Solution Exchange discussion: Plan for revival of Vembanad Lake, Kerala

A discussion on wetland conservation and management issues in the context of the ongoing revival of Vembanad Lake, Allepey, Kerala

Compiled by Nitya Jacob, Resource Person and Sunetra Lala, Research Associate

From Latha Bhaskar, Community Environmental Resource Center, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), Alleppy

I work with the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), Kerala, on wetland conservation and currently we are focusing on the conservation of the Vembanad wetlands (refer www.vembanad.org).

Vembanad was declared a Ramsar site in 2002.  Due to prolonged anthropogenic interventions in the name of development, this wetland is facing progressive deterioration. Protection, conservation and management of the lake and its resources, through coordinated efforts of all stakeholders, are vital for restoring this fragile ecosystem.

Recently, Union Minister for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh during his visit to the State, announced that Vembanad Lake would be included in the National Wetland Conservation Plan, with 100 per cent assistance from MoEF. He allotted Rs. 10 crore for preliminary works and promised to put up the project for external assistance amounting to $20 million (Rs. 90 crore). The Kerala government has also decided to establish Vembanad Eco-development Authority for the restoration and regeneration of the Vembanad Lake . Please see http://moef.nic.in/downloads/public-information/Wetlands-Rules-2010.pdf for more information.

ATREE has been working here since 2007, conducting participatory action research programmes and we feel that the biggest issue here is lack of coordination among various government departments and agencies. A management action plan for an integrated water resource management for the wetlands is needed that would consider the views of all stakeholders. I would like to invite the attention of the members of the Community to share their experience and suggestions to contribute for the development of a sustainable action plan for Vembanad Lake . Discussions on following lines are requested:

  • What will be the impact of the provisions of the ‘wetland conservation and management rules 2010’ on such action plans? Will it help to tackle the threats of encroachment, pollution and tourism?
  • In the case of scheduled wetlands, what is the role and stake of central and state governments?
  • How can the process be institutionalized and stakeholder participation maximized?

Your inputs will definitely help to consolidate views on wetland conservation and management issues, in the current context.

Responses were received, with thanks, from

1.     Sourya Das, Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur

2.     Parineeta DandekarSouth Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP)

3.     Deepthi WickramasingheUniversity of Colombo , Colombo , Sri Lanka

4.     Stanly, Altersoft, Thrissur

5.     Priju, C. P., Groundwater Division, Centre for Water Resources Development and

Management

6.     Sunder Subramanian, ICRA Management Consulting Services Limited, Noida

7.     Ramakrishna NallathigaCentre For Good Governance, Hyderabad

8.     Ritesh Kumar, Wetlands International - South Asia, New Delhi

9.     Nripendra Kumar Sarma, Public Health Engineering Department, Guwahati , Assam

10. Nitya Jacob, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), New Delhi

Summary of Responses

Comparative Experiences

Related Resources

Responses in Full

Summary of Responses

In most of India , wetlands have become synonymous with wastelands. Consequently, the government and people overlook their vital ecological importance. Instead, people rapidly encroach on them by filling and making buildings, as has happened in Assam. Civic authorities dump solid waste, and channelize untreated sewage into wetlands. Sooner than later, the wetland ceases to exist. This is exactly what is happening in Vembanad’s case; it has shrunk to a third of its original size because of reclamation by the government and residents, untreated sewage from upland areas and neighbouring Kochi city flows into the lake, and many bunds have been built that interfere with the natural flow of water.

 

The Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) adopted the Wetland (Conservation and Management) Rules 2010 to deal with precisely these problems. As Vembanad is a Ramsar Site, it comes directly under the purview of the Central Wetland Regulatory Authority (CWRA). The Rules say an agency from the state has to study the wetland that will inform a plan for its conservation. They have some provisions for mapping existing rights and privileges of people living around Vembanad as part of the study, and they have the chance through public hearings to make representations to the government. These indicate the government’s willingness to regulate wetlands in a more systematic manner, and bring them under the purview of different acts (the Wildlife Protection Act, the Forest Conservation Act and the Environment Protection Act).

 

The Rules are clear about what is allowed, and banned, in a wetland. They stipulate setting up a state regulatory authority for managing wetlands (currently the Kerala Council for Science and Technology), but the Kerala government has also decided to set up a Vembanad Eco-development Authority for the restoration and regeneration of the Lake ; it is therefore unclear how the powers of the two will be demarcated.

