other vulnerable areas. It is important that communities are involved in the formulation of the adaptation plans. It is time to stop looking at the community as “beneficiaries”; instead, they need to be involved as promoters of these plans.

The vulnerable wetlands of Ladakh

  • The two important problems with respect to conservation of high-altitude wetlands in Ladakh include defence installations and the unprecedented rise in tourism and problems associated with it.
    • While the presence of the Army around wetlands near international borders is important from the point of view of national security, army installations pose a number of threats to wetlands and their biodiversity. Many of these installations are not scientifically sited taking into consideration the wetland hydrology and zone of influence.
    • Another challenge posed by defence establishments around wetlands is the prevalence of free-ranging dogs encouraged by defence personnel. These dogs pose a direct threat to wetland biodiversity, particularly to birds that are resident or migratory.
  • Tourism poses an important challenge to wetland conservation in Ladakh. While the population of Ladakh is 2.74 lakhs, it nearly doubles during tourist seasons and brings with it large scale plastic pollution, crowding and insensitive behaviour from tourists.

What needs to be done: Policy directions

  • Taking the army into confidence and conveying the importance of wetland conservation to them through interactions with the General Officer Commanding (GOC) located in Leh. Representations can be made to the Ministry of Defence, especially the Ecology Cell to establish a ‘Green Brigade’ in Ladakh. The issue can also be raised before the relevant agencies of the Ramsar Convention.
  • Undertake studies to:
    • document the impact of military activity on high-altitude wetlands in Ladakh. 
    • document and demarcate key wetland areas and their zones of influence
  • Currently, no effective tourism policy exists to address the range of challenges posed by large number of tourists visiting Ladakh. While a state-level policy can provide a broad framework, it would be necessary to develop an operational tourism policy for Ladakh. There is a need to urgently put in place an eco-tourism policy, which can be framed at the regional level. That can subsequently receive authorisation from the state government. 
  • Wetland Management Plans need to be urgently developed under the Wetlands (Conservation & Management) Rules, 2017, starting with some priority wetlands. 
  • The existing Ladakh Vision Document (2025) developed by Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC) needs to be reviewed in collaboration with various line departments, the Army, and NGOs to ensure that the conservation and sustainable management of wetlands find a place in the document.
  • The LAHDC’s Agriculture Policy is in its initial stages of formulation. The findings of the workshop can also be fed into the policy to ensure protection and conservation of wetlands.
  • Pastoral communities are key actors who have not been included in policy deliberations relating to high-altitude wetlands. It is important to involve them in the process by creating pressure groups, drawing strength from Panchayati Raj institutions to include them in the consultative processes.
  • Have more awareness, advocacy, and sensitisation programmes targeting local government, religious bodies, and the media to create a more inclusive policy environment. 
  • Ensure better communication between different levels of policy actors and bureaucrats by making information more simple and democratic.

A copy of the report is available below:

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