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Wetlands in India: Significance, Threats & Conservation

Jun 17, 2016 18:48 IST

The Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change on 31 May 2016 released the Draft Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2016 for public comments. The new set of rules seeks to conserve and manage the wetlands across the country in a more effective way by replacing the Wetland (Conservation and Management) Rules of 2010.

The release of draft rules became necessitated in the backdrop of growing concern regarding the health of wetlands as their deterioration led to large scale destruction of natural and manmade environment recently.

For example, the Chennai flashfloods in November 2015 and Srinagar flash floods in September 2014, according to experts, was largely caused by severe damage inflicted upon the network of lakes and water bodies spread across the two cities that used to act as natural buffers/storage points of seasonal rain water.


What are wetlands?

Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of 1971 defines wetlands as -  “Areas of marsh, fen, peat land or water, whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish or salt, including areas of marine water the depth of which at low tide does not exceed six metres.”

In simple terms, a wetland is a land area that is saturated with water, either permanently or seasonally. This definition brings ponds, lakes, estuarines, reservoirs, creeks, mangroves and many more water bodies under the ambit of wetlands.

Further, wetlands can be categorised into marine (coastal wetlands), estuarine (including deltas, tidal marshes, and mangrove swamps), lacustarine (lakes), riverine (along rivers and streams), and palustarine (‘marshy’– marshes, swamps and bogs) based on their hydrological, ecological and geological characteristics.


What is the spread of wetlands?

National Wetlands Atlas 2011 prepared by the Space Application Centre, Ahmedabad recognised around 201503 wetlands across the country. The Atlas, which classified wetlands based on the Ramsar Convention definition, also estimated the areal extent of wetlands to be about 7.6 m ha.

It is also estimated that India has about 757.06 thousand wetlands with a total wetland area of 15.3 m ha or 4.7 percent of geographical area, if open water, aquatic vegetation (submerged, floating and emergent) and surrounding hydric soils are also taken into account.

The wetlands in India are spread over all the 36 States/Union Territories starting from Wular lake in Srinagar, Ashtamudi backwaters lake in Kerala, Loktak lake (only floating national park in the world) in Manipur and Nalsarovar in Gujarat.

In terms of numbers West Bengal (1.47 lakhs), Uttar Pradesh (1.2 lakhs) are the two States in which wetlands are more than above 1 lakh. These States are followed by Odisha and Madhya Pradesh that have 78 and 62 thousand wetlands respectively.

In terms of the proportion of the geographical area, Gujarat has the highest proportion (17.5 percent) and Mizoram has the lowest proportion (0.66 percent) of the area under wetlands.

Among UTs in India, Lakshadweep has the highest proportion (around 96 percent) and Chandigarh has the least proportion (3 percent) of geographical area under wetlands.


What is the policy environment & associated schemes?

Ramsar Convention: The convention is named after Ramsar in Iran in which the convention was ratified in 1971. The convention is aimed at augmenting national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources.

• India is a signatory to the convention. So far, 26-sites have been designated as Wetlands of International Importance (Ramsar Sites) and 6 more are under the process of being designated.

National Wetland Conservation Programme (NWCP):  It was launched in 1985 to enable conservation and wise use of wetlands in the country so as to prevent their further degradation.

The Central Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules: They were notified for the first time in 2010 for better management and regulation of wetlands across the country. It saw the formation of Central Wetlands Regulatory Authority (CWRA) whose term ended on 31 March 2015 and it wasn’t reconstituted since then.

National Environment Policy 2006: Recognising the importance of wetlands, it calls for developing a national inventory of such wetlands and implementing a wide spectrum of policies and plans for wetland conservation and their environmental impact assessment (EIA).

National Plan for Conservation of Aquatic Ecosystems (NPCA): It was unveiled in 2015 to provide for policy framework and support to State Governments for integrated management of wetlands. This initiative was launched by merging two separate Centrally Sponsored Schemes (CSS), namely the National Wetlands Conservation Programme (NWCP) and the National Lake Conservation Plan (NLCP).

Capacity Building: in order to increase the capacity of wetland managers, up gradation of the existing Wetland Research and Training Centre of Chilika Development Authority at Barkul, Odisha into the National Capacity Development Centre for Wetlands is under consideration.