 

The Rules state the CWRA will commission a study to determine the extent of the wetland and the socio-economic parameters of people living around it. What emerges is the study is crucial in the future management of Vembanad Lake . The study will also help establish the extent of the wetland, a prerequisite for its protection. The Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), has worked in the region for several years and has a wealth of knowledge. Other institutions such as the Kochi unit of the National Institute of Oceanography and the state pollution control boards have also studied the Lake , and can participate in the study. This study will form the basis of the wetland management plan and proper implementation of the rules can help tackle the threats of encroachment, pollution and tourism. In Sri Lanka, schools have participated in programmes to educate communities about the importance of wetlands.

 

Currently accepted principles of wetland (or any natural ecosystem) conservation “encourage active and informed participation of local and indigenous people at Ramsar listed sites and other wetlands and their catchments, and their direct involvement, through appropriate mechanisms, in wetland management.” (From the Sixth Conference of Parties of the Ramsar Convention).

 

This seems to be one the major lacunae in the MoEF Rules; apart of including existing rights and privileges in the study, and public hearings, they leave little scope for community or stakeholder participation in wetland management. Previous experiments with the ‘fence and protect’ strategy for reserved and protected forests have had poor results, but with wetlands, is likely to fail as people living on their periphery depend on them for everything from food to livelihoods. This, then, remains one of the major areas of concern with the Rules.

 

Another concern is CWRA is 14-member body with four non-government experts; it is not clear what the composition of state regulatory authorities will be. There is no role for members of the local community, elected representatives from panchayats, legislatures or Parliament in these authorities or in the management of wetlands under the Rules. This may undermine any programme to conserve Vembanad Lake , or other wetland.

 

For scheduled wetlands, the Central Government has assumed the role of regulator. The state government concerned has to design and execute a management plan, subject to the approval of the CWRA. As Vembanad Lake is a Ramsar site, it will be regulated directly under the Rules by the state government institution. Both the Centre and the state will work together to identify the area of the wetland. The state government has to give CWRA a brief document delineating the wetland, its zone of influence, size, and an account of pre-existing rights and privileges. CWRA has to commission the detailed study of the wetland. The Centre will notify the extent of the wetland, invite comments from the public, and finalise the notification.

 

Regarding institutionalization, the biggest opportunity for influencing wetland management is in seeking representation and voice in the state-level regulatory institutions. Even though CWRA has a very restrictive membership, there is definitely an opportunity to support good decision-making through sharing information and creating awareness.

 

In general, management of wetlands is a complex affair, and any regulation without supportive investments into stakeholder participation, capacity building, information and awareness generation is likely to be an incomplete solution. In the case of Vembanad Lake , that has multiple uses such as agriculture, tourism, port infrastructure, etc., conflicts are bound to arise on the realm and scope of any regulation. The solution is including local community representatives in the institution set up to manage the Lake.

Comparative Experiences

Assam

Destruction of wetland leads to waterlogging, Jorhat (from  Nripendra Kumar Sarma, Public Health Engineering Department, Guwahati, Assam)

A Medical College has been established in Jorhat and for the same a large wetland was filled up. The nearby agricultural land was also filled up to facilitate establishment of markets, colonies, etc. However, no adequate provisions for managing the water, which was retained in the earlier wetlands was created. As such parts of Jorhat now suffer from waterlogging and flooding during the rainy seasons.

Sri Lanka

Schools educate people about the importance of wetlands (from  Deepthi Wickramasinghe, University of Colombo, Colombo, Sri Lanka)

NetWwater was involved in raising awareness on the values of wetlands and the services rendered by these habitats in communities. Schools close to wetlands were selected for the awareness drive. They were then motivated to convey this message to their parents, friends and neighbours. This initiative was successful in engaging students and communities in various environment protection initiatives near the wetlands. Read more.

