February 2 is observed as the World Wetlands Day. The day marks the date of adoption of the Convention on Wetlands in the Iranian city of Ramsar in 1971. This year, the theme of the World Wetlands Day is Wetlands for Disaster Risk Reduction. It aims to raise awareness and highlight the vital roles of healthy wetlands in reducing the impacts of extreme events such as floods, droughts and cyclones on communities and to help build resilience against these events.
There are many definitions and classifications in use for wetlands, but in simple words, a wetland is a place where water covers the soil or is near the soil surface for varying periods of time during the year. It is a generic term that includes a wide variety of habitats such as lakes, marshes, swamps, estuaries, tidal flats, river flood plains, mangroves and even rice fields. Wetlands act as a link between land and water and help in storage of water, flood mitigation, shoreline stabilisation, groundwater recharge, water purification and even stabilisation of local climate, particularly in terms of temperature and rainfall. Despite the important role these wetlands play in terms of the social, environmental and cultural services, they are being threatened by encroachments, siltation, weed infestation, dam construction, land filling and they have also been used as sewage dumps.
At India Water Portal, we ran a series of stories recently on the dangers that the Ramsar sites (wetlands of international importance under the Ramsar Convention) are facing. Let’s take a look at the importance of these wetlands and how they are being threatened by human activities.
Kanjli wetland, spread across 183 hectares, is a Ramsar site in Punjab. The wetland used to host a good population of migratory birds till the early 1980s but now it is under extreme stress due to reduced water inflow from the source. Along with the reduced flow, water hyacinth has also clogged the water channel. It seems that the future for Kanjli is uncertain unless a major upheaval in land use and sewage pollution takes place.
Keoladeo national park is located in Rajasthan and is one of the best bird-watching sites in Asia. However, in the mid-2000s the region was struck with drought which had an impact on the park as one-third of its area is freshwater swamps. Various government efforts to supply water to the park became the centre point of conflict between the upstream and downstream farmers. With water continuing to be a problem for the park, it’s time that the local sources of water are revived with support from local communities.
Loktak lake in Manipur is the largest freshwater lake in the northeast India and is famous for the phumdis or isolated collections of heterogenous masses of vegetation, soil and organic matter at various stages of decomposition, floating over it. The lake is under threat from urbanisation and pollution from municipal waste, fertilisers and pesticides used in agriculture and human activities. In order to prevent further deterioration of the lake, there is a dire need of community participation for its revival.
Renuka lake, located in Sirmaur, the southernmost district of Himachal, is one of the two Ramsar wetlands in Himachal Pradesh. The lake is a part of the Renuka wildlife sanctuary and is home to more than 400 faunal species. Along with this, the lake is also intimately connected with the legend of Renuka Devi, the goddess of the fallen. It is this duality of being a temple site as well as a notified sanctuary that is posing a threat to the lake today. The eastern part of the lake is being threatened by developmental activities to accommodate a large number of pilgrims thriving the place. Along with this, the lake is also being threatened by the dam planned in the neighbourhood. There seems to be little hope for the revival of the lake.
Tso Moriri in Ladakh is a clear lake fed by multiple springs as well as snowmelt. The lake is famous for the bird shelters and its location makes it an important migratory rest point for an estimated 40 species of birds from six families. Also, the lake is renowned for being the only breeding point in India for the bar-headed goose as well as for the globally-threatened black-necked crane. Unfortunately, the attractive nature of this lake is also its curse as nearly two lakh tourists visit the place every year. While several efforts are being taken to mitigate the impacts of tourists on the lake, it would be of no use if the tourist numbers are not limited.
Point Calimere Wildlife and Bird Sanctuary in Tamil Nadu is an extremely important staging and wintering ground for migratory birds like the flamingos, ducks, waders, gulls and terns. It is also a vital foraging ground for other species. However, the sanctuary faces some major threats due to the pumping of seawater to the sanctuary area for industrial salt production, agricultural activity, cattle grazing and the spread of an invasive species Prosopis juliflora.
Bhoj wetland in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh consists of two man-made lakes--the upper lake and the lower lake. The upper lake in Bhopal is an important wetland which is home to more than 700 species of diverse flora and is also an important site of avian fauna with more than 150 species of both migratory and resident birds. This rich biodiversity of the wetland has, however, been affected adversely in the last few years due to various anthropogenic pressures and natural calamities, irregular rainfall during the last decade being one of them. To conserve the wetland ecology, there is a need for proper implementation of the Bhoj wetland conservation plan.
Deepor Beel is one of the largest wetlands of the Brahmaputra valley and the only major storage water basin for Guwahati's drainage. Although fishing is banned to protect the wetland, deposition of oil refinery waste and hospital waste is choking the wetland. Finding the balance between fish, birds and man that depend on the beel is the key to its conservation.
East Kolkata Wetlands have managed to stand out as a living and breathing example of the mutual love between man and nature. The lakes take in the city’s sewage and in return provide fish and vegetables by a completely natural process. However, the largest sewage-fed aquaculture in the world is now in fear for its survival as the real estate boom is swallowing large chunks of these water bodies. About 10 percent of the East Kolkata Wetlands has been converted into concrete in the last 10 years alone.
Harike wetland in Punjab is the direct result of the Indus Water Treaty between India and Pakistan. With around 360 bird species, the wetland is famous with birdwatchers and researchers. However, pollution, encroachments, invasion of alien weeds and soil erosion are derailing the conservation efforts of the once peaceful habitat. Moreover, the state government is interested in promoting Harike as a tourist spot instead of protecting it as a sanctuary. The lake is in need of determined political will to shape the conservation efforts being made by the environmentalists and the local community.
Although we have more wetlands under threat than healthy ones, a little care and the right initiatives will go a long way in protecting them as is evident in the story of the revival of Keshopur-Miani Community Reserve or "Chhamb" in Punjabi where the locals and the forest department jointly manage the wetland and the ownership rests with five villages. The reason behind this healthy wetland is the hope given to the villagers that more birds waddling in the waters will bring more tourists to the area. The Punjab government has plans to promote the community reserve as an ecotourism destination and has already submitted a proposal to the Centre under the Swadesh Darshan Scheme.
The question now arises that with all the dangers inflicted on these wetlands, can we still save them? Krishna Gopal Vyas, a senior geologist and a former advisor of Rajiv Gandhi Watershed Mission in Madhya Pradesh, who is an expert on water and environmental issues, spoke to India Water Portal on the wetlands in Madhya Pradesh. According to him, there is a need to strengthen regulatory mechanisms to protect our wetlands from deterioration. Political will, good governance, nodal or independent department to manage wetlands, vigilant media and the commitment of the communities around them can also bring about positive changes.
Let’s hope for the best for these wetlands and do our individual bit to save them from further deterioration.