What is the significance of wetlands?

Wetlands are considered to have unique ecological features which provide numerous products and services to humanityEcosystem goods provided by the wetlands mainly include - water for irrigation, fisheries, non-timber forest products, water supply and recreation.

The major services include carbon sequestration, flood control, groundwater recharge, nutrient removal, toxics retention and biodiversity maintenance.

Agriculture and allied sectors: Wetlands such as tanks, ponds, lakes, and reservoirs have long been providing multiple-use water services which include water for irrigation, domestic needs, ground-water recharge, etc.

• In terms of growth in fish production in India, wetlands play a significant role. Around 61 percent of fish production in the country is from inland water bodies and it is also the second largest aquaculture farmed fish producer in the world.

Carbon sequestration: Swamps, mangroves, peat lands, mires and marshes play an important role in carbon cycle. Wetland soils may contain as much as 200 times more carbon than its vegetation.

• In India, coastal wetlands are playing a major role in carbon sequestration. The total extent of coastal ecosystems (including mangroves) in India is around 43000 km.

• Overall, mangroves are able to sequester about 1.5 metric tonne of carbon per hectare per year and the upper layers of mangrove sediments have high carbon content, with conservative estimates indicating the levels of 10 percent.

Pollution abatement: Wetlands act as a sink for contaminants in many agricultural and urban landscapes. In India too, wetlands are polluted through agricultural runoff and discharge of untreated sewage and other waste from urban areas.

Flood control: Wetlands play an important role in flood control. Wetlands help to lessen the impacts of flooding by absorbing water and reducing the speed at which flood water flows. Further, during periods of flooding, they trap suspended solids and nutrient load.

• A large network of lakes and ponds in major cities like Srinagar, Bhopal, Bengaluru, Chennai and Hyderabad were constructed with the objective of flood control.

• Besides, the mangroves along the sea shores, especially on the western coast in West Bengal and Odisha have been playing a major role in protecting the coastal environment from the destruction of cyclones that frequently emanate in the Bay of Bengal.

Biodiversity hotspots: Wetlands are important in supporting species diversity. Because wetlands provide an environment where photosynthesis can occur and where the recycling of nutrients can take place, they play a significant role in the support of food chains.

• In India lakes, rivers and other freshwater bodies support a large diversity of biota representing almost all taxonomic groups. For example, freshwater ecosystems of Western Ghats alone have 290 species of fish. Similarly, Loktak lake is famous for being the only refuge of the endangered Sangai (Manipur brow-antlered deer).

• Wetlands are also important breeding areas for domestic and migrating bird species. In many such wetland areas of India, like Bharatpur wild life sanctuary in Rajasthan, and little Rann of Kutch and coastal areas of Saurashtra in Gujarat, many migratory species of birds, including siberian crane, from western and European countries come during winter.

• Sarus cranes, black necked cranes, Gangetic river dolphins, the Indian mud turtle and numerous threatened species of birds and fauna, feed (off) and live in and around wetlands.

• As per an estimate, the approximate number of species of migratory birds recorded from India is between 1200 and 1300, which is about 24 percent of India’s total bird species.

Tourism: Wet-lands such as coral reefs, beaches, reservoirs, lakes and rivers are considered to be a significant part of the tourism experience in the country.

• As per an estimate, every year, around 7 seven million tourist visit Kerala’s backwaters, beaches and wildlife sanctuaries, 3 million visit Uttarakhand’s lakes and other natural wetlands and one million visit Dal lake in Jammu and Kashmir.

Cultural significance: Wetlands especially lakes and ponds (e.g. Pushkar lake in Rajasthan and Ramappa lake in Telangana) are intrinsically linked to the local culture. They are revered by the masses in recognition of the fact that they are the means of sustenance of their livelihood.


What are the threats to wetlands?

Since the advent of industrialization and urbanization the wetlands came under severe threat due to increased anthropogenic-pressures. As per an estimate, India has lost 38 percent of its wetlands between 1991 and 2001 alone.

Urbanization and land use changes: During the 90 year period from 1901 to 1991, the number of urban centres doubled while urban population has increased eightfold. This magnitude of growth exerted tremendous pressure on wetlands and flood plain areas for meeting water and food demand of growing population.