Related Resources 

Recommended Documentation

Welcome, but a lost opportunity: This cannot help protect the wetlands, Sir (from Parineeta Dandekar, South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP))

Article; by Parineeta Dandekar and H. Thakkar; South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People; February 2011;

Available at ftp://ftp.solutionexchange.net.in/public/wes/cr/res-30061101.pdf (PDF; Size: 648KB)

Discusses the highlights of the Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules 2010 and the status of wetlands in India

Review of Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules,2009 (from Nitya Jacob, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), New Delhi)

Letter; by Priyadarsanan; Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment; Bangalore; June 2010;

Available at http://www.vembanad.org/ATREEcomments_Wetland_%20conserv_Mgmnt_rule2009.pdf (PDF; Size: 109KB)

            Provides a detailed analysis of the draft Wetlands (Conservation and Management)             Rules, 2009 and points out certain shortcomings in the draft Regulatory Framework

From Sunetra Lala, Research Associate

State of India's Environment: Dying Wisdom

Book; by Centre for Science and Environment; New Delhi; 1997; Permission Required: Yes, priced publication

Available at http://www.cseindia.org/html/extra/twhs.htm

Dying Wisdom documents India's diverse systems of water conservation and management, mostly evolved by communities in keeping with their local environments

Standards for Ecologically Successful River Restoration

Article; by M. A. Palmer, et al; Journal of Applied Ecology; April 2005; Available at http://restoringrivers.org/PDF/standards/Palmer_et_al_2005_JAE.pdf (PDF; Size: 128KB)

Proposes five criteria for measuring the success of river restoration projects aimed at improving ecosystem health and services

Arvari Sansad (Parliament) The Voice of Common People

Article; by Tarun Bharat Sangh; Alwar;

Available at http://www.tarunbharatsangh.org/programs/water/arvariparliament.htm

Discusses the role of the Arvari River Parliament, which through community mobilisation and community involvement was able to revive the River Arvari

Restoration of Stream Habitats at Chaskaman

Article; by Ecological Society; Pune;

Available at

http://www.ecological-society.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=18&Itemid=36

Discusses an experiment that was carried out to restore fish breeding habitat in a mountain stream which enhanced the quality of water of the Chaskaman reservoir

Palor River Basin

Artilce; by Grassroots; Ranikhet, Uttarakhand

Available at http://www.grassrootsindia.com/palorriverbasin.html

Describes the Pidyadhar Micro Watershed Development Plan - a community programme aimed to improve the quality of life for villagers living in the catchment of the River Palor

Villagers March to Revive the Meghal River

Article; by Suresh Babu S. V.; Down to Earth; New Delhi; 2003;

Available at http://www.indiaenvironmentportal.org.in/node/39259

Describes the foot march of thousand of people in order to create pressure on the authorities to revive the River Meghal in Gujarat

Recommended Organizations and Programmes

South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), New Delhi(from Parineeta Dandekar)

86-D, AD Block, Shalimar Bagh, Delhi 110088; Tel: 91-11-27484654; cwaterp@vsnl.comhttp://www.sandrp.in/rivers/;

Works on water resource development and has done a detailed analysis of the Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2009

NetWater-Women for Water Partnership, The Netherlands(from Deepthi Wickramasinghe, University of Colombo, Colombo, Sri Lanka)

Women for Water Partnership, Benoordenhoutseweg 23, 2596 BA, The Hague, The Netherlands; Tel: 31-70-3264176; Fax: 31-70-3459346; communication@womenforwater.orghttp://www.womenforwater.org/openbaar/index.php?alineaID=74;

A volunteer network of women water professionals, focuses on advocacy, research and action and has been working on wetlands and water related issues for several years

Centre for Water Resources Development and Management, Kerala (fromPriju, C. P., Groundwater Division, Centre for Water Resources Development and Management)

Kunnamangalam, Kozhikode 673571, Kerala; Tel: 91-495-2357151; Fax: 91-495-2351808; ed@cwrdm.orgwww.cwrdm.org

Deals with issues of surface water, ground water, water management-agriculture, water quality and environment, education and extension, and library and documentation

National Institute of Oceanography, Goa(from Sunder Subramanian, ICRA Management Consulting Services Limited, Noida)

NIO, Dona Paula-Goa, 403004; Tel: 91-832-2450450; Fax: 91-832-2450450; ocean@nio.orghttp://www.nio.org/index/title/HOME

Its focus of research has been on observing and understanding the special oceanographic features that the North Indian basin offers

Kerala State Council for Science, Technology and Environment (KSCSTE), Kerala(from Ritesh Kumar, Wetlands International - South Asia, New Delhi)

Sasthra Bhavan, Pattom, Thiruvananthapuram 695004, Kerala; Tel: 91-471-2543701; Fax: 91-471-2540085; mailto@kscste.orghttp://www.kscste.kerala.gov.in/about.htm

Plans, formulates and implements science and technology promotion and other related research and development programmes, including water resources

From Sunetra Lala, Research Associate

Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi

41, Tughlakabad Institutional Area, New Delhi, India - 110062; Tel: 91-11-29955124/125; Fax: 91-11-29955870 cse@cseindia.orgwww.cseindia.org; Contact Ms. Sunita Narain; Director

CSE has documented traditional water management systems of India and has several publications on the topic

IRAMCONSULT, New Delhi

15, Zakir Bagh, Okhla Road, New Delhi 110025; Tel: 91-11-26844192; iram@vsnl.comram05@sify.comhttp://www.iramconsult.com/Envproject.htm

Organization associated with the National River Conservation of Government of India and has been providing consultancy services for river and lake conservation projects

WWF India, New Delhi

172 B, Lodhi Estate, New Delhi 110003; Tel: 91-11-41504815; Fax: 91-11-24691226; http://www.wwfindia.org/about_wwf/what_we_do/freshwater_wetlands/index.cfm;

Contact Parikshit Gautam; Director, Freshwater and Wetlands Conservation Programme; Tel: 91-11-41504820; pgautam@wwfindia.net

The Freshwater and Wetlands Conservation Programme of WWF India focuses on conservation of freshwater ecosystem including rivers and wetlands

Ecological Society, Maharashtra

B-2, Jayanti Apartments, Near Ratna Hospital, Senapati Bapat Road, Pune 411016, Maharashtra; Tel: 91-20-25677312; ecological.society@gmail.com;

http://www.ecological-society.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=35&Itemid=52; Contact Mrinalinee Vanarase; Executive Director; 91-9822000862

Works on restoration of streams and rivers; designs and conducts training programmes to create awareness and capacity building for restoration and conservation projects

Responses in Full 

Sourya Das, Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur

As part of my doctoral research is on the institutional and stakeholder aspect of wetland management which has made me interested in this issue. I would like to know more about the institutional aspect of the use of Vembanad Lake . Are all the users like fishermen, farmer (irrigation) all are under any form of institution like WUA or Fishermen Co-operative Society or not? If already they are institutionalized then they can be easily incorporated within the whole Lake level Management Authority. From my experience to ensure maximum participation of the stakeholders it is needed to mobilise the village level small institutions may be formal or informal.

Parineeta Dandekar, South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP)

With reference to your question on Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules 2010, SANDRP have worked on a detailed critique of the Rules and their implication on Wetland Conservation.

We had also quoted ATREE on this. Some of the areas of concern are:

        Absence of participation of local communities in recommending and/or conserving the wetlands. 

        Disregard for smaller wetlands ( smaller than 500 hectares in areas below 2500 meters) and wetlands that supply drinking/ domestic water

        No check on water abstraction or hydrological modification of wetlands.

Actually, the draft Regulatory Framework 2008 as well as the Draft Rules 2009 mentioned the constitution of Regulatory Authorities and Appraisal Committees at the Center, State & District level. The District level committee had space for Zilla Parishad representative and a member of Gram panchayat. This was critical to maintain participation & ensure that local concerns are addressed. However, the 2010 Rules make no mention of the State and District level committees.

You can download the critique from ftp://ftp.solutionexchange.net.in/public/wes/cr/res-30061101.pdf, PDF, 650 Kb

Deepthi Wickramasinghe, University of Colombo , Colombo , Sri Lanka

I work with an organization called "NetWater", a volunteer network of women water professionals in Sri Lanka and we focus on advocacy, research and action. We have been working on wetlands and water related issues for several years.

Wetlands in Sri Lanka , specially the ones situated in urban areas have been treated as wastelands and most of them are under severe threats posed by human activities. Degradation of the habitats by pollution, garbage dumping, land filling and encroachments is increasingly evident. At present, we are working on conservation of urban wetlands and I would like to share our experience in enhancing stakeholder participation.

Our main objective was to raise awareness on the values of wetlands and the services rendered by these habitats among the community. We first selected the schools that are situated close to wetlands.  We addressed the students, making them aware that they need to conserve these wetlands to gain maximum benefits- environmental, economic, social and aesthetic. Most of them were interested in conserving wetlands since they provide habitats for biodiversity.