• For example, the Kanwar lake in Bihar, Asia’s largest freshwater oxbow lake, has shrunk to one-third of its size due to encroachment, much like Jammu and Kashmir’s Dal lake. And, about 34000 hectares of the water spread area of the Kolleru lake (Andhra Pradesh) have been reclaimed for agriculture in recent years.

Agricultural residues: As a result of intensification of agricultural activities over the past four decades, fertilizer consumption in India has increased from about 2.8 million tonne in 1973–1974 to 28.3 million tonne in 2010–2011.

• As per estimates, 10–15 percent of the nutrients added to the soils through fertilizers eventually find their way to the surface water system. High nutrient contents stimulate algal growth, leading to eutrophication of surface water bodies.

Municipal and Industrial pollution: Less than 31 percent of the domestic wastewater from Indian urban centres is treated, compared to 80 percent in the developed world, which is largely discharged in the natural water bodies such as streams and rivers.

• For example, River Yamuna, which passes through 6 Indian States, receives about 1789 MLD of untreated waste water from the capital city of Delhi alone. This is about 78 percent of the total pollution load that flows in to the river every day.

• Similarly, untreated industrial effluents have become a major threat to the survival of wetlands. For instance, the Bellandur Lake in Bengaluru city was ‘on fire’ in May 2015 due to the discharge of effluents (especially nutrient rich foams) by the surrounding industries.

Climate Change: In 2007, the UNESCO estimated that Global climate change is expected to become an important driver of loss and change in wet-land ecosystem. These findings are important for India which has been experiencing the flood-drought-flood cycle for the last 2 decades.

• As per a study, wetlands located in high altitude as well as coastal areas, like mangroves and coral reefs, are some of the most sensitive classes that will be affected by climate change.

• For example, climate change caused rise in level of Tsomoriri Lake in Ladakh, a glacial fed high altitude lake, thereby causing submerged important breeding islands in the lake where endangered migratory birds like the Black-necked Crane and Bar-headed Goose would breed.

• As per an estimate, India will lose about 84 percent of coastal wetlands and 13 percent of saline wetlands with climate change induced sea water rise of 1 metre.

Apart from the above major threats, immersion of idols and religious ritual waste, introduction of exotic species, encroachments and unregulated aquaculture (e.g. Kolleru lake) backed by Bureaucrats-Politicians-Businessmen nexus, dredging, un planned urbanization and development projects  are some of the other dangers threatening the existence of wetlands across the country.


What the Draft Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2016 proposes to face these threats?

• The wetlands shall be conserved and managed in accordance with principle of 'wise use' for maintaining their ecological integrity.

• ‘Wise use of wetlands’ was defined as the maintenance of their ecological character, achieved through implementation of ecosystem approaches, within the context of sustainable development.

• It prohibited any diversion or impediment to natural water inflows and outflows of the wetland and activities having or likely to have an adverse impact on ecological character of the wetland.

Wetland Authority will be set up by the State Governments or UTs to deal with wetland conservation, regulation and management. The authority, which will be headed by the Chief Minister, will replace the now defunct CWRA.

• For the purpose of managing wetlands having multiple issues, the concerned State Government or UT Administration may, if required, constitute a specific Wetland Authority. These steps towards decentralization are in tune with the powers bestowed on the State Government under the Entry 17 (water) of the Schedule VII of the Constitution.

However, these provisions were criticized environmental activities on the grounds that they relinquished the primary responsibility of the Union Government in conserving the wetlands, non-inclusion of experts, vague terms like ‘wise-use’,  absence of rules regarding the trans-boundary wetlands, etc.


Conclusion

Wetlands are amongst the most productive ecosystems on the Earth. Historically, they have been at the centre of evolution of human civilization for millennia as they are means of precious ecological goods and services. However, unfortunately, they are also ecologically most sensitive eco-systems and are under threat due to increased anthropogenic-pressures.

As the theme of 2016 World Wetlands Day (2 February) rightly suggested wetlands are our future and are the means for ensuring sustainable livelihoods. Mahatma Gandhi’s ingenious statement - “There is enough for everyone's need but not for everyone's greed” - is in fact better suited to illustrate and guide India’s wetland policies and conservation strategies.

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