Fortunately, the response was far more satisfactory and the students were able to identify the causes of wetland degradation and they came up with possible solutions. The next thing we did was to motivate them to convey this message to their parents, friends and neighbours. We found that this has been successful and the students were engaged in different activities through school environmental societies with the support of the teachers and parents. Thus, indirectly we have made a large portion of the community sensitive to wetland conservation. We expanded this project to include the government and local government officers and judging from their responses, wetlands are gaining increased attention now.

Stanly, Altersoft, Thrissur

The mapping of wetlands using satellite images and using developments in ICT can be utilized to warn of any encroachments and to take action for any immediate rescue activities and this will provide a documentary evidence of present and past situation. 

Priju, C. P., Groundwater Division, Centre for Water Resources Development and Management

I think the Centre for Water Resources Development and Management (CWRDM) (www.cwrdm.org) as a stakeholder can contribute much in this matter. We have a number of current projects related to wetlands. The Centre, set up the state government, initially had six scientific divisions, dealing with surface water, ground water, water management-agriculture, water quality and environment, education and extension, and library and documentation. After a decade, scientific divisions to deal with computer applications and isotope hydrology have been added to the earlier list. In order to cater to the requirements of main areas of research, certain central facilities like water analysis laboratory, cartography, reprography, manned observation stations, remote sensing cell and a museum have also been established. To take care of the special R&D needs of different hydro-ecologic regions of Kerala, five regional centres are also in operation since 1990.

 

The Centre has substantially contributed to the scientific hydrologic studies and water management in the region. The projects of CWRDM were funded by different departments and agencies of the Central and State Governments in addition to the international agencies like UNDP, UNEP, World Bank, USAID, NAS (US), JBIC, ICEF, etc.

 

Sunder Subramanian, ICRA Management Consulting Services Limited, Noida

I seriously doubt if most provisions of the Wetland Rules 2010 can actually be applied in practice to a wetland system such as Vembanad Lake , which is close proximity to so many dense urban/peri-urban settlements, especially where a lot of waste is discharged into the water systems and end up in the lake. A prime example of such an agglomeration is Kochi . From an institutionalisation and stakeholder engagement perspective, this then makes things all the more complex.

 

You will need to bring into play other research organizations who have been studying Vembanad (notably, the Kochi unit of the National Institute of Oceanography, for one), the state pollution control board and its various regional offices, the concerned development authorities and municipal corporations/ULBs of urban centres that impact adversely on Vembanad, the various departments of state government that would obviously need to come into play, not mention the groups/communities who livelihoods are closely linked to the lake or will be adversely impacted by full implementation, for example, of the Wetland Rules.

 

I am not very sure if the Government of Kerala has notified a nodal department as suggested in Section 8 of the Rules, apart from the Forest Department, which comes into play anyway. But since the scope of stakeholders is much wider, this would probably have to be taken up as a high priority agenda by/with the state government agenda per se, which would require considerable advocacy to bring into play the multiplicity of state government agencies that will need to be involved. How proactive the central government, in its role via the "Authority" as suggested in the Rules will be, as a supra-regulator, remains to be seen.

 

Ramakrishna Nallathiga, Centre For Good Governance, Hyderabad

The Conservation of Wetlands Act and Rules of the Government reflect its willingness to get into muddy waters of wetland management through legal mechanisms, which hitherto was not even acknowledged to the fullest extent. The attempt is perhaps not to destabilize other institutional mechanisms for wetland management. It is an effort to bring all important wetlands (without any pick-and-choose/cherry-pick methods) under the purview of conservation.

 

While the formation of institutions (authority) and action of governments may take time and subject bureaucratic processes, civil society and NGOs can be entrusted with the execution/operational responsibility for which the management plan can be prepared by them. The NGOs may find it easy to work under the legal empowerment and in partnership with government (as well as other stakeholders) rather than independent of the same.

 

The stakeholders have to participate in the management/action plan making, without getting into decision-making (which is a contest with government). Even there, the conflict of interest has to be kept in mind (take the case of fishing through bunds in Chilika Lake by local fishermen, that has reduced the area of the lake considerably).

 

The examples of river water conservation programmes (Ganges and Yamuna) and forest conservation programmes may be looked at to draw the experiences and lessons, and incorporate them into the conservation of Vembanad Lake . I also remember Pulikat Lake has a management plan of that kind prepared under Coastal Zone Management Authority Act by the Government of India. It is useful to look into such action plans as how it can be done within the purview of the enacted legislations.

 

Ritesh Kumar, Wetlands International - South Asia, New Delhi

The status of Vembanad Kol, a designated Ramsar site, is an outcome of unplanned development without considering the ecological character of the wetland system. The focus of management has been on promoting agriculture and tourism without considering the ability of the system to sustain these pressures on a long term basis. The overall hydrological regimes of the wetland and its catchments have been highly fragmented due to a series of structures which control water inflow, outflow and regime exchange.

 

The Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2010 are an instrument for restricting developmental activities within the wetland and its basin. While the rule covers all Ramsar sites, it also refers to the provisions of the Coastal Regulation Zone for areas falling under CRZ norms.  Technically, the rules would mandate drafting of a management plan for the wetland and getting it approved by the Central Wetland Regulatory Authority for implementation. This will apply in any development projects which have implications for water regimes, pollution or encroachment. The said plan would need to be forwarded through the state wetland nodal agency, which is the Kerala Council for Science and Technology.

 

For the role and stake of the central and state government, the rules bind the state governments to prevent any detrimental activities on the wetlands, as specified. However, there are several issues that need to sorted out, initially with regards to the definition of the wetland area, its demarcation and understanding the zone of influence.  The Centre has moved itself to a regulating role, while assuming that the state government would have the necessary capacity and infrastructure to manage the wetlands.

 

As regards institutionalization, the rules call for constitution of state-level wetland authorities, and the biggest opportunity for influencing wetland management is in seeking representation and voice in these institutions. The Central Wetland Regulatory Authority has a very restrictive membership – but there is definitely an opportunity to support good decision making through sharing information and creating awareness.

 

In general, management of wetlands is a complex affair, and any regulation without supportive investments into stakeholder participation, capacity building, information and awareness generation is likely to be an incomplete solution. In a situation of the Vembanad – Kol system, wherein the wetland is used for multiple uses as agriculture, tourism, port infrastructure, etc., conflicts are bound to arise on the realm and scope of any regulation. There is a need to watch the developments very closely on this matter.

 

Nripendra Kumar Sarma, Public Health Engineering Department, Guwahati , Assam

I would like to invite the attention of the members of the Community to initiate discussion with regard to Wetland Conservation. Nowadays, in all the urban areas, the development works got the better of all issues related to the biodiversity. The necessary approach for wetland conservation is the most neglected issue in all peri-urban areas.

The wetlands are getting filled up to take care of development of different infrastructures without considering the aftereffects, which eventually leads to waterlogging / flooding etc. in other areas. Very recently, one Medical College is established in Jorhat ( Assam ) and for that a large area of wetland is filled up. Moreover, considering the different upcoming avenues from the Medical College , the nearby agricultural lands are also filled up to facilitate establishment of market / colony etc. But there were no adequate provisions for managing the water, which would have been retained in the earlier wetlands. So nowadays, the parts of Jorhat Town need to suffer from waterlogging / flooding etc. during rainy season and this has become a new phenomenon arising out destruction of wetlands.

Moreover, the Deepor beel, the lone Ramsar Site in Assam and a wetland very close to Guwahati City is also paying heavy price due to rapid urbanization and other anthropogenic activities. The beel, once spread over a large area, has now been shrunk to a shadow of its former. 

The Deepor beel is a natural wetland and it harbours a rich variety of flora and fauna that includes many of highly endangered species also. With spectacular scenery from the hills in its periphery, Deepor bill offers tremendous prospects as a tourism hub also. There is a heavy scope of developing it as a bird sanctuary. 

However, there are different issues threatening the existence of the Deepor and they need to be addressed at the earliest. Large-scale encroachment, dumping of solid waste, heavy siltation due to deforestation in the hills surrounding the beel, accumulation of all sorts of filth and toxic wastes from the storm water / wastewater drains from Guwahati City, unregulated fishing practices, aquatic weeds, unabated industrial development in nearby areas, construction of railway line along the southern boundary, quarrying within the beel ecosystem, etc., have threatened its ecosystem to a great extent. 

And finally, apart from Deepor beel, there are many wetlands in the State of Assam, which are also on the verge of dying. Many of the wetlands are to be protected strictly from the environmental perspective, many others may be developed and promoted as fisheries and tourist attractions, which will eventually facilitate employment opportunities to thousands.

So the biggest issue here is the lack of coordination among various government departments and other stakeholders. A well designed and sustainable management action plan for an integrated water resource management (IWRM) for the wetlands is a prime need that would consider both the aspects of development and necessary preservation.

Moreover, the scheduled wetlands are obviously under threats from encroachment from different marginalized communities and their eviction is problematic for any Government. So the option of allowing these communities to settle in the bank of wetlands with a condition of ensuring the protection of the biodiversity of the wetlands may perhaps yield desired results.

For ensuring institutional efforts and enhancing stakeholders participation, a Regional (or state based) Task Force on IWRM may perhaps be formed with the involvement of all stakeholders. Such Task Force may act as Regulatory Authority to ensure scientific conservation and proper utilization of Water Resources and also to avoid the adverse situation arisen out of regional problems.

In this regard, the role MoEF should also be outlined in a better direction to facilitate IWRM in the States and also for necessary conservation of all Resources in the Wetlands.

Nitya Jacob, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), New Delhi

The Wetland Conservation and Management Rules 2010 of the Ministry of Environment and Forests are very clear on the activities prohibited and conditionally allowed in wetlands. It unambiguously states there can be no reclamation, new industries or expansion of existing industries, no manufacture, storage of handling of hazardous material, no dumping of solid waste, no discharge of untreated effluents and no permanent construction except for boat jetties (strangely enough). There is another list of activities for which prior state government approval is needed, that includes withdrawal of impoundment of water, harvesting living or non-living resources, grazing beyond a certain limit, discharge of treated effluents as per CPCB standards, no use of motorized boats, dredging only if the wetland is effected by siltation, etc. The rules elaborate how wetlands are to be identified and demarcated. They also say which provisions of the law apply to them. They have excellent research provisions. But there is a major gap, as has also been pointed out by several people in the past and the Ashoka Trust’s own review of the rules http://www.vembanad.org/ATREEcomments_Wetland_%20conserv_Mgmnt_rule2009.pdf).

Vembanad Lake will be regulated directly under these rules since it’s a Ramsar site. They state a wetland has to be studied, and one of the aspects is an account of pre-existing rights and privileges (of the people living around wetlands who are dependent on them for their existence). Several million people live off these wetlands and have a direct stake in their continued well-being, and the study will have to document these. They will also have a chance later, through public hearings, to make representations to the Central government.  

Section 5 3 (ii) of the rules mention the Regulatory Authority will ‘identify and interface with the concerned local authorities to enforce the provisions contained under these rules and other laws in for time being in force’. This gives panchayats a toe-hold in managing Vembanad Lake , but they will be governed by the rules. But again, how will they interface with the state authority?

Under the rules, an institution, probably an university, has to prepare a detailed report on the wetland. This is one opportunity to bring in stakeholder participation through panchayats and municipalities, as well as public hearings. It will take considerable organization to get these lined up before the study actually starts so they can provide concrete and meaningful inputs. The study has a provision to document the rights and privileges, and these have to be elaborated as much as possible. This is where well-organized stakeholder groups can be really effective. In short, a lot depends on this study since future action to protect Vembanad Lake will flow from here.

This is an opportunity for ATREE to collate its work over the past four years to inform and even influence the study. It has very good and detailed information on Vembanad Lake ’s ecology, and the socio-economic profile of people living around it. These can be powerful drivers for a stakeholder-based conservation strategy.

However, if the Central Regulatory Authority takes a more conservative approach, past experience of the ‘fence-and-protect’ strategy with respect to forests shows this simply does not work. Now especially with people getting more vocal and demanding a say in the management of their natural resources, this approach will not work. It will certainly not maximize stakeholder participation. Instead, the rules will end up impoverishing and alienating people living around wetlands; once they lose their stake in this natural resource, they will lose any interest in preserving them.

Another point – it is not clear how the Central Wetlands Regulatory Authority and the State Vembanad Eco-development Authority will work – in coordination or conflict. Will the state authority follow the central rules? Thus, in this particular case it is not clear what the Central and state authorities’ roles are. While the central rules may stop the reclamation of Vembanad and reduce pollution from untreated sewage and other effluents from municipalities, they will simultaneously end up creating conflicts with the people living around the lake who may also have sewage pipes emptying into it. Many have jetties, and their homes are on the shore of the lake, something the rules seek to either prohibit or regulate. Will the state authority take cognizance of this?

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